Chapter Two

My life was an anguish, my family ripped from me. My rage had sustained me. I'd given up hope. Tears fell in rain forest, heart bled in the blood-ground. My father betrayed me. I barely could cope.


The rain fell steadily, making the miserable heat worse, a relentless downpour, no light drizzle, but sheets of blinding, endless rain. Birds hid among the thick, twisted branches, high up in the canopy in hopes of relief. Tree frogs dotted the trunks and branches while lizards used leaves for umbrellas. The air remained still and stifling on the forest floor but up above in the canopy, the rain seemed bent on drenching the many creatures living there.

Through the gray rain and the humid heat, the jaguar padded silently over the rotting vegetation and the fallen trees and through the varieties of lacy giant ferns sprouting from every conceivable crack or crevice. The small stream she followed led from the wide, fast-moving river on the outer edges of the rain forest into the deep interior. She had trod this path twice a year for the last twenty years, making her way back to where it had all begun, a pilgrimage when she was weary and needed to remember why she did what she did. No matter how the forest changed, no matter how much new growth had emerged, she knew the way unerringly.

Flowers burst into bright color, winding up the great trunks, curling around limbs, petals drenched and dripping, alive with vivid beauty through the various shades of green that made up the rain forest. Buttress roots of the emergents--giant trees that pierced the canopy--dominated the forest floor. The twisted, elaborate shapes provided sustenance as well as support to the largest trees in the rain forest. The root systems were massive and came in all shapes, fins and cages and dark, twisted labyrinths providing shelter for creatures desperate enough to brave the insects carpeting the layers of leaves and decay, sharing the space with the small dawn bats that made homes in the huge network of roots of the impressive Kapok tree.

High above the jaguar, following her progress, flew a great harpy eagle, much larger than normal, the dark wings spread wide, a good seven feet. He moved in silence, keeping pace in the sky, winding through the labyrinth of branches with ease. With two predators on the prowl, the animals hunkered down, shivering miserably. The eagle peered down, ignoring the tempting sight of a sloth and band of monkeys to examine the jaguar's progress through the tangle of vegetation on the forest floor far below.

Roots snaked across the floor, seeking nutrients and causing the ground to be a mass of sometimes impenetrable obstacles. Coiled around the massive trunks were thousands of climbing plants of various nature, using the trees as ladders to the sun. Woody lianas, stems and even roots of climbing plants hung like massive ropes or twisted together, tree to tree, providing an aerial highway for animals. Lianas, looped and twisted into tangles, were full of crevices and grooves, ideal hiding places for the animals taking shelter up and down the trunks and in the branches.

The jaguar hesitated, aware of the large raptor traveling with her. Night was falling fast and yet the great bird continued to trail her progress, sometimes gliding in lazy circles overhead and other times ping through the trees, stirring up the wildlife until the din was frenzied and so loud the jaguar considered roaring a warning. She decided to ignore the bird and follow her instincts, moving on toward her goal.

Hills and slopes were riddled with freshwater streams and creeks flowing over rocks and vegetation as they rushed toward the larger rivers. White-water rivers, heavy with sediment, appeared the color of creamy coffee. Rich with life, the waters were home to the rare river dolphins. The black-water rivers looked clear and perhaps more inviting, as they were sediment free, but were almost lifeless, unnaturally clear, tinted reddish-brown and poisoned by the tannins seeping into the ground from the rotting vegetation. The jaguar knew to hunt in the rich waters of the white-water rivers, easily flipping the fish onto the banks when she was hungry.

Ticks and leeches swarmed up, meeting the heat and rain with a frenzy and in need of blood, searching for any warm-blooded prey. The jaguar ignored the tiresome bloodsuckers, which were attracted by her warmth and the open wound on her left flank. Thunder boomed, shaking the trees, an ominous portent of trouble. A sloth moved with infinite slowness, its algae-covered fur green, helping it to blend into the leaves of the tree it was currently dining in. But the jaguar was very aware of it above her head, as she was aware of all things in the forest--aware the harpy eagle continued to dog her every move, high in the sky, in spite of night stirring. Instead of bothering her, the unusual presence soothed her, quieted the growing dread and the utter weariness as the jaguar plodded steadily through the maze of vegetation.

The tangle of lianas grew thicker as the jaguar padded silently through the growth, over fallen logs and through umbrella-like leaves dripping with water. She moved with complete assurance, a sea of spots flowing through heavy brush in spite of her obvious limp. The sound of water was deafening as she approached the slopes where water burst through the bank and tumbled to the river below.

As the great cat moved through the forest and the raptor floated in the sky, monkeys and birds called a warning to the peccaries, deer, tapir and paca that either predator might consider a meal. The howlers shrieked fearfully, calling to one another. A jaguar's bite could crack their skulls like a nut. Able to climb trees or swim with equal ability, she could hunt on land, in trees or in the water. The harpy eagle could easily rip prey from a branch, dropping silently from a lookout perch to snatch an unwary victim.

Ropes of muscle rippled beneath the jaguar's sleek, spotted fur. Her rosettes held more spots than those of a leopard, and her pelt was the color of both night and day shadows, allowing her to move like a silent phantom through the forest. Golden sable marked with rosettes, some considered her fur a map of the night sky and hunted her for the treasure.

She moved with nobility in spite of her obvious injury, prowling her domain, commanding respect from all the other occupants of the forest. Built for stealth and ambush, she had retractable claws and vision six times better than a human's. The animals shivered as she passed, called warnings and watched with wary eyes, but she kept climbing, skirting the thin strip of land that barely covered the top of the waterfall, knowing from past trips that the plant-covered slim bridge was a treacherous hazard waiting for the unwary to place a wrong step. She went the more circuitous route, pushing her way through the dark ropy tangle of vines and roots, into the darker interior.

Slate black feathers covered the wings and back of the harpy eagle. The white mantle was striped with the same black, and a black band collared the powerful raptor so that the gray head stood out with the double plume cresting it. The black and white striped leggings led to enormous talons nearly the size of a grizzly bear's claws. With his wings spread wide, it seemed impossible for the powerful predator to maneuver the tight passageways of the canopy, with the knotted and twisted branches and the hanging lianas, but the eagle did so with majestic ease, keeping pace with the predator on the ground.

The jaguar continued through the forest, and her limp became more pronounced as she tried easing the weight from the wounds on her left flank. Caked blood began to run with the infusion of water on her pelt, down her leg, to drip onto the forest floor. The jaguar kept the same steady pace, head down, her sides heaving as she moved with growing pain through the twisted web of roots and vines, determined to reach her goal. The sky above the canopy turned dark and the rain eventually lessened.

Bats took to the air and the forest floor came alive with millions of insects. She kept moving, weaving her way through the trees. Twice she had to take to the aerial highway, using the branches to pass over fast-moving water. She could swim, but she was exhausted and the rain had swollen the banks of even the smallest streams, so the entire forest floor seemed bursting with water. All the while, the eagle kept her company, giving her the strength to continue her journey.

She walked most of the night until she came to the first marker she recognized, a broken remnant of an ancient temple, an impressive structure in spite of the ruins joining sky, earth and the underworld together. The jaguar statue guarding the remains, made of limestone, snarled at her, eyes wide open and staring, judging her worth. Right now, exhausted and far too weary, she didn't feel very worthy.

She put her head down and slunk past the statue, for the first time dropping her chin, avoiding the staring eyes as she padded silently over the ancient stones and pushed deeper into the overgrown brush. A few more miles and the night seemed darker, the trees closer together. Vegetation coiled along every trunk and took up every available space, crowding so close it took effort to push through to the broken limestone blocks that were strewn about and half buried in the thick vegetation covering what once had been a clearing.

Trees had long since overtaken the spot where the land had been cleared to make way for a small village and farm. The corn was long gone, but the jaguar remembered it, the rows of bright green stalks lifting their heads to the sun and the rain in the midst of the surrounding forest. Squash and beans lined the rows, as her people had returned to the old ways, using the same mixture of maize, limestone powder and water for their flour as their ancestors once had done here, in this very same place.

She could feel the blood, running like the great underwater river beneath her feet, flowing, soaked permanently into the ground. Her ancestors had died here--and then, twenty years ago, her family and friends. She would forever hear the sounds of their screams, would know the terror and fear of true evil.

Overhead, the cry of the harpy eagle sent the sleeping monkeys into a wave of howling, the sound swelling through the forest, yet the noise reassured her. The eagle, lord of the sky, landed in the canopy, folded its wings and peered down at the jaguar. She acknowledged its presence with a lift of her head, peering upward into the thick canopy. It was unusual for the great predator to hunt at night, and should have been unsettling. Anything out of the ordinary in this forest where legends and nightmares came to life and walked the night made her uneasy, yet she felt a strange companionship with the bird.

The jaguar and eagle stared at one another a long time, neither blinking, neither giving ground. The jaguar studied the sky predator, vaguely wondering what it meant when a daytime hunter was moving about at night in the tapering rain. She was too weary to have much interest in the answer, and was the first to break eye contact. Here, in the ruins of two villages slaughtered, where wailing ghosts howled for revenge, was not the place to find the rest she so badly needed. She continued her journey, picking her way through the broken stones and half-buried foundations to the tall Kapok tree where the eagle perched.

Majestically the bird rose into the air, circled the Mayan ruins and dropped lower to peer at what was left of the foundations of more recent destruction. The sharp eyes examined the ground as it flew overhead, then it dipped even lower, nearly skimming the jaguar before rising abruptly, the giant wingspan taking the large raptor back into the cover of the canopy.

The jaguar felt the beat of those powerful wings as it passed so close to her. She raised her head and watched until the eagle was out of sight, her only reaction before she took to the tree, using her claws to aid her ascent. She stood for a moment looking at the empty sky, feeling absolutely and utterly alone, her sorrow a heavy burden. She couldn't afford to feel sorrow. She needed this trip to dredge up anger; no, not anger--that wasn't enough to sustain her when she was alone and exhausted and wounded. She needed a well of rage, a weapon honed by years of fighting evil, fighting for women who couldn't fight for themselves.

She found a comfortable crook in a wide limb and settled her aching body, sheltered from the endless rain, and tucked her head on her paws, looking down at the wreckage of her village. The ruins receded and she stared at the destruction of what had once been her home. The overgrown brush disappeared in her mind, and the sacred spot was no longer a blood-soaked graveyard but a place of the living with four small houses and a cornfield and vegetable garden.

At once she could hear the sound of laughter, of children playing on the cleared ground, kicking a ball around. Her younger brothers, Avery and Adam, both looked so much like her beloved stepfather. He'd been so tall and handsome, his face always smiling, lifting her high in the air and spinning her like a top, making her feel like a princess there in the midst of the rain forest. There was her best friend, Marcy, as well as Marcy's brother, Phin, a tall, serious boy who loved to read. Marcy could always get him to play their games with her winning smile and big green eyes. Their parents . . .

The jaguar blinked, trying to remember the names of Marcy and Phin's parents. How could she forget? She would never forget these people. She was the only person left to mark their existence. Agitated, she rose, her sides heaving, panting, tongue lolling as she struggled with her sluggish brain to recall the two people who had been so good to everyone in the small homestead. Annika and Joseph.

Breathing heavily, she settled once more on the branch. The third house belonged to Aunt Audrey, her mother's younger sister, with her daughters Juliette and little Jasmine, her newest cousin. She was very close to Juliette, as they were less than a year apart in age and went between the two houses all the time. The fourth structure held the majority of the children--four boys and two girls, all orphans the couple, Benet and Rachel, had taken in and parented.

They lived and worked and played deep in the forest, far from other civilizations, and they were taught to secrete themselves in nearby caverns and underground tunnels. Unfortunately the caves were often under water, and they had to be careful never to be trapped inside when the tunnels flooded. But still, every few days their parents would conduct drills, running fast, not looking back, going through water to leave no tracks.

Phin was the oldest of them, and she often followed him, peppering him with questions about the outside world and why, at times, they had to hide so quietly. He looked sad, and he'd drop his hand on the top of her head and tell her how special she was. And that they all had to watch over her.

The jaguar sighed. The rain fell down and she lifted her face, allowing the drops to wash the tears from her muzzle. It did no good to weep for the past. She couldn't change what had happened; she could only try to prevent others from feeling her pain and loss.

As she looked down on the ruins, the laughter of the children turned to screams as men poured from the jungle, and with them, great cats, claws rending and tearing, ripping out the throats of the boys. Adam and Avery were caught in the middle of the cornfield. The three of them were playing hide-and-seek and suddenly the great jaguar-men were surrounding them. They bashed in the heads of her brothers without mercy, spilling brains and blood on the ground and trampling the cornfield. She tried to run, but she was snatched up by one of the great brutes and taken into the clearing where Phin and her father fought, back-to-back, trying to prevent the men from dragging her mother from the house.

A sob welled up, a strangled wail the throat of the jaguar couldn't quite handle. She panted, her face to the sky, tears burning, mingling with the drops of the rain. Adam and Avery were gone from her, brutally thrown aside, their bodies tossed like garbage. She remembered the dizzying ride as she was tucked under an arm and rushed through the field, the corn hitting her face, blood spatter everywhere. She saw a man with a machete kill Benet and then the four boys behind his fallen body, even the youngest: little Jake, who was only two. Rachel fought them back using a gun, firing at the men to keep them away from the three little girls. One of the men used a shotgun, and Rachel lay broken and bleeding in the doorway of her house. The men trampled her body while they pulled the screaming girls from inside.

There was so much blood. So much. It ran red and then black and shiny when the moon came out. Someone started a fire, burning their homes and gardens to the ground around them. Phin turned his head and looked directly at her as one of the jaguar-men thrust a knife into his kidney. They stared at one another, his mouth open in a silent scream, matching her mouth. Her captor threw her on the ground beside Phin's crumpling body and she watched in horror as the life drained out of his eyes.

Her stepfather fought valiantly, trying to protect her mother. She lost track of the stab wounds in his chest and back. A great big man cut his throat, ending the fight, and her mother was dragged from the house by the same man, the blood of her husband covering his hands. He hit her mother repeatedly in the face and shoved her at the men before going to each body to make sure no man or male child remained alive. And then he turned toward the girls.

Inside the jaguar, her heart pounded, and she tasted fear and the beginnings of rage. Rage. She reached for it. Needed it. Tried desperately to let it pool inside her as the horrible man caught her thick mane of hair and dragged her across the blood and into the house where they brought each of the young girls.

They must have scouted the small village because the men went looking for Audrey, Juliette and Jasmine. Thankfully, the three were gone, off getting supplies, hiking to the river to meet the supply boat when the attackers had struck. Their attackers were jaguar- men--shapeshifters looking for women who could still shift into animal form. So many had done as her mother had done, found a human man who would stay and love them-- raise a family with them. But that had weakened the shapeshifter species, and now fewer and fewer females could provide a shifter. Some of the men, led by a rare black jaguar, had begun forcing the women into servitude, essentially using them as breeders. Any children not capable of shifting were purged.

Solange Sangria stared down at the ground soaked with the blood of her ancestors--and the blood of her family. She could only return here in the form of the jaguar, unable to face the loss in human form. She could weep, with the rain soaking her face and her heart shredded, remembering looking into the eyes of that great black beast, great yellow-green eyes weighing her worth. Her father-- Brodrick the Terrible. The man who had forcefully mated her mother because of her pure blood and then, when she escaped, had relentlessly hunted her. He had finally found her and slaughtered her husband and sons and the rest of those residing in their small village, children of parents he deemed unfit to walk the earth.

She would forever remember that unblinking stare. Cold. Ruthless. A man who should have loved her as his daughter, but who only saw her worth if she could successfully breed a shapeshifter.

The girls had been tied down and then the torture began. One by one. The girls were forced to watch as each was slashed with small cuts and then larger ones, over and over, in an effort to provoke a jaguar into emerging to protect the child. One by one, when no cat emerged, in front of the others, the leader--her father--declared them worthless. The girl was murdered and her body thrown out of the house into the clearing with the others.

Then it was her turn--the last girl. The man who had sired her worked on her meticulously, using a large blade, his icy fury growing as he tried to provoke her cat into revealing itself. The pain was excruciating. He slashed her legs until she bled, until her mother pleaded and struggled and finally shifted into the form of a female jaguar only to be knocked out and restrained by the men. They'd taken her mother away, leaving Solange facing her steely eyed, merciless father. He was called Brodrick the Terrible for a reason.

He had spent hours torturing her, certain she could shift, as both her mother and he were from the most powerful line of jaguar-men. A lineage revered by the others. She had steadfastly hidden her cat from him, obeying her mother, knowing her father was evil. To survive the pain she had filled her young mind with childish thoughts of revenge. She lay for hours--days. The nights and days ran together, and the man who had fathered her had been patient, uncaring of her discomfort, making tiny cuts into her skin, poking, as if with his knife he could peel back her human skin and find her jaguar form.

She had said nothing. In the end, she hadn't cried. Not even when he grabbed her matted, bloody hair and threw her from the bed to the floor, shaking his head in disgust. "A child I sired and she's no good to anyone," he pronounced. "Truly worthless."

She saw the great claw coming at her throat to tear her open, and she hadn't flinched, hadn't tried to move out of the way, staring straight into his eyes defiantly. She would never forget the horrific pain tearing through her, the blood gushing as he tossed her body carelessly aside to lie among the dead on the blood-soaked ground.

Solange had no idea how long she lay unconscious, but when she woke, it was daylight. She was thirsty and every bone in her body felt as if it had been broken. The jaguar-men were gone and all around her were the bodies of her friends and family. She stumbled to her feet and wandered through what looked like a slaughterhouse. The ground was red and damp, and already insects swarmed over the bodies.

She had no idea why she was still alive when her throat gaped open and blood clotted, sticky and wet. She went to each body, trying to awaken them, an eight-year-old girl alone in the forest with everyone she knew and loved dead--slaughtered. Thirst drove her to the sinkhole where the underground river beneath the limestone ran. She drank and once again lay down to allow the darkness to take her. She woke to the sounds of screaming. Her heart slammed hard in her chest and terror held her frozen. Had they returned? That horrible man with his cold, dead eyes judging her worthless?

Aunt Audrey burst through the jungle, Juliette at her side, following the blood trail to the sinkhole. Tears ran down Audrey's face and Jasmine cried in her arms. She fell to her knees beside Solange, pulling her niece into her embrace, and the four of them wept endlessly for everyone they loved. The jaguar stretched, easing her weight from the injured leg, blinking while her eyes ached and her heart twisted with terrible pain. So many more deaths she couldn't prevent, and she was so tired. So very tired. How did one keep hate alive? And how could she continue to fuel the rage so that she could continue with her mission? Most of all, how did one remain completely, utterly alone?

Her cousin Jasmine was pregnant, and Juliette was mated to a Carpathian male. She might say those men were the scourge of the earth, but in truth, she was happy for Juliette. And Jasmine was now in their care. She loved Juliette and Jasmine as sisters and didn't want this life for them, yet someone had to rescue women from the monsters preying on them in the forest.

She rested her muzzle on her paws and allowed her eyes to close, summoning her only companion. A myth. A dream. Juliette and Jasmine would laugh if they knew how man- hating Solange really survived the terrors of her life. She reached for her dream lover, the one man who got her through every horrific event. And God knew, tonight she needed him desperately. She reached in her mind, knowing the dream so intimately now. His voice first--so gentle and compelling. How many nights had he sung her to sleep? She loved his song, that haunting melody she would never forget as long as she lived.

The Amazon was a place where legends and myths came to life, where reality and dream met. Where sky, earth and the underworld were joined by the great temples of her ancestors. Throughout history, the shamans had revered the spirit of the jaguar, knowing the shifters hunted as both man and animal, day or night, taking command of the unknown. Long ago, when she was deep in a limestone cave, her wounds severe, hopes fading, she had conjured up a companion--a legend come to life in her mind. Maybe she'd been delirious, and maybe, like now when she needed him, she still was.

He had to be a warrior, of course. She needed to be able to respect him. She'd dreamt of him, sometimes at night, sometimes during the day, slowly allowing him to take shape in her mind. He was tall, with flowing black hair, broad shoulders, strong arms and a man's face. He'd fought many battles and, like her, was weary of being alone, but knew he would only have her in his dreams. He would come to her after his battles and he would lay down his arms and find solace in her.

She could never quite decide on the color of his eyes. She loved making them intensely blue, but then at times they would be like the green of the emerald. She was always fascinated by her dream lover's eyes. Never the same, always unpredictable, they mirrored the mystery of the man. He had a poet's soul. He was very gentle, his voice mesmerizing, melodic and quite beautiful. He often sang her to sleep when pain clouded her mind and she lay alone in the dark with her heart pounding and the taste of fear in her mouth.

She dared not dream of him when she was in human form, or around anyone else. He was hers alone, and she needed to protect him, so she only allowed him to invade her dreams when she was in the shape of a jaguar. Deep inside the animal's body, she couldn't murmur aloud where another might hear of him. He was her secret weakness--or strength--however she was in the mood to view her dream life.

She made certain he had all the attributes of a noble man, someone like her stepfather, who took on a wife and child and loved them with everything in him. She'd never been treated differently by him, not even when his sons were born. He'd loved her and treated her like a princess, even spoiled her. She'd loved him so much, and if she ever had a man of her own, which she knew was impossible, he would have to have that generous, loyal, giving spirit.

Some small part of her smiled. She'd given those attributes to her dream man. And she needed him now, when the past was too close and everything had gone so wrong. When she'd failed and a woman had died.

I need you. Come to me tonight. I'm so tired. I couldn't save the woman before they got to her and she killed herself, threw herself into the river. I tracked them for four weeks and fought to get her back, but I was too late. Sometimes it feels like I'm always too late.

She visualized him, building him inch by inch in her mind. The strong thighs, narrow waist and burning eyes, very green tonight. Lately, when she'd called him to her, he bore new scars, a strange thing in a dream where she was the conjurer and yet she couldn't remember attributing new scars to him. A few burn marks on the left side of his face and neck, spreading down his shoulder, worsening along his arm. Maybe, because she'd sustained wounds, her dream lover did as well.

She chose a limestone cave deep beneath the ground to meet him--a safe place where the jaguar-men wouldn't be able to find them even if they were searching. She pulled the cozy cavern, a place she often chose in which to recuperate, from her memory, and added a warm fire and a few soft chairs. In her dream, she could afford to be feminine, although she wasn't beautiful like Juliette or Jasmine; her body bore too many scars and she'd long ago forgotten how to smile--unless she was with him. Even though she wanted to see herself as beautiful in her dream world, it was impossible. She couldn't imagine smooth, flawless skin or a willowy body.

The nice part about her dream man was he didn't mind that she wasn't perfect or not feminine enough. He didn't mind that she sometimes wept, or showed to him what she couldn't show to the rest of the world. And he would never betray her, never disappoint her; she could whisper her deepest fears and worst secrets and he would still accept her. He knew things about her no one else did.

She pictured the cavern, the Mayan artwork decorating the walls, stories of lives long gone, a world in the distant past where the moon and stars were close and jaguars walked the night upright--men to respect and revere, not shun and despise. A much happier time. She couldn't imagine herself in a dress, a soft feminine outfit like Juliette often wore, but she made certain she appeared as nice as she could. Her favorite top, soft and clingy, which sometimes made her feel a bit of a fool. She never wore it in public, not even around her cousins, but when she wanted to feel feminine and maybe a little pretty, she put it on--just for a moment.

Of course she wore jeans, never a full skirt, because he'd see the scars up and down her legs. She knew he wouldn't care, but she wanted to appear her best for him. She'd considered trying earrings, and once, MaryAnn, a woman she knew and admired, had painted her nails, which for some strange reason made her feel more feminine, yet she was too embarrassed to try to conjure that detail up in her dreams as well.

She sat by the fire, barefoot, looking as nice as she could, her heart pounding, waiting for him. It was silly really, that she had so much invested in a man who wasn't real, but she had no one else. She ran a hand through her thick mane of hair. It was more the color of the dark rosettes in the jaguar's fur than the golden tawny color of her pelt. Almost a sable, it was nearly unmanageable the way it grew.

There wasn't much time left. It was impossible to keep fighting and not end up dead. A few more inches and her latest wound would have killed her. And life in the jaguar camp was far worse than dying. If they succeeded in their attempts to capture her--and they knew her now and were actively seeking her--she would find a way to take her own life.

Do not say that. Do not even think it. I would come to you. Sustain you. And I would find a way to free you.

The jaguar closed her eyes tighter, as if that could keep him with her. She saw him coming toward her, emerging out of the shadows thrown by the edges of the fire. She loved the way he moved, that sure confidence, those long strides. He was always like that, so confident in himself that he never raised his voice or appeared to be upset, even when he was reprimanding her for cowardice.

Not cowardice, he objected, flowing across the room with his usual grace until he loomed in front of her, towering over her, making her feel small and feminine instead of an Amazon woman. She wasn't tall by any means; she was compact, certainly not fashionably slender. It was a strange thing to have such complete and utter confidence in herself as a warrior, and yet none at all as a woman.

You are tired, csitri , that is all. Come lie down in my arms and let me hold you while you rest. But first, I must see to your injury.

He had often called her csitri, his tongue caressing the word. She had no idea what it meant, but that single word made a swarm of butterflies take flight in her stomach. She stared up at him, afraid to move or blink, terrified he would disappear, that her perfect dream would shatter. She didn't want him to see her injury. In her dream she wasn't supposed to have an injury. She'd always been able to control her dream, but lately, reality had crept in a little too much.

He gripped her chin in his hand and turned her face toward the light of the flickering fire, a small frown settling over his rugged features. Your face is bruised.

Those bruises shouldn't have been there. What was wrong that she couldn't keep her wounds out of her dreams anymore? Was she that tired? Reading her thoughts, as he always did, her warrior swept her hair from her face with gentle fingers.

You never say my name. Even as he pushed the words into her mind, his fingers moved to the bruises.

At once Solange felt the ache in her bruised face recede. She hesitated. How to explain without hurting his feelings. This is a dream. I made you up. I don't have a name for you that feels right.

He smiled at her, his eyes now very, very blue. Have you ever considered that maybe I made you up? That you are my dream?

She would love to be someone's dream, but doubted seriously if that would ever be so. In real life she was abrasive, her only protection when she felt too much. Sometimes it seemed as if she went around with her heart shredded all the time. Somehow I think someone like you could have come up with a better dream.

Someone like me? I am a warrior who has spent a thousand years looking for my lifemate. I know exactly who she is and what qualities she has.

Solange sighed. This conversation skated too close to having to admit her shortcomings. She didn't want to remind him of all the times she whined about being alone and afraid and tired. I made you Carpathian. I didn't mean to, you know. I respect Juliette and MaryAnn's husbands.

Lifemate, he corrected gently. When we are bound, soul to soul, we are called lifemates. That binding goes from one life to the next.

She smiled at him and sank down beside the fire. He filled the cavern with his masculine strength. That's a beautiful concept. Juliette is very happy with Riordan, her lifemate. He's bossy, but really, after watching them, I can see he does everything to make her happy.

As I would you. I have waited too many years, csitri, and my time on this earth draws to an end. I have ingested vampire blood in the hopes of entering the camp of our greatest enemy and spying on them. I will be unable to come to you. Already the blood is consuming me, perhaps faster than I believed it could. I will have only a few risings to complete my task before I must seek the dawn, or go down fighting. I could not find you in this life, but hold hope for the next.

Her heart nearly stopped beating. Panic set in. Full-blown panic. Dreams didn't end like this. Nightmares did. He wasn't real, but he was the only reality for her when life closed in and she had nowhere else to go. She'd fallen in love with him, as silly as that sounded. This man with his warrior's scars, the face of an angel and demon, all in one, this man with the soul of a poet.

No. I refuse to let you go. I won't. You're all I have. You can't leave me alone.

He touched her hair, rubbing the silky strands between his fingers. Believe me, little one, I would prefer to stay with you in our dream world. You have so many times gotten me through moments I found not a little troubling. But I have a duty to my people.

Her throat clogged with unexpected tears. If I am the lifemate you talk of, isn't your first duty to me?

His smile was sad. Had you truly been my lifemate, when I heard your voice, you would have restored colors and emotions to me.

You're feeling sad. I can see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice.

Merely a trick, csitri . I wish for these emotions and draw from memories. You have sustained me these last few years, and I thank you for that.

No! I won't give you up. It was selfish of her. He had a right to his nobility and sacrifice. Hadn't she sacrificed her entire life for the women of her species? But to give him to the vampires . . .

In desperation, without truly thinking her decision through, Solange shifted, right there in the crook of the Kapok tree, and, clinging to the branch, called out to the only man who mattered to her. Solange Sangria, the woman who had never needed--or wanted--any man, of royal blood, powerful in her own right. A warrior renowned and feared.

In her human form, in her own voice, born of desperation and need, terrified that her dream lover might be real and going into danger to sacrifice his life for his people, she lifted her voice to the heavens, allowed the skies to carry it far and wide. She humbled herself before the forest dwellers to save him--to save herself.

"Don't leave me!" The cry was torn from her throat, from her soul, her anguish spilling like the blood of her family onto the ground where everyone she loved had been slaughtered and she'd been left alone--the last hope of justice for the women and children of her species.

The sound of her voice lifted the birds from the canopy and spread through the forest like the wind, filling every empty space, her sorrow so acute the very trees shivered and the animals wept with the rain.


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