Dante slugged him before he could finish the insult. "Pandora Kouti-Pontis is my mate. If you speak of her with anything other than extreme reverence in your tone, you piss me off."
Aristotle turned pale. "I had no idea she belonged to you. Believe me."
"Now you do, and if I ever see any of you near her again, I'll end all your problems. Permanently."
Pandora was sitting in the Grandstand Lounge with Acheron, his daughter demon Simi, and two gods while they waited for Dante's return.
This had to be the oddest moment of her life. The demon was busy eating an extremely rare hamburger drenched in barbecue sauce while the gods and Acheron were telling Pandora stories about how they'd all met Dante.
Apparently her mate had quite a rambunctious club that catered to all manner of bizarre clientele. The gods and Acheron made routine visits there.
Zurvan, who went by the name Cas, was the ancient Persian god of time and space. He was the elegantly dressed man she had followed earlier toward the elevators, thinking he was Acheron.
Ariman—not to be confused with the Persian god Ariman—had been an ancient Phoenician god who had had the misfortune of visiting Atlantis at the time the continent was destroyed. He'd been in human form, trying to seduce a young woman, and as a result, he was now trapped in human form with no god powers except immortality.
He wasn't happy about it either.
"I really wish one of you would take mercy on me and fix me or kill me," Ariman said for the fifth time since he had joined them at their table.
Cas rolled his eyes, then turned toward Acheron. "I think we ought to banish him from our presence so we can't hear him bitch anymore."
"You're such—" Ariman's words broke off as he spotted the women who weren't wearing anything except warning tape. "Later." He bolted after the women.
Cas shook his head. "He is never going to learn, is he?"
Ash took a drink of beer before he responded. "Be grateful he doesn't. It gives us endless hours of amusement watching him screw his life up."
Cas snorted. "Considering how screwed up yours is, that says something."
"Let's not go there," Ash said, his eyes flashing red before they returned to their spooky swirling silver shade.
Sometimes it was very scary to hang out with supernatural beings.
She froze at the sound of a voice she never thought to hear again. Afraid she was hearing things, she turned to see her sister Sefia running up to her.
Pandora shot to her feet to throw her arms around her sister. Oh, it was too good to be real! "What are you doing here, Sef?"
"Your mate brought me," she said as tears poured down her cheeks. "He made them let us all go. Now it's up to us if we want to return to our mates or not."
Pandora was stunned as she looked past her sister to see Dante and his brothers approaching at a much more sedate pace.
"Dante?" she asked as he stopped by her side.
He shrugged nonchalantly as if he hadn't just given her the impossible. "It wasn't right what they were doing to their females and I figured you'd rather travel with your own female kind than with mine."
She still couldn't believe he'd done this. He had formed a new pack of female panthers for her to roam with. "What about the pact they made with our pack?"
"It's dissolved," Dante said. "If they pull any more of your kin out of their time period, I'm going to send them a special welcoming committee."
"Damn, Dante," Cas said from behind her. "That's harsh. Last time you turned your brothers loose on a pack, they left no male standing."
"I know." Dante looked back to her. "And so do they. Your sister and her friends are all safe now."
Pandora threw her arms around his shoulders and held him close. "Thank you!"
He hugged her back, then kissed her gently.
Pandora turned back to Sefia as another thought occurred to her. "What about your children?"
"Their father is raising them, per Dante's orders." Sefia looked at Dante with glowing eyes. "Your mate took all of the women to La Costa and is paying for us to stay and be pampered there for as long as we like."
"And we volunteered to guard them," Mike said, indicating himself and Leo.
"Is that a good idea?" Pandora asked Dante. After all he and Romeo had said about the twins, she wasn't sure whether having them as guards would be a help or a hindrance.
Dante's face mirrored her skepticism. "I personally don't think so, but Romeo talked me into it. There's a large number of the females who aren't mated."
"And Dante owes us big after the filking fiasco," Leo said irritably. "There weren't any naked women there, just some guy singing about Star Trek and Romulan brew. It really pissed us off."
Pandora had to stifle her laughter.
"Are you going to come with us?" Sefia asked. "Pandora felt a lot more torn than she should have. Spending time with her sister at a resort or staying with a Katagari panther at Dragon*Con…"
There shouldn't be a choice.
So why did she feel this way?
"It's entirely up to you," Dante said quietly. "I told you I wouldn't interfere with your freedom.""C'mon, Dora," Sefia said, taking her hand. "We're going to have a lot of fun."
Dante's face was completely stoic and yet she sensed his sadness.
"I'll be back soon," Pandora promised him.
"I'll take them upstairs to my room to flash them to the resort," Romeo said.
Dante didn't speak as he watched his brothers disappear into the crowd with Pandora and Sefia.
He'd done a good deed and now he knew why he hated doing good deeds.
They were painful.
What did he get out of it? Not a damn thing except a pain so profound that he felt as if something were shredding his heart.
"Here," Ash said, handing him a beer. "Have a seat."
Sighing, Dante took the beer and grabbed the chair where Pandora had been sitting on his arrival. "I did the right thing, right?"
"No," Simi said as she wiped barbecue sauce off her chin. "The panther woman didn't want you to leave her and now you made her go away. That was just stupid if you ask the Simi. Not that anyone ever does, 'cause if they did, then they would be smart. Some people are smart. But many, like you, are too stupid to ask me what I think. See?"
"It's not that simple, Simi," Dante said, wondering why he was trying to explain himself to a demon who had no understanding of human emotions or animal relationships. "She doesn't want me to own her."
"Well, the Simi doesn't understand that. Owning's not so bad. I own akri and he kind of fun."
Dante arched a brow at Ash who didn't bother to correct his demon.
Whatever. Those two were far beyond his understanding anyway.
"I'm telling you, Faith," a woman said as she and a friend walked by them. "There's a portal in the handicap stall downstairs that allows people to drop in from alternate universes. I was in there with Amanda helping her with her costume when this woman popped in, holding an axe. She immediately popped back out."
Dante laughed at that, even though a fierce pain cut through him at the memory.
Only his pantheress would be so bold as to defy his orders.
"I better go pay for that axe before someone puts out an APB on my mate," he said to Ash, Cas, and Simi.
But as he got up and headed down to the dealers' room, he couldn't squelch the need he felt to find Pandora and bring her back.
He wouldn't do that to her.
Dante was nothing if not a panther of his word.
Pandora spent two days in La Costa with her sister and the other females while Leo and Mike tutored them well on how to use their powers. They also tutored some of the unmated females on things she didn't even want to think about.
But none of her newfound freedom made her happy.
In fact, the longer she stayed here, the more her heart ached. Every time her gaze fell to her marked hand, she thought about the panther she'd left behind.
No, she thought about the man. The one who had given her so much.
"How's Dante doing?"
She paused outside the sliding glass door that led to Mike and Leo's room. The two panthers were in there alone and she wasn't sure which one was which. One of them was resting in a blue recliner, while the other appeared to have just ended a phone call.
That one tossed a cell phone to the dresser before he shrugged. "Romeo said he's still screwed up."
The one in the chair sighed heavily. "Yeah. I can't believe he didn't tell Pandora about his phobia."
"What phobia?" Pandora asked as she came through the door to confront them.
The twins looked at her sheepishly.
"It's not nice to eavesdrop," the one in front of the dresser said in a reprimanding tone.
She was in no mood to take that from him. "And it's not nice to talk about people either, but since you're talking about my mate, I'd like to know what you mean."
The twins exchanged a pained look.
"What do you think, Mike?" Leo was the one who'd had the cell phone.
Mike leaned back in his recliner as he silently debated for a few seconds more. "Might as well tell her, I guess. I don't see what it would hurt."
Leo let out a loud breath before he spoke again.
He looked at her. "When Dante was a cub, he and his litter and a group of our cousins escaped their babysitter and went out prowling on their own. After a few hours, they got lost and one of the females with them got really scared because it was getting dark. She didn't want to try and find her way back until morning so Dante agreed to stay with her and keep her safe. Our brother Sal told Dante he'd be back with help and then led the others off."
Pandora frowned at his story. "Why would that make him phobic?"
"Because it was a cruel prank," Mike said bitterly. "As soon as Dante went to sleep, Tyla snuck out and they all headed back home without him. Dante woke up alone and had no idea what had happened to her or how to get home. He was terrified."
Pandora was appalled at how mean his siblings and cousins had been to leave him behind. A cub on its own could be picked up by humans and put in a zoo or, worse, killed by any adult wild animal that came across it.
"They left him there by himself for a solid week," Leo continued with the story. "Every time someone asked about Dante, they made up some lie about where he was. When Donatello found out what they'd done, he went back to the woods to get him. He found Dante practically starved to death. He'd been living off scraps and having to keep predators away with no help. He was weak from exposure, but still he'd kept searching for Tyla, afraid something had happened to her."