Manolito De La Cruz woke beneath the dark earth with his heart pounding, blood red tears streaking his face and grief overwhelming him. A woman’s despairing cry echoed in his soul, tearing at him, reprimanding him, drawing him back from the edge of a great precipice. And he was starving.
Every cell in his body craved blood. The hunger raked at him with merciless claws until a red haze covered his sight and his pulse hammered with the need for immediate sustenance. Desperate, he scanned the area above his resting place for the presence of enemies and, finding none, burst through the rich layers of soil, into the air, his heart thundering in his ears, his mind screaming.
He landed in a crouch in the midst of dense shrubbery and thick vegetation, and took a slow, careful look around him. For a moment everything was wrong. Monkeys shrieking, birds calling out a warning, the cough of a larger predator, even the brush of lizards through vegetation. He wasn’t supposed to be here. The rainforest. Home.
He shook his head, trying to clear his fragmented mind. The last thing he remembered clearly was stepping in front of a pregnant Carpathian woman, shielding mother and unborn child from a killer. Shea Dubrinsky, lifemate to Jacques, brother to the prince of the Carpathian people. He had been in the Carpathian Mountains, not in South America where he now called home.
He replayed the images in his head. Shea had gone into labor at a party. Ridiculous that. How could they keep the women and children safe in the midst of such madness? Manolito had sensed danger, the enemy moving within the crowd, stalking Shea. He’d been distracted, dazzled with color and sound and emotion pouring in from every direction. How could that be? Ancient Carpathian hunters didn’t feel emotion and saw in shades of gray, white and black—yet—he distinctly recalled that Shea’s hair had been red. Bright, bright red.
Memories whirled away as pain exploded through him, doubling him over. Waves of weakness rocked him. He found himself on his hands and knees, his belly in hard knots, and his insides heaving. Fire burned through his system like molten poison. Disease didn’t plague the Carpathian race. He couldn’t have become ill with a human disease. This was manufactured by an enemy.
Who had done this to him? His white teeth snapped together in a show of aggression, his incisors and canines sharp and lethal as he glared fiercely around him. How had he gotten here? Kneeling in the fertile soil, he tried to sort through what he did know.
Another jolt of blinding pain lashed at his temples, blackening the edges of his vision. He covered his eyes to try to block out the shooting stars coming at him like missiles, but closing his eyes worsened the effect. “I am Manuel De La Cruz,” he murmured aloud, trying to force his brain to work…to remember…pushing the words through teeth clenched tightly together in a grimace. “I have one older and three younger brothers. They call me Manolito to tease me because my shoulders are broader and I carry more muscle so they reduce me to boy. They would not leave me if they knew I had need of them.”
They would never have left him. Never. Not his brothers. They were loyal to one another—they had been through the long centuries together and would always remain so.
He pushed past the pain to try to uncover the truth. Why was he in the rain forest when he should have been in the Carpathian Mountains? Why had he been abandoned by his people? His brothers? He shook his head in denial, although it cost him dearly as the pain increased, as spikes seemed to stab through his skull.
He shivered as the shadows crept closer, ringing him, taking shapes. Leaves rustled and the bushes shifted, as if touched by unseen hands. Lizards darted out from under the rotting vegetation and raced away as if frightened.
Manolito pulled back and once again looked warily around him, this time scanning above and below ground, quartering the region thoroughly. There were shadows only, nothing flesh and blood to indicate an enemy close. He had to get a hold of himself and figure out what was happening before the trap was sprung—and he was certain there was a trap and he was truly caught.
Throughout his time hunting the vampire, Manolito had been wounded and poisoned on many occasions, but still he’d survived because he’d always used his brain. He was cunning and shrewd and very intelligent. No vampire or mage, would best him, sick or not. If he was hallucinating, he had to find a way out of the spell to protect himself.
Shadows moved in his mind, dark and evil. He looked around him at the growth of the jungle and, instead of seeing a welcoming home, he saw the same shadows moving—reaching—trying to grasp him with greedy claws. Things moved, banshees wailed, unfamiliar creatures gathered in the bushes and along the ground.
It made no sense, not for one of his kind. The night should have welcomed him—soothed him. Enfolded him in its rich blanket of peace. The night had always belonged to him—to his kind. Information should have flooded him with each breath he took into his body, but instead, his mind played tricks, saw things that couldn’t be there. He could hear a dark symphony of voices calling to him, the sounds swelling in volume until his head pounded with moans and pitiful cries. Bony fingers brushed at his skin, spider legs crawled over him so that he twisted left and right, flailing his arms, slapping at his chest and back, brushing vigorously in an effort to dislodge the invisible webs that seemed to stick to his skin.
He shuddered again and forced air through his lungs. He had to be hallucinating, caught in the trap of a master vampire. If that was the case, he couldn’t call on his brothers for aid until he knew if he was bait to draw them into the web as well.
He gripped his head hard and forced his mind to calm. He would remember. He was an ancient Carpathian sent out by the former Prince Vlad to hunt the vampire. Vlad’s son, Mikhail, had centuries since, taken over guiding their people. Manolito felt one of the pieces snap together as a bit of his memory fell into place. He had been far from his home in South America, summoned by the prince to a reunion in the Carpathian Mountains, a celebration of life as Jacque’s lifemate gave birth to a child. Yet he now appeared to be in the rainforest, a part familiar to him. Could he be dreaming? He had never dreamed before, not that he remembered. When a Carpathian male went to ground, he shut down his heart and lungs and slept as if dead. How could he dream?
Once again he risked a look at his surroundings. His stomach lurched as the brilliant colors dazzled him, hurting his head and making him sick. After centuries of seeing in black and white with shades of gray, now the surrounding jungle held violent color, hues of vivid greens, a riot of colored flowers spilling down tree trunks along with creeper vines. His head pounded and his eyes burned. Drops of blood leaked like tears, trailing down his face as he squinted to try to control the sensation of pitching and rolling as he viewed the rainforest.
Emotions poured in. He tasted fear, something he hadn’t known since he’d been a boy. What was going on? Manolito fought to get on top of the strange tumbling of jumbled thoughts in his mind. He pushed hard to clear away the debris and focus on what he knew of his past. He had stepped in front of an elderly human woman possessed by a mage just as she thrust a poisoned weapon at Jacques and Shea’s unborn child. He felt the shock of the entry into his flesh, the twist and rip of the serrated blade cutting through his organs and ripping open his belly. Fire burned through his insides, spreading rapidly as the poison worked its way through his system.
Blood ran in rivers and light faded quickly. He heard voices calling, chanting, felt his brothers reaching for him to try to hold him to earth. He remembered that very clearly, the sound of his brothers voices imploring him—no—commanding him to stay with them. He’d found himself in a shadowy realm, banshees wailing, shadows flickering and reaching. Skeletons. Dark spiked teeth. Talons. Spiders and cockroaches. Snakes hissing. The skeletons drawing closer and closer until…
He closed his mind to his surroundings, to all shared pathways so there was no chance anyone could be feeding his own fears. It had to be hallucination brought on by the poison coating the blade of the knife. No matter that he had stopped anything from entering his brain—something malicious was already present.
Fire ringed him, crackling flames reaching greedily toward the sky and stretching like obscene tongues toward him. Out of the conflagration, women emerged, women he’d used for feeding throughout the centuries, long dead to the world now. They began to crowd around him, arms reaching, mouths open wide as they bent toward him, showing their wares through tight clinging dresses. They smiled and beckoned, eyes wide, blood running down the sides of their necks—tempting—tempting. Hunger burned. Raged. Grew into a monster.
As he watched, they called to him seductively, moaning and writhing as if in sexual ecstasy, their hands touching themselves suggestively.
“Take me, Manolito,” one cried.
“I’m yours,” another called and reached out to him.
Hunger forced him to his feet. He could already taste the rich hot blood, was desperate to regain his equilibrium. He needed and they would provide. He smiled at them, his slow, seductive smile that always foreshadowed the taking of prey. As he took a step forward he stumbled, the knots in his stomach hardening into painful lumps. He caught himself with one hand on the ground before he fell. The ground shifted and he could see the women’s faces in the dirt and rotting leaves. The soil, black and lush, shifted until he was surrounded by the faces, the eyes staring accusingly.
“You killed me. Killed me.” The accusation was soft, but powerful, the mouths yawning wide as if in horror.
“You took my love, all that I had to offer, and you left me,” another cried.
“You owe me your soul,” a third demanded.
He drew back with a soft hiss of denial. “I never touched you, other than to feed.” But he’d made them think he had. He and his brothers allowed the women to think they’d been seduced, but they had never betrayed their lifemates. Never. That had been one of their most sacred of rules. He had never touched an innocent, not to feed. The women he had used for feeding had all been easy to read, their greed for his name and power had been apparent. He had cultivated them carefully, encouraged their fantasies, but he had never physically touched them other than to feed.
He shook his head as the wailing grew louder, the ghostly specters more insistent, eyes narrowing with purpose. He straightened his shoulders and faced the women squarely. “I live by blood and I took what you offered. I did not kill. I did not pretend to love you. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Go away and take your accusations with you. I did not betray my honor, my family, my people or my lifemate.”
He had many sins to answer for, many dark deeds staining his soul, but not this. Not what these sensual women with their greedy mouths were accusing him of. He snarled at them, raised his head with pride and met their cold eyes straight on. His honor was intact. Many things could be said of him. They could judge him in a thousand other ways and find fault, but he had never touched an innocent. He had never allowed a woman to think he might fall in love with her. He had waited faithfully for his lifemate, even knowing the odds that he would ever find her were very small. There had been no other women despite what the world thought. And there never would be. No matter what his other faults, he would not betray his woman. Not by word, not by deed, not even by thought.
Not even when he doubted she would ever be born.
“Get away from me. You came to me wanting power and money. There was no love on your side, no real interest other than to acquire the things you wanted. I left you with memories, false though they were, in exchange for life. You were not harmed, in fact you were under my protection. I owe you nothing, least of all, my soul. Nor will I allow myself to be judged by creatures such as you.”
The women screamed, the shadows lengthening, casting dark bands across their bodies, like ribbons of chains. Their arms stretched toward him, talons growing on their fingernails, smoke swirling around their writhing forms.
Manolito shook his head, adamant in his denial of wrongdoing. He was Carpathian and he needed blood to survive—it was that simple. He had followed the dictates of his prince and had protected other species. While it was true that he had killed, and that he often felt superior with his skills and intelligence, he had kept that place that was for his lifemate, the one spark of humanity alive, just in case.
He would not be judged by these women with their sly smiles and ripe bodies, offered only to capture the wealthy male, not for love, but for greed, yet grief was pushing at his emotions. Cruel, overwhelming grief, coming at him and stealing into his soul so that he felt weary and lost and wanting the sweet oblivion of the earth.
Around him, the wailing grew louder, but the shadows began to leach form and color from the faces. Several women pushed at their clothing and murmured invitations to him. Manolito scowled at them. “I have no need nor want of your charms.”
Feel. Feel. Touch me and you will feel again. My skin is soft. I can bring you all the way to heaven. You have only to give me your body one time and I will give you the blood you crave.
Shadows moved all around him and the women came out of the vines and leaves, burst through the earth itself and reached for him, smiling seductively. He…felt revulsion and bared his teeth, shaking his head. “I would never betray her.” He said it aloud. “I would rather die of slow starvation.” He said it in a low snarl, a growl of warning rumbling in his throat. Meaning it.
“That death will take centuries.” The voices weren’t so seductive now, more desperate and whining, more frantic than accusing.
“So be it. I will not betray her.”
“You have already betrayed her,” one cried. “You stole a piece of her soul. You stole it and you cannot give it back.”
He searched his broken memory. For a moment he smelled a wisp of fragrance, a scent of something clean and fresh in the midst of the decaying rot surrounding him. The taste of her was in his mouth. His heart beat strong and steady. Everything in him settled. She was real.
He took a breath, let it out, breathing away the shadows around him, yet more grief poured in. “If I have committed such a crime against her, then I will do whatever she wishes.” Had he committed so a great a sin that she had left him? Was that why the unfamiliar grief turned his heart to such a heavy stone?
Around him, the faces slowly dissolved as the forms blurred even more, until they were only wailing shadows and the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach eased, even as his hunger grew beyond craving.
He had a lifemate. He clung to that truth. Beautiful. Perfect. A woman born to be his mate. Born for him. His. Predatory instincts rose sharp and fast. A growl rumbled in his chest and the ever present hunger raked deeper into his gut, clawing and biting with relentless demand. He had been without color for hundreds of years, a long emotionless time that stretched on and on until the demon had risen and he no longer had the strength or desire to fight against it. He had been so close. Kills had run together and feeding had become difficult. Each time he had sunk his teeth into living flesh, felt and heard the ebb and flow of life in veins, he had wondered if that would be the moment his soul would be lost.
Manolito shuddered as voices in his head once again grew louder, drowning out the sounds of the jungle. Little flashes of pain grew behind his eyes, burning and burning until he felt his eyes boiling. Was it the color? She, his lifemate, had restored color to him. Where was she? Had she deserted him? The questions crowded in fast and loud, mixing with the voices until he wanted to hit his head against the nearest tree trunk. The inside of his brain seemed on fire, as did every organ in his body.
Vampire blood? It burned like acid. He knew because he’d hunted and killed hundreds, or perhaps thousands. Some had been friends in his younger years, and he could hear them now, screaming in his head. Chained. Burned. Eaten by endless despair. His heart nearly burst in his chest and he sank down into the fertile soil where he’d lain, trying to sort out what was real and what was hallucination. When he closed his eyes, he was in a pit, shadows surrounded him, and red eyes stared hungrily.
Perhaps it was all an illusion. Everything. Where he was. The vivid colors. The shadows. Perhaps his wish for a lifemate was so strong he had created one in his mind. Or worse—a vampire had created one for him.
Manolito. You have risen early. You were to remain in the ground a few more weeks. Gregori said to make certain you did not rise too soon.
Manolito’s eyes flew open and he looked warily around him. The voice held the same timbre as that of his youngest brother, Riordan, but it was distorted and slow, each word drawn out so that the voice, instead of resonating with familiarity, seemed demonic. Manolito shook his head and tried to rise. His body, usually graceful and powerful, felt awkward and foreign as he fell back to his knees, too weak to stand. His gut knotted and rolled. The burning spread through his system.
Riordan. I do not know what is happening to me. He used the path shared only by him and his youngest brother. He was careful to keep his energy from spilling from that path. If this was an elaborate trap, he would not draw Riordan into it. He loved his brother too much for that.
The thought made his heart go still.
He felt love for his brothers. Overwhelming. Real. So intense it took his breath away, as if the emotion had been gathering throughout the long centuries, building in strength behind a solid barrier where he couldn’t access it. There was only one person in the world who could restore emotions to him. The one he’d waited centuries for.
He pressed his hand tightly to his chest. There could be no doubt she was real. The ability to see color, to feel emotion: all the senses he’d lost in the first two hundred years of his life had been restored. Because of her.
So why couldn’t he remember the most important woman of his life? Why couldn’t he picture her? And why were they apart? Where was she?
You must go back to ground, Manolito. You cannot rise. You have journeyed long from the tree of souls. Your journey is not yet complete. You must give yourself more time.
Manolito withdrew immediately from his brother’s touch. It was the right path. The voice would be the same if it wasn’t playing in slow motion. But the words—the explanation was all wrong. It had to be. You couldn’t go to the tree of souls unless you were dead. He wasn’t dead. His heart was hammering loud—too loud. The pain in his body was real. He had been poisoned. He knew it was still burning through his system. And how could that be if he’d been healed properly? Gregori was the greatest healer the Carpathian people had ever known. He would not have allowed poison to remain in Manolito’s body, no matter what the risk to himself.
Manolito pulled his shirt from his body and stared down at the scars on his chest. Carpathians rarely scarred. The wound was over his heart, a jagged, ugly scar that spoke volumes. A killing blow.
Could it be true? Had he died and been drawn back into the world of the living? He’d never heard of such a feat, rumors abounded of course, but he hadn’t known it was truly possible. And what of his lifemate? She would have journeyed with him. Panic edged his confusion. Grief pressed him hard.
Riordan’s voice was demanding in his head, but was still distorted and slow. Manolito jerked his head up, his body shaking. The shadows moved again, sliding through the trees and shrubs. Every muscle in his body tensed and knotted. What now? This time he felt the danger as forms began to take shape in a ring around him. Dozens of them, hundreds, thousands even, so there was no possibility of escape. Red eyes blazed at him with hatred and malicious intent. They swayed as if their bodies were far too transparent and thin to resist the slight breeze rustling the leaves in the canopy above them. Vampires every one.
He recognized them. Some were relatively young by Carpathian standards, and some very old. Some were childhood friends and others teachers or mentors. He had killed every one of them without pity or remorse. He had done it fast, brutally and anyway he could.
One pointed an accusing finger. Another hissed and spit with rage. Their eyes, sunken deep in the sockets weren’t eyes at all, but more like glowing pools of hatred wrapped in red blood.
“You are like us. You belong with us. Join our ranks,” one called.
“Think you’re better. Look at us. You killed again and again. Like a machine, with no thought for what you left behind.”
“So sure of yourself. All the while you were killing your own brethren.”
For a moment Manolito’s heart pounded so hard in his chest he was afraid it might burst through his skin. Sorrow weighed him down. Guilt ate at him. He had killed. He hadn’t felt when he did so, hunting each vampire one by one and fighting with superior intellect and ability. Hunting and killing were necessary. What his thoughts on the subject were didn’t matter in the least. It had to be done.
He pulled himself up to his full height, forced his body to stand straight when his gut clenched and knotted. His body felt different, more leaden, clumsy even. As he shifted onto the balls of his feet, he felt the tremors start.
“You chose your fate, dead one. I was merely the instrument of justice.”
The heads were thrown back on the long, thin stick necks and howls rent the air. Above them, birds lifted from the canopy into the air, taken flight at the horribly cacophony of shrieks rising in volume. The sound jarred his body, making his insides turn to gel. A vampire trick he was certain. He knew in his heart his life was over—there were too many to kill—but he would take as many with him as possible to rid the world of such dangerous and immoral creatures.
The mage must have found a way to resurrect the dead. He whispered the information in his head, needing Riordan to tell their oldest brother. Zacarias would send a warning to the prince that armies of the dead would be once again rising against them.
You are certain of this?
I have killed these in centuries long past, yet they surround me with their accusing eyes, beckoning to me as if I am one of them.
From a great distance away, Riordan gasped, and for the first time, sounded like Manolito’s beloved sibling. You cannot choose to give your soul to them. We are so close, Manolito, so close. I have found my lifemate and Rafael has found his. It is only a matter of time for you. You must hold out. I am coming to you.
Manolito snarled, throwing his head back to roar with rage. Imposter. You are not my brother.
Monolito! What are you saying. Of course I am your brother. You are ill. I am coming to you with all haste. If the vampires are playing tricks on you…
As you are? You have made a terrible mistake, evil one. I have a lifemate. I see your filthy abominations in color. They surround me with their vile blood-stained teeth and their blackened hearts, wizened and shriveled.
You have no lifemate, Riordan denied. You have only dreamed of her.
You cannot trap me with such deceit. Go to your puppetmaster and tell him I am not so easily caught. He broke off the connection immediately and slammed closed all pathways, private and common to his mind.
Spinning around, he took in his enemy, grown into so many faces from his past he knew he was facing death. “Come then, dance with me as you have so many times,” he ordered and beckoned with his fingers.
The first line of vampires closest to him howled, spittle running down their faces and holes for eyes glowing with hatred. “Join us, brother. You are one of us.”
They swayed, feet carrying out the strange hypnotic pattern of the undead. He heard them calling to him, but the sound was more in his head than out of it. Whispers. Buzzing. Drawing a veil over his mind. He shook his head to clear it, but the sounds persisted.
The vampires drew closer and now he could feel the flutter of tattered clothing, torn and gray with age, brushing against his skin. Once again, the sensation of bugs crawling over his skin alarmed him. He spun around, trying to keep the enemy in his sight and all the while the voices grew louder, more distinctive.
“Join us. Feel. You are so hungry. Starving. We can feel your heart stuttering. You need fresh blood. Adrenaline-laced blood is the best. You can feel.”
“Join us,” they cried, the entreaty loud and swelling in volume until it was a tidal wave rolling over him.
“Fresh blood. You need to survive. Just a taste. One taste. And the fear. Let them see you. Let them feel fear and the high is like nothing you’ve ever felt.”
The temptation made hunger grow until he couldn’t think beyond the red haze in his mind.
“Look at yourself, brother, look at your face.”
He found himself on the ground, on his hands and knees, as if they’d shoved him, but he never felt the push. He stared into the shimmering pond of water stretching before him. The skin on his face was pulled tightly over his bones. His mouth was wide in protest and not only his incisors but also his canines were long and sharp in anticipation.
He heard a heartbeat. Strong. Steady. Beckoning. Calling. His mouth watered. He was desperate—so hungry there was nothing to do but hunt. He had to find prey. Had to bite into a soft, warm neck so that the hot blood would burst into his mouth, fill every cell, wash through his organs and tissues and feed the tremendous strength and power of his kind. He could think of nothing else but the terrible swell of hunger, rising like a tide to consume him.
The heartbeat grew louder and he slowly turned his head as a woman was pushed toward him. She looked frightened—and innocent. Her eyes were dark chocolate pools of terror. He could smell the adrenaline rushing through her bloodstream.
“Join us. Join us,” they whispered, the sound swelling to a hypnotic chant.
He needed dark rich blood to survive. He deserved to live. What was she after all? Weak. Frightened. Could she save the human race from the monsters preying on them. Humans didn’t believe they existed. And if they knew of Manolito they would…
“Kill you,” hissed one.
“Torture you,” hissed another. “Look what they’ve done to you? You’re starving. Who has helped you? Your brothers? Humans? We have brought you hot blood to feed you—to keep you alive.”
“Take her, brother, join us.”
They shoved the woman forward. She cried out, stumbled and fell against Manolito. She felt warm and alive against his cold body. Her heart beat frantically, calling to him as nothing else could. The pulse in her neck jumped rapidly and he smelled her fear. He could hear her blood rushing through her veins, hot and sweet and alive, giving him life.
He couldn’t speak to reassure her, his mouth was too filled with his lengthened teeth and the need to crush his lips against the warmth of her neck. He dragged her closer still until her much smaller body was nearly swallowed by his. Her heart took up the rhythm of his. The air burst from her lungs in terrified gasps.
Around him, he was aware of the vampires drawing closer, the shuffling of their feet, their cavernous mouths gaping wide in anticipation, strings of saliva dripping down while their pitiless eyes stared with wild glee. The night fell silent, only the sound of the girl struggling for air and thundering of her heart filling the air. His head bent closer, lured by the scent of blood.
He was starving. Without blood he would be unable to defend himself. He needed this. He deserved it. He had spent centuries defending humans—humans who despised what he was, humans who feared his kind…
Manolito closed his eyes and blocked out the sound of that sweet, tempting heartbeat. The whispers were in his head. In his head. He swung around, shoving the girl behind him. “I will not! She is an innocent and will not be used in this manner.” Because he was too far gone and might not stop. He would have to fight them all, but he might be able to save her yet.
From behind him, the woman wrapped her arms around his neck, pressed her lush, woman’s body tightly against his, her hands sliding down his chest, his belly, lower still until she was stroking him, adding lust to hunger. “Not so innocent, Manolito. I’m yours, body and soul. I’m yours. You have only to taste me. I can make it all go away.”
Manolito snarled, whirling around, shoving the woman from his body. “Go! Go with your friends and stay away from me.”
She laughed and writhed, touching herself. “You need me.”
“I need my lifemate. She will come to me and she will take care of my needs.”
Her face changed, the laughter fading and she yanked at her hair in frustration. “You cannot escape this place. You are one of us. You betrayed her and you deserve to stay here.”
He didn’t know—didn’t remember. But all the temptation in the world would not make him change his mind. If he was to stay alive without food for centuries, enduring the torment of it, so be it, but he would not betray his lifemate. “You would have done better to tempt me to betray another,” he said. “Only she can judge me unworthy. So it is written in our laws. Only my lifemate can condemn me.”
He must have done something terrible. It was the second accusation of its kind and the fact that she wasn’t fighting at his side spoke volumes. He couldn’t call her to him, because he remembered very little—certainly not a sin he had committed against her. He remembered her voice, soft and melodious, like an angel singing from the heavens—only she was saying she would have no part of a Carpathian male.
His heart jumped. Had she refused his claim? Had he bound her to him without her consent? It was accepted in his society, a protection for the male when a female was reluctant. That was not a betrayal. What could he have done? He would never have touched another woman. He would have protected her as he had Jacque’s lifemate, with his life and beyond if possible.
He was in a place of judgment and so far he didn’t seem to be faring very well and maybe that was because he wasn’t remembering. He lifted his head and showed his teeth to hundreds, maybe thousands, of Carpathian males who had chosen to give up their souls, decimated their own species, ruining a society and a way of life for the rush of feeling rather than holding on to honor—rather than holding on to the memory of hope of a lifemate.
“I refuse your judgment. I will never belong with you. I may have stained my soul, perhaps beyond redemption, but I would never willingly give it up or trade my honor as you did. I may be all the things you have said, but will face my lifemate, not you, and let her decide whether my sins can be forgiven.”
The vampires hissed, bony fingers pointing accusingly, but they didn’t attack him. It made no sense—with their superior numbers they could easily destroy him—yet their forms grew less solid and seemed to waver so it was difficult to distinguish between the undead and the shadows within the darkness of the rainforest.
The back of his neck tingled and he spun around. The vampires receded deeper into the bushes, the big leafy plants seemingly swallowing them. His stomach burned and his body cried out for food, but he was more confused than ever. The vampires had him trapped. Danger surrounded him. He could feel it in the very stillness. All rustle of life ceased around him. There was no flutter of wings, no scurry of movement. He lifted his head and scented the air. It was still, absolutely still and yet there was…
Instinct, more than actual sound alerted him and Manolito spun around, still on his knees, hands going up just as the large jaguar sprung at him.