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Dolan knew where to find heror at least, how. Her scent was all over this mountainous "sky island" territory, the fat junipers and sage and high ground. The hint of her ancient Vigilia nature tingled beneath, along with the sharp smell of the occasional pine.
The daughter. The one who'd grown up apart from them
who barely realized what she was. If anyone could help, it was her. Meghan Lawrence. Child of a Sentinel who'd died for the cause.
A woman who'd long ago rejected them all, just as they'd rejected her.
On the eastern horizon, menace loomed in a long, hazy cloud that had no business in this southwestern spring skythe Atrum Core, keeping track of this area, their dark presence a constant itch between his shoulder blades. For all he knew, they and their twisted prince sought the very same trail he now followed.
He'd have to get there first.
Nearby, an ATV crawled clumsily over fragile soil, chewing up plant life. Dolan veered off in annoyance, a silent snarl on his lips. The rideroblivious beneath a helmetcrept forward in jerks and stops, challenged by the rugged nature of the protected ground. This, too, was why Dolan was here. Sentinel of the earth in all ways.
He eased back down to ghost along behind and above the man, taking up a loose-limbed trot. Biding his time. Controlling the thrill of the hunt that made his ears flatten, his head sink lower. This wasn't the hunt. This was the job. His life.
And so when the time was right, when the ground slanted sharply away but not too sharply, when the creosote and scrub oaks offered uphill cover, Dolan coiled himself on powerful legs and freed his ever-simmering anger, leaping to smack the ATV rider right off his machine and tumbling down the slope.
He almost couldn't control the impulse to follow the hunt, the kill, the satisfaction, strong jaws crunching bone; he took his ire out on the machine instead, shredding the plastic and cables and vulnerable exposed guts. Even as the rider lifted his head, Dolan whirled and bounded into the brush, surging with instincts and impulses that wanted to stay. To kill.
A mile away he stopped, crouching into the wispy grasses and rough ground, panting. Leaving the man behind to return to his own forbidden quest.
He wasn't supposed to be here. He was supposed to have waited in Sonoita for orders, for a team. Waited until too late. Just as his brother had.
He folded his whiskers back tight with disdain, crouched down close to the earth and dismissed the Sentinels from his thoughts. He closed his eyes, opened his nose and rediscovered the trail. The woman. The dark quest he'd been following before he'd indulged himself.
No. It's part of the job. Of protecting this territory. Not just from the evil that menaced it, the Atrum Core, but from the mundane things as well. The man would think twice before returning here, embroidering the story of his brush with death until his friends ceased to truly believe himbut they, too, might also think twice the next time they went four-wheeling on protected lands.
And the man might have seen a flash of black, might have felt the brush of fur and whisker and massive paw
but nothing more. For all he knew, he'd been nailed by a desert Bigfoot.
Not a huge, sleek and healthy black jaguar with startling blue eyes and a man's thoughts.
Meghan saw him coming. She knew him instantly for what he was; her mother had taught her that much before she'd died. Vigilia. Sentinel. Those who had failed her mother. Those who had sent her out to die alone.
Another couple of steps and it hit her in a literal gasp of realizationhis other nature.
a fine young man who takes the jaguar.
Jaguar. In every step, emanating from his very being
as clear to Meghan as if he'd stalked up to her in form, just as her mother's coyote had always glimmered clearly to Meghan's younger eyes.
The horse knew what he was, too, and she barely managed to secure the side rein snap before he leaped away, pulling from her grasp to gallop in panicked circles at the outside edge of the training pen. Around and around, flashing repeatedly between her and the approaching man, tail clamped tight and ears back, side reins flapping.
She walked toward the man from within the pen, her stomach already churning. Never mind the way he movedfluidly, each step deliberate and yet barely contained. Never mind his expressionso alert, so intenseor the very direct way he approached her. She could have closed her eyes and still known him as Sentinel. As a jaguar.
That was one of her mother's legacies. The connections, whether she wanted them or not.
He was close now, close enough to see that his eyes weren't black at all, but a deep, startling blue. Close enough so the terrified gelding fled to the opposite side of the pipe panel round pen, snorting and grunting his fear.
She slipped between the metal rails and straightened as he came to a stop. She didn't give him time to speak. "I know what you are. Who you are." She felt it in every fiber of her being, a strange reverberation that raised the hair on her arms. "You're not welcome here."
He lifted his chin ever so slightly. Instead of resentment or disappointment, interest flickered in those eyes. "You think you know what I am."
She fought the urge to take a step back. Nothing but cold metal pipe behind her. "I know enough." She wouldn't make the mistake of listening to Sentinel wordsto Sentinel requests. Especially not from this man.
He eased closer, off to the side, as though looking at her from a slightly different angle would somehow improve his perception of her. "I didn't know your mother." The morning light flashed against his eyes, bringing out their clarity; it skipped along the angles of his cheek and jaw and got lost in the gloss of thick black hair. All black, so wrong for this climate
black jeans, black leather biker jacket. "But I know of her. We all do."
She snorted. It wasn't delicate. "Right, because she was your patsy. She let you talk her into dangers she shouldn't even have been near."
At that he shook his head, short and almost imperceptible. "Not I."
"As if it matters," she said, bitterness leaking through along with disbelief. The noises of the ranch folded in around herhorses calling to each other in reaction to the gelding's fear; human voices raised as they queried each other, pausing in chores. They were her family now, the people who worked rescue with her. And they didn't need this interference any more than she did. "You know what? I'm busy. And you're scaring the hell out of this horse. Go away, Sentinel."
"He'll get used to me," the man said absently. "They do." He shifted again, still watching her. Still giving her that shivery feeling, the same one she'd felt all morning. He'd probably been watching her that long. Abruptly, he crouched, resting his elbows on his knees to look up at her. Damned well settling in. "I haven't yet done what I've come for."
"You probably think it's important, too." Something to do with saving the world. With asking too much, just as they'd asked too much of her motherwhatever it had been. Some vital mission. Something impossible that her kind, life-loving mother had no chance to survive. "But I won't. So, seriously. Go away now." With someone else, she might have hidden her irritation, taken the blunt edge out of her voice. But this man
She felt as though she already knew him. As though he made no attempt to hide any of himself from her, and as though she had no need to hide herself in return, not even to soften that bluntness.
And so when he started, "The Atrum Core" she didn't let him finish. She knew the Atrum Core organization held the bad guys; it seemed as though she'd always known. They were ancient power mongers, sucking energy from the land to use for themselves, never heeding the cost to the earth or individuals. She didn't need to be told again, and she especially didn't need to hear what he wanted her to do to fight them. The Atrum Core had been out of her mother's league; they were far, far out of hers. She held up her hand, and he stopped. He didn't like it, but he gave her that much here on her own land, her own turf.
"I," she said, each word distinct, "do not care. Do you really think there's more to it than the little incestuous battles between the Sentinels and the Core? Do you think it matters to the rest of the world? Because if so, you need to get out more often."
She expected to make him angry, to set those eyes flashing. She expected a retort
she'd even hoped to send him stomping off in reaction. But he only watched her for a long moment, hands relaxed.
She didn't expect him to say, so quietly, "Your mother was not a patsy. She was a hero."
Unexpected tears prickled at her eyes and nose; her throat tightened. Ten years old she'd been when her mother died. Ten. And she still didn't know what had happened that night. Only that her mother had been wearily satisfied with what she'd accomplishedand then she'd gone off to lead the Core astray. Alone. "Yeah, well, guess what. I'm not. Not a patsy, not a hero. Your people are users and liars, and they're not getting both of us."
His hands tightened briefly into fists, then opened again, a deliberate effort. He stood, abruptly enough so she stiffened in response. "You're right. They can be both of those things." He looked at her as though she weren't wearing old jeans and scarred boots and plenty of barn dirt, her dark hair escaping from its sun-streaked ponytail in spite of the ball cap she wore. He looked long enough that she suddenly wondered what he saw. He added, "But I'm not."
Not like that. Sure.
Her throat hadn't loosened yet. Her words came out hoarse and a little desperate even to her own ears, though every bit as intent as they'd been the first time. "I want you to go."
He eased back a step; in some odd way it seemed like advance instead of retreat. He lifted his chin slightly, acknowledging her words. "Leaving now," he said, "would waste your mother's sacrifice. You don't give her enough credit
. Neither did we. But I'm beginning to understand just what happened here fifteen years ago. I thought you would want to know, too
to help preserve what she accomplished."
She barely had time to process that this man knew what she didn'tknew what her mother had done, and why she'd died. And then, quite suddenly, he was looking at her from beneath a lowered brow, the kind of look that seemed charming on Clooney and yet downright dark on this man. "I'll go," he said, forestalling the deep breath she nearly took to repeat the demand. "But I'm not leaving. I'm not done here, Meg."
"Meghan," she said. "Not Meg. Not Meggie. Not anymore."
He acknowledged that with the slightest tip of his head. "Meghan. Before I go, I need to warn you"
"The Atrum Core," she said. "Yeah, yeah."
He moved so quickly she didn't realize until too late that he had trapped her against the round pen pipe panels. Just suddenly
he was there, taller than she'd thought and closing her in an intimate cage, his hands gripping the top pipe on either side of her shoulders. There was a growl low in his throat; her whole body clenched in response to ita fear and flight response, as well as the recognition of what he was. "Don't," he said, and stopped, closing his eyes to take a deep breath. Control. In that moment she heard nothing but the galloping pace of her own heartbeat, loud enough so surely he must hear it, too. He released his breath through flared nostrils and opened his eyes to pin her with his gaze, direct and inescapable. "Don't take them so lightly," he said. "You may not count yourself as one of us, but you can be sure that they do. That Fabron Gausto does. If he finds you here, death will be the least of what your people will suffer."
She didn't have time for a response before he tore himself away, heading back to the ridge that rose up to the south of the ranch buildings. Even if she'd found the words, she wouldn't have shouted them at his back. She stood, shell-shocked, right where he'd left her, staring dumbly after him with just enough presence of mind to realize she was trembling.
He stopped his ground-eating pace and turned to look back at her, so deliberately she thought he might even return. But instead a sudden strobe of intense blue light scattered and fractured, startling her eyes. She blinked, and that was all the longer it took for him to change. To become other.
Knowing it was one thing. Seeing it was another. One moment a man, the next
black and low and lithe, staring back at her with intelligence. Jaguar. As she'd thought
only deep, dappled black, not gold and rosette. The jaguar once native to this area, stronger and heavier of bone than a leopard, imbued with power. He hesitated there, tail held low and twitching, as if waiting for Meghan's response.
But Meghan stood transfixed, pinned by both memories and unwilling awe. Behind her, the gelding stamped a foot and snorted, a high blast of alarm that would carry across the whole ranch. The black jaguar turned and bounded away, effortlessly scaling steep ground into the cover of juniper, oak and pine.
And Meghan sagged against the metal pipe behind her, cursing his presence herecursing the Sentinels, cursing the Atrum Core
cursing the jaguar who'd finally shown up. Hearing his words echo in her mind.
You may not count yourself as one of us, but you can be sure that they do.
Dolan surprised himself by returning to the slopes above the Lawrence ranch. He'd let the jaguar have the night, submersing most of his humanity until sunrise. He hadn't expected to find himself here come dawn, with the hard glint of light skipping over the tops of the opposite ridge. He squeezed cat eyes closed against itand opened the eyes of a man. Colors brighter but not quite as crisp, movements dulled from sharp clarity to mere smears.
Below, the ranch spread out in a series of outbuildings, paddocks and a main house with a satellite casita. Still sleeping, all of them. Even the horses were silent, slouching in the sunshine to shake the chill of the high desert night.
He wondered if his brother had made it this far.
Leave it alone. You'll never know.
He shouldn't have come back.