Mark of the Vampire
A Taste of Blood
Ever since his abduction by the Eternal Order of Vampires, Gray Donohue has finally found his true calling: vengeance. He will stop at nothing to bring his fellow Impure vampires the freedom they deserve. Now if he could just release his primal need for the beautiful vampire who saved his life—and rules his thoughts and desires…
After nearly killing the senator she was assigned to protect, Dillon is now in mortal danger. The jaguar within her has been unleashed, and she can no longer control it. Sex is the only thing that can tame her shift. And Gray is the only man who can make her surrender to a passion strong enough to overpower her inner beast. But she doesn’t want to surrender—she wants her life back. Because she is determined never to belong to anyone, especially not Gray—the male whom destiny claims is her mate…
Most cats despised the water.
But not the jaguar. Not Dillon the jaguar.
No, this was her salvation, her baptism. She was pure predator now, deeply integrated into the world of the animal for as long as it took her to claim her prey once and for all.
Rain pounded the black earth, her massive paws striking puddle after puddle as she ran at top speed through the Green Mountain region of Southern Vermont. She’d crossed the New York border thirty minutes ago, escaping the protective custody of the Romans, her mutore brothers, and the Impure male who had found and delivered her to safety for the last time—or so he’d said. She growled into the wet night. Didn’t they understand? Didn’t they all get it? She wasn’t the one who needed protecting. It was the human who had sent her into this everlasting shift, the one who still breathed. He was the one in need of care.
Bounding out of the woods, she slowed just a hair as she came upon a children’s playground. It was deep in the dark of night, and the shadows protected her golden fur and black rosettes from the curious gaze of any nocturnal humans who might be about. As she passed a merry-go-round that creaked a slow rotation in the wind, her belly clenched. She was hungry, for blood and for meat, but a true meal would have to wait. A cat must have its chase, its attack, its kill before it feasted, and there was no time for that now. Later. Much later. But when it did come, she vowed, it would be a celebratory feed. One that—if she got it right—would commemorate not only the death of the human senator who’d had her beaten, but the days and weeks and endless, restless, merciless nights she’d suffered ever since, trying to gain control over her shift from veana to Beast.
Granted, she didn’t know where they were hiding this prey, this gutless human whom she’d worked for as a bodyguard for so many years. They’d moved him several times over the past six months. But she believed he was still somewhere in Maine, and she knew his scent.
Creeping under the overpass, where cars moved along at the frantic pace her cat’s lithe body understood and craved, Dillon headed for another stretch of woods. By tomorrow, she’d be in Maine, where she knew the scents of every street, every brick—and if she was lucky, one very arrogant dick.
A car’s headlights moved over her hips and tail just as she ducked into a patch of bracken, then darted off toward the woods again. Within minutes, she had the scent of a rabbit on the roof of her mouth, and, though her fangs hummed with the need for it, she pushed forward. She had to get to her human prey. She had to end his life—because only then could she live again. The rain continued to fall in heavy sheets, but she ran, mile after mile, focused and unfazed, all the way from the Green Mountains to Eastern Vermont, all the way until her feet were so caked in mud she was forced to slow—all the way until an aching thirst compelled her to stop. She hated stopping. When she stopped or slowed, she started to think. Maybe not think exactly, but feel—which was far more dangerous. Feeling made a body weak and foolish and vulnerable. It led to hope and a feral need to connect. It led to pain and potential ruin. In her vampire form, she wasn’t as susceptible to it, but in her cat form, the need for connection, for the stroke of a kind, solid hand was, at times, unbearably strong.
Her lip curled. She was growing weaker with every breath, every thought. She needed to end this, find and kill the remaining member of the senator’s assault team—the senator himself—so she could return to her vampire form, to the control over her shift that she’d once enjoyed, counted on, reveled in.
The rain ceased its endless torment, and scenting the cool, crispness of stream water somewhere to her right, Dillon darted off the path. Weaving between the heavy sugar maple trees, she ventured down into a gully and found a wide stream. Under the bleak light of a cloud-covered moon, she drank her fill, pausing only momentarily when she heard the sound of an animal in the distance. A mile or so away, she thought. Nothing to pose a threat. Again, she dropped her muzzle into the water and drank. The feel of it on her skin and tongue reminded her of the cold, clear water she’d run to as a balas, as a mutore balas so many years ago. The water had saved her, not from thirst as it did now, but from the one who had hunted her, the one who had worked for her adopted father, Cruen, and had stolen her innocence—the one who, with his sexually violent act, had turned her into a she-cat for the first time.
Suddenly the thought, the memory, was stolen away. A sound and a scent far too familiar for Dillon’s liking rushed her nostrils, and her eyes caught on something moving down the stream toward her. The light from the moon was still dim, but it was enough to see the creature. It was large, the size of a whale shark, but it was not a fish, not anything that naturally belonged in the water or the forest. Her limbs were frozen, the pads on the undersides of her paws pressed into the moist ground. This was an invader, and if he had tracked her here, others like him were surely close behind.
Her muzzle as dry as the inside of her mouth now, Dillon turned and raced from the stream. She was a jaguar, yes, and her speed, her sight, her instincts were strong, but the ones following her were just as strong, had the same keen instincts, and one of them could get at her from the sky.
Panic pricked at her skin, at her insides, and her breathing went labored. She wasn’t afraid of them, of fighting them. No, that wasn’t why she ran. She was afraid of being caught and returned, caged and forever fixed as this cat—afraid of never being in control of herself again.
Afraid that bastard senator would continue to breathe.
Yet another male who thought he could lay his hands on her without her consent and live. Live while she died just a little bit more.
Her sprint was tight as she weaved in and out of the trees, but soon she heard it behind her, closing in, then quickly matching her speed. The wolf. The dog chasing the cat. Her brain worked overtime. If she headed back toward the river, swam as her body was capable of doing, the creature that waited there, the water lord, would force her to shore. And if she climbed the massive tree directly in her path, it was the hawk who would halt her assent.
The scents of all three were coming at her fast and furious now. It was one thing to be chased as a vampire—as a grown veana. That she could handle. But being pursued as a Beast made her feel vulnerable, trapped, like a young veana again. She wanted to curl into a ball and wish it all away. But just as it had been the first time her jaguar emerged without her consent or control, the only way out of the weakness and fear was running straight through it.
They weren’t taking her back.
They weren’t deterring her from the vengeance that she had to believe would save her sanity, her life, and—shit—the soul that may still be lurking within her somewhere.
She leaped onto the base of the tree and began to climb, her nails digging into the sodden wood like fangs through flesh. She’d deal with whatever met her at the top. She’d fight as she always did, always had, to hold on to whatever freedoms she could claim. Because they—the control and the choice—were all she had. They were the only things left to fight for.
The growl, the bark of the wolf that sounded below her was menacing and all Lycos, but he wasn’t the one who concerned her. It was the voice of another, the water lord, the one she’d suffered the most with—been found with as a mutore balas—had truly loved as a brother, that finally halted her.
“Stop running, Dilly.”
Her claws dug farther into the wood, ready to spring.
“We just found you again,” he called, his voice cool as the water he’d just emerged from. “I just found you again.”
Fucking Helo. The six-foot-six, skull-shaved, caramel-skinned water Beast had always been a bleeding-heart little bastard. She climbed another few feet and hissed. Unfortunately, he was her favorite bleeding-heart little bastard and he knew it. He was the one who always let her crawl into his bed at night when she was a scared mutore shit who’d belonged to no one but Cruen. The one she’d wanted so badly to run to the night Cruen had watched her shift for the first time with greedy, clinical eyes after his servant had raped her. The pretend father of them all had been interested only in the fact that the assault had caused her shift—not in protecting her. It was then that she’d realized no one could or would ever truly protect her. No one but herself.
Just a few feet above her, a massive snowy white hawk landed on a thick branch and trained his eyes, one brown, one green, upon her face. The panic within her threatened to steal her voice, but she pushed it back, as she pushed everything complicated and painful and terrifying back as far as it would go. Someday, all that suppressed shit was going to bubble to the surface and explode.
But not today.
The bird’s beak lifted slightly into a sneer, and Dillon hissed at the thing. “Get out of my way, Phane, before you lose some of those pretty feathers.”
“We want to help you, Dillon,” Erion called from below. The flash of the eldest brother’s arrival was lightning quick and brilliant next to his animal brothers, who had used their speed and scent to track their sister.
“If you want to help me, then walk, fly, swim, and flash the hell out of here,” Dillon shouted down at the Beast, so massive in his demon state, his diamond eyes moon-bright in the dark forest. “Let me finish what I started.”
“Killing the senator.”
Her nostrils flared. “Yes.”
“This isn’t the way to get revenge, Dilly.”
“This is the ultimate way!” she returned. Not to mention the only way she knew of to get control over her shift from vampire to jaguar back again. “Have you learned nothing from our adopted father? Or did Cruen teach you only to torture your prey?”
She saw Erion’s eyes flash, Lycos’s too. The demon Beast shook his head, as though he were attempting to remain calm. “You will only draw attention to yourself.”
“You will get yourself killed,” Helo said, his chest naked and wet from tracking Dillon in the river. “Get us all hunted.”
Beside him, the wolf growled out an irritated, “She doesn’t give a shit.” Lycos looked at her with his narrowed canine eyes. “She didn’t give a shit back then when she ran from us, and she doesn’t give a shit now. There is no loyalty inside her. Look at her, brothers. She is an empty shell, selfish and without a conscience.”
Strange bleats of pain shocked Dillon’s insides. It was as though a knife were playing with her organs, making tiny cuts, attempting to make her feel anxious and slow and desperately alone. She wanted to feel angry at Lycos’s words, wanted to shoot back with something equally stinging, but nothing surfaced for her to grab on to, to use as an emotional battering ram. Maybe because he was right or maybe because she didn’t care about anything but herself in that moment—saving herself, getting control of herself.
But was that wrong? Shouldn’t she care about herself first? It’s how one survived—how she’d survived this long. Granted, they didn’t know—the Beasts, her brothers—they didn’t know what she had to run from, why she’d run from them. And they never would. Their memories of the past and her part in it were their own—not something she was ever going to correct.
She stared hard at Lycos, then Erion—then Helo. “Listen, Beasts. Return to your new family, your new lives, and forget the sister who so easily forgot you.”
The words were effortless to say. Lies always flowed from her tongue like blood from a gaping vein. It was the look in Helo’s eyes that stopped her from punishing them further—that shattered the last bit of hope she had for a working soul.
He’d thought he was going to bring her back, rescue her, carry her home on his back from an emotional or physical scrape like he’d done a hundred times when they were balas.
Dillon allowed herself a second of self-loathing and grief, but a second was too long. Above her, the hawk pushed from his branch and dove at her, landing on her shoulder and sinking its needle-sharp talons into her neck.
The jaguar screamed in pain, lost her grip on the tree trunk, and began to fall. Panic seized Dillon’s muscles and she struggled to rotate, belly and feet down, as she stretched to catch branch after branch but missed every one. Fifteen feet. She hit the ground hard, paws slamming the dirt, back legs attempting to cushion, but something broke.
Something inside her.
A bone? Or was it her resolve? She couldn’t tell by the pain—it was everywhere.
Her head came up, her fangs dropped, but she was in no position to fight. And even if she was, could she truly hurt these pavens? Any more than she already had?
Someone flashed directly beside her. He was tall, dark, had a closely shaved head and eyes the color of wine. Under the cool moon, she saw that he held a long silver object in his hand. Her instincts flared and she hissed and tried to snap at it, at him, one paw lifting, claws extended.
“It’s all right, D,” he whispered, his voice strained as pulled her against him. “Everything will be all right.”
“No!” She struggled, desperation ripping at her insides. “Let me go. The senator. I have to kill him.”
Alexander Roman’s voice went hard as stone. “It’s already done.”
“What?” Clouded by pain and adrenaline overload, Dillon couldn’t make out his words.
“The human male is dead. It’s over.”
“No!” she screamed into the cold forest air, barely hearing the concerned hum of the male voices surrounding her. “He’s mine! Oh God. Oh shit! I’ll never recover . . .”
“Calm down, Dilly, please.” Helo. Or maybe it was Erion. She didn’t know, didn’t care.
They didn’t understand. How could they? It was over. She was never going to be free.
Despair choked her and she cried out, “Who? Who did this?”
There was silence.
“Who?” she screamed. “Goddamn it! Tell me!”
There was curse, then the word, the name. “Gray.”
A growl exploded from Dillon’s throat and she whirled to face Alexander. “I’m going to kill him.”
Alexander’s worried expression registered for only a second before he abandoned all mercy and plunged the needle straight into her neck, sending Dillon, the jaguar, to her knees, then into a sea of bitter nothingness.
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