Romeo shook his head. "You are so mean to them. It’s a wonder they don’t kill you while you sleep."
Dante scoffed. "Yeah, right. Those goofs are lucky I tolerate them."
"And yet you do," Pandora said, smiling at the knowledge. "Why is that, Dante?"
Romeo returned her smile. "Because my brother has a heart that he hates to own up to."
"Shut up, Romeo."
"She’s your mate, Dante. Be honest with her. Don’t let the past sour you for eternity. She’s not Bonita, you know?"
Dante growled and lunged for Romeo, who stepped back lightning fast.
"Later," Romeo said before he left them.
"Bonita?" Pandora asked as soon as they were alone or at least as alone as a couple in a crowd of thousands could be.
Dante didn’t answer. From his expression she could tell he was thinking of something very painful.
Her heart wrenched at the thought. Was she an old lover? "Who was she?"
He let out a long, tired breath before he answered. "She was the bonded mate to one of my older brothers, Donatello. He was the pack leader before me and he loved his mate more than his life."
Pandora felt for the panther. "Let me guess. She betrayed him."
"No," he said to her surprise. "They were bonded together, and one night while she was home from her journeys, she lashed out at him while they were hav**g s*x and ripped into his jugular. They both died before he could get help."
Pandora covered her mouth as she envisioned the horror. Once Were-Panthers bonded their life forces together, neither of them could live without the other. If one died, they both died.
How terrible that Bonita had killed them in one act of thoughtless passion.
"I’m so sorry," she whispered.
"Thanks," he said quietly. "It was a damn waste of two decent panthers." His gaze penetrated her. "It’s why I never wanted a pantheress for a mate or even a lover. I don’t want my cubs orphaned because I let my guard drop and left myself open to a female’s attack."
"I would never rip at you."
"How do you know?"
"Well," she said as they started moving through the lobby, "right now I don’t even know how to turn into a panther. So that alone makes you safe. I tried to do it a couple of days ago and all I got was a tail that was very hard to hide until I went to sleep and it left me."
Dante laughed, and though she ought to be offended that he was laughing at her misfortune, she wasn’t.
There was something about him that was truly charming.
"I’ve never heard of that happening before," he said.
"Stick around. All kinds of weird things have been happening to me lately."
He brushed the hair back from her face. "I think I might like to do that. If you don’t mind."
For some reason, the thought warmed her. Dante was a lot of fun to be with.
When they weren’t fighting.
"What do you expect of your mate, Dante?"
He shrugged, then put his arm around her as they cruised by the banquet tables that were lined with fliers and giveaway items. "Nothing more than any other panther, I guess. I expect you to come home when you’re in season and leave when you’re not."
It was too good to be true.
"You would let me leave if I wanted to?"
He frowned. "It’s the nature of our species, Pandora. Why would I stop you?"
"But the other pack"
"Ain’t right in the head," he said, interrupting her. "There’s something profoundly wrong with anyone who would try to get a panther to act against his or her nature. That’s something I’d expect an Arcadian to do, not a Katagari."
She smiled up at him as she felt another hormonal surge go through her.
By the sudden feral look on Dante’s face she could tell he sensed it too.
His arm tightened around her.
"Can we wait?" she asked quickly. "I don’t want to rush mating with you again until we get a few things straight between us."
Even though sex with him would clear her head, her human heart wanted more between them than just a physical relationship. She wanted to know the human part of her mate.
"Such as?" Dante asked.
"I don’t know," she answered honestly. "I know in my heart that committing myself to you is the best thing for both of us. It’s probably the only thing since I no longer have a pack to shelter me. But the human in me wants to know you better before I take such a permanent step."
To her relief, he didn’t try to balk or force her.
"What do you need from me?"
"Just be with me as a human for a little while and let me get to know you, okay?"
Dante nodded even though what he really wanted to do was take her back upstairs and give her what both their bodies craved.
But she was young and scared. This was a momentous step for both of them. Bonding was eternal and it wasn’t something to be taken lightly.
True kindness to someone else was all but alien to him. He understood loyalty. Obligation.
But love and tenderness
Panthers didn’t dream of such things. They only understood immediate needs. The ones for food, shelter, sex.
And yet he wanted something more from her. Something deeper.
He wanted her acceptance.
It was stupid. What did he need with such things? He had money. Power. Magic.
He could force her to do anything he wanted her to. But it still wouldn’t give him what he wanted.
Damn him for his human half.
Sighing, he led her toward the Marquis Steakhouse where they could get something to eat.
The night went by quickly as Pandora followed Dante around to various booths and concerts where alternative bands were displaying their wares and talents. Dante seemed to have a knack for finding really good performers who were excited about being offered money to play in his club in Minnesota.
"How long have you had your club?" she asked as he bought three CDs from a band called Emerald Rose who had been playing earlier outside the conference rooms at the Hyatt.
"Almost thirty years now."
Wow, that was a long time. Dante looked good for a man who was more than two hundred years old.
"And the humans don’t realize that you’re always there and that you never age?"
He shook his head. "When they leave the Inferno, we tamper with their minds a bit. Even if they come in every night, they never remember those of us who don’t age or change."
"That must be nice. In my" She hesitated to say "pack" since they had thrown her out. "In my world, we stay away from the humans as much as possible."
"So what’s the future like where you live, anyway?"
"Not that much different from this. Haven’t you ever been?"
"Not since I was a cub. When I first got control of my time-travel powers, I hopped around quite a bit.
But after a while, it got boring. Things and places changed, but the people didn’t. So I decided to stay with my pack in Minnesota and not worry about the past or the future."
She would love to be able to time-jump like that. It was true freedom and that was one thing she’d never known.
"Can you teach me how to use my powers like that?" she asked.
She smiled. None of her sisters who had been sent into this time period had been taught anything. The Katagaria hadn’t allowed them to develop their powers for fear they would leave. Some of them had even been forced by the Katagaria to wear metriazo collars to ensure that none of them would ever be able to use their magic.
It was harsh and cruel.
"Is it hard to time-travel?" she asked.
"Not now, it’s not for me. But I’ve had centuries to perfect my powers. When you first start it can be surprising. Last time I left Leo and Mike at home, they time-jumped from Minnesota 2002 to the Aleutian Islands 1432 instead of New York 2065. It was a bitch trying to find them and get them home again."
"I’m surprised you went after them."
"Yeah, well, they annoy me, but I understand they’re just cubs who will eventually grow up probably to annoy me even more."
She laughed at his offbeat humor as they drifted through the strangely garbed crowd. She had to admit that Dante was a lot of fun once he got used to you and stopped being so feral and snarling.
"You do have a heart, don’t you?"
"No, Pandora," he said, his blue eyes scorching her with their intensity. "I don’t. I only have responsibility. And I have a shitload of it."
Maybe, but she wasn’t quite so sure. For one thing the arm he had draped around her shoulders didn’t say "burden," it said "protective."
And she wanted to pretend it said something even more. Something like friendship.
Maybe even love.
Dante paused at a dealer’s display case. A tiny smile hovered at the edges of his lips as something caught his eye. He motioned for the dealer to come over.
"Can I help you?" the older woman asked as she approached them.
Dante pointed to something under the glass. "I’d like to see that."
Pandora didn’t know what it was until the woman handed it to Dante and he turned toward her. She couldn’t help laughing at the gold pendant in the form of a panther wrapped around a sapphire as he fastened it around her neck.
Pandora held the pendant in her hand so that she could examine it. "How unusual."
"Yes, it is," the woman said. "That’s a shaman designer I met out West. He takes vision quests and then makes a necklace based on what animal guides him. That one there he said was a panther that led him through a nightmare and saved him."
How oddly apropos.
She looked up at Dante and smiled.
"I’ll take it," Dante said, pulling out his wallet.
Pandora stared down at the exquisitely crafted piece while he paid. She was so warmed by the gesture, especially since Romeo had told her how selfish Dante was.
"Thank you," she said when he returned to her side.
Smiling even more, she lifted herself up on tiptoe and placed a chaste kiss to his cheek.
"You keep doing that," he whispered in her ear, "and I’ll have you upstairs and nak*d in a heartbeat."
An overwhelming wave of desire tore through her body. It was the pantheress in her that needed to feel him inside her. They’d done enough talking and the wild part of her personality now wanted appeasement too.
"I wouldn’t mind it one bit," she whispered back.
That was all it took. One second they were in the crowd and the next, he’d pulled them off into an alcove where no one could see them and poofed them into a suite.
"Is this your room?" she asked as she glanced around the elegant accommodations.
"It’s our room," he said as he stalked her like the hungry predator he was.
She stiffened at his tone. "Is that an order?"
"No, Pandora. But so long as we are mates, what is mine is yours."
"You’re being strangely accommodating for a selfish panther Romeo said held no interest in a mate."
Dante paused at that. It was true. He’d never wanted to be bound by anything, especially not a mate.
Yet for some reason, he didn’t mind Pandora in the least.
"The Fates didn’t ask me who or what I wanted for my own." He held her marked palm up for both of them to see. "But they have chosen you as mine and I take care of what belongs to me."
"And if I don’t want to belong to you?"
"I can’t force you to mate with me, Pandora, you know that. You are free to leave my protection at any time and go wherever you want."
Pandora swallowed at the thought. Yes, she could. But where would she go? The journey to Atlanta had been scary and fraught with the fear of having a pack find her and abuse her or the humans learning that she was a Were-Panther and locking her up.
Many ordinary things had baffled her.
How to buy a bus ticket. How to order food. Those things were all different in her time period.
Everything there was done with universal credits. There was no money in her world. No fuel-burning vehicles.
The transports in her century were more akin to monorails and you paid your way with your palm print.
Everything at home was automated and clinical.
She didn’t know how to survive in the current human world. Didn’t know how to use her powers.
It was terrifying here.
Except for Dante. He offered her more than anyone ever had. Protection and education.
He was her safety.
And he was her designated mate. Mating with a male was a physical act. It was the bonding ceremony that was emotional. She could easily mate and then have his protection.
Her heart would still belong solely to herself.
But if she refused to mate with Dante, he would have no reason to protect or educate her. And why would he? Her refusal would leave him impotent. Something she was sure wouldn’t endear her to him.
"You will give me total freedom without any limitations on it?" she asked.
"I know no other way."
In that moment, she realized that she could learn to love this panther standing in front of her. He didn’t have to give her anything. He could theoretically take anything from her that he wanted. The other panthers did.