Wednesday, March 20, 2019

CHAPTER ONE PREVIEW: Mayhem and the Marquess (Lords of Havoc Book 1) by Win Hollows

by Win Hollows

Lords of Havoc, 1
Win Hollows Copyright © 2019

Chapter One

Leeds, Yorkshire December 28th, 1840
“Why won’t you just go away?” Asher whispered, teeth squeaking from the force of his clenched jaw.
No one answered. That’s what usually happens when one talks to oneself, he had found. Twasn’t a socially acceptable habit, and a fat lot of good it did him anyways. He should probably stop.
The smokestacks of Leeds on the brightening horizon outside his room’s window evoked a more visceral reaction in the Marquess of Blackbourne than most would say was warranted. It was that time of morning when the sky blushed a surreal cast of tangerine over the face of all things. The vast majority would consider it lovely, if one was impressed by the sort of tenacious urbane beauty to be found in moments like these.
He wasn’t one of them.
“Your attention is woefully divided of late. Come back to bed,” the blonde woman complained from atop his bed’s counterpane where she lay in deliberately tempting dishabille.
His heart beat a panicked tattoo under the lawn shirt he hadn’t bothered to change from the night before. He always dreaded this part, knowing he would have to obey her command eventually.
Asher smiled briefly at her and looked back at the sharply interrupted sky which both repulsed and kept him rapt.
It had begun again already, more quickly this time than last. Geometric shapes within the outlines of buildings formed in front of his eyes, numbers appearing soon thereafter. Lines were drawn, and equations melted into one another in succession. All angles and patterns were laid bare, and he connected the information into a supposition concerning Leeds’s geo-industrial development on the East Bank in recent years. This all occurred in the time it took lightning to complete an arc in the sky.
After his mind had examined and discarded those thoughts, it moved on to calculating the speed of the carriage trundling down the street below, taking into account the measurements between landmarks, the curve of the street, and time it took between those measurements. Just for fun, he threw in the number of times the carriage wheel rotated per second.
He closed his eyes, willing the flashes of thoughts to stop. Sometimes this worked. This time, it did not. Tendrils of pain began to worm their way through his head and dissolve as quadratics danced behind his eyes.
Shame washed through him. He would not let it win.
A memory seethed to the surface. He had been nineteen years old the last time it had won.
Upon his parents’ death in a house fire, solicitors had come to Cambridge for the reading of the will and to bestow upon him his birthright as their only child. But instead of being able to concentrate on the words spoken, his mind had raced behind and ahead, calculating how long it would have taken his family’s manor home to burn, solicitor’s fees, funeral costs, the time it took to die from smoke inhalation, staff change pensions, the temperature of melting skin, estate management records, and a thousand other things he knew he was now responsible for.
The pain, sudden and sharp, had pierced his mind like an arrow. He had cried out and doubled over, clutching his head and pulling at his hair. Unresponsive to touch or sound, his mind had trapped him in a place where only agony existed, only trains of numbers rushing in, pits of hypotheses and cages comprised of innumerable matrices.
He had been told later that those in the room thought it might
be a reaction to the sudden and terrible news. However, it soon became clear that it wasn’t grief affecting him, but something else entirely.
Shocked, the solicitors had called for a doctor and a mental competency hearing. His mind had been declared sound but unstable, and so every few months since, eager men in suits would appear to assess his faculties and suitability in governing the Marquessate.
He could not afford to ever let it win.
“Take off your clothes,” he said to the woman through gritted teeth.
An opera singer, she was. He remembered her name—he remembered every name he’d ever heard. Yet he didn’t use it.
“Already done, Lord Blackbourne,” she informed him in calculated tones.
He turned and opened his eyes, taking in her form. The equations disappeared, obliterated by simple need. He went to her swiftly and laid her back on the bed. She squealed in high-pitched giggles and drew him down. The pain receded as his hands smoothed over her hips, and he pushed aside any guilt he had over the use of her body. She didn’t mind, and as long as his head was filled with her heady perfume and tangled limbs, he welcomed the oblivion her lust invoked. For now, he only had to tire himself to exhaustion in her arms to earn a few more hours of blessedly blank sleep.
And tonight, he would start the search for another diversion again after he attended his Society’s monthly lecture series. Maybe a brunette next time, to keep his mind busy with the novelty. He made sure they never cared, he reminded himself, sinking into the insensibility of skin and heat...
Ivette stopped to rest in the alleyway. She put the handles of

the cart down and wiped the droplets of sweat from her brow. Though the night was frigid, she could feel perspiration trickling down her neck and chest. Her small, wheeled handcart of porcelain vases seemed to become heavier by the minute, siphoning the vestiges of her energy more quickly than she could recover.
It was only a little further to go, however, so she took a deep breath and mustered her remaining stores of willpower for the last stretch of the journey to Merchant Fabrice’s townhome. He would be waiting for this special delivery, hopefully with a contract soon to
“Chin up, Ivy,” she murmured to herself. “You are no

withering vine.” She snorted at her jest and then sighed as she grabbed the handles of the cart and began pushing it once more.
The darkness of the night didn’t frighten her. It hadn’t for a long time. Despite her slight stature, her awareness of the city’s underworld and the knife stashed between her corset strings quelled any concern she might have had about being accosted in this area.
In fact, it was safer to travel at night in this case. Pickpockets and traffic were much more likely to disrupt her cart during the day, and she couldn’t let that happen.
This was going to be her saving grace. After almost two years working at a paper mill in the bustling city of Leeds to survive, she had finally caught her break. When the dye merchant Fabrice Rouleau had seen a painting of a vase she had given to the miller’s wife as a wedding gift, he had informed her that she could make them both wealthy with her talent.
“I have connections to the manufacturing designers for Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, and they often contract design work to artists they deemed worthy. I have represented two other artists to them in the past.”
Ivette’s eyes had grown round as paint pots. “You truly think I could paint for Wedgwood?”
Fabrice had chuckled. “I assure you, if you can design a showcase as good as this painting that meets with approval at Wedgwood, I will offer you a contract. You will be paid handsomely on a regular basis for your work.”
Ever since, she had been laboring round the clock after her shifts at the mill to complete designs on the six large vases that now sat in her rented handcart.
“However,” Fabrice had warned her, “If the showcase isn’t ready on time, there won’t be another chance. I cannot waste time or money purchasing more porcelain for you to work with. I need a business partner, understand?”
Ivette had smiled. She understood, all right, and Hell would freeze over before she let this opportunity pass her by. Nothing else was more important than this showcase.
Pulling the cart down the empty cobblestone street, she looked at the numbers on the low stone wall passing by. 2224 Corsair Place,
2226 Corsair Place...
Finally. There it was, right on the corner. 2228 Corsair Place.

Mr. Fabrice Rouleau lived here while looking in on his factories. She would not miss the long days of working the paper press,
pulling the large steam-powered stamps up and down and up and down, marking the newly mulched paper with the different stationary designs required for each order. Though she also designed the expensive stationary watermarks that were now associated with the Mill’s brand, it was mostly tedious, sweat-drenched days that often turned into nights.
Yet lately, even when she worked more hours than anyone else, she didn’t have enough to pay for her boardinghouse rent or enough food to eat. Rents had been climbing steadily since other factories for wool, printing, and iron had been built nearby. Now there were too many people wanting rooms near the industrial center, and she knew that it wouldn’t be long before she could not afford to keep her closet-sized room and communal privy. If something didn’t change, she would be back on the streets in the middle of winter, a situation she knew from experience could be fatal.
Her neighbor down the hall, Priscilla, said she should start accepting late-night customers to make rent as she did. The young redhead had told her that, with her abundance of chocolate-colored hair and large blue eyes, men would line up to take her to bed. But the thought of that made her stomach clench. It just wasn’t for her. No matter how many times she had to forgo a meal or steal an item of clothing from the morgue’s refuse bin, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Sometimes, she lied in bed and wished there was a man there to just hold her. To keep her warm and tell her that he would make sure everything was all right. The sort of men that liked to visit Priscilla, however, weren’t the type that stayed. They never did, no matter how prettily Priscilla spoke to them and did their bidding.
Besides, she couldn’t allow herself to be intimate with anyone. Her tainted family blood had eliminated that possibility before she’d ever had a chance to make the decision for herself. Who her father was would forever determine her future.
Tears of relief welled in her eyes. A life of worrying about keeping a roof over her head would soon be over. Each vase had taken her many hours, and she knew the work she had done on them
was immaculate. Fabrice would be impressed, she was sure. She turned to maneuver her cart to the side of the walkway, and then swiveled backwards to drag the cart up the white steps of the immense home, anxious to see the man who would ensure her future.
As she turned to face the gate, a large mass rammed into her shoulder, shoving her slight body into the cart at her right and sending it toppling over on its side. As if it took an hour instead of a second, her breath caught, and she watched as the contents of the cart crashed to the ground and shattered.
“No!” she cried, falling to her knees to examining the shards of pottery. Not one vase had been left intact. She felt her future slipping away as flakes of snow already began to scatter over the intricate designs.
“What have you done?” Ivette sobbed, gathering the broken pieces towards her. Why, she didn’t know. They were useless now. She looked up to see a tall, elderly man with a gray beard and glasses standing over her.
“I’m sorry, madam,” He squinted at her in puzzlement. “Didn’t see you there. Came around the corner too fast, I think,” the man said, itching his head.
As if speaking too loudly would summon more doom upon her, she whispered, “You’ve ruined everything. My life.” She indicated the pieces scattered across the damp cobblestones. Ivette looked up at the man who had just quite literally broken her future irreparably.
“I’ll pay for it all, never worry. Reginald Morganstern pays his debts,” he guaranteed, giving her shoulder an awkward pat.
She met his eyes and frowned. One bushy eyebrow was coming off of his face. She narrowed her gaze on his skin—his remarkably young skin. “Are you—are you wearing a false beard? And a wig?”
Asher’s hands immediately went to his face. The long gray

beard was still intact, as was his matching wig.
“Erm... No, of course not. That would be ridiculous.” He

chuckled in his best old-man rasp.
“All right,” she answered. “But I think you should know your

eyebrow is falling off.”
“Wha-?” He reached for his eyebrows and found she was
right. The left one was dangling with no hope of being put back without more glue. He sighed and took it off the rest of the way.
In his usual dry tones, he asked, “I don’t suppose you’ll forget you ever saw me?”
She pursed her lips, looking as if she was going to cry. “Not likely, seeing as you have ruined my chance of paying my board and having food to eat and ... and,” she waved her hand in a wide arc, tears beginning to fall. “...and not accepting night visitors who won’t stay, and I’ll probably be cold forever now,” she wept, curling into a defeated heap on the walk, one shard of what looked like white and blue pottery grasped in the palm of her small hand.
Asher had no idea what she was talking about, but it was clear he had done something which had grave consequences for her. However, he couldn’t be caught dawdling out here any longer. Someone from the British Association for the Advancement of Science lecture might see him, and that wouldn’t be good at all.
He had already been questioned about his background last time, and he had made the mistake of making up a family, complete with a deceased wife and younger siblings who also took an interest in science. Now all the patrons wanted him to bring some of his family to the next soiree, and they wouldn’t be put off again. He couldn’t afford to have any more mysteries attached to his name in the Association.
He crouched down next to her and gently took the piece of pottery from her open hand as she sniffled. “Madam, you’ll cut yourself if you continue to handle those shards. Will you come with me to the inn, and we’ll sort all this out?” he asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.
She flinched, and her eyes grew wide with panic. “Don’t touch me!”
Ash drew his hand back quickly. “I’m sorry. I meant no harm, madam. I truly want to help. Tis only right, wouldn’t you say?”
She paused, and he could see she was weighing her options. In the end, her entire being seemed to let go of some invisible string holding it up, and she shrugged dejectedly, which he figured was as good a response as he was likely to get. He put his hands around her slim shoulders and pulled her up, escorting her to his carriage, which was parked only a few dozen yards away. She kept her head down, not seeming to care where she was going.
He positioned himself across from her in the carriage, wondering what he was going to do with her. He couldn’t tell much about her from her appearance. Her face was obscured by a mass of tangled hair, and the rest of her was wrapped in a nondescript cloak that had seen better days. No sounds emitted from her now, no movements, as if she’d decided to decline to participate in reacting to the debacle now that it was done.
His stomach churned with guilt as he eyed her huddled form. Asher knew he could easily repay whatever the pottery had cost, and they had looked to be high quality. Being a Marquess with a well- endowed set of estates had its advantages, and one was the luxury of not worrying about paltry sums that might have crippled another man. Offering her a comparable amount should suffice to satisfy her apparent desolation and send her on her way to whatever she had planned.
When they reached the inn, he shuffled her out of the coach and straight up the back stairs to his room, not wanting to embarrass her by having any locals note her presence in his company. Women tended to be put into a certain category after they were seen with a man at an inn, and he didn’t want to further destroy her plans, whatever they may be. She didn’t protest, letting him push her along docilely till they were safely in the privacy of his rooms and the door locked behind them.
He sighed, watching her still, silent form stand in the center of the sitting area. It was one large room that included a bed on one end and a divan, two chairs, and an already blazing fireplace on the other. The best available, he’d been assured. Still, she looked dwarfed by the surroundings, small as she was.
He realized then that he didn’t know her age, her marital status, not even her name. Tugging the wig from his head and running a hand through his dark gold locks, he blew out a stream of air. Time to resolve this matter and get back to business.
He came up behind her and put a hand gently on her shoulder, directing her to a chair near the fire. “Please sit, madam. Would you like me to send for some tea?” He tried to get a look at her face through the matted strings of hair, but couldn’t discern anything telling of her features other than that she had them.
She shook her head, keeping her face downturned.
“I would like to see to your comfort while we figure this out,
as a gentleman,” he insisted.
“None of that matters now,” she said quietly, hands curled in

her lap.
He cocked his head. “You must care a little bit to risk coming

with a stranger to a private room. You aren’t afraid of me?”
She did not look up, but spoke to her knees. “No. I long ago

learned what sort of man I have need to fear. You aren’t him.” Interesting.
“Plus,” she added flatly, “If you do try anything, you’ll learn quickly I am as skilled with a blade as you are with your silver tongue.”
He raised his brows. Now that was even more interesting.
He wasn’t used to women responding this way towards him. It might have something to do with the fact that he’d supposedly ruined her life, and he looked like a deranged old man at the moment.
Taking the other chair, he carefully peeled off his false beard and remaining eyebrow, setting the accoutrements on the round table betwixt them. Asher rubbed his jawline, making sure no vestiges of glue remained. His outdated jacket came off next, and then his padded waistcoat, freedom from the suffocating clothing causing him to sigh in relief as he draped them over the arm of the chair.
The woman’s sharp intake of breath made him glance up.
Ah, yes. There was the reaction he usually evoked in the fairer sex. Awareness.
In his disguise, he could be Reginald Morganstern, free from the trappings of his rank, reputation, responsibilities, the ability to use his mind in ways he could never show to his peers...
But as himself, there was always this.
Except, this time, it was he who couldn’t look away. Her hair was still covering most of her face, but one and a half vivid blue eyes were riveted on him, wide open and surrounded by dark sable lashes that swept down once she realized she was staring. He couldn’t help the primitive reaction of looking into eyes that had more blue depths and shades than his own, which he understood without conceit had considerable draw.
The cacophony of noise in his head quieted for the first time in what felt like years. No numbers, no equations, no diagrams whirled in frenzied loops. Just an ever-changing blue that enveloped and took up all of his concentration.
She recovered quickly. “Who are you?”
He quirked the corner of his lips into a smile. “Why, it’s me, Reginald Morganstern,” he said gruffly, adopting his alter ego’s voice.
“Never heard of him.”
He chuckled, mentally calculating the odds of this turning out in his favor. They weren’t good.
Even knowing it was unwise, he felt a keen desire to tell her. He had never told anyone this, and yet, for reasons he couldn’t fathom, he wanted to tell this woman with the blue eyes the truth. Mayhap it was precisely because they didn’t know each other, and they were unlikely to ever meet again. She clearly didn’t have contact with anyone in his social circles, so the danger might be somewhat mitigated.
Clearing his throat, he sealed his fate. “Perhaps you’ve heard of my better-known title—the Marquess of Blackbourne?”
Ivette saw him studying her reaction as her eyes widened, and

she leaned back in the wing-backed chair. “Sweet Lord Almighty.” “No, just a Marquess,” he corrected wryly.
His now clean-shaven face was devastating. Strong and

defined as his bone structure appeared, there was a sense of mischief that lit his angular features. His real hair, now that she could see it, was dark gold with a distinct wave to its texture, and his skin glowed with a golden warmth as well, though it was the dead of winter. The paunch around his middle was gone to reveal an impressively fit physique, clearly born out of regular intense physical exertion. Dressed as he was now in only a white shirt and loose black pants that had matched his ratty old man’s coat, the lines of his lithe, muscular body were all too clear. No wonder he went about town with a gray beard. If he didn’t, he’d leave a trail of swooned women in his wake.
She gulped. What had she gotten herself into? All she had wanted was to make a better life for herself. And when that had gone awry, she hadn’t known what to do. All of her work, gone. The merchant wouldn’t care about seeing fragments and dust and excuses. Up until the moment she had seen his face, she had been numb, putting one foot in front of the other, not clear what she was supposed to do. She had been almost glad to let him whisk her away in a cushioned carriage and offer to repay her. But now...
“I haven’t... I mean, I should go,” Ivette said, rising. “I don’t belong here.”
He caught her by the sleeve of her cloak and rose to tower above her. Now that she was aware of his true appearance, his height just seemed unfair.
“Wait.” He looked into her eyes and slid his hand down to embrace hers. “I meant what I said. I would like to compensate you for the contents of your cart.”
She could barely think straight with him being so close. Such men weren’t even meant to be looked upon by women like her. She decided honesty was the fastest way to leave this place. “You can’t. Second chances cannot be paid for sometimes.”
“You’d be surprised what money can buy. All sorts of things that aren’t normally for sale,” he told her, raising a brow.
Ivette’s heart sputtered. What he suggesting what she thought he was suggesting? She took her hand from his and backed away. “I’m not that kind of woman,” she said firmly.
“What? No, no, you misunderstand,” he stepped closer. “I wasn’t ... goodness, you must really think me a cad, don’t you? I suppose I did knock over your cart and give you a false name, but I can promise that all I want to do is help you.” He held out his hands.
She was suspicious by nature, but Ivette really didn’t know what to make of him. He was a Marquess, for heaven’s sake. She’d never even been within a hundred feet of an aristocrat in all her adult life, much less held hands and spoken to one in their private chambers. What did a man like this want with helping her? He couldn’t feel that burdened by her plight, could he?
“If you are indeed genuine, then I appreciate your offer. However, I wouldn’t be able to tell you the value of the vases even if I wanted to, my lord. I’m afraid I don’t know.”
He smiled, and Ivette’s knees about gave out. She was out of her depth with this man.
“That’s no matter. I’ve already figured it out,” he said matter- of-factly.
“How could you have possibly done so? You don’t even know what sort of vases they were or how many they numbered.” She didn’t mean to sound disrespectful, but her tone was incredulous.
He smirked. “Simple calculation of the average size of the shards, reassembled in appropriate geometric patterns, and the area of
the cart, coupled with the knowledge of how much such vases are worth, according to my estate records, and ... approximately four thousand, one hundred and twenty one pounds. But I thought I’d add on a hundred pounds for all the trouble I’ve put you through tonight.” After he’d finished, he blinked and then suddenly blushed, as though he’d admitted to stealing pastries from the bakery counter. “Or something like that,” he mumbled, waving his hand to indicate the inconsequentiality of his previous statement.
Ivette stared, her mouth hanging open. Just what sort of man was this? He was turning red over computing sums in his head. How strange. But the biggest question she had was, “Are you offering me four thousand pounds?”
He shrugged. “Yes.”
Ivette sat down on the divan and put her hand to her chest to calm her heart. “Four thousand pounds,” she breathed, not quite ready to believe it. With four thousand pounds, she could open her own gallery. With four thousand pounds, she would never have to worry about boarding costs or food or clothes again. This could not be real.
“But I must ask for something in return,” the Marquess said, sitting down next to her.
Here it came. Ivette stiffened, steeling herself to make the decision that Priscilla had made years ago—her pride or her survival.
She looked straight ahead, not wanting to be affected by the way his cheekbones sloped down to disappear into a chiseled jaw that looked like it was carved from marble. His scent, a subtle blend of tangy pine and amber, wrapped around her senses. She supposed there were certainly worse men to have to give up one’s morals for.
She heard him take a deep breath. “I must ask that you never tell anyone that Reginald Morganstern and I are the same man.”
Ivette’s dark brows drew together, and she shook her head. “That’s it?” She turned toward him, unsettled by how near he was.
He frowned in confusion. “Yes, that’s it. I can’t be having it bandied about that the Marquess of Blackbourne roams England as a batty old mathematician when it suits him.”
“And why, precisely, would you do such a thing to begin with?” She was genuinely curious. Men such as he had no need to sneak about town as someone else. They could do whatever they wanted and people leapt to accommodate them.
Blackbourne shifted and looked away, rubbing his palms on
his thighs. “It’s complicated.”
“I gathered.” She raised her own brow.
He seemed to like her expression because he smiled a wide,

white-toothed grin that caused funny little swoops in her stomach. He dodged the question, leaning back and crossing his arms behind his head, seemingly perfectly at ease again. “I’d rather know about you instead, Miss...?”
Her heart ticked faster. Knowledge was power to this man, and she didn’t want to give him any more over her than necessary, although there was a part of her that thought it might be nice to unburden herself to him. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“Well, for one thing, I can’t even address you as it is. And for another, how am I supposed to direct my solicitors to draft you a bank note if I don’t know who you are or what address to have it delivered to?”
This was all becoming too real. He was speaking of actually drafting her a bank note!
Her stomach twisted in guilt. There was no way Merchant Fabrice would have given her even a fraction of that amount for her designs. The vases hadn’t been actual Wedgewoods to begin with. She wasn’t sure what the right thing to do was, but she would never know if her life could be different if she didn’t take what was offered.
Still, there were other considerations. Her identity was tricky in itself. She supposed she did have to give him her name, though doing so would surely change his relaxed attitude towards her. She swallowed, looked straight ahead, and prepared for his censure. “Ivette. My name is Ivette Wollard of the Brandsby Wollards.”
The Marquess paused, taking it in. He was silent for a long while, and then said solemnly, “A pleasure, Miss Wollard.”
Ivette released the breath she was holding and looked to where he sat in repose. “You don’t want to rescind your offer? I wouldn’t blame you if you did,” she said quietly.
He considered this. “Did you, as a small child, help plan your father’s deeds, Miss Wollard?”
A strange lump welled in her throat. “No,” she whispered.
“Then I think it would be rather obtuse to blame a person’s offspring for someone’s actions, don’t you?”
A tear escaped, which she swiftly wiped away, hoping he
wouldn’t notice. “You would be surprised at what people will blame a person for,” she echoed his earlier statement.
“They are fools,” Blackbourne declared, coming forward to take the edges of her hood and draw it back.
Suppressing a gasp, she met his blue eyes, which were several shades lighter than her own. Touching her hair, she cringed, knowing her appearance did not fit into his world of perfumed and powdered ladies who had maids to brush and twist their hair into beautiful creations. She knew what he saw—matted hair, a dirty face streaked with sweat, and a second-hand cloak that hid any shape beneath. She could barely afford to use soap once every few weeks, she and Priscilla sharing a heated basin of water purchased from the boarding house proprietor when they had extra money.
“Do you want to know what I see?” he asked in a low voice, pinning her with his gaze.
There was no denying she was firmly under his spell as she answered, “What?”
“I see a young woman who has probably been snubbed, mistreated, and rejected by the very people who should have taken care of her when such a thing happens.”
She looked down, conflicted by his words. At first, she had thought the same thing. When her father had been arrested and taken to London to be sentenced, not one person of her acquaintance or extended family had offered to take fourteen-year-old Ivette in, and that was especially true of anyone on her deceased mother’s side. Not one person had offered food or even scraps to get her by. The local vicar had offered prayers for her soul, but naught else. When she had tried to become employed at the local shops earning any sort of money, no one would let her in the door.
Without resources, she had soon made the decision to sell the run-down cottage left to her and move to the city, hoping her name would not be the deterrent it was in the village. After many months and failures, depleting her meager funds and being told she could not afford to be associated with, the paper miller had overhead her pleading for a position at a seamstress shop, and took pity on her. Ever since, she had worked as hard as possible at the mill, knowing she might never be able to find work elsewhere.
Now, at age twenty-one, she understood reality. Her blood was tainted with evil and decent folk couldn’t be expected to treat her
with kindness or respect knowing the same madness might one day manifest itself in her. She was a danger to everyone around her, an unpredictable powder keg whose fuse might or might not be lit.
It was why she would never have a family of her own. She couldn’t risk others being in harm’s way if she did contain the essence of her father’s violent desires inside her. No one would be in danger from her if she didn’t let them close enough.
Ivette’s mouth twisted. “You can say it, you know. I’m the daughter of a murderer. It’s not just “such a thing.” It’s horrific. Believe me, I am reminded of it often enough.”
A small indentation appeared on his forehead. “I just think of it as meeting a celebrity of sorts,” he said jovially.
She shook her head. “No, please don’t say that either. There are people who write letters of admiration to him, letters describing unthinkable things...” She constantly tried to wash away the words she had read, scrubbing her mind clean of the contents of those missives, but the disgusting images painted by their words persisted.
“I am not an admirer,” he assured her, covering her hand with his. “I just want to make it clear that I, for one, do not hold you accountable for someone else’s crimes.”
The warm pressure of his hand on hers was almost too much. No one had touched her in any manner in so long that the sensation felt forbidden. His touch burned with a heat that had nothing to do with warmth.
She slid her hand from beneath his and tucked it into the folds of her cloak. “I am not deserving of your esteem, my lord,” she said honestly. She had never done anything for anyone else whilst trying to survive and hadn’t gone to Sunday services since the vicar had told her she was unclean. She lived next to a prostitute and rarely bathed, much less used the arts of ladyship she had been taught by her tutor growing up.
He studied her, his eyes roaming her features. He couldn’t possibly see anything of worth, yet somehow, a tiny part of her had burst into hope at his earlier words. She both wanted him to see something in her that was deserving and wanted to shrink away back into the darkness in which she had existed for so long.
Finally, his face bore the barest hint of a smile, as if he’d reached a satisfactory conclusion. “Whoever did something to you to make you believe that you aren’t someone of worth should be wiped
clean from the slate of humanity and never allowed to speak such blasphemies again,” he said softly. Then his tone changed, and he said briskly, “I only hope that, from now on, you will begin to see yourself differently. It’s clear that your situation is not ideal for a woman of your standing. Your father was a Squire, was he not? I remember reading about his history in the papers.” He leapt from the couch and began to pace in front of the fireplace, the light from behind him outlining his broad shoulders and slim waist.
“Er ... yes,” she replied, struggling to keep up with his logic and not notice his form through the white starched shirt he wore.
“And so you were raised to be a lady, I assume?”
“I was, until...” she trailed off.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he waved her unspoken statement aside,

still pacing.
“You’ll need a bath,” he said absently.
“Excuse me?” she squeaked, shrinking into the cushions of the

“And a wardrobe. Everything, really, if we’re to pull this off.” Ivette’s heart pounded. “What are you talking about?” Blackbourne stopped pacing and faced her, looking like a

fallen angel rimmed in the light of the fire. “I’ve decided something, Miss Wollard. You don’t need four thousand pounds.”
She blinked. This wasn’t good. “I don’t?”
“No. What you need is a job,” he declared proudly.
“I have one of those,” she informed him, feeling her pride

pricked. She crossed her arms, eyes narrowed.
“I’m sure you do. However ... how do I put this delicately?”

he ruminated, scratching his chin. “Your current state of dress and hygiene suggest that your employment situation is not meeting your needs. So I suggest an alternative.”
“I was on my way to an alternative when you knocked my cart over,” she reminded him acerbically. The nerve of the man! As if she couldn’t provide for herself. As if she didn’t know her situation wasn’t “ideal.” It must be nice being a Marquess whose every aspect of life was ideal.
“My apologies. You were selling the vases, I take it?” He didn’t wait for a response, continuing his manic speed of spewing words. “Were they family heirlooms? And if they were, why haven’t you sold them off long before now? I can’t see you having stolen
them, to be honest, but one never knows. The fact that you were transporting them at night is a bit suspicious, but also reasonable if you stop to consider the rate of crime in what surely has to be a poor neighborhood at your point of origin. Leeds hasn’t been very proactive in protecting their citizens of late, according to the annual reports published by the Home Office. At this juncture, whether they were stolen or not doesn’t really signify because they’re gone, so it follows that your anticipated income is gone as well, leaving you in dire need of assistance. Hence, my alternative.”
Ivette quickly shut her mouth, which had been hanging slack as his train of thought bore out. This man was either mad or brilliant. Perhaps both.
“So what do you say?” he spread his arms wide. “Would you like to go on an adventure, Miss Wollard?”
Asher might have come on a bit too quickly. It was odd. He

never behaved like this, speaking as fast as his mind worked and proposing ridiculous schemes to women he barely knew. But there was something about this one... Something that made his chest burgeon with a sort of giddy freedom.
She already knew his biggest secret. Well, maybe not all of it, but he’d never had anyone with whom he could share things like this. He could be both Morganstern and Blackbourne at once—minus the beard, of course. It was a risk, he knew that, but he was inordinately glad that the choice had already been made. She had seen through his disguise immediately, and he couldn’t have just left her there with her cart of broken pottery. Now that she knew his identity, he could only hope she didn’t blackmail him at some point in the future. However, he intended to pay her handsomely for her time in the scheme he’d been developing in the last several minutes, so he trusted she wouldn’t need to.
“Miss Wollard?” he repeated after a moment of stunned silence in which Ivette Wollard merely stared at him with saucer-like pools of blue.
She shook herself and pursed her lips. “I think I’d rather have the four thousand pounds, please,” she stated.
He came towards her and knelt beside the arm of the divan. “No, no, no, Miss Wollard. If you agree to participate in this endeavor, you would earn much more than that over time.”
She threw her hands up, sending particles of filth into the recesses of the divan. “I don’t even know what this endeavor is! Your mind is a spinning wheel of death. Do you know that?”
“You have no idea,” he admitted gravely. “But I shall tell you that the plan involves pretty dresses, balls, and all the hot baths you want.” He winked for good measure—the wink always softened them up.
Her eyes narrowed. “You are awfully sure I need a bath, aren’t you?” she spat.
Asher froze. He wasn’t used to this level of scrutiny or resistance. Was she one of those women who didn’t like men? He supposed it was understandable that she wouldn’t trust his gender, given who her father was. But he knew she was affected by him from the shaking of her hands to the blush that flamed beneath the layer of grime on her face. “Not at all,” he recovered, knowing there was most definitely a wrong answer to that question. “I just know that women like baths and doing their hair and such,” he shrugged.
“I’ll bet you do,” she said airily, tipping up her nose.
This was going to be more difficult than he thought. And things were rarely that.
A strange euphoria came over him. He had encountered women who needed more persuasion to come to his bed than usual, and it was always a relief. His concentration on them sharpened, and his calculations switched from formulas to human chemistry—the science of seduction. The challenge plucked him from the mire of ever-present numbers and words marching across his mind’s eye and let him live for the moment with other people.
He wasn’t trying to land Ivette in his bed, but her defiance struck the same chord in him. This called for some unique tactics. Money seemed to be the most persuasive factor in her decision- making thus far. As far as her demeanor, she was an interesting dichotomy of timidity and pluck, so he calculated that playing to her insecurities might just work.
“Miss Wollard, I know that few people have given you the benefit of the doubt, and that it has been hard to hold your head high in light of what people think. Yet the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to waltz through a ballroom on a cloud of diamonds far above anyone’s reproach is precisely what I want to give you.”
Ivette’s eyes lit up at the picture he painted. Her haughty
posture left her, and she slumped down on the cushion. “I don’t understand. In what circumstance could I possibly do those things?”
He smiled. “Let me explain,” he started, clearing his throat. He rose from his perch near the arm of the sofa and sat in the chair she had recently occupied. “I need a sister. More accurately, Sir Reginald Morganstern needs a sister.”
Ivette’s face scrunched. “That doesn’t explain anything.”
He cleared his throat. “I am a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.”
“That’s nice,” she commented, patting him on the knee the way one would reassure a child they weren’t in trouble.
“However, I must only be known in those circles as Sir Reginald Morganstern. And Reginald Morganstern might have let slip that he has a sister who is a naturalist, so now my colleagues want to meet her. In fact, it was made clear that my standing is now dependent on whether I can recruit the first female member if she is qualified.”
“And you want me to pose as your sister at these functions?” she asked with raised brows.
“Exactly!” Now she was getting it.
She laughed, a rather beguiling sound, if he was honest. No mere engineered chuckle for Ivette, but a full-bodied bubbling of pitches that made him want to make her do it over and over until she was breathless with it.
Only, she was laughing at his proposal just now, which confused him. He had reasoned that his offer would be both advantageous and pleasant for her. What did she have to lose, exactly? What was holding her back?
“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” she stated baldly.
“I don’t see how,” he replied, folding his arms sullenly. He really never had this much trouble convincing women to go along with his whims.
“I can’t pretend to be your sister! Or a scientist!” she declared. “It would be ... it would be...” She gestured, making swirls through the air with her small hands trying to find the words.
“It would be great fun,” he interjected, leaning forward. “All I’m asking is that you dress nicely, mingle at a few social gatherings, and attend a few lectures. You barely have to do anything except eat, drink, dance, and nod.”
“Sounds terrible,” she spouted.
He continued. “And I will give you fifty pounds for each event you attend with me.”
Asher watched as she narrowed her eyes, calculating.
“I would, of course, also offer you lodgings, staff, and a wardrobe as needed. And you would earn over five hundred pounds a year if you attend the monthly lecture series and the occasional social engagement.” He waited expectantly for her to catch up.
“I know what it amounts to,” she said defiantly, her nose in the air again, but Asher grinned.
He had her now. He could sense it. It was the same feeling he got when a woman was about to leave with him for the night after he had expended energy persuading her to do so.
Asher shoved those thoughts away. This woman was not for tupping, challenging blue eyes or not. It wasn’t as though he was attracted to her anyways. She was more like a lost puppy—one that might prove useful as an employee. Not as a dog, of course. He pictured her on all fours, wagging a non-existent tail, his mind beginning to calculate how her small proportions might translate into a canine bone structure. Asher shook his head. That image wasn’t helping anything.
“Do you know you get this far-off look sometimes like your thoughts exist in another realm altogether?” Ivette said softly, her eyes on his face.
Asher’s eyes snapped back to hers, and he stared. She was eerily perceptive, although he figured she wouldn’t have appreciated the comparison he had just been thinking of. Then he grinned, partly because of the puppy image, and partly to throw her off of her train of thought. His smile tended to do that to people. “I was just thinking of the piles of money you’d have if you agreed,” he said with a wistful look. He added a sigh for effect. This had been a proven tactic in the past as a final ploy, but it usually went something like, “I was just thinking of all the fun you’d have sharing my bed tonight...” And then the sigh. Worked every time.
What he wasn’t prepared for was Ivette’s non-plussed response of, “You might be just a little bit insane.”
“Excuse me?” His perfected beatific expression disappeared. His heart raced, her accusation dredging up the part of him that was always on guard against such perceptions.
She sat rigidly straight on the sofa, her hands folded neatly in her lap as if to keep them from giving her emotions away. “Isn’t there someone—anyone—else that you could hire to do something of this nature? An actress, perhaps? Why me?” Suspicion seemed to be this woman’s primary functionality.
Asher sighed, for real this time. He slumped back into the chair. “I might be ... shall we say, well-known to the actresses of London. To be truthful, I hadn’t had time to think through the possibilities before you were thrown into my path quite literally.”
“Imagine that. You, not thinking quickly enough.” There was humor in the slant of her lips, which he just now realized were quite full.
She had caught him off-guard again. He couldn’t help the upturn of his lips in response. “Believe it or not, I don’t always think before I speak,” he admitted. “I hadn’t anticipated my colleagues in the Association taking such an interest in meeting my fictional sister. Could have something to do with the fact that there aren’t any women currently admitted into the society. I don’t think some of those men have spoken to a woman in decades.”
She didn’t seem fazed or insulted by his revelations. “So you want to throw me to the wolves while you prance about doing whatever it is you do at these things in order for no suspicion to arise about your identity?”
Asher shifted in his seat, her lack of prevarication making him uneasy. “Not in so many words, but yes. Hopefully for a long time, if we can manage it.”
She nodded slowly. “And what if I choose to take my four thousand pounds now and leave?”
He looked her in the eyes. “Then I will honor what I said, and draft a note to my solicitors here and now.” He waited, praying she wouldn’t choose that option. For some inexplicable reason he didn’t care to examine at the moment, he wanted her near him. He wanted to see what she would say or do next, since it was never what he expected.
As he watched her muddied face, he could almost see the cogs of her mind working to come to a decision. She seemed to be truly struggling, though with what factors she was assessing the situation, he couldn’t fathom. Ivette Wollard was an assessor, that much he knew. She was sharp, and she was interesting. Perhaps her mind
didn’t work as his did, but it was a rare person who made him work to keep up with their cognitive processes. When she let out a breath of finality, he drew in one and held it, waiting for her to speak.
“If we are to do this, we must have some rules, Lord Blackbourne,” she announced decisively.
He exhaled, trying not to show his relief. “Of course, Miss Wollard,” he agreed readily, keeping his facial muscles stiff to hold back a grin.
She held up a hand and began to tick off requirements. “I would like to be paid in pound notes once a month, I require at least two acceptable dresses and pairs of shoes, and my lodgings must have at least a slipper tub that I am allowed to use regularly.” She looked at him wide-eyed after this recitation, as if she knew she had gone too far and was now expecting to be booted from the premises.
Asher bit his lip harder to stave off an uncontrollable smile, thinking of the expression on her face when she realized he would be gladly providing far more than her meager list of demands. By the time he was done with her, she would feel like a princess, if he had anything to say about it.

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Friday, March 15, 2019

CHAPTER ONE PREVIEW: Jungle Salvation by M.A. Jewell



Jaguar Queens, 2

M.A. Jewell

Copyright © 2019

Chapter One

Matteo D’Cruz recognized the scent of his old friend Cristiano Salazar in the humid Brazilian Amazon. Even so, territorial invasion raised hackles across his shoulders, and he drove his claws into the bark beneath him. The sensitive lining of his nose told him Cristiano escorted two other jaguar shifters—one an impossibility—a female
A harsh male scent polluted her essence. Mated.Adrenaline surged his heart into a gallop. The possessive warning didn’t temper her allure, as a mate’s mark should. His lack of control triggered alarms in his head, but he ignored them. Base cat instinct overruled his long-lost sense of propriety. 
Matteo strained to hear her above the never-ending insect symphony. She was close. A hundred meters, or so. Mated or not, she traveled his territory, and he would have her.
God forgive me.
Driven by ages-old instinct, Matteo barked a series of courting roars into the canopy’s understory. He waited a breathless beat. No response. Rocketing from tree to tree, ignoring the branches slapping his muzzle, he raced toward the queen. Flat-out shifter speed wasn’t fast enough. Monkeys screeched a warning to the entire jungle and scampered from his path. After an agonizing half-minute, human conversation reached his keen ears, slowing his pace.
“Jaime, keep Kelsi close. Matteo’s near.” 
Odd.Cristiano spoke English rather than Portuguese. 
A metered growl came from the unknown male. “Papai, your friend flirts with disaster.”
Cristiano’s son!
“You two act like he’s dangerous. Maybe we shouldn’t invite him to the wedding.” Odder still, the queen’s Yankee English was likely her native tongue. 
The sound of her voice assured Matteo he hadn’t entirely lost his mind. For an instant, he’d suspected his overlong solitude had sparked a hallucination. The soft compost layer of the jungle floor muffled her nearing footsteps.
Compelled to lay eyes on the female, he used a lifetime of hunting experience to glide through the leaf-covered branches. He aimed for a lone rubber tree where his auburn rosettes and tawny hide would fade into the two-tone ochre bark. Careful not to disturb the foliage, he peered down between green leaves.
“He’sPapai’s oldest friend and—I suspect—very lethal.” Jaime added the last with a warning tone, scanning overhead with a predator’s eyes. 
The younger shifter had Cristiano’s features and jet hair. If not for the scar from his ear to his jawline, and Cristiano’s gray streaks, Matteo might have mistaken the two. The graying version of his friend restrained the young doppelganger by the arm.
In a protective motion, Jaime pulled an attractive, fair-skinned girl to him and stepped in front of her. Matteo indulged in a draught of the queen’s floral scent and then snorted to clear the male’s distasteful mark. 
Jaime’s her mate! Somehow, an unknown line had produced a female. A tsunami of aggression, a primal drive Matteo had never experienced, overtook the last of his will.
The glands at the base of his whiskers throbbed, demanding release. He had no doubt he could best the younger shifter. After he won the challenge, he’d smother the queen with his scent, eradicating all trace of the cub from her body. 
Meu Dios!Furious with his friend for testing him so, Matteo snarled at his murderous jaguar thoughts. He didn’t even know this Kelsi, yet he couldn’t dredge up the will to turn away from the queen. 
Cristiano’s attempts to entice Matteo back into society had dwindled over the years. This time, however, he had gambled poorly. Too many seasons in cat form. 
Helpless against nature’s gale force, Matteo prayed Cristiano could save his son. He stepped from cover, and fixing a predatory glare on Jaime, he roared a challenge. Even the insects fell silent.
The big male charged forward with a dark glower. 
Cristiano looked up at Matteo, his mouth a firm line. “Come to us. Now.” 
Matteo dropped from the three-story-high branch and sailed effortlessly to the jungle floor, landing in a crouch. With eyes locked on his adversary, he stalked low to the ground, set on attack.
Dark light shimmered across Jaime’s exposed skin, signaling his impending shift. Scowling at Matteo, he tossed his shirt and pants next to a clump of ferns. “You’ll never have her.” 
Cristiano, face drawn tight with rage, hurtled to block Matteo from his prey. “You’d challenge your own godson for his mate? Kill myson? Shift now, or die as feral.” 
Matteo snarled in anguish, praying Cristiano could make good on his threat.
Kelsi’s green gaze darted from him to Jaime. She lunged at Cristiano to tug at his arm. “Just leave him.” 
He pushed her back, keeping his focus on Matteo. “Not possible. If his humanity’s lost, he could mate with a natural jaguar.” 
“As in sire a litter?” The female grimaced in plain disgust, turning an appalled expression on him. “Thisis who you thought my sister should meet?”
“A selfish misjudgment. I wanted my best friend at my son’s wedding.” Cristiano’s amber eyes shone with tears. “Instead, I’m his executioner.”
Sister! Where had the females come from? The last known living queen was Cristiano’s mate, Maria. The thought of females in the world overpowered any concern Matteo had for his own life.
“Kelsi, you know genetic diversity is crucial.” Though Jaime spoke quietly in her ear, Matteo’s sensitive hearing picked up his words, as though he’d spoken aloud.
“No.” She turned tear-filled eyes to her mate. “Invite someone else, please.”
Pinning his ears back, Matteo snarled in misery and lowered to his belly. He wanted to shift, to stifle his cat, and turn from killing the men before him—his only family. Matteo’s life meant nothing. If he killed Cristiano and Jaime to steal a mated female, his life would mean even less. 
To throttle back his jaguar instincts, Matteo focused on the existence of another queen. The drive to possess diminished by a fraction, allowing him to breathe and sense his humanity. Matteo grappled for the sliver of control. 
With more concentration than he’d ever required before, a shift’s searing heat journeyed snail-like through his muscles until electric current chased the fever away. Every molecule in his body screamed with the metamorphosis. He couldn’t recall another shift so long or painful.
His hoarse bellow of agony rang off the thick foliage above. With his head low, and still on all fours, Matteo took stock of his limbs, ensuring he was indeed human. 
Despite the jungle’s damp heat, gooseflesh traveled his torso. His skin objected to the loss of his pelt. Or maybe the magnitude of the averted crisis produced the cool shudder. 
“Matteo? Are you with us?” Cristiano kept his distance. 
Worried he’d lost his ability to speak, Matteo nodded. Ropes of tawny hair moved against dead leaves below him, and curtained his face from the world. Now in human form, his compulsion to claim the jag queen abated. Matteo sent up a heartfelt prayer of thanks.
Shaken by his uncontrollable reaction to the female and his sluggish change, he rose to a wobbly biped stance. He dared a glimpse of the woman. Silent, with wide green eyes, she stared at him with parted lips. 
Matteo couldn’t imagine his abhorrent appearance—his nakedness being the least offensive. He scrubbed at the irritating beard itch that had replaced his feline muzzle’s glandular throb. Years’ worth of beard. 
A violent urge to return to jaguar form threatened to overtake him. He forced himself to meet Jaime’s gaze and remembered the blue-eyed toddler who’d begged piggyback rides. With an iron will born of terror, Matteo smothered the urge to return to cat form. 
Jaime retrieved his clothing and then stepped in front of his mate, blocking Matteo’s view of the female. Murderous lines carving the younger shifter’s face replaced all hint of the adoring child who’d called him Uncle Baddeo. 
A gusty breath deflated Cristiano’s aggressive posture and a limp smile creased his face. He scrutinized Matteo from head to toe, his uncertain expression dropping to a grimace. “My God, when did you last shift? Are those rosettes?” 
Matteo tracked his friend’s line of sight to his left shoulder. Rust-colored spots embedded his skin. Worse, sharp, oversized canines filled his mouth. Dios!His cat had truly overbalanced his humanity. Part of him was terrified. Another part didn’t care.
“He looks like a savage. The hair and beard might even house critters.” Kelsi whispered the insults to her mate in her Yankee tongue.
Matteo seethed. The woman must think him uneducated as well as unkempt. Unburying Brit English from his Oxford days, he sneered at her. “Don’t worry, Kelsi. I want nothing to do with you—or your sister.” 
He was grateful he’d formed words; however, his voice sounded gravelly from lack of use—or a partial shift. Along with spots, he may have retained other feline traits. He swallowed, staving off a fearful shudder. 
“Sorry.” Color crept into her face. At least she had the decency to look embarrassed. 
Now dressed, Jaime fired a wad of clothing that slapped against Matteo’s chest. He slid on a pair of cutoffs and threw the t-shirt back at Jaime. “And you, cub, never take me on without your father’s help. You’ll die.” 
To his credit, the whelp didn’t back down. “I’ll give you a pass today, old man. Instinct is brutal. But make another move on my mate, I’ll kill you.”
“Jeesh. Take the testosterone down a notch. No wonder we’re nearly extinct.” Huffing, Kelsi grabbed Jaime’s hand and pulled him toward a path leading to a narrow waterway. The trio could only have come by boat. The male glared over his shoulder at Matteo, until the couple disappeared from sight. 
He turned to study his old friend. Cristiano had changed in a way Matteo couldn’t identify—subtler than a few added gray hairs. Something was missing
Cristiano’s amber gaze warmed. “I’m glad to see you, amigo.”
Matteo wanted to enjoy their reunion, but his anger wouldn’t allow it. “I won’t forgive you.”
“I don’t care.”
“What if I’d killed you? Or worse, Jaime?”
Cristiano snorted. “You think me so weak?”
Matteo followed the young couple’s trail, and Cristiano fell in behind him. In tacit agreement, the two males kept an old woman’s pace, creating a semblance of privacy. 
Cristiano cleared his throat. “How long since your last shift?” 
“Not sure—sometime after I left the war. What happened with Hitler?” 
Cristiano puffed air through pursed lips. “That was over seventy years ago.” 
Stunned by the revelation, Matteo was grateful his friend walked behind him. He couldn’t have schooled his features. After seventy years, he’d been lucky to shift at all. “Hitler?”
“A few months after you disappeared, he killed himself in his bunker.”
“Despicable coward.” Matteo spat his disgust. 
Cristiano grunted. “Probably sits at Satan’s right hand.”
When Brazil entered the Mediterranean Theatre with the Allies late in ’44, he and Matteo had volunteered together but with different goals. Cristiano, a pilot, fought from the air to rid the world of a tyrant. Matteo battled on the ground in hopes of permanent serenity. When final peace eluded him, he’d returned to the jungle. 
Matteo didn’t want to talk about the war. “You still like to fly?”
“Yes. I go up almost every day. Manaus is a huge metropolis now, but still no roads to get there. Those with enough money use aircraft. Jaime flies, too.” Pride filled Cristiano’s voice.
“Bold one. He was ready to take me.” Matteo forced a smile. Jaime had been lucky to walk away. “Where did his queen come from? I thought Maria was the last.” 
Halting, Cristiano sighed before resuming his leisurely pace. “Kelsi’s a gift from God. She was a latent when Jaime stumbled upon her in the jungle.”
Bewildered, Matteo slowed to pace next to his friend. “You mean latents really exist?”
Cristiano nodded with a chuckle. “Poor boy had thought females were a myth, too.”
“Hardly a boy. Must be near eighty by now.” Matteo snorted a laugh. Likely, Jaime had had his own instinct crisis and now understood how a queen devastated a male’s senses. “That explains the pass.”
Cristiano’s chuckle confirmed his suspicions. 
A couple hours later, Cristiano led Matteo to a sleek motorboat. Vessels traveled the river every day, but Matteo hadn’t been near one in decades. He rapped his knuckles on the white hull. “What’s this stuff?”
“Fiberglass. Use it for automobiles, now, too.” Cristiano waved him into the padded seats. 
Holding hands, and appearing to snuggle while walking, Jaime and Kelsi emerged from a patch of shade on the bank. He lifted her fingers to his lips for a brief touch. Sunlight glinted from his hand. The gold engagement band, circling Jaime’s right ring finger, taunted Matteo with what he’d nearly destroyed—and what he’d lost. 
The couple’s obvious joy in one another poked at a damaged piece of his heart. Kelsi’s bruised lips and mussed hair conjured memories that Matteo didn’t dare indulge. Seven decades wasn’t long enough for some wounds to heal. In self-preservation, he climbed into the boat, focusing on the floor mat.
The ride was quiet aside from the motor and rush of parting water. Conversation became scarce after one tried to steal a man’s mate. Jaime and Kelsi spoke in low tones in the rear seat, engine noise keeping their conversation private. Most likely, they discussed Matteo. 
Instead of socializing, he passed time reading an unfamiliar current events magazine—Manaus Now!. The headlines meant nothing, although he marveled at the photographs—all in color and so crisply focused. And the people in them wore so little, especially the women. At least changes in their culture would hold his interest for a time.
“We taking the river all the way to … where’re we going?” asked Matteo.
“The boat’s a rental. My chopper’s at a dock about fifteen miles downstream. We’ll take it to our home.” 
“Helicopter. You’ll see. It flies.” 
Of course. Matteo recalled the experimental aircraft from years ago. The noisy machines occasionally hovered above the canopy and more appeared each season. Chopperseemed an apt term.
Cristiano ferried them north, eyeing an ancient kapok tree with raised, wall-like roots dominating the shore ahead. No doubt, he recognized the ancient marker flagging the edge of Matteo’s range. Passing the boundary, he realized he hadn’t ventured beyond the tree since 1945. 
Dread of the unknown settled in Matteo’s chest. He loosened his hold on the boat’s trimmed edge lest it crack under his grip. As an added embarrassment, his scent had probably announced his anxiety to the others. 
In a barely-veiled attempt to distract him from the milestone, Cristiano pointed to the opposite shore. A cinnamon and black jaguar used the shadows to stalk a caiman. The gator-like reptile glided beneath the surface, its scent reaching Matteo’s astute nose. 
The male jag was hunting too near Matteo’s territory. Mine.
Without thought, he lifted to balance himself on one knee. A metered rumble vibrated in his chest, and heat traveled his spine. 
With knitted brows, Cristiano cut the engine and gripped Matteo’s forearm. “My friend, stay with us. Years from now, caiman will still be in the river.” 
During the few beats of tense silence, the boat slowed to bob with the current. Cristiano’s subtle message came through loud and clear, though Matteo didn’t need the warning. 
Decades prior, as the shifters’ Enforcer, Matteo had tracked and executed feral males—always males. Two.Killing friends lost in their cats had withered his soul. Anna, his mate, had been his only solace—anchoring him in humanity. He’d nearly condemned Cristiano to the same haunting remorse. 
What have I done? Still, part of him didn’t care. For now, he would stay human for Cristiano. 
Matteo’s shift to biped had been a near thing. Going cat within the next three years would almost certainly trap him in jaguar form. Followed by a swift execution as feral. Or maybe not.
He studied his aging friend. Cristiano’s physical supremacy over the jag males might have slipped over the years. Matteo doubted Cristiano could have executed him alone. Maybe with Jaime’s help.
A warm hand on his back startled Matteo. The female’s scent announced her mated status, so her touch had nothing to do with attraction. Mated pairs didn’t stray—ever.
“Hard to see through the hair, but I think he has a few more rosettes on his back.” Kelsi’s low voice held concern, not the derision he’d expected. Close behind him, she pushed his waist-length knotted hair to the side. She gave his flesh a soft pat before dropping her hand. “I get it. Caiman rile me to shift, too.”
Her olive branch gave him hope. Even more impressive, Jaime had held his possessive instincts in check while his mate touched Matteo. With their support, maybe he could face his biped sentence. Emotion tightened his throat. Avoiding eye contact, he gave a curt nod and reclaimed his seat. 
Cristiano started the engine.
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