Chapter Seven


Can you come to trust a man once again? Can you come to love an old one like me? Let my strong arms protect you, let me sing you to sleep. Let my song bring you healing, like the earth and the sea.

DOMINIC TO SOLANGE

Solange's heart nearly burst out of her chest. Tremors ran up and down her body, and icy fingers of fear slid down her spin. Dominic filled the room with his power. She couldn't look at his face, not those piercing eyes that could change color like a storm. She actually wrung her hands together. The distance between them seemed to be miles, although it was only a few steps. It might as well have been miles. Men weren't supposed to be like him--except in dreams. She could handle him in dreams, but this was crazy. What did he want from her?

He waited. He always seemed to be waiting so patiently for her to make up her mind. He never raised his voice, his tone soft and compelling. She stared at his chest for a long time before she could make her frozen foot step forward. One. She counted to herself. Two. He seemed to loom larger than ever. Three. She could see the muscles ripple beneath his shirt. Four. Head down, refusing to meet his eyes, she took the last step to stand in the exact spot he'd indicated. It was the best she could do for him.

"The dawn is approaching fast, p?l?fertiil--lifemate. I need to make certain I have adequately taken care of you."

Her stomach somersaulted. What did that mean, "Taken care of you"? She licked her lips, trying to get enough moisture to do more than squeak. She was perfectly capable of taking care of herself if she could find a way to move. She felt paralyzed.

He caught the hem of her shirt and simply pulled it over her head before she had a chance to stop him. She gasped and covered her generous breasts with her hands, her face going from bright red to nearly a translucent white.

"Your bath, Solange," he reminded.

She swallowed twice. "I can undress," she blurted. It was a blatant lie. She couldn't take off her clothes in front of him to save her life.

"And deny me the pleasure of doing it for you?"

She stared mutely at his chest. He would see her. There was nowhere to hide in the small cavern. He took her wrists gently, and pulled her arms down and away from her body. A blush spread from her toes all the way to her face. She could feel warmth running under her skin, and worse, moisture gathering between her legs. The cool air in the cave teased her bare breasts, so that her nipples reacted, forming hard nubs that drew his attention. He took a breath, his gaze drifting over her with a hint of possession. "Why would you hide your breasts from me? Are they not part of my woman? Do they not belong to me just as she does? Is my body not yours?"

She heard a strangled sound emerge from her throat, but it was the only sound she could get out. She felt mesmerized by him, standing there trembling while he stepped close, so close she felt the brush of his chest against her sensitive nipples. With every breath she drew the scent of him into her lungs. If she raised her head, she knew she would see those fierce green eyes instead of his calming blue ones. He was every bit as aroused as she was, his heat setting her on fire. She closed her eyes when his hands dropped to the front of her jeans.

"I'm not beautiful," she managed to warn him, hoping that if she said it first, he wouldn't be too disappointed.

His hands stopped. "Solange."

She winced. His voice was stern. Still pitched low, but very stern.

"Look at me."

She wanted to look anywhere but at him, but she couldn't stop herself from raising her eyes to his. It was pure compulsion. Her entire being crumpled at the displeasure plain on his face.

"This is a very important rule, Solange. My lifemate is the most beautiful woman on this earth to me. Anyone who says differently insults her, which is a capital offense and insults me. I do not think you want to do that, do you?"

She shook her head. To her horror tears burned behind her eyes. She could not do this. She hated disappointing him, but what would be worse? Letting him discover on his own, or trying to tell him? "I was trying to be honest."

His hand cupped the side of her face, his gentleness nearly her undoing. His thumb caressed her cheek and jaw. " Kessake--my little cat. Do not look so distressed. When a man has waited a thousand years for the one woman who is his alone, she is the very definition of beauty to him. What others see cannot matter. Only what I see matters. And I want you to see yourself through my eyes. You should see the woman I see."

His fingers trailed down her throat to her collarbone and then down to the swell of her breasts. "Look at you. The very epitome of a woman." His fingers touched her nipples.

She drew in her breath, held it, shocked at the electricity sizzling between her breasts and belly, moving lower still to tease her thighs with arousal and catch fire to the very center of her core. Abruptly his hands dropped to her jeans again, to push them down over her hips. Solange caught her breath again, closing her eyes as she obeyed the pressure of his hand to step out of her clothes. Jaguars couldn't wear underwear as a rule because they couldn't get out of their clothes fast enough when they shifted. She stood absolutely naked in front of him, grateful for the softening effect of the candles, unable to look at him. She kept her arms where he'd positioned them and bit down hard on her lip to keep from blurting out anything else that might disappoint him.

No matter what he said about being beautiful, she didn't feel that way. And she wanted to be beautiful for him. She was going to die soon. There was no way to live in a fight with Brodrick; he was too strong. She'd accepted that she had limited time left, and in a way, she was grateful. She was so weary of days like this one, days of failure, of killing. Of not having anyone . . .

She wanted these last moments with Dominic. She respected him above all other men. She would never have been able to accept another man. But she wanted so much, for once in her life, to belong. To be cared for. To be a woman, not a warrior. This was her chance, now at the end of her days . . . if she could stand him looking at her scarred, repulsive body.

"Solange."

She winced. He was definitely reading her mind.

He shook his head. "Not your mind. Your expression." He traveled in a slow circle around her. She had a strong urge to shift into her jaguar, but now it was somewhat of a challenge. Did he tell the truth? Was he an honorable man? She needed to know. He was the first person she'd trusted enough to allow him to lead. She'd never even allowed her beloved cousins to do that.

He returned to stand in front of her and her legs nearly went out from under her. He was naked. Magnificently so. There was no way to breathe. Her mind came crashing to a halt. There was nothing small about Dominic, and right now, there was no doubt that he was aroused--for her. He drew a deep breath and she knew he could smell her own arousal. His eyes went darker green.

"I love the way you blush," he said. "So enticing. I had no idea my little wildcat would be so sexy."

She felt light-headed. Dizzy. Faint. The room tilted.

He swept her up into his arms, cradling her against his chest. "You forgot to breathe, kessake. It helps."

She was fairly certain nothing was going to help, but she took a breath anyway. "I can't . . ." She gestured vaguely. There was not going to be sex. She couldn't go that far, could she?

"I can't either," he replied, amusement in his voice.

She relaxed a little, comforted by his humor. He was much like the man she had conjured up. Patient. Relaxed. Content with who he was and who she was.

"You look like you could," she pointed out.

His gaze flicked over her and there was definite amusement. "I feel like I could. You are not ready, no matter what your body says. And I have vile parasites in my body. I cannot take a chance that I would pass them to you." He stepped into the basin of water.

She caught at him. "The water's cold."

His eyes went deep emerald. "Would I allow my lifemate to be cold when she is exhausted and wounded? I see to your needs, minan, at all times."

They sank into the blessedly hot water. She didn't care how he'd managed it, but every cell in her body thanked him. The heat surrounded her, easing the terrible strain on her muscles that the physical exertion of the day had brought, as well as the tension of meeting the man she believed she'd made up. She ducked her head under the water, but when she emerged and reached for the shampoo she kept tucked into a small rock ledge, his hand was there before hers.

"Let me. It gives me pleasure."

Maybe if he didn't sound so completely sexy all the time she could handle being with him. It was the tone of his voice. His choice of words. Pleasure. She could see his hands, big and strong like the rest of him. He dealt in death, just as she did, but there was knowledge in his eyes--knowledge of her, of what she craved and never believed she would have.

He just took up so much room. He filled the entire chamber with his presence. She felt petite beside him, and she was a sturdy woman. He made her curves seem lush and sexy instead of too much. Everything he did was deliberate and precise. He positioned her exactly as he wanted her, turning her back to him, fitting her snugly in his lap so that her head could rest against his chest. She could feel him, hard as a rock, long and thick, unashamed against her buttocks.

She desperately tried not to think about sex. Her cat wasn't close to heat, and she never thought about a man touching her. It would be unthinkable to allow a man's hands on her body after all the terrible things she'd seen that men did. Yet, lying in the water, her body warm and surrounded by liquid heat, her head back, her breasts floating and his obvious erection in mind, she had to struggle to keep erotic thoughts from her mind. He gently rubbed shampoo in her hair. His fingers settled into her scalp, beginning a slow, magical massage that sent her body into a near hypnotic state of relaxation. She felt the tingling in her scalp spread through her, a pleasant sensation that grew into pure pleasure. He took his time rinsing her hair thoroughly before his hands dropped to her neck, those strong, marvelous fingers massaging every knot and tight muscle.

Solange sighed, shocked at how good she felt. The hot water, his hands and feeling clean eased most of the tension out of her.

"Aside from the entire naked thing, why is it so difficult to talk to you?" She heard her own voice musing aloud, and was slightly shocked at herself. It was his magical hands, now working on her shoulders, that seemed to make her less inhibited. "I talked to you all the time before."

"You were safe. The man you believed you conjured up couldn't expect anything from you."

That made her seem such a coward. Was she a coward? She didn't think so. But she was afraid. He lifted her arm out of the water to begin using his strong fingers to ease the tension from those muscles as well. Defined muscles. Ropes of muscle beneath her scarred skin. She could see the hundreds of white indentations, tiny ones that reminded her of the painful stabs from her father's knife as he worked over her entire body in his determination to provoke her cat into revealing itself.

She hated looking at her body. She hated those polka-dot scars marring her skin. She couldn't look at herself without remembering the slaughter. If she closed her eyes she could smell the blood running through the house and outside into the ground. Her brothers' bodies thrown carelessly aside, arms and legs sprawled out, little Avery lying partially across Adam as if in a garbage dump. Bile rose and she fought not to be sick. Her friends. Her family. She made a single sound, inarticulate, and tried to jerk her arm away from him.

He didn't let go. His gaze leapt to her face. "Do not turn away from me, Solange. We share this. The slaughter of your family. The slaughter of mine."

His soft words allowed her to breathe away the images.

"Do you wish to remove the evidence from your skin?"

He asked the question quietly, his voice so gentle she looked away because she couldn't stop the tears from welling up. She'd never been so emotional. Or maybe she had when she'd talked to him, thinking he wasn't real. She'd felt safe enough to cry in front of him. He had been her only outlet. Juliette and Jasmine had often helped her with the rescues, Juliette more than Jasmine, as they both tried to protect her. But they relied on Solange and she looked after them with fierce protectiveness. She blamed herself that she had been away when the jaguar-men found her aunt Audrey and dragged her away. They'd mounted a rescue but . . . The damage had been done. Just as with Jasmine.

She tried desperately to stop her thoughts. She was in a hot bath with a shockingly handsome man--larger than life--and she was so emotional she'd nearly forgotten that small detail.

"Solange?" His fingers continued to work their magic down her arm. "Would you do it if you could? Remove these tributes?"

She closed her eyes and allowed him to draw her head back until it rested against his chest as he lifted her other arm and began that slow, soothing massage. She'd never thought of the scars as badges or a tribute. Were they? She'd thought of the scars with hatred and anger, a reminder of who her father was, of what blood ran in her veins. She'd never once considered the small white dots as something beautiful--a tribute to her love of her mother, her family.

"Could you remove them?" Was that even possible?

"Perhaps." His tone was noncommittal.

Solange didn't try to look up at him; she merely relaxed, her head resting on his chest as he massaged her arm, knowing he would wait with infinite patience for her answer. She'd loved that calmness in him, the lack of anger and need for revenge. She was driven by both destructive emotions, and desperately needed that calm in the midst of the wild fury that drove her so hard. When she was close to him like this, she felt steadier. Safe. Comforted. She might be off balance, but as long as she wasn't thinking in terms of man and woman, she could lay down the fight and just be still.

He brought his mouth to her shoulder where the puncture wounds had been. "He nearly got you today."

She nodded. "I was terrified. I never want him to get his hands on me again. I went into the river, just as poor Annabelle did." She pressed her fingers to her temple and shook her head. "I left her there. In the river. To bait them. I don't care about the jaguar-man, he can rot there. But I can't get her out of my mind. I should have tried to find her body."

"I found her body and I buried her deep where no human, no animal and no jaguar will ever find her. I removed all scent from the area. She is safe from them."

The relief was overwhelming. Solange leaned back and rested her head on his chest once more. "Thank you. I've never left a woman alone in her death. I do my best to do right by them, even if I can't save them. It would have haunted me that she wasn't buried or burned properly."

His arms circled her, just under her breasts, and held her close. "It is done, s?vamet--my heart. You can rest now."

She felt relaxed, the tension at last completely gone from her. His arms felt safe, and when she closed her eyes she allowed herself to drift a little and just enjoy the feel of him surrounding her. This, then, was what other women felt. Part of someone else. Cared for.

"I wouldn't," she murmured.

"Wouldn't?" he echoed.

"Remove my scars. They're part of me, part of who I am now. I don't like being angry, and killing makes me sick. After a while I wonder if I'm as bad as they are, but in a way, you're right about the scars. I didn't break. I didn't let him use me and turn me into something weak and helpless. I honored my mother and stepfather's memories, as well as those of our friends and my two younger brothers." She ran her fingers over her arms, for the first time seeing her skin differently. A tribute, not something so ugly.

"You are a gift, Solange. An amazing, priceless gift." He swept her wet hair aside and brushed a kiss along her neck.

Without another word he lifted her into his arms and stepped out of the basin. She opened her mouth to protest. The water had been a cocoon of heat. For the first time that she could remember, she had been sheltered and comforted, and she didn't want it to end. But there was something implacable about his expression. The lines were etched deep. His eyes were again a deep blue, and there was a hint of possession there she felt secretly thrilled about.

The cavern should have been cold, and Solange was prepared to shiver, but the air was warm. He had seen to her comfort once again. He set her on her feet in front of him, produced a soft towel out of the air, in the strange way Carpathians could produce clothing, and began to gently rub the droplets of water from her body. She found herself unbearably shy all over again.

He stood so close, his body heat enveloping her, his gaze drifting over her body as though it belonged to him. Hadn't he actually used those words? He was slow and methodical, taking his time, using the corner of the towel to rub her arms dry, but then he suddenly leaned in and flicked a drop of water from the tip of her breast with his tongue. She jumped as streaks of fire rushed to her feminine channel, setting off a spasm of need. His mouth moved to the bite mark he'd previously healed. The punctures were sealed, but this time he lapped at the damaged tissue until she no longer even felt the mark on her.

"You don't have to do that." She shivered, not from the cold, but from his sensuous touch.

"You are wrong, kessake," he corrected. "No other man can put his mark on my woman. He cannot harm her in any way. I have to heal you or I cannot live with myself." She let him. She didn't know why she let him. His touch should have been disturbing, and perhaps, because it was arousing, it was--but she didn't care. She had never experienced anyone's attention before, let alone that of a man who focused so completely on her well-being. He made her feel special and beautiful, almost like a fragile flower there in the rain forest. She wasn't, and they both knew it, but for those few minutes when he was lavishing such care on her, she didn't want the moment to end.

A fairy tale. She closed her eyes and gave herself up to the experience. The perfect man, a warrior with changing eyes, the absolute calm in the center of a storm. He thought her beautiful when she was a perfect, dreadful mess. But he made it so. Somehow, Dominic made it so.

He paid attention to detail, and each time he found a bruise or an angry scratch, he bent his head and used his mouth to heal it. The act was erotic, although she guessed he didn't intend it that way. He was focused on her health, not on her shape. His tongue found a puncture wound on the small of her back, several more near her buttocks. His hands held her hips motionless as he attended to each separate wound.

Solange worked hard to control her breathing. She was grateful he had moved behind her so she didn't have to admire his physique, because, to her, he was perfection. She had no idea what could possibly happen after this encounter with him, but she'd take this moment and keep it in her heart forever. He made a complete circle until he was standing in front of her again. This time he leaned down and brushed a kiss on her trembling mouth.

Abruptly he went to his knees in front of her. She couldn't move. Couldn't find breath. What was a man like Dominic doing on his knees in front of her? It was so wrong. She could fight side by side with him, and she would consider herself his equal, no matter that he was a warrior unsurpassed. But she wasn't his equal here. Not when they were alone. She wanted to protest, to back away, to serve him, but she had no idea how.

"I can't do this," she managed to get out. Her voice wasn't her own, just a thread of shivery sound that could have been taken for fear.

He looked up at her with eyes darkened with desire. Her heart clenched hard in her chest. There was something so compelling in the way he looked at her. She was jaguar, used to direct stares--but that was the locked-on gaze of a predator. Dominic looked at her as if she were the most desirable woman in the world--and she was his. She shook her head, biting down hard on her lip to keep from upsetting him again by blurting out that she wasn't.

"You deserve . . ." Her fingers tentatively touched the silky strands of that hair, so black, like the wing of a great bird shining in the sky. ". . . so much more. I can't be what you need." "I deserve you," he said, his voice as gentle as ever. "I need this." He leaned forward and captured droplets of water running down her hip right over the jagged, ugly wound.

She cried out, the shock of his mouth on her sending waves of heat through her body. The brush of his hair against her thighs sent a thousand streaks of arousal burning through her legs so that she might have fallen if she hadn't gripped his shoulders. He felt solid, like a rock, someone she could lean on if she just let herself break. And maybe that was what he had been after all along.

His hands spread her thighs. He didn't say a word, simply positioned her with his hands. His breath touched her first. The sound of her heart echoed through the cavern. He carefully lapped at every single laceration, every scratch, and when he once again found the puncture wounds on her back and buttocks, she wanted to weep with the care he took.

"What happened?"

She had to search to find her vocal cords. He hadn't touched her sexually, not really, yet her body was no longer hers. Pliant and soft, it belonged to him--she belonged to him. She didn't know what kind of claiming the Carpathians did with their lifemates, but she felt claimed. She felt as if he cared for her like a rare and precious jewel. Nothing had ever come close to such a feeling before.

"I set a trap and he was waiting for me. He sacrificed his men, left them out in the open, and I took the shots. I was about to run when he dropped down out of nowhere. It's difficult to fool my jaguar. She's very alert, especially to any male in the area. She's had to be. But he was there and now he has the scent of my blood."

"Who is he?" Dominic bent his head forward to place a kiss on the puncture wounds, his hair making her shiver as it brushed against her skin.

"He's called Brodrick. Brodrick the Terrible. He's my father."

Dominic was silent a moment, taking his time rising. He enveloped her body in the warm towel and drew her into his arms. "Tell me about him."

Solange rested her head against his chest and allowed herself the pleasure of circling his waist with her arms. She could hear the steady rhythm of his heart, a reassuring beat. Where had all the men like Dominic gone? She doubted that she deserved such a man, not when she didn't even know how to be a woman. But there were so many other women, good and loving, who would care and nurture and partner a man in the world. How had this happened? A mistake? Perhaps, but she was willing to accept the gift she had been given. Her time was past and maybe his was as well.

"He killed every person my cousins and I loved. He kills any woman or child who can't shift. He kills every male jaguar child who has human blood in their veins. The men who follow him are not royals, but they all shift and they help him slaughter our people." "Why is he working with the humans if he despises them so much?"

"He's made an alliance with the vampires as well. I think they're compiling a database of women with psychic ability. He targets women he believes have jaguar blood. They're kidnapped from all over the world and brought here. If she can shift, they try to impregnate her; if she can't, she's raped, tortured and killed. The entire alliance is built on a web of deceit. The humans don't realize they're working with vampires who are using them to kill the very people who protect them. Brodrick can't be influenced by vampires, so he believes himself safe from them. And the vampires are trying to use everyone to build their numbers to defeat the Carpathians. They want all the women killed so there can be no lifemates for the Carpathians. At least, that's what I believe."

"How in the world did you learn all that?" His hand came up to bunch in her hair.

"I only recently managed to get inside, so some of what I just told you is guesswork. I spend a lot of time gathering information before I make a strike. I don't have any help, and to plan a rescue with only one person is extremely difficult. "

"I thought your cousins . . ."

"They have lifemates. Their men don't want them in jeopardy. In truth, neither do I. Jasmine is pregnant, and Juliette is too soft for this kind of life." She sighed and looked up at him. "That's not right, Dominic. She's too good for this. There's a brightness in her and I don't want that to ever go away. At first I was terrified for her when she met Riordan, but I can see that he makes her happy. I'm grateful for him. He'll take care of both of them."

His eyes darkened. "You intend to kill Brodrick." He made it a statement, neither good nor bad, no judgment in his tone, just a fact.

"Yes." There was nothing else to say. She had no choice. He would never stop. Without him, the other men would scatter. They weren't good men, and they would cause problems, but without direction, they would be manageable. If they went out of the rain forest, the law would eventually find them.

Dominic handed her a glass of water. "Drink."

Where he got it, she had no idea, but she took it without protest and as she drank, he opened up the ground.

"I will need the soil to heal my wounds completely," he said. "I have placed safeguards all around your cave and nothing will disturb us while we sleep."

Solange looked down into the deep pit. A good ten feet down. Her cat could perhaps jump out if needed, but sleeping in the dirt? She wanted to be close to him, but . . . He smiled at her, that slow, sexy smile that somehow turned her entire insides to a melted pool of acquiescing heat. How did he do that?

"You need to trust me."

Trust. He was a respected warrior. He had lived a thousand years with absolute honor. His word was his honor. If he said she was his, that she was beautiful to him, that she was the one he wanted, she should be able to accept that without all the self-doubts. And most of all, she should trust in him.

"I think trust is a gift," she said in a low voice. "A beautiful gift so many women have naturally. I want it, Dominic. More than anything, I want that gift, but . . ." She trailed off. Was she even capable of trust anymore?

His fingers settled around the nape of her neck. "Your trust in me runs deep, Solange. You do not trust in yourself, the woman. You see yourself as two beings. One, the warrior: confident, incredible in her resolve, uncaring how the world views her as long as she can save the women of her species from the brutality of the men. You live in a world of deceit and violence and you understand and accept those rules. The other being is this one, the one who shares herself with me--her true lifemate. You are the other half of my soul. You are the light to my darkness. You cannot see yourself that way, because you have to live in darkness. You buried her deep, my woman, but what you do not understand, s?vamet, is that I appreciate that in you. I do not wish others to see you as I do. I do not want to share this woman with anyone else, male or female. This side of Solange is mine alone."

She shook her head, but took every word into her heart and held each close to her.

"Make no mistake, the warrior and the woman are not two separate entities. You are both, and I see you clearly. I know I have to share the warrior. That trait is strong, and there is no denying you. Events shaped what was already a fighter's spirit, honed and perfected in the fires of agony. In order to survive and ensure the safety of women you love, the women only you stand for who survived, you had to suppress the light in you. But that light is there, and I can see it. If I am the only one who does, that is all that matters."

God help her, every word touched her soul. He saw her. He knew her. He knew her better than she knew herself. She wanted to be everything for him, that woman who lived in the light, at least during the moments she actually could spend with him. She wanted to give him whatever he wanted.

They both had so little time left. She accepted that and so did he. They were committed on their inpidual paths. But this was their time--maybe their only time. She lifted her hand to his face, tracing those lines etched so deep, lines that made him look like such a tough, ruthless man. There was no boyish trait anywhere. He was all man. He didn't move away from her tentative exploration, nor did he hurry her decision to get into that pit of dark, rich soil with him. He stood beneath her fingers and let her commit his face to memory.

"You want me to sleep beside you?"

"I do not want you even inches from me, minan. I need you this day."

She swallowed every fear and lifted her chin. "How will you know I'm there?" She was going to give him this small thing. What did it matter? It was all he would allow her to give him. She couldn't touch his body, couldn't relieve that fierce arousal. He gave and gave, and she . . .

"I receive pleasure from giving you pleasure, Solange. And you are always gracious enough to share each moment with me, even though allowing me into your mind is terrifying to you. I will know you are with me."

"I don't understand why you won't let me . . ." She couldn't articulate what she wanted so she simply dropped her hand around his thick, rock-hard erection.

The breath hissed out of him. "It is not safe." Very gently he removed her fingers and pulled her palm to his heart. "It is enough that I share your pleasure."

She doubted that, but she was too unsure of herself at the moment to pursue it. She would have to think about his statement for a while. The vampire blood? He might lose control and convert her? She knew, from talking to Juliette, that the drive was fierce and unrelenting in the male to bind his lifemate to him, yet Dominic had shown no signs of needing to bind her to him, or wanting to convert her. What did that mean? If she took him at his word that she was everything he wanted, then there was another reason.

He swept his arm around her waist and took them over the edge of the deep pit. Just before her feet settled into the soil, a small, thin comforter covered one side of the dirt floor. Her bare feet landed on the material. He sank into the soil and let out a sigh.

"Juliette tried to describe to me what it was like to be rejuvenated by the earth, but I couldn't get the concept."

"You would like me to share the experience with you, kessake?" He settled into the cradle of dark, rich loam and held out his hand to her.

She took his hand and allowed him to pull her down to his side. She settled against him, curling like the cat she was, one hand flung boldly across his chest. "Yes." She wanted every experience with him that she could have.

No one would probably ever know about Dominic, her dream lover. He was hers alone, and maybe it was the way it was supposed to be. She'd done a lot of terrible things in her life, committed a lot of sins. In the rain forest, she told herself it was kill or be killed, but the truth was, she was the one who determined who lived and who died. If she had two jaguar-men in her sights, she tried for both of them, but the first was always the one she considered the most dangerous and violent. These stolen moments of happiness with Dominic made up for a lifetime without.

He brushed a kiss on top of her head and then waved his hand. Another quilt settled over her. "While I sleep, should you wake, I do not want you cold."

She touched the exquisite quilt with the symbols woven into it. The material was soft, dark greens, like her forest, with animals embroidered into squares beside the symbols. She found herself tracing each one with a light finger. "This is beautiful."

"Gabriel's woman makes them for us. She weaves in whatever is needed. I wanted one to comfort you and bring you peace of mind. I will appear dead, Solange, with no breath or heartbeat. You cannot panic."

She smiled at the command in his voice. "I don't easily panic. Well, not as a rule. You definitely shocked me."

"By being real?"

"Yes."

He laughed softly. "You shocked me as well. We have bad timing, p?l?fertiil. Maybe the worst timing of any couple in history."

She turned his words over in his mind. "I needed time to grow, Dominic. There was so much anger in me, so much hatred for the men who slaughtered my family, who have been systematically committing genocide on our own people because they believe the bloodlines need to be pure. I hated for so long and I couldn't distinguish between those men who have destroyed our species and other men. It wasn't until Juliette met her lifemate, and I saw the honor in him, that I came to terms with my rage."

He brushed the hair from her face with gentle fingers. She remembered those same tender caresses from her dream man and her heart fluttered in her chest. He was so much like the image she'd conjured up, and yet a little frightening. Mostly because she wanted to bring him the same peace and joy he brought her.

He nuzzled the top of her head, and at the same time merged his mind with hers, catching the next, not-so-altruistic thoughts, the need to give him the same release he had given her.

Dominic sighed inwardly. I will not take the chance with you.

He could feel the need clawing at her, saw the erotic images in his mind, but he would never have been able to find the control to keep from claiming her both with his body and his soul. He craved her. A dark need that grew the longer he spent time with her.

His first duty was to protect her, even from himself. He had the blood of a vampire running in his veins, and with that acidic poison were thousands of greedy parasites working to consume him from the inside out--although . . . the vile creatures had gone still. None of them moved in him. There were no whispered commands, and there was no stabbing, relentless pain, not since he had been near his lifemate. Why was that? How could it be? Could lifemates provide such solace even for one already lost?

He took a deep breath. The night was gone. The sun rose steadily in the sky. He was deep beneath the earth, but he could still feel the effects on his body. Soon he would be a leaden weight and his heart would cease to beat. He felt Solange's sharp intake of breath and knew she was experiencing the prickly sensation on his skin, the scorched feeling that lived right under his skin in all the nerves.

He relaxed into the richness of the soil bed. The earth welcomed him, whispered to him, the abundance of minerals immediately seeping into his pores, enriching his body, speeding the healing of every wound, the long slices caused by the sword that had bit deep into his flesh. Zacarias had helped to speed the healing, but it was here in the earth where he would find the natural medicine for his kind.

Solange's wonder delighted him. She put her hand in the soil between them and allowed it to slip through her fingers. "I had no idea. All this time I've walked on it and yet didn't feel it alive, living and breathing with cures. Even if they aren't for my kind, it's a miracle what the earth does for yours."

"She welcomes us as her children." He tried to put it in words she might understand, although he could feel her acceptance.

He would cover them with dirt, but not their faces. Unlike him, Solange would need the air to breathe. He moved, and the aching demands of his body moved with him.

"I could . . ." She stopped when he put his hand on her head and held her to his chest.

"You cannot tempt me, Solange. I battle with my honor. Honor is important to me. And you--you are my most precious gift. I could never live with myself if my selfishness placed you in danger. Go to sleep and it will be enough to hold you in my arms."

He had sung to her in their shared dream, and he did so now, his song to her, the haunting melody, all the things he'd always wanted to say to his lifemate.

I was half-alive for a thousand years. I'd given up hope that we'd meet in this time. Too many the centuries. All disappears As time and the darkness steal color and rhyme.

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