The blonde was lovely, as Marcel had assured him. But her reserved, darker-haired sister was something far more than that.

Blessed with the figure of a goddess and the face of an angel, when she appeared in the doorway, Jehan could barely keep from gaping. He glanced briefly to his brother and met Marcel’s I-told-you-so grin.

Damn.

Seraphina Sanhaja was, in a word, extraordinary.

Framed by a mane of cascading brown curls, a pair of long-lashed eyes the color of rich sandalwood flecked with gold lifted to meet Jehan’s arrested gaze. Her face was heart-shaped and delicate, an exotic artistry of fine bones and smooth, sun-kissed olive skin that glowed with rising pink color as she stared at him.

How this stunning woman had managed to get past the age of twenty without some other Breed male locking her into a blood bond, Jehan couldn’t even imagine.

His pulse stirred at the sight of her, sending heat into his veins. Even though he wasn’t in the market for a mate, as a hot-blooded Breed male, it was impossible to deny his body’s intense reaction to the female. He drew in a slow breath, his acute senses taking in the cinnamon-sweet scent of her and the subtle uptick of her heartbeat as he held her in his unblinking gaze.

For a moment, he was sorry he didn’t have any use for tribal laws or ancient pacts that would put Seraphina Sanhaja in his company—better yet, in his bed—for the next eight nights.

Her sister tugged her forward on a light giggle. “Isn’t this exciting?”

Where Leila crackled with unbridled enthusiasm, Seraphina was nearly impossible to read. Her lush lips pursed a bit as she made a silent study of him, her expression carefully schooled, inscrutable.

Standing before him, she was reticent and aloof.

Assessing and...unimpressed?

Jehan’s brows lifted. He didn’t want to admit the jab his ego took at her apparent lack of interest in him. With his thick, shoulder-length dark hair, tawny skin and light blue eyes, he’d never been at a loss for female attention.

Oh, hell. What did he care if she didn’t like what she saw? The week ahead was going to pass a hell of a lot faster if he didn’t have to spend it with a blushing, eyelash-batting Breedmate who couldn’t wait to surrender her carotid to him.

Jehan stared her down ruthlessly as the formal introductions were made.

He was still trying to figure her out after what seemed like endless polite, if awkward conversation in the salon. Their parents made pleasant small talk together. Marcel and Leila fell into easy chatter about books and music and current events, both of them clearly striving to bring Jehan and Seraphina into the discussion.

It wasn’t working.

Jehan’s thoughts were back with his team in Rome. When he’d spoken earlier tonight with Lazaro Archer, he’d learned that rumors were circulating about Opus Nostrum moving weapons across Europe and possibly into Africa.

Even though he was only going to be delayed from his missions with the Order for a week, he already itched to be suited up in his patrol gear and weapons, not stuffed into the white button-down, dark trousers, and gleaming black dress shoes he’d worn from the airport.

As for Seraphina, Jehan got the feeling she was only seconds away from making a break for the nearest exit.

The otherwise cool and collected female jumped when the clock struck twelve. Smiled wanly as her mother erupted into excited applause.

“It’s time!” Amina Sanhaja crowed from across the room. “Go on now, you two. Go on!”

As their families began to urge them out of the salon together, Jehan slanted a questioning look on Seraphina.

“The midnight garden stroll,” she murmured under her breath, the first thing she’d said to him directly all night. She stared at him as if annoyed that she needed to explain. “It’s part of the tradition.”

Ah, right. Marcel had mentioned something about that in the car when Jehan was only half-listening. He’d much rather watch Seraphina’s mouth explaining it to him again.

She softly cleared her throat. “At midnight, we’re supposed to walk together privately to mark the turning of the hourglass and the beginning of our—”

“Sentence?” he prompted wryly.

Surprise arched her fine brows.

Jehan smirked and gestured for her to walk ahead of him. “Please, after you.”

With their parents and siblings crowding the salon doorway behind them, he and Seraphina left the room and headed down the hallway, toward a pair of arched glass doors leading out to the moonlit gardens behind the Darkhaven estate.

The night was cool and crisp in the desert, and infinitely dark. Above them stars glittered and a half-moon glowed milky white against an endless black velvet sky.

It might have been romantic, if the woman walking alongside him didn’t take each delicate step as if she was being led to the gallows. She glanced behind them for about the sixth time in as many minutes.

“Are they still there?” Jehan asked.

“Yes,” she said. “All of them are standing in front of the glass, watching us.”

He could fix that. “Come with me.”

Taking her elbow in a loose hold, he ducked off the main garden path with her to one of the many winding paths that crisscrossed the manicured topiary and flowering, fragrant hedges.

The sweet perfume of jasmine and roses laced the night air, but it was another scent—cinnamon and something far more exotic—that made him inhale a bit deeper as he brought Seraphina to a more private section of the gardens.

She hung back a few paces, following him almost hitchingly in her strappy high heels. When he glanced over his shoulder, he found her pretty face pinched in a frown. Then she stopped completely and shook her head. “This is far enough.”

“Relax, Seraphina. I’m not going to push you into the hibiscus and ravish you.”

Her eyes widened for a second, but then her frown narrowed into an affronted scowl. “That’s not why I stopped. These shoes...they’re killing my feet.”

Jehan walked back to her. Eyeing the tall spikes, he exhaled a low curse. “I don’t doubt they’re killing you. In the right hands, those things could be deadly weapons.”

She smiled—a genuine, heart-stopping smile that was there and gone in an instant.

“Hold on to my shoulder.”

Her fingers came to rest on him, generating a swift, unexpected electricity in his veins. Jehan tried to ignore the feel of her touch as he reached down and lifted her left foot into his hands. He unfastened the pretty, but impractical, shoe and slipped it off.

Her satisfied sigh as he freed her bare foot went through him even more powerfully than her touch. Gritting his teeth to discourage his fangs from punching out of his gums in heated response, Jehan made quick work of her other shoe, then stepped away from her.

“Better?” His voice had thickened. Along with another part of his anatomy.

“Much better.” She was looking at him cautiously as she took the pair of sandals from where they dangled off his fingertips. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” And it was. More than he might have wanted to admit. He cocked his head at her. “How old are you, Seraphina?”

“Excuse me?”

He immediately felt rude for asking, but there was a part of him that wanted to know. Needed to know. “We’re supposed to be getting to know each other, aren’t we?”

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