They pivoted to leave the alley together—only to find they were no longer alone there.

Another Breed male stood at the mouth of the narrow passage. Dark-eyed, with a trimmed black beard around the grim line of his mouth, the vampire was dressed in a black silk tunic over loose black pants tucked into gleaming black leather boots that rose nearly to his knees.

The only color he wore was a striped sash of vibrant, saffron-and-cerulean silk tied loosely around his waist. Family colors. Formal colors, reserved for the solemnest of old traditions.

Jehan couldn’t bite back his low, uttered curse.

Beside him in the alleyway, Savage moved his fingers toward his array of weapons.

“It’s all right.” Jehan stayed his comrade’s hand with a pointed shake of his head. “Naveen is my father’s emissary.”

In response, the dark-haired male inclined his head. “Greetings, Prince Jehan, noble eldest son of Rahim, the just and honorable king of the Mafakhir tribe.”

The courtly bow that followed set Jehan’s teeth and fangs on edge almost as much as his official address. From within the folds of his tunic, Naveen withdrew a sealed piece of parchment. The royal messenger held it out to Jehan in sober, expectant silence.

A stamped, red wax seal rode the back of the official missive...just like the one Jehan had received in this same manner a year ago.

A year and a day ago, he mentally amended.

For a moment, Jehan just stood there, unmoving.

But he knew Naveen had been sent with specific orders to deliver the sealed message, and it would dishonor the male deeply if he failed in that mission.

Jehan stepped forward and took the stiff, folded parchment from Naveen’s outstretched hand. As soon as it was in Jehan’s possession, the royal messenger pivoted and strode back into the darkness without another word.

In the silence that followed, Savage gaped. “What the fuck was that all about?”

“Family business. It’s not important.” Jehan slipped the document into the waistband of his pants without opening it.

“It sure as hell looked important to that guy.” When Jehan started walking out of the alley, Sav matched his clipped pace. “What is it? Some kind of royal subpoena?”

Jehan grunted. “Something like that.”

“Aren’t you going to read it?”

Jehan shrugged. “There’s no need. I know what it says.”

Sav arched a blond brow. “Yeah, but I don’t.”

To satisfy his friend’s curiosity, Jehan retrieved the sealed message and passed it over to him. “Go ahead.”

Sav broke the seal and unfolded the parchment, reading as he and Jehan turned down another narrow street. “It says someone died. A mated couple, killed together in a plane crash a year ago.”

Jehan nodded grimly, already well aware of the couple’s tragic demise. News of their deaths had been the reason for the first official notice he’d received from his father.

Savage read on. “This says the couple—a Breed male from the Mafakhir tribe and a Breedmate from another tribe, the Sanhaja, had been blood-bonded as part of a peace pact between the families.”

Jehan grunted in acknowledgment. The pact had been in place for centuries, the result of an unfortunate chain of events that had spawned a bloody conflict between his family and their closest neighbors, the Sanhajas. After enough blood had been spilled on both sides, a truce was finally declared. A truce that was cemented with blood spilled by another means.

An eternal bond, shared between a male from Jehan’s line and a Breedmate from the rival tribe.

So long as the two families were bound together by blood, there had been peace. The pact had never been broken. The couple who perished in the plane crash had been the sole link between the families in the modern age. With their deaths, the pact was in limbo until a new couple came together to revive the bond.

Savage had apparently just gotten to the part of the message Jehan had been dreading for the past twelve months. “It says here that in accordance with the terms of that pact, if the blood bond is severed and no other couple elects to carry it forward within the term of a year and a day, then the eldest unmated son of the eldest Breed male of the Mafakhir tribe and the unmated Breedmate nearest the age of thirty from the Sanhaja tribe shall...”

Sav’s long stride began to slow, then it stopped altogether. He swiveled his head in Jehan’s direction. “Holy shit. Are you kidding me? You’re being drafted to go home to Morocco and take a mate?”

A scowl furrowed deep into his brow at the very thought. “According to ritual, I am.”

His comrade let out a bark of a laugh. “Well, shit. Congratulations, Your Highness. This is one lottery I’m happy as hell I won’t be winning.”

Jehan grumbled a curse in reply. Although he didn’t find much humor in the situation, his friend seemed annoyingly amused.

Sav was still chuckling as they resumed their march up the alleyway. “When is this joyous occasion supposed to take place?”

“Tomorrow,” Jehan muttered.

There was a period of handfasting with the female in question, but the details of the whole process were murky. In truth, he’d never paid much attention to the fine print of the pact because he hadn’t imagined there would be a need to know.

He didn’t really expect he needed to understand it now either, as he had no intention of participating in the antiquated exercise. But like it or not, he respected his father too much to disgrace him or the family by refusing to respond to their summons.

So it seemed he had little choice but to return to the family Darkhaven in Morocco and deliver his regrets in person.

He could only hope his father might respect his prodigal eldest son enough to free him from this ridiculous obligation and the unwanted shackle that awaited him at the end of it.

CHAPTER 2

Eighteen hours later and fresh off his flight to Casablanca, Jehan sat in the passenger seat of his younger brother’s glossy black Lamborghini as it sped toward the Mafakhir family Darkhaven about an hour outside the city.

“Father didn’t think you’d come.” Marcel glanced at Jehan briefly, his forearm slung casually over the steering wheel as the sleek Aventador ate up the moonlit stretch of highway, prowling past other vehicles as if they were standing still. “I have to admit, I wasn’t sure you’d actually show up either. Only Mother seemed confident you wouldn’t just tear up the message and send it back home with Naveen as confetti.”

“I didn’t realize that was an option.”

“Very funny,” Marcel replied with another sidelong look.

Jehan turned his attention to the darkened desert landscape outside the window. He’d been questioning his sanity in answering the family summons even before he’d left Rome.

His Order team commander, Lazaro Archer, hadn’t been enthused to hear about the obligation either, especially when things were heating up against Opus Nostrum and a hundred other pressing concerns. Jehan had assured Lazaro that the unplanned leave was merely a formality and that he’d be back on patrol as quickly as possible—without the burden of an unwanted Breedmate in tow.

Marcel maneuvered around a small convoy of humanitarian supply trucks, no doubt on their way to one of the many remote villages or refugee camps that had existed in this part of the world for centuries. Once the road opened up, he buried the gas pedal again.

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