Chapter Fourteen


My dream lover and lifemate, You know every part of me. We're bound forever, soul to soul. You hold the very heart of me.

SOLANGE TO DOMINIC

Solange became aware slowly, inch by inch, rather than all at once as she normally did. She could hear her heart slamming hard in her chest and her pulse roaring in her ears. Her mind felt slow and hazy and her body sore. She was very disoriented and couldn't quite get her eyes to open, which terrified her. She began to struggle, trying to fight her way out of sleep, knowing she was never safe and that waking was one of her most vulnerable moments.

"I am with you, Solange."

Dominic's voice penetrated the layers of fear she felt at not being able to function properly, and she subsided, aware she was in his arms. At once she felt safe and protected, a feeling she was entirely unfamiliar with. She could smell his masculine scent and she inhaled to draw him deeper into her lungs. The tension receded even more.

She moistened her dry lips and reached for her voice. "What happened?" Her throat was very sore and she was very thirsty.

"You were attacked by a shadow creature." His hands swept back her hair. "Try to open your eyes for me, h?n s?vamak--beloved. You have given me a little bit of a scare and I have to tell you, that does not make me happy."

She couldn't help the smile at the edge to his voice. She had scared him, that was obvious, and he didn't like it. Somehow that warmed her even more.

He leaned close, his lips against her ear. "Do not look pleased after I have been fighting for your life these two risings. I am not above punishing you for scaring me."

Her lashes fluttered and she clamped down hard on the surge of laughter at the male irritation in his voice that was so unlike Dominic. She had apparently driven him to the edge of his patience and she hadn't even been conscious. "If I get punished every time I scare you, I think we're going to be in trouble."

She found the energy to lift her lashes. His face came into focus. All those hard, tough edges. That gorgeous face. His eyes, midnight blue, dark with worry. She could see strain where there never had been. He actually looked exhausted. The hours of trying to save her had taken their toll, and it didn't look as if the soil had rejuvenated him much.

"I'm sorry, Dominic."

He kissed her, a long, slow, incredibly tender kiss. Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked them away. She could feel his body trembling against hers.

"I really am sorry. The injury didn't seem like a big deal," she reiterated. "I knew you could stop the bleeding so I wasn't worried."

"The creature injected three drops of venom into your bloodstream. It took me several healing sessions to find them. I knew something was wrong, you were slipping further and further from me."

"Poison?"

He shook his head. "I do not think the intent was to kill you. You had a reaction to the venom. If the intent had been to kill you, the shadow cat would have injected a lethal dose."

She indicated she wanted to sit up. He moved, retaining his hold on her, allowing her to sit up very cautiously. She felt slightly nauseated, but after taking a few deep breaths, managed to maintain. "What was it?"

"If I had to guess, I'd say it was very much like the high mage's familiars. Xavier has been destroyed, I know that to be true, but I studied him for years. He used creatures to do his spying. In all of my centuries, I have never encountered anything quite like it, but I have had time to consider it. The safeguards did not stop it because it came through the water as a shadow. They must have gotten a blood sample, some way to track you specifically."

She inhaled sharply. "Brodrick. His jaguar bit and clawed me. My blood would have been all over him. I haven't seen mages too often in this area, but once in a while, one shows up. He must have used one to track me."

"The creature was taking more of your blood back to whoever sent it. I think the venom was to paralyze you so you would be unable to resist should they return to take you prisoner."

Dominic's voice was grim and she flicked him a quick, under-the-lashes glance. She rubbed her hand over his set jaw where a muscle ticked, giving away his underlying mood of suppressed fury.

"Dominic, no matter where we are, we are going to have enemies. Both of us. You must have made many in your centuries of existence, and I certainly have here. Whatever they intended to do with me isn't going to happen. You prevented that."

"They attacked you in our home, right under my nose."

" Our noses," she corrected gently. She locked gazes with him. "What is really upsetting you, Dominic?"

His breath hissed out between his teeth and his eyes spun into a glacier green. "I gave you my word that you would be safe with me when we were alone. Someone nearly killed you and not only did it scare the hell out of me--all those hours of desperately trying to find what was hiding from me while you slipped, inch by inch, away from me--but I had to face the fact that I failed you."

A slow smile lit her eyes and she leaned into him to nuzzle his neck. "My God, Dominic, you're not perfect. How very shocking is that?" She laughed softly. "You kept me safe. I'm not dead, am I? If the situation had been reversed, I doubt I could have saved you. I don't have your ability to heal."

He wrapped his arms around her, crushing her to him. For a moment she thought she was in danger of every rib cracking, but she melted against him, unresisting, recognizing he needed to hold her as close as possible. When his strength gentled and allowed an inch between them, she tilted her head to look up at his face.

The night had taken a toll on him. Her unflappable, calm-under-every-circumstance man had been extremely distraught over her. "Let's track the thing back to the sender," she suggested. "My jaguar won't be too much help at first, not through the water. I'll have to go around to the source, but you can follow through the cracks where the water came in."

"How does one track a shadow?" he asked aloud.

"It's a mage trick, right?" she asked. "So there's a footprint. We just have to find it. You know that better than I do. You're just a little shaken up right now. We were looking at smell and sight to go after it, but you can lock on to a mage illusion." She poured her confidence in him into her voice and mind. "Can't you?" His smile was slow in coming. The green in his eyes blazed into turquoise. "I believe that would be possible. It looked at me, right before we destroyed it."

She didn't point out that she had had nothing to do with destroying the shadow cat, that it had all been him. She would have lost her life had it not been for him.

"The eyes were vacant, and then, just for a moment, they changed, grew intelligent, and the eyes were silver."

She felt worry in his mind, although there seemed to be only that same speculation in his voice. "What does that mean?"

"Some mages, a very few, can possesses another body, leaving fragments of themselves behind. It is not the same as a blood bond, which Carpathians use to track those who may betray us. Once inside the host, the mage can force the body to do its bidding. As far as I am aware, no vampire has ever achieved it. And no Carpathian would choose to do such a foul thing."

Everything in her stilled. Even the breath in her lungs. "Could someone like me do it? A jaguar?" She could hear her own heart roaring in her ears.

"Brodrick?"

She chewed nervously on her lip. "I told him I was his daughter. He didn't deliver a killing bite to my skull when he landed on my back, and he could have. I was very vulnerable for just that one moment, and that was all it would have taken, but he hesitated. He bit me, and he had my blood on him. Maybe he wasn't certain I was telling the truth, but his jaguar should have known, so that doesn't make sense."

"He would have to be mage-trained to accomplish such a feat. It would not be easy, and I doubt he would have taken the time for such complex training," Dominic said.

She heaved a sigh of relief. "But they got the blood from him to track me, so he at least has knowledge of the mage--and it must be a mage--who sent the familiar. Brodrick would have knowledge of his cooperation. He exchanged the blood for something of value."

"We know he has an alliance with the vampires."

Solange pushed back the heavy fall of her hair as she sighed. "The other jaguar-men are not protected from the vampires or mages by their blood."

"We know you have something extraordinary in your blood," Dominic agreed. "I had a lot of time to study what was happening in my body as well as your own. Maybe the mages have need of it for some reason--and anyone willing to force another's body to his bidding should not have access to your blood."

"Let's do this, then. He'll never expect us to be able to track his familiar back to him. Anyone arrogant enough to take possession of someone's body will believe he's too powerful to be caught."

She was suddenly aware of her body. She'd been so comfortable with him, she hadn't realized she'd awoken naked. It felt good not to be worried about what he might think of her. She already knew. She wasn't ashamed or wanting to hide herself from him. If anything, she felt a little sexy and very cared for. He'd given her a confidence in herself she never believed she'd have. She didn't hate her scars anymore. She didn't mind that she was too curvy by modern society's standards. Most of all she appreciated that no matter if she was in jeans and a T-shirt, ready to fight battles with him, or naked from shifting, or together alone face-to-face as a man and a woman, she didn't have to hide who she was from him.

He had given her the gift of freedom, of acceptance, and, looking up at his face, her heart opened to him and took him in. Her moment of revelation was waking up in his arms to see him beating himself up over what he thought was imperfection.

"Why are you looking at me like that, kessake?" he asked.

She could see the dawning knowledge in his eyes and she smiled. "I think I'm madly in love with you, my Dragonseeker friend."

"Lover," he corrected.

She gave a small smirk. "Not yet." She stretched languidly as only a cat could do. She stretched sensuously as only a woman sure of herself could do. "Let's go hunting."

He groaned. "That was just mean."

Her smirk turned into a full cocky grin. " Now you're finally seeing the real Solange."

"I like the real Solange."

"Well, no one has ever certified you as sane, have they? Get us out of here."

He wrapped his arms around her and floated them from the deep earth. "You are becoming a bossy little thing. I can see I have given you far too much scope, woman."

She wasn't about to test the threat in his voice. He had a decidedly wicked side to him, definitely very sexual, and she wasn't going to get herself in trouble. Her confidence was growing with every minute spent in his company, but she had the feeling he knew a lot more about her body than she did, and would use his knowledge to his advantage. She nuzzled his neck. "You always smell so good." "I should not let you get away with distracting me."

She circled his neck with her arms and turned her mouth up to his, her first daring risk of initiating any real physical contact between them. She felt very brave, and her heart nearly exploded when his lips moved under hers, parting to draw her tongue into his mouth. There was no hesitation, only the same heated eagerness she felt. His kisses thrilled her, sent her into another world of pure sensation where she lost herself, her body going up in flames.

She pressed tightly against him. Her breasts ached, and as always, she was wet and welcoming for him. It didn't bother her that he knew. She wanted him to know. She took pride in her reaction to his hot, inflaming kisses. "You're so beautiful," she murmured against his mouth. "Really, truly beautiful, Dominic. Thank you for saving my life."

His fingers bunched in her hair and pulled her head back. Her womb clenched in reaction to his sudden aggression. "You are more than welcome. But I meant what I said. Never scare me like that again. I will be putting you in an impenetrable bubble if you do."

She laughed out loud. "You probably could really do that. Come on. I'm a little worried that if this mage saw you, he could identify you to the vampires. If he's in league with Brodrick, he could very well be in tight with the vampires as well and he'd blow your cover."

"Protecting me again, I see."

She shrugged. "It works both ways. I might not be able to come up with an impenetrable bubble, but I can find something else."

He ruffled her hair, massaging her scalp where he'd been so rough before. "I bet you could, too, my little warrior woman. When we have children, make them all boys. Little girls running around with no fear in them will be too much for my heart."

Solange stepped away from him, hastily turning her head. She knew she would never be able to hide the shock his teasing had produced. Her heart pounded so hard she feared it might crash through her chest. Children? Plural? A family. She bit her lip hard. She supposed that was the natural progression of a committed relationship. Dominic was always five steps ahead of her. She was still tiptoeing around having him inside of her and he was already at children.

"You're hyperventilating." There was amusement in his voice. Purring, satisfied male amusement.

Solange glared at him. "You said that on purpose."

He definitely kept her off balance, and in a way it was exhilarating. She could never be with a man she could walk on, let alone be with one who didn't stimulate her intelligence. She liked that he played. She'd forgotten laughter and teasing. She'd certainly forgotten playing, and it was just plain fun with him. She even missed wearing her sexy clothes. That was a new experience for her, one she would treasure and never ever tell her cousins.

Dominic shrugged. "Nevertheless, it is true."

"For that, I'm producing ten daughters. Two at a time. And since I have no idea about raising children and you're so knowledgeable, I will let you do the raising." She managed to sound as if she was doing him a big favor, but the "true" part had definitely sent another somersault rolling through her stomach.

He laughed and nudged her. "I will accept your terms. Mostly because you will never hold to them. You are very opinionated."

"I've been very quiet these last few days."

"Risings," he corrected automatically. "I am in your mind, never forget that."

She tried not to blush. If he was in her mind, he would be seeing quite a few shocking things, especially the last couple of risings. "We should go before the trail gets too faint."

His grin told her he knew she was deliberately changing the subject. "I suppose you are right, although I find this conversation very interesting. Once I remove the safeguards, wait for me to scan the area and make certain it is clear before you leave the chamber."

She rolled her eyes. "I think I'm perfectly capable of determining when it's safe to emerge. It isn't like this is my first time."

"You nearly died. Whether you like it or not, you are going to have to put up with me being a little on the protective side for a bit."

She secretly didn't mind his protective side because she was going to do whatever it took to win each battle, and hopefully they'd always be thinking alike, but it was nice to have someone worried about her.

She blew him a kiss and shifted, shocked that she did so easily, certain of him now. She liked that--being so certain of him. He did trust her at his side in a fight, and she found she could tap into his battle experiences, which gave her insight to the way he worked and also valuable information when facing his enemies.

"I will follow the water to the source and see if I can pick up any `footprints.' "

I'll be waiting in the forest by the stream where I think it is most likely he found a way in. At some point he had to be more than shadow. Each time he attacked, he had to become his flesh and blood self, so there will be tracks. In this form, I can track anything substantial.

She waited, crouched at Dominic's feet, taking the chance to look over his magnificent body. He was really quite gorgeous, although she found his hard-edged masculinity a little intimidating. He was well endowed and she had to admit she found herself looking at that one part of his anatomy more than any other, absorbing the shape of him, the girth and length. She'd never been intrigued by the male phallus, certainly never the real thing. Now she felt almost obsessed, wanting to touch him, to taste him, to know him as intimately as he knew her.

Hidden deep inside the jaguar where she was safe, she sighed, recognizing that now it was essential to please him. She craved bringing him pleasure. Her. No other woman. She wanted to be the one to send him soaring, and she didn't know the first thing about making love to a man. She didn't do that sort of thing. Mostly she killed them.

Dominic dropped his hand on top of the jaguar's head. "It has been said that the sun hides inside the jaguar at night. After meeting you, Solange, I believe that could be true. I look at you, in either form you choose to show yourself, and I see that bright light leading me through a labyrinth of darkness. I know our union has been difficult for you, and I thank you for being open to me."

Solange felt a curious melting in the region of her heart. He was so good at making her feel beautiful and important to him. She wanted to give that back to him and was determined to learn how.

I wouldn't have missed being with you for the world, she admitted shyly. Safe within the jaguar's body, where she'd often hidden to tell her dream lover her deepest secrets, she found it easier to admit the truth to him.

He rubbed his fingers in her fur for a few more moments. "There is no one close, kessake. Be safe."

You, too. She sprang past him, eager to get on with the hunt. Dwelling on whether she was going to be good in bed was depressing--and scary. Hunting something--or someone--dangerous was invigorating and natural.

She crawled through the twisting maze of tunnels to emerge in the forest. The moment she felt the night air on her muzzle she shook herself, happiness bursting through her. She loved the forest. On the floor, the air was rich and still, the oxygen levels so high she felt energized. The rain forest was vibrant and alive, ever changing and yet always the same. She could count on the life cycle of the forest, everything living, breathing, growing and then falling. Death and decay came next, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always feeding and enriching the cycle of life.

She loved the rain forest during the day, but the night always seemed special to her. This was her world. She might want to travel, but mostly she wanted to see other worlds like her own while they were still in existence. The jaguar-people's time was over. There was no way to save them, not anymore. Not with Brodrick's leadership honing the men into brutes who chose to live with violence toward women, who took part in the slaughter of women and children they deemed unacceptable to them.

As few knew of their species, there had been no law down through the centuries to protect their women, and with no leadership to recognize their importance, the species had been doomed. She sighed and began to wind her way through the trees toward the small stream that was up above her chosen cave, feeding her small waterfall. She listened to the murmurs of the animals in the canopy above her head. She heard the flutter of wings and the slide of monkeys as they slipped from one limb to another, not yet ready to settle completely for the night. Bats wheeled and dipped, chasing insects, while small frogs hopped along the tree branches.

Already the songs of the many bird species were giving away to the call of the cicadas. The frogs began their nightly chorus, singing to one another from the various puddles on the forest floor, while the tree frogs chirped much more gently and harmoniously. Moths as big as dinner plates scattered across the sky. Fruit bats clung to the succulent fruit. Fireflies signaled to one another in brief flashes like neon signs.

Solange took it all in as she padded through thick vegetation, occasionally coming upon a porcupine feasting on fallen fruit. A snake struck at a mouse, detecting the heat as the small creature scampered too close to the silent predator. She startled a gecko as it emerged from its hiding place to hunt. The hungry creature raced up the tree, its eyes shining red in the night through the leaves as it looked down at her.

The jaguar ignored the nocturnal animals and kept to her course, moving a little faster now that she was away from the cave system. Above her head, fluorescent mushrooms appeared suspended in midair, growing on the trunks of trees that blended in with the night. A faint light glowed here and there from luminous fungi dotting the forest floor.

She kept to a brisk pace for several miles, working her way up the steeper slopes, leaping over decaying trunks and skirting termite mounds. The sound of water running over rocks was constant. She startled a small family of tapirs. The herbivore, related to horses and elephants, looked like a pig with a longer snout. The adults were darker-skinned with white-tipped ears and a yellow throat, but the single baby running with them had red fur with stripes and spots. At home in the water, the tapir often grazed in the rivers and streams.

She was getting close to her destination and she began to quarter the area, taking her time, looking for traces of anything large passing the same way. The shadow cat had to have arrived in its true form. Whatever the creature was, even a hybrid, it must have left behind evidence of its passing.

She was careful to examine trees, certain the creature was a cat and would sharpen his claws often. He would leave scent marks behind. Someone might have bred him, but there were certain characteristics imprinted in a cat's nature that could never be stamped out. She searched for signs of scattered leaves, of rake marks, casting back and forth along trails.

The tapir path was well-traveled and led to the stream. She crossed the worn trail several times, marking a new, very faint scent already fading. Rain was ever present, nearly every day at this time of the year, and helped to remove traces of animals passing along the animal routes, but this scent was distinct because she'd never run across it before.

She followed the smell and found crushed mushrooms where a large cat had stepped on the fragile fungi, the head imprinted with a partial track. She found rake marks high on a fig tree and a scratch on a buttress root where the cat had hunted a kinkajou, a small animal that looked a bit like a ferret but was of the raccoon family, a favorite of jaguars to hunt. The shadow cat had liberally sprayed a fern where a male jaguar had scent marked, challenging the other male for the territory. The shadow cat appeared to be in his prime and unafraid to challenge any males, clearly aggressive even in foreign territory.

She followed the small bits of information--crushed leaves, an overturned stone, a rip on a tree branch and another partial print beside the ribbons of water that flowed into the small stream that fed her underground basin. She was positive she had found the trail of the shadow cat. She sank down near the bank of the stream and waited, her head on her paws, her body still, the rosettes hiding her in the dappled brush and leaves.

A branch cracked. The crickets ceased their chorus for a brief moment. She stayed very still, wishing she'd chosen a spot in the trees where she could see what--or who--was coming at her. Not Dominic. She knew where he was at any time. Not a vampire. There was no feel of the dread the undead brought with them. The forest hadn't shrunk back, appalled at the foul abomination of nature.

There was a sudden scattering of monkeys overhead. A jaguar, then--and he'd taken to the trees. He had probably caught the scent of the shadow cat, and had come hunting the male who had been aggressive enough to challenge him. She needed to pinpoint his exact location without giving away that she was anywhere near.

Dominic. If you can hear me, don't come out into the open when you emerge from the rocks. There's a jaguar here. I don't know if he's harmless or hunting.

I can hear you. Dominic's voice came immediately, sliding into her mind intimately. Are you in danger? There was a grim edge to his voice, as if, had she once again put herself in danger, he was going to have to carry out his promise to put her in a bubble.

Solange struggled to keep amusement out of her mind, knowing he didn't find the situation fraught with humor. She'd been in danger her entire life. Today was no different. That was what living in the rain forest and being jaguar meant. I am perfectly fine for the moment. What did you find? She inched her way into a better position, watching the trees. He would have chosen one with lower branches so he could easily spring on his prey. That narrowed his choices somewhat. He would want branches nearest the stream. There were tapir paths clearly marking the frequent trips from forest to water. The banks were muddy and hoofprints indicated several tapir had come to feed in the water recently.

The shadow cat definitely came this way. I have not seen the imprint of this mage before; each is unique to the user. But I will know it should I come across it.

Are you close?

Right behind you. I am drifting with the steam coming off the forest floor. Have you spotted his location yet?

She caught the tip of a tail twitching in the tree just to her right. One limb swept out over the water and the jaguar crouched, very still, other than the tail that often betrayed excitement, eyes glued to some prey in the water she couldn't see.

I'm not close enough to tell if he's fully animal or my species. I can't scent the man in him. Either way, it was going to be dangerous to move. She was in his territory, and regardless of whether he was animal or jaguar-man, he would be interested in a female.

The steam on the forest floor began to widen and drift upward, slowly obscuring vision as the gray vapor spread, a thick mist that stayed along the bank and the surrounding trees. Layer after layer deepened until the forest floor and the stream were no longer visible. The thick mist wound around the fig tree, crawling up the trunk like the liana vines. The jaguar began to cough. Solange heard a series of grunts and the whisper of fur along the trunk. A high-pitched call came from the far bank--a tapir calling to a family member sounded much like a bird.

She heard the crash of the heavy male as he dropped to earth, not more than thirty feet from her. She stayed very still, letting him pass by her in the thick mist. Layers of the fog surrounded her, and deep inside the jaguar's body, Solange smiled. Dominic had managed to wrap her in a bubble. The male jaguar was not going to scent, see or hear her.

He wouldn't have found me.

I am not taking chances until the sight of your pale face, your body without breath, leaves me. And that may take some time.

You do have a tendency to harp, don't you? The woman inside the jaguar stretched, smiled, a hint at her hidden sensual nature. She couldn't help teasing him, especially when she was safe, deep in the jaguar where he couldn't find a way to retaliate.

I have a tendency to keep my word, and you might remember that, kessake , when you are feeling all snug and warm there in your safe little den.

Her soft laughter washed over him. She felt his reaction, and for a moment her heart beat faster and her mind warmed. The first tentative merging of Solange the woman and Solange the warrior had been exhilarating and made her feel very brave--which, considering she had been ready to fight a jaguar, was vaguely amusing to her.

She waited while Dominic pushed the jaguar out of their path using a mixture of heavy fog and a slight compulsive push. Which is cheating. I'm not certain that qualifies as a fair battle. There might be a moral issue here.

His mind flooded hers with warmth, a teasing, sexy amusement that sent heat surging through her veins. Hunting was a lot more fun with a partner. She felt a little bit safer, and it helped that he was intelligent and experienced. She didn't feel as if she had to protect him. She could even acknowledge he might feel the need to protect her. He had quite the arsenal to draw on, and truthfully, in battle, as far as she was concerned, whatever it took to win was fair.

He is clear now, Dominic informed her. I will get rid of the fog.

Solange worked her way to the bank of the stream as the mist slowly evaporated and Dominic stood beside her, one hand in her fur, his fingers massaging her neck. Her jaguar loved it, rubbing her head against his thigh in response.

He went this way. Solange took a couple of steps, certain now of the cat's tracks. Even with the male jaguar in the area, his prints overlaying the shadow cat's in places, she easily could distinguish between the two. The shadow cat had gone into the water right at the very entrance to the limestone labyrinth. Why did he risk being tracked when he could take the shape of a shadow?

"That is an excellent question," Dominic murmured aloud. "Did his master have to be close to keep him a shadow? If so, we should be able to find where his master waited for him."

He came from that direction. Solange took him back through the forest to where she'd first come across the tracks. We know he went into the water and never came back out, but his handler must have gotten him close enough to pick up my blood scent.

She could feel Dominic frown, and his fingers bunched in her fur, but he didn't react, simply stepped back to allow her to lead him through the forest, backtracking now. Once she was on the shadow cat's trail, she grew more certain of herself, moving faster, winding in and out of the trees away from the stream and yet away from the interior.

No cat would go in this direction unless he was feeding on cattle. This area is patrolled heavily by men with guns. They protect the cattle fiercely, and unless a jaguar is old or injured, it will stick to the game here in the forest. Maybe he was looking for an easy meal.

She didn't like getting too close to the enormous cattle ranch that lay just on the outer edges of the forest. The men fired a warning shot as a rule, trying to drive a wandering cat back into the forest, but just as often, one might be trigger-happy. She'd noted Cesaro's reaction to her cat. It was almost instinctual. The cattlemen considered it their duty to keep the cattle safe, and cats were predators they didn't want near the ranches.

"We are on De La Cruz property." Dominic sounded grim.

Yes. It is quite large. All of their places are enormous. They are very wealthy. They employ a lot of people who are very loyal to them. They take good care of their workers and the families who stay with them throughout the years seem to grow wealthy as well. Many of the locals are fiercely loyal to them.

"Solange, whoever is handling the cat has to be on this ranch."

Her heart jumped. Maybe not. Maybe it was looking for a meal. But she knew he was right. It made sense. The tracks led straight to a road. And on the road there were tire tracks. She'd seen them often in her wanderings. The trucks the De La Cruz workers used were all the same, as were the tire tracks so clear there in the mud. The heavy cat had leapt from the back of the truck. The tracks were deep behind where the vehicle had been parked.

Dominic crouched low to examine the ground. "There are boot prints here. There must have been a cage of some kind in the back of the truck and he let it out."

Not vampire.

"Definitely not vampire. What do you think is going on here, Solange?"

A silly fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach told her just how much it mattered that he'd asked her opinion. She turned the small bit of information they'd collected over and over in her head. Maybe we aren't the target at all here, Dominic. They don't know about you yet. And what threat would they consider me? Zacarias is the biggest threat they have in this part of the world. He's the one most feared of all the De La Cruz brothers. He carries the most power and is the most influential with the leaders here.

"All true, but why would they need your blood? What would that have to do with Zacarias?"

Whatever it is, I'll bet they didn't count on me giving my blood to Zacarias. I'm not known for my generosity in that area.

"So it if isn't a vampire"--Dominic was already following the tracks of the truck in the mud, knowing it would lead them back to the De La Cruz ranch--"then who would send a cat after you? And who has that kind of black magic ability to possess another's body now that Xavier is dead?"

Are all mages in league with the vampires? Did they all follow Xavier?

"No, the mages have scattered to the four corners of the world. Many were experimented on. Xavier held Razvan for centuries, and in that time he saw many terrible things done to young mage women and men. A few fanatical mages worshiped him and followed his teachings. They hate Carpathians and want them wiped off the earth just as much as the vampires do."

So we know whoever sent the cat has to be mage, and not necessarily in league with the vampires. He may have his own agenda. And he's using someone at Zacarias's ranch. If he's been there for some time, getting established, he must have been very distressed when Zacarias showed up. He rarely comes here.

They stood at the edge of the forest, staring down at the cleared barrier between the forest and the extensive cattle ranch. The truck tracks followed the road straight into the De La Cruz property.

Solange shifted and stood naked beside Dominic, smiling a little at his body's instant response to her.

"You could give me a little warning so I would be ready with clothes," he said.

She lifted an eyebrow. "I think you're a little off your game, Dragonseeker. I expected clothes. Maybe I should be going to visit our neighbors just like this. It would definitely get us in the door."

Instantly her body was clad in familiar jeans and tee. She laughed at him. Even her hair was pulled back in a high ponytail. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Let's go see who wants my blood."

Dominic held out his hand. Solange only hesitated for a second before she put her hand in his and walked with him up the muddy road toward the sprawling De La Cruz ranch house.

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