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By Amelia Elias
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.Copyright © 2006 Amelia Elias
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Chapter OneThe intruder cleared his throat again and Diego pulled back at once. He looked up and found Eli standing at the foot of the bed, arms folded over his chest and dark eyes sparkling with the strange power that always emanated from him. He was the very last person Diego wanted to see.
Oh, this was not good at all.
It was Eli to whom Diego had given his vow all those years ago when he'd joined the Guardian's League, Eli who had brought him the shattering news of his brother's death a century ago, Eli who had slain his brother's killers and deprived Diego of the revenge he had so richly deserved. Seeing him made Diego's heart ache with the memory. It had also been Eli who had told him of the Governing Council's decree after Anton's death and robbed Diego of anything remotely resembling a normal life.
A visit from Eli was rarely good news.
Vampires were intrinsically sensual, their very nature seductive, always conscious of the chase and the thrill of victory whether in battle or in the bedroom. Diego had always reveled in both kinds of victories. As Patriarch of the Panther Clan, providing heirs had been his elder brother Anton's responsibility, a duty Anton hadn't delivered before his death.
The Governing Council had stepped in and commanded Diego to take his brother's place as Patriarch, despite Diego's protests that as the only surviving member of the Clan, having a Patriarch at all was pointless. It had been the wrong argument to use. Now not only was Diego the Patriarch of a Clan consisting only of himself, they'd decreed the next woman he bedded must become his mate and provide the heirs Anton had not. Diego had avoided the eternal bonding they'd insisted upon in the only way he could. He had been celibate ever since they'd issued the damn command.
A century added up to a lot of long, lonely nights.
Diego scooted away from the unconscious woman as fast as possible, wishing he'd remembered the damn decree before he'd collapsed there and well aware of what their current position implied. "Eli-"
Eli only smiled at him. "At last, Diego," he said, sounding pleased. "We were starting to think you'd never choose a mate."
Diego went cold. "No!" he protested. "I didn't-"
Eli held up a hand. "Congratulations," he interrupted, still smiling. "I'm here to formally recognize your mate on behalf of the Council."
Diego's jaw dropped. Eli looked disgustingly smug standing there as if he expected no resistance at all. Diego protested even though he had the sinking feeling it wouldn't do any good.
"This has nothing to do with the cursed decree!" he hissed, trying not to wake the subject of their argument. "I did not sleep with this woman!"
He might as well have saved his breath for all the good it did him.
"Diego, take a look around you," Eli said, utterly calm in contrast to Diego's fury. He raised one eyebrow as he glanced at the discarded garter belt on the floor beside the bed before giving the woman wearing Diego's shirt a pointed glance. "I find your story a little hard to believe. The evidence is certainly compelling, and when I got here you were wrapped around her like a second skin. Now you're honestly going to tell me you two haven't-"
"That's exactly what I'm telling you!" Diego knew this looked bad but he had to make Eli understand. "Look, I saved her life-"
"Oh, now it makes sense," Eli said with a nod, but those eyes still danced with what Diego could have sworn was amusement. "Healing is a very intimate process. It would be only natural to-"
"Don't even say it." Diego actually cringed. "It did not happen!"
Eli studied him for a long moment. Those eerie black eyes seemed to see all the way to Diego's soul and it was almost impossible not to squirm under the piercing gaze. Diego hated it when Eli used his penetrating stare on him, and he was pretty sure Eli knew it.
He was also pretty sure that was exactly why Eli did it.
After a moment which seemed like an eternity, Eli shrugged. "In the end it doesn't matter, Diego," he said. "Despite what you seem to think, we didn't issue this decree on a whim. High-blood vampires are rare. It is far past time for you to take a mate and secure your line, and the omens all indicated the next female you took to bed would become your bondmate. I see you there in the bed with a woman. She is your mate. Why do you fight it?" He spoke with complete calm as though Diego's refusal to comply was completely unreasonable.
It made Diego's blood boil even as he still scrambled for a way out. How dare they interfere in his life based on some ridiculous omen? He didn't want a bondmate, damn it. He didn't need another person to protect, didn't want this woman made a target for the beasts he hunted simply because she wore a vampire's bondmark on her arm. Maybe someday he'd bond but was it too much to ask to let him choose his own mate, a vampire instead of a fragile mortal?
His thoughts stuttered to a stop. A mortal! Relief burst through him and Diego thanked the heavens. The perfect way out was there all along. "She's not even one of us, Eli," he said as the tight band around his chest loosened. Even Eli had to see the irrefutability of this argument. "She's mortal. She can't be my mate."
Eli shrugged. "I don't think you'll find her mortality a problem."
For a moment all Diego could do was gape. "Are you being deliberately obtuse, Eli? Of course it's a problem! I can't bond with her without Changing her, and you know as well as I do it's forbidden for a fledgling to bond with her own sire. Even you and your damn Council can't force me to take a mortal as my mate!"
Eli raised an eyebrow. This time his amusement was unmistakable. "I can't?"
Diego's heart sank and he regretted his outburst at once. He knew better than to issue any kind of challenge to Eli but something about the man made him act like a rash fledgling.
"Don't, Eli," Diego said, trying to sound stern instead of intimidated. He couldn't really force this, could he? Still, if half the things murmured about Eli were true ... "Whatever you're thinking, don't."
"It's out of my hands. It's already done," Eli said, and Diego wanted to strangle him. "She's a pretty girl. I'm sure you'll make the best of it."
His smugness was the last straw. "Damn it, it's not only my life you're playing with now. What about hers? You don't even know she's not already married. What do you think gives you the right to force a mortal into this? Being Head of the Council doesn't give you the right to play God!"
The amusement left Eli's eyes but his tone didn't change. "I know everything about her I need to know. There's no husband, no family, no roommate waiting for her half of the rent. She needs you, Diego," Eli said. "As you said, it's her life now too. Don't screw this up or you'll both regret it."
He turned and walked out before Diego could get out another word. The slam of the bedroom door behind him sounded like the crack of doom.
"I already regret it!" Diego shouted after him, knowing it was futile.
He sucked in a breath as the skin around his left wrist suddenly started to tingle. Horror filled him as a dark circle of twisted runes appeared there, a tattoo-like bracelet marking him mated. He grabbed the woman's hand and saw the same incomprehensible runes tracing their path over her pale skin.
"Oh no," Diego whispered, falling back on the pillows and groaning. There was no way out now. It was done, it was permanent, and it was completely impossible. Those marks shouldn't have appeared until after he'd thrice shared body, mind, and blood with this woman but Eli had apparently found a way to force them onto the unwilling. Diego felt as if he'd been plunged into a nightmare. Who knew the Council would be this ... well, literal? "This can't be happening!"
It was no use denying it. Diego swore viciously in Spanish as his eyes fell again on the bondmarks now encircling their arms like shackles.
Impossible or not, he was bonded to a mortal woman and he didn't even know her name.
Excerpted from Hunted by Amelia Elias Copyright © 2006 by Amelia Elias. Excerpted by permission.
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