“So, there’s an out clause?” Jehan’s brows rose in surprise. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all night.”

His brother released a frustrated-sounding breath. “I don’t know why I’m bothering to explain any of this to you. The terms will be spelled out in detail at the ceremony tomorrow night.”

The ceremony Jehan had no intention of attending.

Marcel parked in front of the opulent estate and killed the engine. The Aventador’s scissor doors lifted upward and the two Breed males climbed out.

As they began to ascend the wide, polished stone steps leading to the Darkhaven’s entrance, Jehan asked, “Who’s the next pair in line after Seraphina and me?”

“That would be the Breedmate next nearest the age of thirty in the Sanhaja family, and the unmated eldest son of the second-eldest Breed male in our line. You remember our cousin, Fariq.”

Jehan mentally recoiled. “Fariq, who prided himself on his collection of dead insects and snakes as a boy?”

Marcel chuckled. “He’s not nicknamed Renfield for nothing.”

And Jehan couldn’t help but feel guilty that his refusal of the pact would mean some unfortunate Breedmate would eventually have to spend eight nights alone with the repulsive male.

But he didn’t feel guilty enough to let the farce continue. He had to halt the whole thing before it went any further.

“Father’s waiting for you in his study,” Marcel told him as they reached the top. “Everyone else is in the main salon, where the formal introductions will be made.”

Alarm shot through him at that last announcement. Jehan grabbed his brother’s muscled arm. “Everyone else?”

“Mother and the Sanhajas. And Seraphina, of course.”

Ah, fuck. If he thought this was bad enough before he stepped off the plane tonight, the situation had just nose-dived into a disaster zone. “They’re here right now? All of them?”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you. Everything is already in motion and ready to begin. We were only waiting for you to arrive, brother.”

CHAPTER 3

The sound of deep male voices carried from the foyer. Until that moment, the small gathering inside the Darkhaven’s elegant salon had been engaged in pleasant chatter about the weather and a dozen other light subjects. But at the low rumble of muffled conversation somewhere outside the gilded walls, a palpable spike of anticipation pierced the atmosphere in the room.

“Ah, my sons have finally arrived.” Beautiful and poised, Simone Mafakhir smiled from her seat on a silk divan, her sky blue eyes lit with excitement. “I know Jehan will be delighted to meet you, Seraphina.”

Sera’s mouth was suddenly too dry to speak, but she gave a polite nod and returned the brunette Breedmate’s warm smile.

“Seraphina’s talked of little else all day,” her mother said, giving Sera’s hand a pat from her seat beside her on a velvet sofa opposite Simone. “She’s been full of curiosity about Jehan ever since she arrived back home this morning.”

On the other side of Sera, her blonde, twenty-two-year-old sister, Leila, barely stifled a giggle.

It was true. Sera had been full of questions since she’d been called home by her parents. She still didn’t know much about Jehan, other than the fact that he’d flown in tonight from Rome, where he’d been living for many years. And that he’d come because he had been summoned to fulfill his role in the ancient handfasting pact that had existed between their families for half a dozen centuries.

The same as she had.

That is, if she managed to make it through the evening without bolting for the nearest escape.

She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead, which had gone suddenly clammy. Her heart was racing, and her lungs felt as if they were suddenly caught in a vise.

She stood up, not quite steady on the high heels she wasn’t accustomed to wearing. The flouncy, blush-pink dress she’d borrowed from Leila on her sister’s insistence swayed around her knees as she wobbled, lightheaded and fighting the wave of nausea that rose up on her.

“Would it be possible to, um...freshen up for a moment?”

“Yes, of course,” Simone replied. “There’s a powder room just down the hall.”

Her parents both looked at her in genuine concern. “Are you all right, darling?” her mother asked.

“Yes.” Sera gave them a weak nod that only made her wooziness worse. “I’m fine, really.”

She just needed to get the hell out of there before she passed out or threw up.

Leila stood and grabbed her elbow. “I’ll go with you.”

They hurried out of the room together, Sera practically leaving her sister in her wake. Once safely enclosed in the large powder room, Sera sagged against the back of the door.

“What on earth is wrong with you?” Leila whispered.

Sera swallowed back a building scream. “I can’t do this. I thought maybe I could—for our parents, since it’s obviously so important to them—but I can’t. I mean, this whole situation...the pact, the handfasting? It’s insane, right? I never should have agreed to any of this.”

It was all happening too quickly. Yesterday morning, an e-mail from her parents had reached her at the remote outpost where she’d been working. The message had been short and cryptic, telling her that she was needed at home immediately.

Terrified with concern, she’d dropped everything and raced back—only to learn that the emergency requiring her presence was a musty old agreement that would send her away with a complete stranger. A Breed male who may not understand or care that her carotid wasn’t up for grabs, regardless of what the pact between their families might imply.

Oh, God. Her stomach started to spin again. She pressed her hand to her abdomen and took a steadying breath.

She paced the cramped powder room, her voice beginning to rise. “I need to get out of here. I can’t do this, Leila. I must’ve been out of my mind for even considering coming here tonight.”

Her sister stared at her patiently, her soft green eyes sympathetic as she let Sera vent. “You’re just nervous. I would be too. But I don’t think you’re crazy for being here. And I don’t think the agreement between our families is insane, either.” She swept a blonde tendril behind her ear and shrugged. “It’s endured all these years for a reason. Actually, I think it’s kind of romantic.”

“Romantic?” Sera scoffed. “What’s romantic about a truce struck after years of bloodshed resulting from the kidnap of a virgin Breedmate from our tribe by a barbarian Breed male from theirs six-hundred years ago?”

Leila let out a sigh. “Things were different back then. And it’s romantic because they fell in love.”

Sera arched her brows in challenge. “Tragic, because despite their blood bond, they both died in the end and set off a long, violent war.”

Sera knew the whole, tragic story as well as her sister did. It was practically legend in the Sanhaja family. And if she was being honest, there was a part of her that ached for that long-dead couple and their doomed love.

But it didn’t change the fact that centuries later, here she was, standing in a locked bathroom in a borrowed dress and high-heeled sandals, while just down the hall, a Breed male she’d never even met before was expecting her to go away with him for eight long nights—all in their parents’ shared hopes that they might come back madly in love and bound by blood for eternity.

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