“Yeah, I know, and I’ll let you get back to it once you tell me why panthers bother you.”
That was none of his business!
Tears burned in her eyes as her ordeal over the last two weeks overwhelmed her. Her unbalanced hormones didn’t help matters any and neither did the fact that all she really wanted to do was go home.
Before she could stop herself, the truth came pouring out in wrenching sobs. “Because every time I see one of your people, you steal someone away from me whom I love and I hate all of you for it. Now your kind has taken me away from my home and my family so that I can either be a whore to the entire pack or a slave to one of you.”
Dante felt an odd sensation in his chest as she started weeping. Not once in almost three hundred years had he felt such a sense of helplessness.
Such a desire to help someone.
“And what’s worse,” she said, her voice cracking, “I know I can’t really go home because they’ll just send me back here to the Katagaria pack that stole me. Panthers have taken everything from me. Even my virginity.”
Dante turned the water off with his thoughts and pulled a towel off the rack before wrapping it around her.
“I don’t know what I was thinking when I ran away,” she sobbed. “Acheron won’t help me. Why should he? And even if he wanted to, what could he really do? Dark-Hunters can’t interfere in our business. I just wanted some hope. Something other than what is meant for me. I don’t want to be a panther whore. I just want to have my own life where no one hurts or uses me. Is that so wrong?”
“No, Pandora,” Dante said as he pulled her sodden body into his arms and held her tight. “It’s not wrong.”
He kissed the top of her head as he pulled another towel down to dry her hair.
Pandora hated herself for falling apart like this. She was normally calm and collected. But it was beyond her ability to cope now.
All she wanted was her life back. One day where she was again in charge of her body and her destiny.
One day of clarity.
What her people had done was wrong and she knew it. She hated all of them, Arcadian and Katagaria, for forcing this on her.
No woman should ever have her choice taken away from her.
She tried to stop crying as Dante rocked her gently in his arms. He was being much kinder than she deserved. Not even her own father would be so understanding of this breakdown. He’d never been the kind of man to tolerate emotional outbursts well and he’d trained all his daughters to suffer in silence.
Yet Dante didn’t say anything. He just held her quietly while she cried.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, stunned when the words came out of her mouth. It wasn’t like her to confide in someone and to admit that she was in over her head…
She couldn’t believe what she was doing.
Maybe it was because she didn’t know where else to turn.
Or maybe it was just after the time they had shared where he hadn’t hurt her that she was willing to almost trust him with the truth of her situation and feelings.
“We’ll figure something out for you,” Dante said as he rubbed her back. “Don’t worry.”
“Why would you help me? Your brother said you were a selfish bastard.”
He gave half a laugh at that. “I am selfish. I’m cold and vicious. I don’t have any friends and I spend all my time looking for Arcadians who bother me so I can pick a fight and hurt them. Hell, I even killed my own brother when he sold my pack out to the Daimons. Truly, I am every bad thing you think of when you hear the term ‘Katagaria.’ ”
And still he hadn’t hurt her.
He gently laid his hand against her cold cheek to wipe away her tears. “Yet I don’t want to see you cry.”
She shivered at his hypnotic words.
“Get dressed, Pandora, and we’ll go find something to eat and talk about what we can do to help you.”
She pulled him down so that she could give him a scorching kiss. “I’m sorry I called you an animal, Dante.”
“It’s okay. I am one.”
No, he wasn’t. In that moment, he was her hero. Her champion. She would never insult anyone so kind.
As soon as she pulled on her jeans and a red shirt, he led her from the room, downstairs to the lobby that was packed with even more people than earlier.
“This is some party, huh?” she asked as she saw a group of four women dressed only in warning tape wrapped around their bodies surrounded by a group of Storm Troopers, cross the lobby.
“It’s definitely something,” he said, holding her hand as they passed a woman who was leading a man around on a leash.
“Do you come here often?”
He shook his head. “First time.”
Before she could speak again, Pandora felt a vicious pain sear across her palm. Hissing, she jerked her hand back at the same time Dante started shaking his own hand as if he’d burned it.
Pandora frowned as a bad sense of foreboding went through her.
She looked at her hand and watched as an attractive geometrical design formed over her palm, confirming her worst fear.
She was mated.
And there was only one male it could be…
Dante stared in horror at the sight of his mating mark. No. This couldn’t be real and it damn sure couldn’t be happening. Not to him.
He took Pandora’s hand and held it up against his so that he could compare their palms.
There was no denying it. The marks were identical.
She was his.
“You bastard!” she snarled angrily. “How could you be the one meant for me?”
“Excuse me?” Dante asked, baffled by her rage. If anyone had a right to be angry, it was him. After all, he’d been minding his own business when she traipsed into his sensory circle. Had she just stayed put, neither one of them would be in this situation.
“In case you didn’t notice, sweetheart, I’m not exactly thrilled by this either.”
She glared at him for two seconds before she whirled on her heel and headed off into the crowd.
Part of him was tempted to let her go, but that wouldn’t accomplish anything. Neither Katagaria nor Arcadian had any say in who the Fates chose as their mates. Any more than they knew when or where they’d find the one person who was designated for them.
The only way to find a mate was to sleep with him or her and to wait for the mark to appear.
Whenever it did, they only had three weeks to perform their mating ritual or they would spend the rest of their lives sterile. For a female, it wasn’t such a bad thing since she could continue to have sex with any man who caught her attention. She just couldn’t have children with any male other than her designated mate. But for a male…
It was worse than death. The male was left completely impotent until the day his mate died.
Dante shivered at the thought. Him, impotent? Those were two words that would never be said together.
He would die first.
He headed through the lobby in hot pursuit of his “mate.”
Pandora was seething as she headed blindly through the crowd. All she wanted was to put some significant distance between her and Dante.
This was awful.
Most Arcadians dreamed of finding their mate as their first lover. That way, they wouldn’t have to fear their prowling instinct, which would debase them as they hopped from male to male, trying to find the one who could breed with them.
It was a dream come true to find a mate so early and so easily. Most of her kind spent centuries looking. And many died without ever being mated at all.
Technically, she’d been lucky, and yet she was angry because she was bound to a Katagari male. Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire! This morning her worst fear was being enslaved to a Katagaria pack.
Now she was captured even more fully than before. If she left Dante, she would never be able to have children. He was the only one who could give her that.
“Damn these hormones,” she snarled as more tears gathered in her eyes. It was hard to think straight.
Someone grabbed her from behind.
“Gotcha,” a deep, masculine voice said in her ear.
It wasn’t Dante.
The panther inside her roared to life, rejecting any male not her mate. She whirled about and struck without thought, making contact with the stranger’s groin.
Doubling over, he hissed in pain. But before she could escape, another male took her arm.
She froze as she realized he was an exact, equally handsome copy of the man she had just racked.
“Leo.” The lethal growl cut across the tense air and shivered down her spine. Dante’s voice threatened violence and death. “Let go my mate, boy.”
The panther holding her let go instantly and cursed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Dante shook his head as he joined them. “I wish I were.” He scowled at the other male, who was still cupping himself. “You okay, Mikey?”
“Yeah,” he said, grimacing as he forced himself to straighten. His face was still an awful shade of red and he was panting. “Just my luck that you would find a mate who is as pissy as you are.”
“I take offense to that,” Pandora said.
Mike gave her a menacing scowl. “And I take offense to my sudden need for testicle retrieval. You know, I would have liked to have fathered some children one day.”
Leo laughed at his twin brother’s discomfort. “I’m just glad you got to her first.”
Mike curled his lip. “Shut up.”
Dante rolled his eyes before introducing his brothers. “Pandora, meet my brothers, Leonardo and Michelangelo.”
“Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” she couldn’t resist asking.
“Like the Renaissance painters,” Leo snapped. He exchanged a snarl with his twin brother. “I seriously hate those damned turtles.”
As if on cue, four people dressed as said turtles walked by and frowned at them.
“I swear the gods are mocking us,” Mike said as he saw the green-foam-covered humans.
“I know the feeling,” Pandora said, sighing. There were no better words to describe her present predicament.
She had no idea what kind of… creature the Fates had joined her to.
Then again, Dante wasn’t the one acting so bizarrely. She was the one with hormonal overload poisoning. She honestly couldn’t blame Dante if he started choking her.
She just wished she could be herself for a few hours so that she could sort through all this better.
“Well, I see all of you found her.”
Pandora looked past Leo to see the first one of the brothers she’d met. Ironically, he was the only one whose name she didn’t know.
“Shut up, Romeo,” Leo said irritably. “Don’t think we don’t know it was you who spread her scent around this hotel to drive us crazy. You almost got me killed when I grabbed Simi by mistake and she pulled out a bottle of barbecue sauce to sprinkle on me. If Ash hadn’t come up when he did, that damn demon would have gladly eaten me.”
Romeo laughed for only an instant before he sobered. He sniffed the air.
“Oh shit,” he breathed as he looked from her to Dante. “You’re mated?”
“Yeah,” Dante said. “Thanks, Romeo. Had you not had her scent all over you, I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint her so easily. I really appreciate the road map.”
Pandora stiffened at Dante’s sarcasm. “Thank you for making me feel really bad. You know, you could try and be a little more positive about this.”
“True,” Romeo said. “She is Arcadian and not nearly as likely to roam.”
It was Pandora’s turn to be “thrilled.” “Just think, now all of you have a babysitter for your litters and someone a lot weaker to knock around whenever you get angry at your enemies.”
All four of the panthers scowled at her.
“What are you talking about?” Dante asked.
“It’s all you want me for, right?”
He looked at her aghast. “You’re my mate, Pandora, not my servant. Anyone in my pack, including my brothers, who disrespects you disrespects me. And believe me, that’s one thing no one will ever do.”
The sincerity of that tore through her.
He really meant it.
Gratitude and happiness welled inside her, and for the first time since her father had handed her over to their enemies, she had some real, true hope. “Really?”
“You may be Arcadian,” Romeo said, “but you’re a member of our pack now and we’ll treat you as such.”
“But what of the children you told me about?” Pandora asked Romeo. “Won’t you make me watch them?”
“They’re my offspring,” Romeo said. “I’ve been raising cubs and siblings for more than three hundred years, even Dante. Why would that change now?”
But she had assumed…
“Who watches them while you’re gone?” she asked.