22 Half Moon Street
Mayfair, London 1889
MIA CLAWED AT HER BALL GOWN as she climbed the stairs. There it was again, that tingling feeling—more of an itch than an urge, as if her skin was stretched too tight over the wrong body. At the first signs of a metamorphosis, they had made their excuses, left the ball at Stafford House, and returned home.
“Coming to bed, darling?” Her question was a flippant snarl, not a sultry invitation, for she knew he would not condescend to answer. She reached the landing and turned, surprised to see him just a few steps behind her.
As her guardian drew close, her nostrils flared. The scent of Royal Lime No. 5 layered with hints of his shaving soap assaulted her senses. She was drawn, however, to a more intoxicating musk—the very masculine essence that was Doctor Asa Exeter, enigmatic half-blooded Persian prince and English Baron.
“Will you let me help you, Mia?” He stood one step
below her, bringing them eye to eye.
“You know that is impossible.” A momentary flash of fantasy intruded—her bare breasts exposed to his anguished gaze, nipples peaked in anticipation of the brush of his thumb. Mia shivered. The sudden surge of arousal could have caused an instantaneous shift. She shook her head gently so her tears would not spill. “The change comes faster now, you could be injured.” She lifted her chin. “Let me be, Om Asa.”
She turned to leave, and he caught her hand. “At least let me mix a powder for the headache.”
Exeter had spent a week in the library of secrets studying her condition. He well understood that her migraine warned of an impending, involuntary shift. The pain had quickly become intolerable, and he had escorted her out of the ballroom. In the carriage, she had tried to make light of it. “It seems this is my coming out season—in more ways than one.”
Now, here on the stairs, she met his gaze, that of a protector, of caring and affection. The same look of concern she had known since childhood. The one that now caused her heart to break. “The discomfort will pass, shortly.”
Exeter rattled off a litany of symptoms. “Neuralgia, generalized body aches, a sinus drip—not sniffles from a cold, but the kind one gets from exposure, when one is out in the snow for too long.” He examined her carefully. “Typically these signs begin within a few hours of the transformation. Are they all present?”
She rolled her eyes upward. “Yes, Doctor Exeter.” The wild thing inside her stirred. The beast humped its back and stretched, languidly.
The headache had eased somewhat, which was all the more terrifying. This meant the reshaping of her body was imminent. Mia’s gaze lingered on the seraphim painted on the ceiling. God’s burning angels. “We were fortunate tonight,” she murmured. Sometimes, there were no warning signs—the shift just happened. “Jersey says as I gain experience I will be able to better anticipate the onset of change.”
As intimate as it was to be alone with Exeter, things had felt a bit desolate this evening, without the Nightshades. She had grown used to having bodyguards, most everywhere they traveled. Jersey Blood and his consort, Valentine, had been assigned to she and Exeter. Jersey was a seraph shifter who rarely allowed himself to transform. He had become something of a mentor in these early months of her transformation.
“Gradually you will learn to manipulate these shifts; then you may change at will, if you so choose,” Jersey had assured her. His promise of control cheered her some, even as she fought back the urge to rip off her dress and expose herself—to rub against Exeter and purr.
“I must go.” She ran the rest of the way up the stairs and down a length of carpeted corridor. This longing to mate with her guardian was not new, exactly. But there were times now, when her desire was almost too great to bear. Upsetting to say the least, and beyond perplexing for the good doctor. The untamed feline urge was so strong that, on one occasion, she had used coarse language and disrobed in a provocative way. Shocking behavior on her part.
Her belly trembled at the memory of Exeter’s palm cupping her breast, the moment when his thumb had stroked and she had exhaled a low, throaty rumble.
He had stepped away in horror.
Mia shook off the painful memory and burst into her
bedchamber. She made it as far as her dressing table before she realized her mistake and turned back. Exeter stood in the open doorway holding an oil lamp, his gaze penetrating, measured. “I believe you need me to undress you.”
She bit her lip and nodded. Several weeks ago there had been a close call with Lucy, her maid. One evening, as she helped Mia ready for bed, a sudden, unexpected shift had occured. No warning signs. She had hissed so ferociously,
the terrified girl had fled the house in the middle of the night.
Exeter entered the room and set the lamp on her dresser. “Come, Mia.” She hadn’t noticed how dark it was—mostly because her night vision was extraordinary now. She could read the ancient codex at her bedside without illumination, if she cared to be illuminated.
Placing her hands on her hips, she turned her back to Exeter. “Please assure me you will not frighten the Metropolitan police on patrol in Green Park. . . again.”
“I often have no control over her . . . she’s—” Mia shifted away and he pulled her back. Persistent, gentle fingers loosened the strings of her corset. Even as her cheeks flushed with heat, cool air wafted over skin moist with perspiration. His knuckles brushed against the flesh of her back, causing a shiver she failed to conceal.
A hand slipped around her waist and he turned her toward him. “As the codex advises—assert yourself but do not force her to your will.”
“She always wants...” Mia avoided his gaze, until she couldn’t any longer. “You know what she wants.” Exeter’s exotic green eyes, the color of imperial jade, stayed with her. The stubble on his chin and jaw made him look swarthy, and exceedingly masculine, and yet he was also her protector.
“Gentle persuasion, Mia, the more you struggle with her—”
Inexplicably, before she could gain control over her hand, she reached out and stroked the dark, tempting ruff of his whiskers. She traced a faint, cream-colored scar that ran along the edge of a powerful jawline. Her touch stopped his conversation mid-sentence.
What inexplicable behavior! But this is how she had become with him. Heat flushed her cheeks and she withdrew her hand from his face. Shaking her head, even managing an uneasy laugh, she apologized. “I don’t know what came over me, please excuse . . .”
“No, please, continue.” Covering her hand with his, he guided her fingers over the stubble below his cheekbone to his handsome, well-formed mouth. Her gaze lingered on his generous bottom lip and the upper, with its strong cupid’s bow. Another scorching flush of heat crept up her neck. Gently, he turned her hand palm up and brushed his lips over the faint pulse on the inside of her wrist. “Forgive me, Mia.”
A tingle shivered through her body, curling her toes. She had never seen him smile, not like the one she now experienced, and she was positive he felt her tremble.
Sweeping a stray wisp of hair off her cheek, he took a long moment to examine every feature on her face.
“You are changing, Mia, from a precocious, adorable girl into a most sultry beauty. From here on out, I will have to keep a close watch on myself.” Exeter backed away and shut the door quietly.
Mia blinked. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of his speech—apology, confession, or warning? All she knew was the ends of her mouth tilted upward.
She disrobed and left nothing on, having learned the hard way. Any clothes on her body would end up in tatters. The evening chill was soothing, even sensuous. She moved to the tall paned windows and opened French doors. A waft of air hardened her nipples and prickled her skin. Touching herself, she imagined his fingers . . . there.
The shift was instantaneous. Painless.
Lean sinew rippled under a coat of sleek, black fur. Exeter stood on the rooftop and admired the panther’s agility and stealth as she dropped down between buildings and into the alley north of Curzon Street. A gray ghost of fog crept over stone pavers. “So, the huntress is on the prowl.”
Anytime now, she would return to human form. These
involuntary shifts never lasted long. Exeter hooked a finger into his waistcoat pocket and tipped out his watch. Nearing the stroke of three.
Less than an hour ago, a large blue-black cat sprang from Mia’s bedchamber window to the roof of the townhouse. She had put up a merry chase, and he had followed after, hurdling gables, vaulting chimneys, using potent energy for the impossible jumps. Still, it amounted to vigorous calisthenics, keeping up with the agile feline.
Exeter leaned against the steep pitch of an attic roof, and
squinted. The dark cat crept down the mews lane, but he could not make out what she stalked. Further away, a dust bin toppled to the ground with a crash.
Mia froze, fixing on something down the narrow byway. Shoulders hunched, she crouched low and waited.
He suspected rats or alley cats, until he heard the scoffs and shouts that followed. Exeter stepped out from behind the chimney for a better view. Three young street rowdies sauntered down the row, up to no good. One of them emptied the last of a whiskey bottle and gave it a toss. The glass shattered against a wall.
Mia backed into a corner and hissed.
“Well now, what ‘ave we here?” A brawny young man stepped closer and she took a swipe at him. “Watch yourselves, this pretty puss has claws.” The inebriated sot swayed backward––caught himself––and pitched forward. One of his mates had the good sense to yank him away and prop him between cohorts, who hung back. “Look at her—big ain’t she?” Another boy gasped. “Some big green eyes on her . . .”
She curled her lip with a snarl.
“Fangs, as well.” The bolder drunkard stuck a thumb under his cap and scratched. “What do you suppose?”
All three ruffians stared as one spoke up. “I say this pussycat likely escaped from some rich lord’s private zoo, don’t you know.”
The rowdy beside him nodded. “Mattie works fancy balls at a duke’s house in Belgravia. She says he’s got a leopard— one of those big cats with spots. Rides ‘im in an open carriage through Hyde Park.”
Exeter stood at the edge of the roofline and observed the cornered panther that was Mia. She paced back and forth
eyeing the young men. Jersey Blood had warned him about tracking Mia in her shift-state. “Unless she’s in dire straights—leave her be. She needs to learn her own strengths, how to defend herself.”
Mia lunged at the doddering bullies and hissed. She was testing them.
“There’s a bloke named Jamrach, has a shop over on Radcliff Highway in Shadwell—Jamrach’s Menagerie. He deals in wildlife, birds mostly, but large cats as well. I wager she’ll fetch a thumping-good sum.” The boisterous de facto leader kicked over an empty dust bin, and picked up the lid. “Hand me a stick and grab one for yourselves, lads.”
Using the lid as a shield, he tried poking and prodding at her. “Let’s see if we can get this pretty puss into the bin. Go around to the side there—don’t let her slip away.”
A gnash of bared teeth ended in a snarling growl that quickly grew into the loudest call of the wild ever heard in the borough of Westminster. She leapt directly at the large bloke, teeth bared. Bully boy staggered as the sleek cat veered off and made a jaw dropping spring into the air. She jumped from window ledge to roof and landed not far from Exeter.
If he was not mistaken, Mia had incorporated a bit of what Ping referred to as relic dust and champagne, or potent energy, to assist in those breathtaking leaps. Until now, he hadn’t seen such skillful maneuvering from Mia. And she had manipulated the physical universe in cat form.
The wild creature stared down at the astonished hooligans below who dropped their sticks and lids and hurried out of the alley.
The cat turned, flashing green eyes of . . . was that recognition? His heart thumped hard inside his chest. He stood his ground and held his breath as she crept closer. At the last moment, she turned her head and rubbed against his leg, arching her back. Glancing over his shoulder, he watched her circle around for another pass. He descended to his haunches and she allowed him to rub her neck and scratch behind her ears—with one hand, then both. Her robust rumble modulated into a low purr as she closed her eyes and collapsed into his body.
A flesh and blood young lady lay in his arms. Exeter removed his coat and covered her. She opened her eyes momentarily and shivered. Lifting her up, he bent the physical world just enough to make it home in several leaps—from rooftop to rooftop, until he dropped down onto the balcony of her room. He pushed open the window and was greeted by Mr. Tandi, who waited beside a copper bathtub. His manservant poured the steaming contents of a kettle into the tepid water, as he angled Mia through the French door.
“That will be all, Mister Tandi.” Exeter lowered her into the warm bath and stayed until she was revived enough to begin to bathe herself. “Are you well enough, Mia?”
She looked up and smiled softly. “Leave me—you look tired, Om Asa. Get some rest.”
His servant stood in the corridor holding a brandy on a
silver salver. These strange, middle of the night rituals had become routine of late. Exeter slumped onto one of upholstered chairs in the hallway. For months now, the Nightshades had kept vigil from these posts—only tonight it would be Mr. Tandi.
He took a sip of the warm amber liquid. “How long has it been since you and Mia announced yourselves at my door, Mr. Tandi?”
His manservant’s eyes lit up at the memory. “My word— seems very long ago—ten years, I believe, sir.” Exeter recalled the tall, soft spoken African man standing at his door, holding the hand of a doe-eyed waif of a child, the young Anatolia Chadwick. Mia, as she was called, even by her parents, was at best a distant relation. But, it seemed, he and his father were all the child had left in the world.
Mr. Tandi had recounted a hair-raising tale of a bloodthirsty raid on a small town built around a mining operation. Mia’s parents had been murdered. Wearing the clothes on their backs and carrying a hidden pouch filled with diamonds, Tandi and the child had made their way to Cape Town, sold a few gems, and booked passage on the first ship bound for London.
A last swallow of brandy slipped down his throat. Ten years had passed. Exeter closed his eyes, picturing the scrawny little girl and the African man, as dark as midnight, huddled together in the foyer. He set his glass down and rose from the comfortable chair. Tapping lightly at Mia's door, he slipped inside.
Silently, Exeter moved to the edge of the canopy bed. He swept back a veil of diaphanous curtain and watched her breathe, tempted to get out his stethoscope and listen to her heart. She had always looked like an angel in her sleep; since when had she become the devil’s own temptress?
For several months now, there had been provocative
moments between them including a few ardent displays of affection. Some of Mia’s advances had been quite shocking and affected him deeply. So much so, he wasn’t so sure he could still say that the attraction was entirely one sided.
This evening, as was his custom, he had waited on a neighboring rooftop for her. From this vantage point, he had spied Mia seconds before her shift. Her nude figure bathed in soft moonlight . . . so breathtakingly beautiful, he had thought her as stunning as a painting he had once seen by Jules Lefebvre in the National Gallery of Victoria.
Just hours ago, she had stood on tiptoe and stroked the stubble along his jaw. He had captured her hand, and his lips had found the sensitive flesh on the inside of her wrist. Tracing a light blue vein with his tongue, her pulse had quickened. “Carus Deus, you are torture.”
How long was he going to be able to resist her?