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Excerpt for Jungle Salvation by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2019 M.A. Jewell



ISBN: 978-1-77339-907-2


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Karyn White



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



DEDICATION


Jungle Salvation is dedicated to my sister and best friend Robin Owen, the one who is always there when needed and forgives with ease. As a family member, friend, or acquaintance, she advocates for those who need it and empowers those who don’t.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


First, foremost, and always, I am forever grateful to my husband Jim, for doing much more than his fair share around the house while I sit at the keyboard. That guy can doctor up a pizza like no one I know, and he runs a mean vacuum cleaner, too. And at the end of the day, he still loves me and encourages me to write the next story.

I want to send a huge shout out to the best critique group any author could want, my Friday Night Critique BFFs. These ladies listened to pages for months, and then read the entire manuscript. Their feedback made me look good. Love you all—Deb Hines, Sherri Shackelford, Lizzie Starr, Donna Kaye, and Cheryl StJohn.

So many people support an author when a story is brought into the world! I could write a book on the people who helped me create Jungle Salvation. Numerous friends and colleagues beta read this manuscript at varying stages of finish, and I wish there were space here to include everyone. You know who you are. Thank you!

And the cover! Way to go, Jay Aheer of Simply Defined Art. She captured the soul of the story in one image.

A big thank you to my tried and true personal editor Ann Pullum, AKA the WordDetailer. Four years ago, she listened to my fledgling attempts at romance and encouraged me anyway.

I am forever grateful to Evernight Publishing’s editor Karyn White, whose keen eye helped take the story to the next level. Thank you!

Finally, thank you the readers. Each of you is a precious gem. I hope you enjoy the story.





JUNGLE SALVATION


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’s Papai’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 my son? 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. “This is 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.”

“Chopper?”

“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. Chopper seemed 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.


Chapter Two


“Mom, I’m sure she’s fine.” Lying her ass off, Dakota Gorman pressed her cell phone against her ear, cupping a hand over her mouth for privacy in the Brazilian airport.

“You can’t be serious.”

Her sister, Kelsi, a tediously responsible journalist, intended to marry a near stranger—only weeks after Brazilian smugglers had murdered her photographer and tried to kill her. She’s not close to fine.

The rapid-fire timeline of events distressed Dakota, too. Still, she needed to reassure her mother. “She is thirty-eight years old, remember—and the forever common-sense girl. Maybe she just got lucky and finally found the one.”

Lavender tendrils escaped Dakota’s insufficient hairclip, purchased to match her bling sandals rather than for its functionality. In a nervous habit, she blew the strands out of her eyes.

Seated in an airport cafe next to an expanse of windows, she took in the scenic jungle only a few hundred yards away. The vegetation strained against an unseen boundary, threatening to invade the Eduardo Gomes tarmac.

Supposedly, Manaus, Amazonas, a metropolis of over two million people, was only six miles to the south. Her sister planned to somehow make a life deep in the rainforest, well beyond the reach of any navigation app.

“You call me as soon as you get to the Salazar’s place. I can’t find a satellite view of their address, only treetops.” Celeste Gorman sounded frantic. Known in the business world as the Steel Fox, Dakota’s mother never lost her cool composure, even when they’d gotten the news that Kelsi was missing in the jungle.

Dakota’s reflection, superimposed over the wilderness, hinted at bloodshot eyes. Opening a backpack-style purse, she pulled out a compact to get a closer look. Great. Red streaks clashed with blue-green hazel. Annoyed, she snapped the mirrored case shut and shoved it back into the violet leather bag.

“So why am I the only one here? If you’re so concerned, get on a plane.” The day prior, Dakota hadn’t recovered from the shock of Kelsi’s wedding announcement enough to protest. Mom had dished out travel instructions, and Dakota had numbly followed them.

She had departed Omaha, Nebraska, wedged into an economy seat and doomed to sixteen hours of travel, including two layovers. Dakota’s assigned mission: Bring Kelsi home.

Now, the Fox sighed in her ear, and Dakota imagined her mother’s long-suffering expression.

“I leave right after next Tuesday’s board meeting. The reprobates want Gorman Paper to go public before expanding. I can’t leave Jasper to deal with those wolves.”

“Traveling coach?” Dakota sounded petty to her own ears, but she was too tired to care. A suited woman strode past with a carry-on case rumbling in her wake. Dakota covered one ear.

“Fly first class when you buy your own ticket. Damnation, if she’s pregnant I’ll kill her.” The Fox’s tone wavered between worried and furious.

Dakota thought it wise to let the ticket discussion die. “She’s not. I asked. She wouldn’t get married over a pregnancy anyway.”

Unusual concern for her mother needled Dakota. Mom had never been this cranked about anything, not even after retrieving a teenaged Dakota from the Omaha precinct. Just her luck, she and the Omaha police had ended up in the same bar.

“This Jaime Salazar character wants something. I can’t find financials on Salazar Holdings—it’s a privately owned company. Maybe they’re going under.” Mom said the last as though thinking aloud. Even for her suspicious nature, this was extreme.

Dakota shifted in the uncomfortable metal bistro chair. “She’s way too smart to fall for a con.”

“For God’s sake, she’s vulnerable.” A sob punctuated the tremor in her mother’s voice. “When she refused to come home after—after … I knew something was wrong. What if she’s had a mental breakdown?”

Other than a polite tear at a wedding, the Fox didn’t cry. In addition, her posttraumatic stress theory made sense. Dakota swallowed her own angst. “He saved her life. Maybe that created a bond.”

“She doesn’t owe him marriage!”

Dakota didn’t know what to do with her mother’s escalating anxiety piled atop her own. She didn’t dare mention Kelsi’s sister-only news. The secret announcement she would only share with Dakota in person. However, Kelsi wouldn’t hide a baby from Dakota… Would she? “I’ll call right away, promise.”

“I never thought she’d be the one to pull something like this.”

A couple beats of silence didn’t dull the sting.

“You’re wrong, Mom. I wouldn’t have bothered you with a wedding.” Livid, Dakota thumbed the call to an end. She lifted a quaking cup of coffee to her lips. Thirty-four years old and still, her inner child pouted over her mother’s less-than-flattering opinion of her.

Dakota sipped cold coffee until she had her emotions under control. Once calm, she juggled her drained latte along with the backpack and rolling carryon, and headed toward baggage claim. Unfortunately, her empty cup forced a stop at another airport bistro. Inflight coffee sucked. Withdrawal was imminent, and she wanted to be alert the rest of the day.

Her sister needed her.

An incoming text buzzed at her hip.

Mom: I love you. Forgive me.

Dakota blinked away the angry sting of tears. At least the tourist sim card worked. She slid the phone back into the pocket of her white cropped pants. Maybe she’d cool off during her limo ride to the Salazars’—if at all.

Her lilac floral luggage floated around the carousel alongside a few other unclaimed pieces. She loaded an airport cart.

Finally approved and stamped by customs, Dakota located the transportation hub. Drivers holding up LED screens and cardboard signs peppered the covered sidewalk. None with her name.

A swarthy, thirtyish man studied her and lifted a screen glowing “Smith”. She shook her head. A dark-complexioned teenage boy, with a hopeful expression, waved lavender cardstock at her. “Welcome, Dakota!” crafted in Kelsi’s over-sized handwriting graced the heavy paper.

Kelsi’s use of her favorite color gave Dakota a warm pang. Shooting her greeter a big smile, she pushed down worry about why her sister hadn’t come to greet her in person.

The boy’s hooded gaze traveled her form with an appreciative air well beyond his years. Really? Her lips twitched with an amused smile. Maybe the adult driver waited in the limo. She strode forward and extended a hand. When the man-child clasped hers, he looked up to her five-foot-nine height, making him appear even younger.

“I’m Tad Mendes. Senhor Cristiano send me to drive you.” His words were slow and deliberate. If he drove, she’d misjudged his age.

“Hello, I’m Dakota. Nice to meet you. I’m relieved your English is so good. Would you teach me some quick Portuguese on the way to the Salazars?”

Tad’s black eyes lit up over a white-toothed grin. “Sim! I mean, sim is yes!”

He took charge of the luggage cart and led her to a late-model Mercedes sedan idling at the curb. The vehicle stood out among the modest Fiats and Chevrolets rolling past. Tad opened the passenger-side door for her.

“Sit in the front, Senhorita Dakota. The water is for you.” He pointed at a bottle glistening with condensation in the console’s cup holder. “We practice Portuguese.”

“Thank you.” Butter-soft leather seats and air conditioning welcomed her. She opened the bottle and took a swig to be polite. A nice vehicle didn’t mean the Salazars were wealthy, but did cast doubt on Mom’s gold-digger theory.

Dakota couldn’t imagine her competent, goal-driven sister as traumatized. However, a near execution would break anyone. With the heel of her hand, she rubbed away the prickle of brewing tears. The Fox wasn’t the only one losing it.

While Tad returned the cart, Dakota pulled out her phone and tapped the keypad.

Dakota: Forgiven, of course.

With the speed of youth, a cart-free Tad rocketed back out through the sliding doors. Her first greeter, Mr. Swarthy, sauntered behind him with his laptop tucked under one arm and no passenger. His fare must have stood him up.

Glancing her way, Mr. Swarthy’s narrowed gaze held a hint of animosity, as though she’d offended him. She’d never seen him before he held up his sign at her. Maybe he was a racist or just hated Americans. He turned on his heel and strode in the opposite direction. Tad bounced into the driver’s seat and, after checking traffic, pulled the running vehicle into the stream of cars.

Dismissing weird Mr. Swarthy, Dakota focused on Tad. “So, what’s the legal driving age here?”

His expression dropped, as though he’d guessed she thought him too young. “Eighteen. I got my license in February.”

A whole three months of driving experience. Still, he seemed a sweet kid, and she hadn’t intended to hurt his feelings. “Sixteen in the states. Is it a big deal here, too?”

He glanced from the road with a reinstated grin. “Sim.”

As they worked their way through Manaus, the Amazonas state capital, Tad kept up a running commentary of Portuguese greetings and common phrases, and Dakota bounced back with responses. He finally took a breath. “You pick up words fast.”

“I’ve got a good memory.” She wondered why they didn’t get on a highway. “How much farther?”

Desculpa—sorry. Three hours.”

She settled into her seat to enjoy the scenery and took in the ornate architecture, making a mental list of sites to explore. “How did you learn English?”

Senhor Cristiano has a school for the plantation. English, French, too. Mendes family work for Salazars for many generations. I go to university next year.”

Jaime’s father sounded like a decent sort.

“Have you met my sister, Kelsi?”

Sim. Very nice lady.”

“Why didn’t she come with you?” Dakota kept the question casual, despite her concerns.

“Oh, she’s with the senhores. On wedding business.”

Dakota tried to distract herself from her growing worry. Weddings took work, even if a couple hired a professional planner. After she learned how this surprise engagement had materialized, she could plan a course of action to drag her sister home.

A peach-toned Renaissance architectural masterpiece drew her attention. Its domed roof glinted in the sunlight. Dakota craned around to look for a sign. “What was the name of that building?”

“It’s the Teatro, people sing there. Very beautiful.”

A helicopter flew in low over the Teatro’s mosaic dome, and fell in behind their vehicle. The bird’s presence gave Dakota an uneasy sense of being followed, until another chopper crossed over the skyline at a higher elevation. “Do many fly here?”

Sim. I forget. I’m to apologize for the long car ride. Our helicopter is used for the wedding business.”

Helicopter?

Kelsi had never explained how Jaime—in the world’s most remote jungle—had materialized out of nowhere to take out the smugglers ready to kill her. With enough money to own a chopper, there could be only one reason to live in the rainforest. Cocoa plantation, my ass. They’re drug runners.

Irritated she’d missed the obvious, Dakota pulled out her phone. GPS indicated they neared the edge of the city with at least two hundred miles to go. Soon traffic thinned and pavement turned to gravel. Exotic, vine-laden trees crept to the road’s very edges, and a tunnel of foliage arched over their route.

She stifled a groan. On her way to vacation with drug lords in a remote wilderness, and her cell would be nothing more than a doorstop.

****

“We are here, senhorita.” Tad’s low voice sounded hollow inside the unmoving, quiet sedan. She’d fallen asleep. Shock that she’d left herself vulnerable jolted her awake, and she peeled her cheek from the window.

Glancing at Tad, she couldn’t make herself believe the amiable kid could’ve drugged her. She straightened and stretched a kink in her neck.

Tad beamed at her. “You don’t snore.”

She scanned the manicured grounds backed by the jungle’s edge. “Ah, thanks, I think.”

Somewhere between Manaus and the Salazar drug cartel stronghold, her ever-vigilant guard had slipped, and she’d passed out cold. Tad’s fault. He was too sweet to be involved with drug lords.

Dakota straightened from her slump and tugged at her rumpled navy silk blouse. At least the creases coordinated with the wrinkles in her linen pants. She tried to ignore her usual concern for her appearance. No need to waste a good impression on drug lords.

After she brought Kelsi to her senses, Dakota would drag her sister’s ass back to Omaha. Maybe she’d add a few days in Cancun to break up the long commute. The Fox would be so happy, she might even join them.

Tad’s door clicked shut, and he paced to the trunk. He’d parked in a circle drive fronting a sprawling Portuguese-colonial manor house surrounded by carefully placed ferns and orchid-draped trees. A gated, central courtyard, boasting an expansive kidney-shaped pool, welcomed guests to the manse’s carved double doors within the enclosure.

Releasing her bling clip, she rewound her hair on top of her head. The layered Thunderstorm and Spring Lilac color cost good money, so she intended to show it off. Using the visor mirror, she draped her lavender curls over the bed of gray, cringing at a splotchy window print on her cheek.

She slipped on her coordinating rhinestone sandals and stepped out to help Tad with her luggage. Humid heat, blended with hints of rain-drenched earth, swamped her. With any luck, this muggy air would steam the wrinkles from her outfit.

“No, no, a senhorita, I do this. You follow me, por favor.” The wheels of her three stacked bags clunked a staccato cadence along a cobbled path as he led them to an imposing black wrought-iron entry.

One side of the double gates swung open. A plump, middle-aged woman, with a salt and pepper bun and Tad’s features, smiled widely at Dakota. “Ah, you’re as pretty as your sister. I’m Consuelo, Tad’s mother. Welcome.”

“I’m Dakota.” She extended a business-like hand in greeting, but the woman gently clasped her fingers and pulled her into the covered patio. Dakota’s low heels clicked across a blue and orange mosaic floor.

She gawked at the exquisite veranda made for outside entertaining. Realizing her mouth hung open, she snapped her jaw shut and wrenched her attention back to her hostess.

Consuelo’s eyes danced, apparently amused with Dakota’s reaction. “We’re all so excited about the wedding. Now, Senhorita Kelsi will have you here to share in her joy. A bride should have her family here for such a time, yes?”

Dakota nodded. Tension she’d tried to ignore since taking off from Omaha eased in her shoulders. Surprising, considering she was walking into a den of drug lords. She scanned the Hollywood-worthy space for Kelsi. “I’ve missed her. Is she here?”

“Soon. She and Senhores Jaime and Cristiano do something for wedding.”

Not at the airport and now, not home to greet her? Worry for her sister bubbled to the surface. Dakota looked left, then right as though Kelsi would materialize. “Did she call? It’s not like her to—”

“No concern, all is well. Phones don’t work many places. Only three weeks until wedding, and much to do.”

Still holding her hand, Consuelo patted it and added a kind smile. The woman was adorable. And the perfect front for a drug kingpin. She pulled Dakota farther into an open-air, columned walkway. They turned a corner, entering a commercial outdoor kitchen.

Idle, utilitarian fans adorned the ceiling, while shiny stainless appliances marked the perimeter of the space. Behind them, latticework panels equipped with hooks held giant spoons, tongs, and forks. Dakota detected a hint of lemon oil, likely used to protect the steel from rust.

“Tad, take her belongings to the parrot room, por favor.”

Sim, Mamãe.” The young man squeezed the stacked luggage between the women and an oven large enough to roast a pig.

After assuring Consuelo she didn’t want a meal, snack, or cocktail, Dakota jumped at the chance for a swim to gain some privacy. “Lead the way.”

The parrot room, no surprise, housed a parrot. Through the rails of its hanging bamboo cage in the corner, Dakota studied the lifelike indigo macaw. The level of detail made her suspect it was a stuffed animal. She slid a hand inside and stroked real feathers. However, she’d never seen such a vibrant cobalt bird.

The suite’s blue and yellow décor played off the parrot’s colors, all in sharp contrast to the conservative Midwest furnishings favored by the Fox. Dakota snapped a few photos with little hope she could send them.

A couple minutes later, in some kind of cell-service miracle, the images of her suite’s sitting area—a wicker chair and loveseat, wall-mounted television, and a wet bar—made it to her mother. She hoped the slideshow would convince Mom that Jaime wasn’t using Kelsi to build a portfolio. However, the reality could be worse. Adding the international code, Dakota dialed her mother’s number.

“Thank God, your phone works.” Mom answered in true Fox fashion, short and to the point. “You’re there.”

Dakota planned to make the conversation as short as possible. “Yeah, finally. Long drive from Manaus, but their helicopter was tied up.”

Silence filled the line. “Is she okay?”

“Kelsi’s away ‘on wedding business’.” Shit. Dakota had erred calling her mother prior to seeing her sister. She struggled to keep any hint of her own worry from her voice. “She’s due any time now.”

The Fox sighed. “After you talk to her, call me again.”

“From what I see here, you can cross gold-digging off your list. Their household staff is extremely nice, too.” Dakota kicked herself. Like nice help made the Salazars good people. Still, she couldn’t imagine Consuelo and Tad in with bad guys.

“Maybe. Call me.” The Fox gave the order, but followed with a sniff. “I love you. Stay smart while you’re there.”

“Love you, too.”

That chore accomplished, Dakota unpacked her suitcases, planning a dip in the pool while she waited for Kelsi. She hoped she could meet Jaime face to face, too. Maybe in person, she’d get a read on how he’d knocked staid Kelsi off her feet.

From his pictures, he was leading-man hot with sky-blue eyes, bronzed skin, and jet hair. Certainly, he was gorgeous enough to melt most women from the inside out.

However, good looks had never messed with Kelsi’s head before. She always held out for the emotional connection, and took her sweet time doing it. Dakota had never suffered such a malady. Drool-worthy guy? She enjoyed him until his jerk shone through, or the wrong thing came out of his mouth.

She grabbed her bathing cap and draped a bionic blue towel over her arm. As an afterthought, she checked her bikini bottom. Wouldn’t do to have butt cheeks peeking out. Satisfied, she exited her room’s sliding glass door to the veranda and found a lounge chair in the shade.

A blue Fiat, like half the cars in Brazil, idled in the front drive. A man strode to the vehicle, but from this distance, his features were unclear. Something about his gait tugged at her mind, forcing recall that wouldn’t cooperate. By his darker complexion he was likely Brazilian, so she couldn’t know him. He climbed into his vehicle and studied her while closing his door in slow motion.

Dakota wiggled fingers at him to let him know he’d caught her interest. The man snapped his gaze to the driveway, accelerating to reach the winding lane leading to the road. Freak.

Late afternoon sun warmed the air-conditioned chill from her skin. Stretching out on the shaded chaise, she planned to baste until she overheated, and then shock her body with a headfirst plunge into the pool.

****

Engine noise overhead and a sweltering wind jarred her awake. Blinking, she forced herself to consciousness. A too-close helicopter silhouette flew along the burnished sunset, its trajectory aiming somewhere behind the mansion. Kelsi and the Salazars had finally returned.

Showtime. Her sister would tell all, if Dakota had to strangle her to get it.

As she rose, her head spun from the heat. In the waning light, she could tell that at some point, the shade had moved and left her in the full sun. If she was quick, she had time for a cooling swim before Kelsi got to the house. After carefully tucking her two-tone color job under the rubber cap, she dove in and savored the chill that sluiced over her.

Although it was not yet dark, underwater lighting had come on, illuminating the blue and orange tiled walls. Dakota sprinted a few laps before gripping the pool’s mosaic ledge, pausing to catch her breath. During her short swim, the sun dipped behind the treed horizon, and dusk triggered more landscape lighting.

Loud, male conversation erupted from a suite in the wing across the pool from hers. Shamelessly nosy, she crossed her arms on the cool tile ledge, straining to hear their muffled words. She lifted one corner of her swim cap for better reception.

The closed patio door framed two shadows facing each other, one man with hands on hips, and the other with waist-length hair. The low beam meant for ferns reflected off the sliding glass door and made it difficult to see into the room. At one point, Dakota thought she heard her name followed by an animal’s snarl, of all things.

“There you are!” Kelsi’s familiar voice turned her around. She stood in the threshold of Dakota’s suite, illuminated by a light above the door.

Relieved to see Kelsi in one piece, Dakota stroked across the pool and climbed the metal ladder two rungs at a time. Biting her tongue against the scolding she wanted to unleash, she raced to hug her sister.

Dakota held her tight, and a beat too long. “About damn time you showed up.”

“Um, you’re soaking me.” Kelsi laughed.

Ignoring her protest, Dakota pulled back to study her, searching for any sign of stress-induced psychosis. Her overzealous hug left water-drenched cotton clinging to Kelsi. “Where the heck have you been?”

“You look freaked. Relax. We flew out to pick up Papai’s friend, and it took way longer than we thought.”

Tears welled in Dakota’s eyes, and she swiped them away. Kelsi pulled her in for another quick embrace.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she whispered.

“Me, too.” Dakota glanced over her shoulder at the two dark figures. “So Jaime’s father is Dad already?”

“Yeah, he’s a sweetie.”

“That his room?” Dakota cocked her head toward the suite holding the arguing men. One form leaned in toward the other, with arms moving, though their loud conversation had muted.

“His friend’s, Matteo. The one we picked up. Can we say issues?” Kelsi puffed a breath. “They’ll work it out.”

“They’re not the only ones with drama. The Steel Fox is cranked tight.” Dakota motioned for Kelsi to follow her into her room before pulling the door shut behind them. She paused and faced her sister.

“I know. But I couldn’t be better. And now that you’re here, you can vouch for my happiness—and my sanity.” Kelsi cocked one brow and held.

“I’ll try. Mom demanded a report tonight.” The suite’s cool indoor air blasted Dakota with a shiver of goosebumps.

Questions about the Salazar wealth burned her throat, but she didn’t want to spoil their reunion in the first five minutes. Kelsi stretched out over the cobalt bed topper and grabbed a parrot decorator pillow for her head. She waited while Dakota carefully selected underwear, shorts, and a girlie t-shirt from a mahogany inlaid highboy.

Kelsi gestured to Dakota’s backside. “You’ve got a new tat! Hummingbird, very cool. When? Where?”

Sliding on a lavender thong and matching lace-trimmed bra, Dakota studied her sister. She seemed herself, not broken or withdrawn. “It’s a souvenir from the Bahamas. Mom beat me up over it. She’s sure I caught HIV from a dirty needle.”

Kelsi pursed her lips. “She may have a point.”

Dakota delivered her best duh look from under her brows. Between piercings, ink, and a stint at med school, she understood to be careful. “I watched them take the needles out of their autoclave.” She twisted in vain to inspect the tat on the small of her back. “Hope I didn’t ruin it out in the sun. I used SPF 50, but fell asleep.”

“It looks okay, but is the hummer’s flower missing a petal?”

“I need another appointment.” Dakota huffed, recalling the snap of bone during her final ink session. She switched topics fast. “I made a few boss jumps over Rum Cay. Oh, and I can braid you some rockin’ wedding hair. Had a job on the beach for a few weeks.”

If all went according to plan, Dakota’s new hair-styling skills would not be required.

“You know only adrenaline junkies jump out of perfectly good planes, right? And does Mom know you got another degree—in French braids?” Kelsi sounded too much like the Fox.

Ignoring the oft-heard jab at her skydiving hobby, Dakota pointed a warning finger. “No, and she doesn’t need to, either. And lucky for you, I progressed way beyond French.”

With a hint of apology, Kelsi curved her lips into a tight grin. “Okay, you do the hair.”

Dakota, now dressed and marginally warmer, turned to Kelsi. “Enough small talk. How did this wedding pop up out of thin air?”

“Jaime’s a wonderful man.” She patted the bed for Dakota to join her, bringing back memories of late-night girl talks after lights out.

Dakota lay on her side next to her sister, snatching a pillow for her head. “And if you’ve lied to me about being pregnant, I’ll kill you. After the Fox is done with you.”

Kelsi snorted and smothered a laugh with her hand. “Not yet, that I know of, but we’re trying.”

“You’re what?” Dakota groaned. Her sister had been possessed. A pregnancy would make it almost impossible to bring her home.

“I’m not getting younger. And we want a baby.” Kelsi’s brows furrowed, her narrowed gaze daring Dakota to argue. Lately, most of their friends who got married jumped right into motherhood, too. The risk of infertility skyrocketed after age thirty-five. She shouldn’t have been surprised.

She choked back a million comments. Maybe she could slip some birth control pills into Kelsi’s food.

Chapter Three


“If you lacked the courage to execute me, you should’ve left me in the jungle.” Matteo cringed at his unfair charge. Cristiano’s judgmental scrutiny and his own embarrassment had made him surly.

From the lavatory’s etched mirror, a gutter rat’s image, complete with meat-tearing canines, taunted Matteo. The refined bamboo mosaic in the background of his reflection drove home his deteriorated state. He’d shifted too late to ease back into polite society.

Scowling, Cristiano stood in the tiled threshold as though overseeing a child’s first attempts at hygiene. He seemed to guess Matteo’s thoughts and waved newfangled electric clippers at him.

“Be silent and cut the damn hair.” Cristiano flicked the motor on and off and shoved the device at Matteo. “Simple. You’ll look human enough.”

With a feline snarl, Matteo snatched the clippers. Years ago, he’d seen ads for the novel powered shears, however he’d never used them. Apparently, now, everything was electrified, not just light bulbs. At least the comb and scissors Cristiano laid on the stone vanity looked familiar.

“You’ll catch up with technology.”

Matteo snorted. The boat had impressed him, but flying inside the remarkable chopper had told him just how far he’d fallen behind the civilized world. He turned the buzzing razor on and off. Not only did he burn endless energy in a never-ending battle to stay human, the most menial tasks required interminable questions.

He grunted at his reflection. “If I were ready to move on, I’d have scheduled a visit.”

“Jaime’s godfather should be at his wedding.” Cristiano used his Patron’s tone, the one that brooked no argument from anyone save Matteo. “Times are dangerous. The new digital technology threatens to expose us every day. We need our Enforcer back—and I need my friend.”

Interest in his appearance gone, Matteo laid the razor on the washroom counter. “Liar. You want a breeding bull. Pick another male for your save-the-species campaign.”

“Now who lies? You ignored my visits for decades—until a queen’s lure drew you out.”

“A foolish stunt.” Matteo shrugged. However, the fact he’d responded to a taken female disturbed him to his marrow. “You have no idea what you gambled.”

As a mated male, a female’s trace wouldn’t affect Cristiano. He had no concept of just how close Matteo had come to killing his only child.

“A calculated risk worth taking to bring you back to us, whether or not you choose to court Kelsi’s sister.” Damn him, Cristiano’s kind eyes showed nothing but sincerity.

Matteo refocused on his wildman reflection, unable to ignore Cristiano, but unwilling to respond.

“Is it so offensive I want my best friend to meet her first?” Cristiano hesitated, the way he’d always done when withholding information. “She might not even be a jag queen. However, if she is, you’re the most genetically diverse from my line.”

“Bloodlines. Pedigree papers will be next.” Matteo huffed and lifted the clippers to his face.

“How many more years, Matteo? Anna, God rest her soul, is gone. You have a chance to rebuild a life.”

The clippers clattered against the green stone counter. With a knife-like pain gouging his heart, Matteo glared at his friend. “What the hell would you know about it?”

Cristiano’s face blanched, and several seconds of silence stretched. His color returned, and fury filled his eyes. “If you’d thought of any but yourself in the last seventy-three years… You’ve got spots for Christ’s sake.”

“And you! You’re gray at the temples. How long since your last shift?” The something missing slammed into Matteo. Maria’s scent no longer entwined with Cristiano’s trace. Oh God, please no. Matteo hung his head. Dread stole his voice, and he barely forced a whisper. “What happened?”

Cristiano’s eyes shone, and he blinked the tears away. “A car wreck. Jaime was eight. Nearly killed him, too.”

Regret pummeled Matteo, and he laid both hands on the cool stone, his body laden with heavy grief. “I should’ve been here.”

“Yes, you should have.” Anger, likely years’ worth, hardened Cristiano’s features.

Matteo blew out a gust of air. He deserved the unforgiving tone. A knock sounded at the suite’s door.

“Enter,” Cristiano commanded, his voice rough. He turned on his heel, and strode into the bedroom.

Matteo paced after him with an apology on his lips. However, Consuelo and Tad trundled into the chamber, toting laundry baskets of clothing and shoes. With privacy gone, Matteo straightened and lifted his chin. The woman looked from one man to the other before dropping her cargo on the bed. “Tad, come. We’ll stop back later.”

“Stay—I was just leaving.” Cristiano pushed by the pair to exit.

Consuelo raised a halting hand. “Before you go, Senhor, a man stopped by earlier. Said he is from Manaus Now! magazine. He wishes an interview about the wedding.”

Cristiano’s scowl deepened.

“I understand.” She smiled with a hint of indulgence. “His card is on your desk.”

He gave a curt nod and then pulled the bedroom door shut behind him.

Matteo, though uncomfortable, strode forward to greet Consuelo and her son. The three made their introductions.

“I remember your father-in-law. A good foreman for Cristiano. Knew the cacao business like no one else,” said Matteo.

“Thank you. He and his wife have passed on. My husband, Alejandro, is supervisor now. We’re so glad to have you with us, Senhor Matteo. You’ll be good for our patrono. Senhor Cristiano…” Consuelo paused with a quick glance at Tad, and busied herself organizing Matteo’s hand-me-down wardrobe.

He returned to the bathroom to tackle his Moses-worthy beard, closing the door for privacy. Immediately, he regretted the isolation. Maria was gone. And so long ago. Poor Cristiano. As few could, Matteo understood his pain.

His sweet, delicate Anna’s death had wrecked him. Sobbing like a child, he’d begged her to shift to cat and stop the bleeding. Allowing crimson to blossom through the bedding, she’d ignored him, cuddling their stillborn daughter’s body. Even now, Matteo snorted against the unforgettable pungent copper tang of the birthing room. She’d left without a backward glance.

Cristiano and Maria, with Jaime on her hip, had stayed with him through the funeral and long afterwards. Old sorrow combined with new. When his friend suffered through his loss, Matteo should have been here, in this home. His throat constricted with his own sorrow for Maria—and his guilt. He’d been a self-centered asshole.

A tap at the bathroom door shook him from his regrets. “Come.”

The door cracked open. At Matteo’s nod, a smiling Tad delivered towels to stow in the linen closet. Before leaving, he halted, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as though ready to burst. “How did you live in the jungle so long?”

Matteo was grateful for the distraction. His own thoughts were killing him. “A lot easier than here.”

With a fleeting look of open envy, the boy gestured to Matteo’s knotted ropes of hair. “Your dreads are cool. Mamãe won’t let me have them. Says if I look like a street soccer player, I won’t get into a good university.” A chagrined look crossed the boy’s expression. “Sorry.”

“Dreads?”

“Your hairstyle. They’re cool, though.”

Matteo eyed the mirror. “Your mamãe is right.”

“I’ll be back in a second.” Tad jetted out of the room on a mystery errand.

“Walk!” Consuelo scolded him from the suite’s sitting area. Scooping a stack of folded shirts from one of the two leather loveseats, she stowed the clothing into a tall chest of drawers. She ambled toward the hallway and looked over her shoulder. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t bother you, Senhor.”


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