"After we are finished here, will you show me where you lived?" Erion asked as they moved down the uneven cobblestone street, lit only by the early-evening moonlight.
"It's not much of anything to look at," Nicholas told him, his gaze searching for their final destination.
"Perhaps not, but it is something of value to me," Erion returned, veering to the right, toward an ancient furnishings shop. "Here we are."
A small bell jingled over the shop door as Erion entered, Nicholas behind him. Lycos and Phane had broken off from the group a few hours ago and had headed to Norway on a lead they'd received from a Pureblood who had worked as a guard in Cruen's laboratory, while Erion and Nicholas had flashed on to this small French village to follow up on a rumor a member of the international sect of the Eyes had sold them for ten grand. But being in France, so close to where he'd been born, Erion was finding it difficult to remain focused on their task.
He moved through the deserted shop. "I want to see where my mother gave birth to me."
"To us," Nicholas amended.
Glancing over his shoulder, Erion saw that his twin brother wore a cautious smile. "Us. Yes." He nodded. "One who she kept inside in a cradle and the other who she brought outside and disposed of."
"Exactly," Nicholas said, his eyes now sympathetic. "Not kind memories, Brother. So why would you want to revisit them?"
Erion never got the chance the answer-and even if he had, he wasn't sure what that answer would have been. Out of the shadows, a man-no, a paven-came toward them. He was short, thin, and very old, deep lines carved into his tired, suspicious features. He was no doubt a vampire, and yet he had aged like a human.
"How can I help?" the male asked in gruff French.
Nicholas spoke first, utilizing his own keen mastery of the language. "Are you Raine?"
The male's brown eyes narrowed, and his jaw twitched. "Perhaps I am and perhaps I am not."
"We seek information and will pay well for it," Erion said, his own grasp of French not nearly as impressive as his twin's.
"I do not sell information here," he said, his entire body scenting of anxiety. "I sell furnishings. If that is not something you are interested in, then I suggest-"
Nicholas lowered his voice. "We seek Cruen."
The scent of anxiety was quickly replaced with the scent of fear. "Don't know who or what that is," he said quickly, turning around and scuttling back behind his long wooden desk. "I am about to close for the night, so if you don't mind-"
"We have heard that you may know this paven," Nicholas pressed, moving closer to the desk. His voice dropped to a whisper, though there was no one inside the shop but them. "That you may be related to this paven."
Raine's gaze was downcast as he pretended to be focused on his ledger, but his hand shook as he held his pencil. "I am sorry. There is nothing I can do for you. Good day to you now."
Erion's gaze narrowed on the paven's hand. On his fingers, his nails. There was something his peripheral vision had picked up on. What was it- Suddenly, a low, slow growl leaked from his throat, and it caused the old paven to look up.
Erion's nostrils flared with understanding as he saw the paven's eyes, saw the quick shift from paven to Beast.
His own Beast perfectly in control, Erion flashed the paven a quick look at his demon self. Instinctually, Raine gripped the counter, claws digging into the wood.
"A mutore knows a mutore, monsieur," Erion said softly.
The paven leaned forward. "And a relation of a mad paven knows one of his many mutore children."
Nicholas cursed. "You knew."
The paven sniffed. "From the moment you walked through that door. But there is still nothing I can offer you."
"What about what we can offer you?" Nicholas said with calm, cool ease.
"What does that mean?" Raine asked with an air of apathy-though Erion could see the paven's almost desperate curiosity leaking through. "I don't want your money or your silence. I have remained in the shadows for a long time-and will continue to do so."
"It appears as though your time is running out," Erion remarked, his gaze trained on the male's aged features.
Raine nodded, said begrudgingly, "Yes. We seem to age faster than a normal Pureblood, and more painfully."
"Why?" Nicholas asked.
"Our line was used as an experiment," Raine explained. "We were never meant to breed with another race."
"Only to breed with one another?"
"What line are you talking about?" Erion pressed, his skin prickling.
"The shifter," Raine said in a hushed whisper. "The animal within. It is how we all began-"
"How your brother began," Nicholas said quickly.
Raine gave a small gasp, as though he'd never expected them to know this. "No. He is not my brother. Whoever gave you that information was wrong."
"But you are related," Nicholas said.
The paven's mouth thinned. "He is my uncle. He forced one of those Breeding Males he created onto my mother. She was a true shifter." His shoulders sagged.
"But you look so much older..." Nicholas shook his head.
Raine nodded sadly. "I told you. It was not meant to be. In a way, the Order is right about that. About the mutores." His eyes shifted to Erion. "You will know. And if you are truly unfortunate, you will someday be faced with the horror of leaving your family, your mate, and your balas before you have even had a chance to watch them grow."
Nicholas turned to Erion, lifted his brow. Erion could almost hear his twin's thoughts. Family, balas-Erion hadn't embraced either, and according to this paven that was a good thing. Jesus, this paven...He could barely swallow all that Raine had just offered him. There was a true shifter lineage, a breed unto itself-and Cruen had decided to mess with it. For what? His master race? Or were the mutore exactly what the Order, the Purebloods, the vampire breed had always believed them to be?
"What if we could offer you that?" Nicholas said, turning back to face Raine. "A life extended."
The paven sniffed, shook his head. "A magical cure? If there was such a thing, I would know of it."
"Because your uncle would have offered it to you?" Erion said. "You truly think there is some kind of family loyalty within that monster?"
The mutore in Raine hissed, his reptile eyes blinking furiously, his body sagging with misery.
"We believe Cruen may have many treatments and antidotes in his possession," Nicholas said. "If you help us find him, if he has this elixir, we will bring it to you."
"Why should I trust you?" Raine asked bitterly.
Erion shook his head. "You shouldn't." Then he caught and held the paven's gaze. "But what choice do you have? What choice do any of us who managed to live past our birth have?"
She was running through the woods, past barren trees-toward something. Within her, she knew it was something vital and hopeful, something that would give her peace at long last. Tears streaked down her face, her jaguar's face, soaking the golden fur. She wanted it so desperately. She could taste the sweet essence of happiness, and she believed herself so close to it that she quickened her pace.
Down a hill she ran, darting to the right to follow the river. It rushed quickly, over stones and into deep pools, where small fish and frogs gathered. Just a little farther, beneath that footbridge.
There it was. Salvation. Rebirth.
And then suddenly the scene shifted-both in structure and in feeling-and she was no longer running toward her freedom, but away from certain capture.
Her muscles twitched in panic, and she felt a bullet hit the back of her skull. She plunged into the river. Rolling over and over in the current, she tried to dig it out, but it was no use. She wasn't meant to live, to taste that sweet essence of happiness she'd scented earlier. This was her destiny-to lose herself beneath the water.
"Dillon! Wake up."
Her eyes opened and she gasped at the sudden cold invading her senses. All around her, the world was a moon-coated black, not the stark sunlight that had a moment ago been her reality.
She glanced around, down. She was standing in the river.
"Oh God," she uttered as the icy water slapped at her thighs.
"What was that?"
Gray. She looked up. Had he been there the whole time? Why hadn't she seen him? He was staring at her like she was crazy. And no doubt he was right. She wobbled and stepped back against a slippery stone.
Gray put his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady in the heavy current. "Are you all right?"
She forced herself to nod. "It's nothing. Just a nightmare."
His eyes blazed with the heat of wanting more, wanting to push her for answers that he knew she'd always refuse him. Then he bent down and lifted her into his arms.
"Let's get you to shore," he said as river water dripped from her pant legs. "Get you dry."
Dillon's first instinct was to wriggle out of his grasp, remind him-and herself-that she was fine and could walk on her own. That she needed no one and nothing. But the jaguar inside of her curled into him, into his heat and the steady rhythm of his heart.
Gray placed her beside the tree that had held her weight earlier and started removing her boots and socks. Her teeth chattering, she watched him. Was this what she wanted? she asked herself. A male who took care of her when she was lost and when she'd lost it for a moment? Was this a good idea? With how different they were, how impossible was it for them to find common ground?
Fooling around-fucking around-that was one thing. That she could easily walk away from. She knew how to do that, manage that kind of "relationship." This familiarity, this unwise intimacy that had grown between them was a problem, especially when she let him down-especially when she was planning to leave him.
"I'll go as far as the New York State border," she blurted out. Timing had never been her strong suit, but what was the point? Neither one of them believed this was a long-term situation.
Gray didn't look up. Instead he took her feet in his hands and started to rub them. "And then what?"
She tried not to sigh at the warmth of his hands and the pressure of his strokes. "I'll go my own way."
His hands continued their work, but his gaze lifted to meet hers. "Sounds about right."
Goddamn it, she hated this pseudo-relationship bullshit. "You're not going to make me feel guilty."
Heat flared in his gaze. Beneath that tousled bedhead he was working, he looked far too sexy for his own good. "I've never been able to make you feel anything, D."
"Well, we both know that's not true."
"I'm not talking about getting off here. I'm talking about the real shit-the down-deep, connecting, understanding shit."
She sniffed. So was she. He'd made her feel all of those things, but she wasn't about to admit it. "Listen, Gray, this isn't my fight. I get what you're doing and I respect it."
His fingers continued to work her soles-his charcoal gaze continued to work her insides.
"But I'm not going back into that fray just to get captured or killed," she continued. "Though you seem to be asking it of me pretty often lately."
The heat in his gaze changed to anger. "You really think I'd allow you to get taken or hurt by the Order? Do you really think so little of me?"
There used to be a time when she could look at this male's face and think only of having it beneath her own, or turned to the side as she bit into his neck and drank from him, or strained with passion as she rode him hard until he exploded. But things had changed since that night he'd rescued her and her jaguar from the senator and his thugs, from near death and discovery on the abandoned streets of that small town in Maine, all that time he'd spent trying to reach her in her massively depressed state. When she looked at Gray Donohue now, she saw a male she wanted at her side as well as beneath her, a male she wanted to listen to and be advised by, a male she might even fight her own kind for-a male she wanted to allow herself to trust.
The problem was, trust in her world equaled abuse and emotional ruin. And there wasn't much left of her to ruin anymore...
"What I think," she began, forcing an edge to her tone as she jerked her feet away from his grasp and underneath herself where they belonged, "is that the Impure Resistance is your number-one priority."
He didn't refute that. "And what is your number-one priority, D?" His brow lifted. "You?"
A sudden wind blew around them, but it didn't take away her feelings of defensiveness. "Why shouldn't it be? I'm the cause I fight for. I'm the one and only member."
He shook his head, released a bitter chuckle. "Don't go the poor Dillon route. Doesn't work on you."
"Listen, Impure," she said through gritted teeth, a heavy stress on the latter word.
"I'm not going to follow behind you like a little lost puppy dog because you happen to have some wavy lines on your hand that have been misconstrued as a true mate mark." It was the first time either one of them had mentioned it, and maybe it shouldn't have been tossed out so crassly. But Dillon was over it. She was cutting through the bullshit and getting to the true issue that hung between them.
Gray's entire being changed. The calm, cool male with hands that had offered pleasure and comfort a moment ago turned into a ferocious beast who couldn't be contained. "Wavy lines?" he raged, ratcheting his hand up and into her face. "Are you fucking kidding me?"
"Put your hand down," she snapped.
"Make me," he snarled back.
Infuriation mingled with the scent of his skin and Dillon lost control over herself for a moment. She bared her teeth and bit him. Her fangs. Right into the mark.
Gray cursed, yanked back his hand, and grabbed her. His eyes were fierce as he hauled her onto his lap. "You'd better blow on that."
"No," she spat back. "I like you bloody. And so does my cat."
"You like me every goddamn way, just like I like you. That's why we have this problem. That's why we can't seem to let go of each other." He felt his cock straining against his jeans, straining to get to her. He held up his bloody hand, the jaguar mark only partly hidden. "And this has got to be the reason. Otherwise I'm a total pathetic idiot who loves to keep ramming his head up against a brick wall."
"Am I supposed to be the brick wall in this scenario?" she hissed.
His nostrils flared as he stared into her eyes. He breathed in and out like a bull, and then suddenly his ire dissipated and his devastatingly beautiful eyes closed. When he opened them again, they hummed with melancholy. "No. You're what's on the other side of that wall, baby."
Jeez. Dillon let her shoulders fall, out of fight for a moment. "I am a mutore, Gray. There is no mating. Genetics pretty much ruled out my happily ever after."
"As if you ever wanted a happily ever after." He shook his head. "You're the only one who stands in the way of that happiness, D."
Her jaw tightened, but she felt devoid of fight in that moment. "You think you know me so well."
"I do," he said, wrapping his arms around her waist even as he looked miserable. "I wish I didn't. I wish I didn't know you at all. You make life suck. You make life impossible."
Inside herself, deep down, where the last dregs of good remained, an ache pulsed. Maybe because those words hadn't been said in anger, but in regret. Maybe because she didn't have the heart to keep telling him what he just wouldn't hear-wouldn't accept. God, she wanted to shout at him and pull away. That would feel like her, feel familiar. But the truth was, she felt safe and comforted in his arms-even if that feeling came with his disappointment in what could never be.
"Why are you like this?" His eyes claimed her then, searched hers for that bit of good she couldn't ever let him see. "Really. Why are you-"
"Such a bitch?" She smiled.
He didn't. Instead he gripped her tighter, as if she might slither away as all snakes do. "No. Why are you so tormented, so constantly miserable in your own skin-whichever one that may be?"
Dillon's smile faltered.
"Why are you having nightmares and refusing to let anyone get close to you?" he continued. "Why are you fucking anything that moves, but have no interest in making love to someone who'll stay? There's got to be a reason." His mouth was so close to hers. "How long have you been this way?"
"Forever," she bit out.
He shook his head. "I don't think so."
Her protective shell coiled around her. "Are you going to read me now, Kreskin?"
"Read you, your skin, maybe your blood." He lifted his chin and she saw his fangs drop. "Let's go back in time, D. Let's see what's really there."
Panic swarmed her like a thousand angry bees and she pressed back. "No! You promised me."
Gray held her tightly. Breathing heavily, he stared at her. Then, as if on cue, the sky began to change all around them-black dome to a sea of gray-blue etched with pink.
"Saved by the dawn," he said, his fangs slowly retracting, his hold too, his eyes once again simmering with regret.
As she scrambled off his lap, Dillon felt anything but saved. It was as if she were being buried, this part of herself she'd relied on for so long. The part she always thought was her true self. The bitch, the unfeeling veana. But maybe it was the cat who was pushing that Dillon aside.
Dillon grabbed her boots and tugged them on. She knew that part of her would be able to run from Gray when they hit the border, but she wasn't so sure about her cat-the jaguar that was at this very moment scratching to get out and get at him.
The hunger of an Impure was an odd one. You could live consuming only food forever, but once you decided to taste blood-and more important, the blood of someone you desire-well, you begin to crave both. And at times, the hunger for blood will be an even stronger need.
As the day wore on, and they walked mile after mile toward their destination, Gray's hunger intensified. He knew he would need to consume something soon, and as they'd followed the river, it might very well need to be fish.
He fucking hated fish.
"You need me to carry you?" Dillon asked, stopping when he did, giving him a mocking expression.
"If I did, would you?"
"No. Not me." She grinned. "But the jaguar might."
"Good," he said. "I like her best anyway."
It was quick and gone in an instant, but Gray saw the sting of his words within her gaze. It surprised him, her sensitivity sometimes. Wouldn't that kind of reaction come from deep care, both about the other person and what they thought of you? She was such a damn mystery, all she kept hidden inside that mind of hers-all he couldn't hear, couldn't crack.
"So, what's the problem?" she asked, placing her foot on a tree stump, pretending to get comfortable. "You need to take a leak or something?" She tossed him a mock look of understanding. "Don't worry. I won't look over your shoulder."
He shook his head, chuckled softly. "You're so damn classy, D." And always covering your true thoughts and feelings with a fresh coat of humor. But how long before that coat wore out...Shit, it seemed to be fraying already.
He bent down, grabbed a couple of sticks.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Looking for a pole."
"Really?" she purred. "I'd say you have a mighty fine one already."
"Fishing pole," he amended drily. And sex-she used that too. Thing was, he wasn't about to walk away from that offer. Ever. He wouldn't allow it, and neither would that thing on the back of his hand that hummed her name even now.
She mistook the depraved gleam in his eyes for needing to eat. "You're hungry."
"I am an Impure, lest you forget."
"And lest you forget, I have blood on tap. Today's special is Veinilla Spice." She smiled and wiggled her eyebrows. "Get it?"
Yeah, he got it. The joke, the cover-up, the offer, the deflection. "I'll stick with fish."
She shrugged. "Suit yourself." She sat down on the bank. "What are you going to use for a hook? Or are you planning on hitting them over the head with that smooth, long pole of yours?"
His cock twitched. Traitorous bastard. He pulled his shoelace loose, tied it around the pole. Then he picked at the small silver grommet that circumvented the lace hole. He slipped the lace through the hole and tied it off. With quick fingers, he worked the silver circle back and forth until the one side broke, then pressed one side back until the other resembled a thick hook.
"Not bad," she said.
He glanced up into those cocky hazel eyes. "You sound surprised."
She shook her head. "Impressed. But you've always been good with your hands."
"You going to keep flirting with me?"
She shrugged. "It's harmless."
He dropped the hook in the water and turned away. She just didn't get it-how what she said, did, implied, and bitched about was anything but harmless. It affected the shit out of him. He'd thought once upon time that he could save her, rescue her from whatever reel-from-hell played in her mind, whatever was trying to yank her back into the past-but he was starting to wonder if she was a lost cause.
What did that fortune cookie say last time he ate Chinese? No one can walk backward into the future. Dillon had to want to move forward. He wasn't going to push her. Not anymore.
"How long do you think this is going to take?" she asked. "Like ballpark. Twenty minutes?"
He couldn't help the grin that touched his lips. How long would it take? "No idea. Maybe you could go gather some wood. I'm going to need to build a fire so I can cook this thing."
She made a sound that resembled a small explosion. "Will you just have some blood? It's way faster and less work."
He looked directly at her. "No, it's not."
She growled at him.
Or he thought it was her. Until she uttered the word "Shit" and began to back up from the river, her eyes wide with fear.
Gray turned and spotted a large shape on the bank across the water. His skin jerked and he eased his pole to the ground.
"Don't move," he whispered, knowing exactly what that shape was. "And don't make eye contact."
"Can't. Help. It."
Gasping for air, Dillon began to shift into her jaguar state, and Gray knew this wasn't going to end well. Sensing danger, a threat, the bear cocked its head and sniffed the air. With one massive growl, the black bundle of fur, teeth, and claws came barreling out of the woods toward them.
It had its front paws in the water when Dillon's jaguar attacked. She jumped on the bear's back and tried to sink her teeth in its neck. It was a crash of fur and fury, and at first, Dillon seemed to have the upper hand. But the bear quickly recovered and shook her off, then started pounding on her cat's head.
Adrenaline rushed through Gray's veins. He looked around for anything he could use as a weapon. Goddamn blades still rooted in the heads of those Purebloods. Shit. What was he going to use? He stooped and grabbed some rocks. He started chucking them at the bear's body-anything to distract it. And for a moment it did. Then Dillon's jaguar reared up and ripped into the side of the bear with her teeth and claws. Furious, the massive black bear howled and slapped her back. With a yelp, the jaguar went flying a few feet, landing on a rock, still and bleeding.
The sound that erupted from Gray as he saw her go down made the bear freeze. Gray moved based on instinct and possessiveness, because no sensible Impure would've taken on a snarling black bear if they'd wanted to get out of the situation alive.
As the scent of Dillon's blood wafted into his nostrils, Gray let loose a series of terrible howls, and going completely mad, he took off. Fangs down and flashing, he ran at top speed toward the bear, no care for his own life.
Only for hers.
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