Chapter Thirteen


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.

DOMINIC TO SOLANGE

Dominic lay without breath one moment, and then the next his heart began a strong rhythm, air pushed through his lungs and his eyes snapped open. Fully alert, he dropped his fingers into the soft thick fur covering him. Sometime during the day Solange had shifted to her jaguar form. Something had disturbed her enough that she felt she might need her animal form to protect them while he slept.

Minan , are you awake? He poured love into his voice. The sun had not yet set, but it was close. His body felt the prickle of awareness that told him the night sky had not yet descended to keep his skin protected. Do you hear them? Is that what woke you? They have been working around the cave entrance for some time, but your safeguards are holding. Brodrick is not with them.

The female jaguar lifted her muzzle and stretched languidly, as only a cat could do, but she unsheathed her claws, testing them as well. The ropes of sleek muscles rippled beneath her luxurious pelt of rich tawny color and dark rosettes.

There is no need for you to rise yet, she added. I can lead them away if they get too close. I've been thinking the situation over and I know where I'll take them.

That was his woman. Calm. Matter-of-fact when it came to facing death. She could handle a fearsome battle with such ease, and yet when she faced him as a woman, she was shy and vulnerable. The contrast between her two sides was one of the many things he found intriguing about her. She was his woman alone. No other man would ever see her body, sexy and soft and flushed with color, so aroused, just for him alone. She would never get that confused, dazed look in her eyes for anyone else. The Solange the world saw was only one side of her; he had both, and that pleased him immensely.

"I was hoping to wake you with a kiss this morning." His amusement spilled over into his voice.

The jaguar turned her head toward him, mischief in her brilliant green eyes. Her long tongue came out and rasped over his face. He burst out laughing. The jaguar grinned at him, very pleased with her work. Dominic shoved her off him, using his enormous strength, tumbling the cat off of his body and into the rich soil, and then he dove on top of her.

Solange twisted out of his way so that he landed in a crouch a foot from her. She kept rolling, came to her feet and sprang at him. He dissolved into vapor.

That is so cheating, she accused, her cat's eyes watching the vapor stream out of the deep pit up to the cavern floor. He knew she didn't mind. She had her own skills. She could leap a good twenty feet and run up to thirty miles an hour. She had a flexible spine and radar that said he was . . . His soft laughter taunted her. She was looking in the wrong spot.

She leapt to the surface after him, looking around for him. She could smell him but not see him. She looked up. Dominic dropped from the ceiling and landed astride her back, wrapping his legs around her belly and his arms tightly around her neck. She rolled instantly, over and over, felt his hold loosen. Using her enormous strength, she sprang a good ten feet straight into the air, came down with her head toward the ground and threw him over her muzzle. He landed on his back, and before he could dissolve again, she pounced on his chest.

Laughing, he literally lifted her, tossing her through the air, somersaulting and coming up onto his feet. She was fast and strong and he could feel joy bursting through him at their rough-and-tumble play. He had all but forgotten playing.

Solange twisted in midair, landed across the room and charged, standing up on her hind legs at the last moment as they came together, her large front paws on his broad shoulders, his hands on hers. They danced in a circle, each exerting force on the other, trying to push the other over. Dominic suddenly went in close, belly to belly, wrapping his arms around her, aching for her unexpectedly.

Shift. I want to feel you shifting into my arms. He knew there was seduction in his voice. His body was unrelenting in its need of hers, and the urgent demands were becoming more difficult to ignore, even with his centuries of discipline. He wanted to wake up to her soft lush curves, even if he couldn't have her yet. It was necessary to kiss the perfection of her mouth, and if he'd unconsciously used his hypnotic voice--which had little effect on her royal . . . bloodline--he couldn't help it.

She laughed softly, the sound shimmering through every nerve ending in his body. He felt her mind slide against his. You were thinking "royal pain in the ass," but changed your mind just in case I was listening in, didn't you? He rubbed his head against the thick, rich fur of the jaguar's muzzle.

He rubbed his head against the thick, rich fur of the jaguar's muzzle. I was thinking about your beautiful bottom, that much is true. Shift, right now, while I am holding you. It was an extremely difficult maneuver, just as shifting on the run was.

Are you challenging me? I could do it, you know.

He felt her glow at his certainty. Her mind turned softer, more intimate, and she opened more to him, as if his approval of her allowed her to relax in his company just a little more.

I'll be of more help hunting in this form.

True, and you can shift back when we go, but right now I would like to hold my woman and tell her good evening. Which was all true, although he wanted to map her body with his hands--and his mouth--and commit every curve and valley to memory for all time.

He felt the movement in her mind first, that initial breathtaking moment when the woman reached for her form; the quick, intelligent mind; the soft, almost shy beginnings of sensuality; of awareness; the hesitation of finding herself naked in his arms; the quick summoning of courage to do as he asked--because she loved pleasing him. She craved the approval in his eyes, in his mind, and that small smile he always gave her when she did something he asked. That was not only humbling, but a tremendous responsibility.

He felt the wrench in her bones, heard the popping and cracking of a shifter in transformation. Fur slid along his arms and chest and then receded. The muzzle retracted. The jaguar turned her head away from him, dropping her chin to protect her exposed throat.

Look at me. Look into my eyes. He could not lose the intensity of the moment. Seeing her come to him. He needed this moment. He had to look into her cat's eyes and see his woman coming to him. Emerging for him alone. She would never do such a thing near anyone else, let someone witness the total vulnerability of such a moment when she was completely at his mercy, unable to protect herself as jaguar or human.

Those amazing green eyes glittered at him. All intelligence. Seeing him--inside of him. He locked gazes with her, holding her to him in her most defenseless moment, seeing the wrenching fear, drinking in her fight to trust him with her life, with the very essence of who she really was. He knew she was fighting her own nature, that elusive, wild nature that insisted she remain secretive, hidden from the world. But for him, she fought to expose herself in her weakest position. Her eyes changed subtly, still tilted, still enormous, but far more human. She looked almost terrified, but she didn't look away, nor did she flinch from him as her much more petite shape slid against his.

Dominic held her silky soft curves tight against the hardness of his body, watching the expression in her eyes change from fear to joy. Her long lashes fluttered, and that sweet shyness slipped into those brilliant green eyes, a look that sent every protective instinct he had rushing to the surface. Still holding her gaze, he bent his head to hers, taking his time, inch by slow inch, waiting to see her find her natural sensuality. He needed her to want him just as much as he needed the soil that each day rejuvenated him.

Her eyes went slumberous, sexy. Her lips parted in anticipation. He took her breath as his lips settled over hers. His hands slid down to the curves of her very royal bottom and he lifted her up around his waist, all while his mouth kept possession of hers.

He was very hard, his erection full and painful, and for a moment he rested her heated entrance right over the throbbing, mushroom head of his cock, the temptation almost more than he could bear. But she had to know for certain he was what she wanted, and as much as he didn't want to admit it to himself, she still didn't have full trust in him. She hadn't given herself over completely to him.

He set her back on the woven rug, his hands skimming her body as he kissed her. When he lifted his head, she looked a little dazed, confused and even disappointed.

"Good evening, Solange," he greeted.

Her half-smile turned to a frown when her gaze dropped to the heavy erection grazing her stomach. "I don't understand. You clearly want me."

"Yes." He smiled down at her, his thumb tracing that little frown on her face.

"I want you." "A little. Not enough. You have doubts, Solange."

Her gaze shifted from his, just a small flick, but it was enough to tell him he was right. She shook her head. "I do want you. My body is in a constant state of arousal."

That had been difficult for her to admit. He could tell she had to make a tremendous effort to tell him the truth, but he felt triumphant that she had. She was far closer to accepting him than he had realized.

"As is mine," he agreed. "The difference, kessake, is that I need to take care of your needs. You want to take care of your own needs as well."

She opened her mouth to protest and then abruptly closed it, her frown deepening. She studied his face and then her gaze drifted back to his very large, unashamed erection. "Isn't it supposed to be mutual?"

"Not for me. I need to feel your acceptance, Solange. In your mind, in your heart. In your very soul. When you burn to please me, when it is the only thing that matters to you, then I will know you accept me."

"I do accept you, Dominic." Her lashes lowered and her bottom lip trembled slightly.

He stroked his fingers down her cheek, infinitely gentle. "When I take your body, Solange, there can be no room for doubt in your mind. No matter what I ask of you, you will trust me enough to do it without question because you will know every single thought I have is for you. Your safety. Your health. Your comfort. If I made love to you now, it would satisfy your body, but you would still question whether I love you for yourself or because I have to."

She flinched. He'd definitely read her correctly. She was worried about that. She didn't understand how he could fall in love with her. She didn't even believe it was possible.

"I'm not a nice person, Dominic."

He caught her chin in his hand and forced her head up until her green gaze met his. "Neither am I, Solange. Not in the way polite society would view me. I take lives just as you do. I make life-and-death decisions every day and have for centuries. I do not doubt myself in the way you do, perhaps because I have been chasing the undead for so long."

"It isn't the same thing. Jaguar-men are my own people."

"I killed my best friend while I still had my emotions, Solange. And I would have killed Zacarias had you not interfered. You saved his life."

She sighed. "I just don't want you to have a false impression of who I am." He laughed softly. "I look into your mind and see a beautiful soul. You shine for me. Now get dressed in one of your robes and eat something. We will be hunting later."

She took a deep breath and let it out. Just as she turned, she brushed her fingers over his heavy erection. His cock jerked. Every nerve ending fired. She gave him a sassy smile and walked to the small alcove, and her hips held a definite enticing sway. He couldn't stop the predatory smile.

He watched as she pulled out the long red metallic duster. "The green one. I want to see if it matches your eyes."

"The green one?"

There was a little hiccup in her voice. She wasn't quite ready to put on a micromini and parade around in front of him with nothing else but the formfitting, ultra-revealing sheath. He was pushing her comfort zone, hard, but he wasn't certain how much longer he could hold out. He had gone from wanting her trust to needing it.

Solange moistened her lips, but didn't turn around. She hesitated, but managed to force herself to put the red duster back and pull the green ladder dress out. It took a little wiggling to get it over her hips. The stretchy material clung to every curve. The ladder, made of thin strips, crept down the front and back, leaving much of her skin bare. The spaghetti straps settled onto her shoulders as if made for her, which, she realized, it had been. That gave her a little more confidence.

She brushed out her thick, wavy hair before really looking at herself in the full-length mirror. The dress not only brought out her eyes but showed off her body. The ladder bared her breasts, the fabric barely covering her nipples. As it was nearly see-through, she could see how beaded her nipples were right through the material. The ladder formed a V down to the hem of the dress so that her belly button showed through the thin slats and she even caught glimpses of her mound when she moved. She turned to look over her shoulder. Her back and bottom were covered only with the thin strips as well. She could just see the bottom half of her cheeks peeking out at her.

She stared at herself, shocked at how aroused just dressing in such a revealing sheath made her feel. It was sexy, and knowing Dominic had made it for her gave her the confidence to wear it. She wanted him to be in such a state of urgent need that the next time she found an opportunity, he wouldn't be able to resist her.

When she walked into the cavern, the soft lights played over the walls, the flame burned in the pool and a table was set with candles. He was dressed in a suit. Tall. Handsome. Gorgeous. He was heart-stopping with his long hair pulled back with a leather cord and his ever-changing eyes a vivid turquoise. His broad shoulders and narrow hips were made for an elegant suit. He appeared more Old World than ever. Very gallantly he took her hand, and with a small half-bow, kissed her knuckles, tucked her fingers into the crook of his elbow and walked her to the table. He pulled out her chair and waited for her to sit. "I can hear your heart beat," he whispered as he leaned down, his mouth by her ear as he pushed in her chair. "It follows the rhythm of mine."

To Dominic's surprise and pleasure, Solange smiled up at him, and there was seduction in her smile. She shifted just an inch, but her breasts strained against the small thin strips of material, drawing his attention. His fingers drifted over the stretchy fabric to linger for a moment on her nipples.

"You please me, Solange, doing what I asked of you. Thank you."

"I wanted to see that look in your eyes," she admitted, lowering her gaze.

He opened his hand and showed her the two dangling earrings, the rubies and emeralds matching her bracelet. "May I?"

"Please." She held very still while he put them in her ears. She expected it to hurt, but it didn't. She touched one. "The green matches the dress."

"The stones match your eyes," he corrected gently. "And what look in my eyes?"

He walked around to the other side of the small table and sat down in the chair opposite her. He reached for a bottle and poured a sparkling liquid into her wineglass and a much darker one into his. The candlelight played over her face, caressing her soft skin and illuminating her cat's eyes. Need punched low and wicked, an instant and rather brutal assault on his body. She was so beautiful to him, inside and out, whether she thought so or not.

"I like the way you look at me," she said, "like you're pleased with me when I do something so simple as to wear what you ask." She ran her hand along her thigh. "It's a beautiful dress. But aren't you worried about the jaguars hunting close by?"

His gaze followed the nervous progression of her palm as it smoothed over her bare thigh. The dress was very sexy, her body breathtaking in the soft flickering lights. He loved how the light played over her face. She wasn't adept at hiding her thoughts from him, and he found himself nearly flying when he touched her mind and saw her desire to please him--that making him happy made her excited. She was beginning to see herself as he saw her: feminine and sexy and wholly his.

He indicated for her to take a bite of her steak. He waited for her to do as he requested before answering. "Actually, I doubt they are hunting us. They seem more nervous, not actually hunting. Too many vampires in one area means anyone with warm blood is going to be in danger."

She pushed around the small bites on her plate. "How you managed all this, I'll never know." "I have never sat down to a table and shared a meal," he said. "This is a new and very pleasant experience for me."

He found he couldn't take his eyes from her. Everything she did delighted him. The way she chewed and swallowed. Her nervous little glances. The hand that drifted down to tug at the impossibly short hem of her dress. Each time she shifted in her chair, her bare bottom slid over the polished wood and he caught a glimpse of the enthralling temptation between her legs.

He leaned across the table and waited until she raised her lashes. "I dream of taking your body over and over, while you are slick and hot with your sweet-tasting nectar. I love to hear the way you moan and whimper, such beautiful music, my little cat. I want to hear you beg me never to leave your body."

He kept his tone the same, as if they were discussing jaguars and vampires. Her eyes went wide. Her body flushed and she shifted restlessly in her chair. He caught the scent of arousal. Her small tongue darted out to lick nervously at her lips. Beneath the thin green fabric, her nipples grew harder.

"You can't say things like that to me."

"It is true." He nodded toward the bowl of fruit. "You need to eat some of that as well."

"I can't eat when you say things like that." She pushed her hair from where it tumbled around her face. Her hands trembled. "I think, since we've been home, I've been in a constant state of arousal."

"Is that a bad thing?" Her eyes intrigued him, but it was that little reprimand in her voice that sent a wave of heat through his body.

"It is when we're supposed to be concentrating on planning out how you're going to survive walking into a meeting with who knows how many vampires, all of whom would love to tear you apart and feast on your blood."

"Before I consider trying to survive vampires, I have to figure out a way to survive this relentless ache you have put here. It refuses to go away, Solange." His hand deliberately dropped to his immaculate trousers, calling attention to the thick bulge there. "And you put it there."

Her eyes changed. The almost painfully shy woman disappeared, only to be replaced by a temptress. She flashed a small, rather smug smile as she picked up the glass of sparkling champagne even as she shifted again in her chair, drawing his attention to her lush breasts. "It's very gratifying to know I'm not the only one suffering."

His voice dropped an octave. "Are you suffering?" She licked the drops of champagne from her lips. "You know I am."

"Why?"

"I've had a few dreams of my own," she pointed out. "While you sleep, I am thinking of all the things I'd like to do to you."

"Now you have my full attention." He sat back in his chair, his heart beginning to thunder. At last. She was thinking of him and how best to give him pleasure. He could see the determination in her expression and that sexy, intriguing tilt to her mouth.

"Actually," she corrected, playing with the stem of her glass, "I always have your full attention, your complete, absolute focus. You make me feel not only beautiful, but important and sexy and everything you need. You make me feel important."

"You are all of those things."

She ate another bite of her steak, a small frown of concentration on her face. "I've had a lot of time to think about things while you were sleeping, and I realized it's really all about courage. I have to find the courage to put myself totally into your hands." She looked up at him then, her eyes showing that same determination, but this time mixed with fear. "That's what you're saying to me, isn't it?"

He nodded. In that moment of self-discovery, she was more beautiful than ever to him.

"You want me to recognize this side of me is every bit as important as the fighter in me."

"Important not only to me, Solange," he agreed, "but to you as well."

"It's much easier to contemplate all of this when I'm in my jaguar form. I feel safe."

"I want you to feel safe with me."

Her eyebrow shot up. "Yes and no," she pointed out, proving to him that she was every bit as shrewd and intelligent as he'd suspected. "You like me a little off balance with you. I get the feeling that tangling with you is a bit like trying to play with fire." The pulse in the side of her neck fluttered. "I don't want to get burned."

He flashed a predatory smile at her. "Only you can decide if it is worthwhile to give yourself into my care. Only you can decide to trust me with your heart, Solange."

She took a bite of apple, her expression thoughtful. "If we do this, Dominic--"

"When," he corrected. "When we do this. Because, kessake, there is no question that you belong to me. You will come to accept me eventually." She was so close. He could feel her reaching for him in her mind, wanting to give herself to him, but fear of betrayal held her paralyzed. He loved that she was working it out, analyzing each step cautiously, just as her cat would. Her reticence endeared her to him even more.

She took a breath. " When we do this, we'll have a future. What does that mean to you?"

"I would bind you to me, of course," he said, locking his gaze with hers so she was unable to look away.

She swallowed almost convulsively. "Okay, I get that. But then what?"

"I will take your blood--and your body--and make you wholly mine." There was no compromise in his voice, or in his eyes.

Her breasts heaved as she drew in a ragged breath. She put down her fork and once again picked up the crystal flute. "You always make everything sound so simple."

"It is very simple, Solange. When we are in a battle, you trust me with your life, as I do you. Here, when we are alone, you need to give me that same trust. I already have your complete honesty, and you are more loyal than anyone I have ever known. I give those same things back to you at all times."

She moistened her lips again. "I trust you," she said. There was hesitation in her voice.

He smiled at her. "You are beginning to trust me, and I find that an amazing gift. I thank you for your belief in me. You sit there wearing a dress I made for you because you want to please me. And you do, very, very much."

She flushed a soft pink, the color enhancing the green of her eyes. "Dominic, what about after? Juliette was converted. MaryAnn, too. Are all lifemates converted?"

"As a rule, but it is a choice. If you chose not to, you would grow old and die, and then, of course, I would choose to age and die when you left this life for the next."

The flame in the candle leapt, throwing a dark shadow across the wall. Dominic was on his feet immediately. No enemy could penetrate his safeguards. He knew that. Yet . . . He turned slowly, tracking the dark shadow.

I caught sight of him for just a moment. He blends into the dark when he ceases all movement.

Solange pulled the dress from over her head and laid it carefully over the back of her chair as if it was precious to her. There was no panic in her movements, and he wanted to smile at her. She was the right woman for him, no question about it. All business. Everything else set aside, all doubts and fears gone so that his strong warrior went back- to-back with him against any adversary. Vampire? Jaguar? He couldn't scent an enemy, but every instinct told him they were no longer alone.

I don't think so. My jaguar may be of more use.

She shifted without asking him if she should, trusting her own instincts as she always had in battle. In spite of the danger, he felt the first whisper of unease at the idea of losing her. She had been the one to worry about what would happen should something happen to him, but in that oddest of moments, he knew he wouldn't want to face life without Solange. Without her fierce fighting spirit and the sensual, shy woman he was coming to know.

Let me in front of you.

Every muscle in his belly tied itself into a tight knot of protest. He didn't know what they were dealing with. She hadn't really asked him, so much as told him she needed to get closer and the warrior said yes while the man said no. He found he was at war with his own instincts.

My cat is raging already. She knows we have company.

She made no demands, simply waited. Dominic couldn't bring himself to step behind the large animal, but he glided to the side of her. She crouched low and raised her muzzle.

He likes the dark. Light the room.

Dominic did so without hesitation and caught a glimpse of something skittering across the walls into the crack of the nearest pool, where the water streamed in. He couldn't identify it, but now that he was merged with Solange, his senses tuned differently and he could "feel" the creature. He didn't have the same sense of it as Solange. She and the cat were one and the same, and she could make sense of the pattern in the jaguar's mind.

I've never encountered anything like it.

Tell me.

It seems very small, much like a house cat, but shadowy, as if it might not be all substance. It came in through the water, so it swims.

He had seen four distinct legs, so it was an animal, or at least had been. Claws? Webbed feet perhaps?

Dominic inhaled sharply and noted the jaguar relied on her hearing and sight. There was little scent to betray the creature, so he couldn't identify it that way. Maybe both. It moved into the dark before I could really get a sense of it. I heard fur slide along the wall of the cave. A whisper only, she informed him.

Is it hunting us?

It is hunting something. I don't scent fear. Do you?

He didn't. Now that he knew where the creature was hiding, he dissolved into vapor, streaking across the room to pour into the crack. A howl filled the cavern, and the thing launched itself into the center of the room, clearing a good twenty feet, growing in size as it soared through the air, claws outstretched, aiming for the jaguar's eyes.

Solange twisted away at the last second, and the claws raked deep furrows across her neck and down her side as it dropped to the floor. Dominic, merged as he was with Solange, felt the burst of raw, burning pain as the shadow cat attacked. She whipped around and slashed at the intruder. Her huge paw went right through the insubstantial creature. It took a second bound and scurried into the shadows near the boulders and the entrance to the chamber, once more diminished into a small, almost house cat size.

Are you all right? He kept the worry out of his voice. It would do neither of them any good. She could handle herself in a fight--even against vampires. This-- thing--would not ruffle her.

She gave the mental equivalent of a shrug, reinforcing his belief in her. What is it?

Something very dangerous. Dominic emerged once again by her side. Move away from me, but give yourself plenty of room if it attacks again.

You think it's hunting me? Again, her voice was very calm.

We will test that theory. I will give it a shot at me.

He heard her catch her breath, but she didn't protest, trusting that he knew what he was doing. He moved to block the creature's vision of the jaguar, filling the cave with his power and presence, growing in stature. Solange remained very small behind him, crouching close to the ground but, he noted, out away from the walls where she had room to maneuver.

Dominic concentrated on trying to reach the creature with his mind. There was nothing at all. Not blank, like the undead, an abomination of nature, might leave, but truly nothing, as if the creature wasn't real. He considered that. A hallucination he shared with Solange? He knew that would be possible, though unlikely. He was an ancient and difficult to trick. And the blood staining the jaguar's coat was very real.

The sound of dirt trickling down the cavern wall was his only warning. He turned his head and caught a glimpse of a shadow scurrying across the ceiling above his head, looking like a streak of black, lengthening with each bound.

Coming at you, he warned as he leapt into the air to try to get his hands on the thing.

His palms met, going right through the shadow cat, but he felt hot breath, and just as the creature sprang past him, the brush of rough fur.

Solange met the cat in midair, this time driving with her broad muzzle and a mouthful of teeth deep into its chest wall. Again, she passed through the cat, but it whirled as she began to drop, gripping her back with his claws and sinking teeth into her neck, driving her down to the floor. She rolled, roaring, as the teeth drove deeper, finding her vein.

Dominic struck hard, tearing the cat from Solange's back and dragging it away from her. He felt the fur, the heavy muscles and the spray of blood across his face, and then the creature was insubstantial again, sliding through his grip to once more become nothing but a shadow.

Solange! Talk to me.

Her breath hissed out in a quiet agony. She shifted, clamping a hand to her neck. Blood poured between her fingers. Dominic whirled around and pulled her to him, pressing his palm to the wound to cauterize and stop the flow of precious blood.

The creature sprang to the floor, once more emerging into substance, lapping ferociously at the blood on the ground.

Close your eyes. As a precaution he shielded her eyes himself, clapping his hand over her face.

Flames leapt from the candle on the table, joining with one rising from the bottom of the basin. White-light radiated throughout the cave, a blinding beam of heat that struck the creature before it could slip away. It shrieked and burst into blue-purple flames, spreading across the room, growing into a giant shape with a huge gaping mouth filled with spiked teeth. The legs went stiff and the spine bent.

Dominic could see small tube-like appendages inside the mouth filled with blood-- Solange's blood--and his heart skipped a beat as realization dawned instantly. The shadow cat had been sent by someone to collect her blood. Someone else knew about her royal blood and wanted it for their own evil purposes.

The creature's eyes turned on Dominic for the first time, seemingly just noticing him. The eyes whirled, black to red, vague and empty. Suddenly, for one heart-stopping moment, they went a glittering silver, cunning intelligence staring into the room, searching.

Before those eyes could focus on them, Dominic took Solange straight to the ground, covering her body with his, his hand still over her eyes as the mouth grotesquely opened wider and the silver eyes quartered the room.

Dominic flicked his hand at the fire, fanning the air into a turbulent whirlwind that sent the flames into a wild burning ball. The silver eyes turned back to the vacant blue-purple. The mouth yawned wider, emitting a harrowing scream of horror as the flames consumed the creature. In the midst of the flames Dominic could see a tiny black sliver of a shadow desperately trying to separate and slink toward the water. Dominic directed a fireball at it, watching with satisfaction as the last remnant turned to ash, completely incinerated. A foul stench permeated the air, and again he sent the wind crashing through the cavern to air it out.

Beneath him, Solange was utterly still. He lifted his hand away from her eyes and swept back her hair, his heart thundering hard.

"Talk to me, minan."

She stirred, blinked up at him--and smiled. His heart stuttered. There was blood covering his hand, coating her neck and shoulder, there were deep furrows torn from her skin along her ribs and down her left hip, but she smiled at him. Her green eyes were totally clear. He could see pain reflected there, but she pushed herself into a sitting position, one hand coming up to touch his face.

"Don't look at me like that. I'm fine. I've had worse. Thanks for stopping the bleeding. I might not have been able to do that myself."

She shivered and he instantly wrapped a blanket around her, the comforter with all the healing symbols on it. Solange shook her head. "I don't want to get blood on this. It's so beautiful and I'd hate to ruin it."

"Leave it," he commanded, holding the blanket in place. "I can get blood out. Just sit there for a minute, Solange, while I clean you up. You are in shock."

"No, just shocked that that thing was able to get past your safeguards and come in right under our noses. He should have killed me. He was sucking my blood out fast, rather than trying to finish me off. What was it?" Her voice was low and husky, as if her throat had been damaged in the attack. She cleared her throat several times and coughed, bringing her hand up to her mouth to cover it.

Dominic pulled her hand down. Her palm was smeared with blood. He lifted her and opened the earth, floating them down into the rich soil. He wrapped her in the comforter. "I'm going to heal you, kessake. Just rest. We will discuss this next rising. In the meantime, I will safeguard even our water and the very cracks in the rocks."

She touched his face again. "I'm really okay, Dominic." Her lashes fluttered and drifted down. Dominic felt the soft whisper of fear creeping down his spine, a whisper that grew into fingers of terror when her breathing became labored. Solange. Do not leave me! The pain was sharp and terrible and so unexpected. She was wound tight in his heart. He gave her the command with every ounce of strength he had and set about working frantically on her. It took him three times going outside himself and into her before he spotted the tiny venom drops left behind by the murderous shadow cat.

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