If only they were heading away from the family compound at breakneck speed, rather than toward it.

“Mother’s had the entire Darkhaven buzzing with plans and arrangements ever since you called last night.” Marcel spoke over the deep snarl of the engine. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen her so excited.”

Jehan groaned. “I’m here, but that doesn’t mean I intend to go through with any of this.”

“What?” Jehan looked over and found his only sibling’s face slack with incredulity. His light blue eyes, so like Jehan’s own—a color inherited from their French beauty of a mother—were wide under Marcel’s tousled crown of brown waves. “You have to go through with it. There’s no blood bond between the Mafakhirs and the Sanhajas anymore. Not since our cousin and his Breedmate died a year ago.”

When Jehan didn’t immediately acknowledge the severity of the problem, his brother frowned. “If a year and a day should pass without a natural mating occurring between the families, the terms of the pact specifically state—”

“I know what they state. I also know those terms were written up during a very different time. We don’t live in the Middle Ages anymore.” And thank fuck for that, he mentally amended. “The pact is a relic that needs to be retired. Hopefully it won’t take too much convincing to make our father understand that.”

Marcel went quiet as they veered off the highway and set a course for the rambling stretch of desert acreage that comprised their family’s Darkhaven property. In a few short minutes, they turned onto the private road.

The family lands were lush and expansive. Thick clusters of palm trees spiked black against the night sky, small oases amid the vast spread of dark, silken sand. Up ahead was the iron gate and tall brick perimeter wall that secured the massive compound where Jehan had grown up.

Even before they approached the luxurious Darkhaven, his feet twitched inside his boots with the urge to run.

While they paused outside the gate and waited to be admitted inside, Marcel pivoted in his seat toward Jehan. His youthful, twenty-four-year-old face was solemn. “The pact has never been broken. You know that, right? Not once in all of the six-and-a-half centuries it’s been in place. It’s not a relic. It’s tradition. That kind of thing may not be sacred to you, but it is to our parents. It’s sacred to the Sanhajas too.”

His brother was so earnest, maybe there was another way to dodge this bullet. “If you feel that strongly about it, why don’t you pick up the torch instead? Take my place and I can turn around right now and go back to my work with the Order.”

“Ohh, no.” He vigorously shook his head. “Even if I wanted to—which I don’t—without another mated couple occurring naturally between our families, the pact calls for the eldest son of the eldest male of our line. That means you. Besides, there are worse fates. Seraphina Sanhaja is a gorgeous woman.”

Seraphina. It was the first time he’d heard the name of his intended. A silken, exotic name. Just the sound of it made Jehan’s blood course a bit hotter in his veins. He dismissed the sensation with a sharp sigh as he stared at his brother. He couldn’t deny that a part of him was intrigued to know more. “You’ve seen her?”

Marcel nodded. “She and her sister, Leila, are both stunning.”

Not surprising, considering they were Breedmates. Although they didn’t have the vampiric traits of Jehan’s kind, the half-human, half-Atlantean females called Breedmates were flawless beauties without exception. His Paris-born mother was testament to that. As was Lazaro Archer’s flame-haired Breedmate back in Rome, Melena.

“So, what’s wrong with her, then?” Jehan murmured. “Let me guess. She’s a miserable, bickering shrew? Or is it worse, a meek little mouse who’s afraid of her own shadow?”

“She’s neither.” Marcel grinned as he eased the Lamborghini through the opened gates. “She’s lovely, Jehan. You’ll see for yourself soon enough.”

“Not if I have anything to say about that.” Crossing his arms, he sat back in the buttery soft leather seat. “I have a return flight to Rome tomorrow. I figure that gives me plenty of time to convey my regrets to our parents and get the hell out of here.”

“You can’t do that. Everything is already in motion. I told you, arrangements were made right after you called.”

Jehan cursed under his breath. “If I’d realized our parents would charge forward without asking me, I could’ve saved everyone the effort. I should’ve told them over the phone that I wasn’t interested in any of this and stayed put in Rome. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that now. Whatever arrangements have been made will need to be canceled.”

“I don’t think you understand, brother.” Marcel slowed the car as they rolled onto the half-moon drive of the Darkhaven’s impressive arched entrance. “The handfast begins tomorrow. Which means the families assemble for the official meet-and-greet tonight. There will be formal introductions, followed by the traditional garden walk at midnight, and the turning of the hourglass to mark the celebratory commencement and the start of the handfast period.”

Jehan’s unfamiliarity with the process must have been as apparent as his disinterest. Marcel frowned at him. “You don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, do you? For fuck’s sake, the pact’s been in place for centuries, but you never took the time to study the terms?”

“I’ve been busy.”

Marcel’s lips quirked at the droll reply, but it was clear that he took the pact seriously. Apparently everyone did, aside from Jehan.

For an instant, he felt a pang of loss for his absence all these years. It had been his choice to leave, his choice to make his own way in the world instead of being satisfied with the privileged, if stifling, one he’d been handed at birth. He’d yearned more for adventure than tradition, and supposed he always would.

“So, this handfast entails what, exactly?”

“A period of eight nights, spent together in seclusion. No visitors, no communication with the outside world in any form. Just the two of you, alone at the oasis retreat on the border of our lands and the Sanhajas’.”

“In other words, imprisonment for a week and a day with a female who may or may not be a willing party to this whole forced seduction ritual. Followed by what—a public blood bond encouraged at sword point?”

“Forced seduction? Public blood bond?” Marcel gaped at him as if he’d lost his mind. “The handfast is all about consent, Jehan. Touch Seraphina against her wishes and her family has the right to take your head. Drink her blood without her permission and no one would balk if the Sanhajas took out their revenge on the entire Mafakhir tribe. This is serious shit.”

Not to mention, archaic. Even though he had no plans to touch Seraphina Sanhaja or any other female who wasn’t of his own choosing, Jehan’s curiosity was piqued. “I thought the whole point of the pact was to seal the peace between our two families with a blood bond.”

“It is,” Marcel said. “But only if the handfast is successful.”

“Meaning?”

“There has to be a mutual agreement. There has to be love. If there’s no desire to bond as a mated couple at the end of the handfast, the couple is free to go their separate ways and the pact then moves on to the next pair in line.”

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