Historical Shape-shifter Menage (varelse book 1)
Blackmailed into acting as her family’s assassin, shape-shifting Anna corners O’Riley, her prey, but is shocked to realize the farmer standing over him is another of her kind: a rare Varelse, a tigerlike creature bred to kill.
Anna’s drawn to Isak, who hasn’t shifted for years but who sees Anna struggle with her dual nature. Sometimes cultured lady, sometimes bloodthirsty beast, Anna begs for help. Isak agrees -- if she’ll spare O’Riley’s life. In their sensual lessons, he awakens his own dark animal -- and unleashes her feral passion.
But there’s a hitch -- Patrick O’Riley, the charming blackguard she hunts, desires her too. What’s more, he also wants Isak. The once solitary farmer finds his imagination fired by thoughts of the three of them together.
Over their heads hangs the specter of Anna’s corrupt uncle, who ordered O'Riley's death. Knowing they must confront him and learn the truth, Anna, Isak, and Patrick embark on a journey that pushes the boundaries of their turbulent relationship. With their lives on the line, the three surrender to the lust that entwines them with danger and desire.
Previously published as CLAWS ON SILK by Loose Id.
Warning: This book contains explicit sexual content, including menage (m/m/f).
Anna had trailed O’Riley for days, on foot and on paw, through ragged forests and farmland—all the way from Chicago—and she’d finally cornered him. Or spied him, at least, sprawled gracelessly facedown in an Illinois cornfield in the middle of the afternoon. But when she reached the edge of the field, she saw another figure standing over the man she’d been sent to kill. She sighed, exhausted but pricking herself into wariness, ignoring the unusual flash of fury. He’s my prey.
She slowed to examine the scene, her boots sinking in the cool spring mud. In the middle of knee-high, early spring crops, the stranger stared down at unconscious Patrick O’Riley. Unconscious, but not dead—she could tell. Her understanding of O’Riley had grown that keen during the long trek after he’d jumped the train in Chicago and procured a horse.
The broad figure standing over Anna’s quarry wore dusty denims, a faded shirt, and a battered hat—obviously a farmhand.
Go away, she wanted to scream at the farmhand. Let the hunt end, for the love of God. But the man didn’t seem in a hurry as he knelt by the unmoving figure. He leaned over to reveal a sunburned neck. She found herself fascinated by the sliver of paler skin at the base of his neck and looked away, annoyed with herself. Lately the hunt brought out unsavory emotions in her. Even her responses when she spotted O’Riley were…unladylike and unrelated to her task.
Anna slipped to the scrubby cluster of trees and eased her pack to the ground while she watched. The stranger was a Scandinavian, she guessed, with that pale hair and broad forehead—and that sunburn.
The man shook O’Riley’s shoulder. “You’re drunk, aren’t you.” His soft voice reached her though she crouched, hidden by brush, yards away. She must have been so eager to end this dreary hunt, the start of the change into her savage form had trickled through her, sharpening her hearing.
The stranger sounded disgusted. Maybe he’d walk away from her quarry. But no. Suddenly he froze, one big hand still on O’Riley. He lifted his chin and tilted his head as if sensing the air. Lips slightly parted as if tasting the breeze.
No. Could such a thing be possible?
Anna hesitated upwind of him—she’d been careless, in too much of a rush. As he gazed around, the farmhand’s eyes remained a pale gray, so perhaps it was only her imagination that he could be a creature like her.
She must be careful. As the first serious alarm she’d felt in weeks filled her body, she feared the shifting might begin in earnest. She held her breath and closed her eyes, afraid the ugly gleam filled them already. The farmer would spot the changing color as easily as a motion—especially if he shared her curse. Sweet Lord, no, she prayed. Some of her mother’s religious nature clung to Anna. Keep me away from others like me had been her standard prayer for years.
She’d never met another being like herself, though she knew they existed. Perhaps in this empty American landscape, she’d found her first.
No term had been coined to describe her kind, her uncle had told her. They were born every few generations into some ill-fated bloodlines. He called her “the aberration.” The name stuck in her mind even after she understood her uncle stewed in bitterness and envy that he hadn’t inherited the animal skills.
Then she’d learned that, unlike any other family with the misfortune to breed such things, their family sought to produce aberrations, not destroy them. Her power-hungry, sophisticated family understood creatures like her were useful. She’d seen the notes her father had made, listing the other bloodlines with aberrations, including her mother’s family.
Her father had cornered, charmed, and secured her mother’s hand on the London marriage mart for the sole purpose of possibly creating an aberration. He’d succeeded with little Anna, and the carefully kept logbooks she’d found in her father’s office after his death had described his delight with their success.
She forced herself to breathe slowly and tune out the sensations bombarding her. She’d be done with this soon. Too bad all that careful planning by her family would go to waste. If the other aberration didn’t kill her, she’d finish this last job, fetch her mother, and then they’d have to leave her alone. And no one, not even her uncle, would attempt to force her to breed. No. She mustn’t concentrate on her anger and strength. Not until that dangerous farmer was safely away.
Leather creaked. Cloth rustled. Sixty feet away, the farmhand must have risen to his feet. Anna kept her eyes shut and waited. Like any good hunter, she could hold absolutely still for long periods.
“Who’s there?” he called out. His musical cadence spoke of Scandinavian origins. She waited. The sound of his movements grew more distinct as the animal in her stirred, roused by emotion and the jolts of alarm. But something else pushed her careful control.
She heard his breath, smelled his sweat, the human musk of him, the cloth and leather he wore, the oil and stale cordite of a gun. Her body had gone taut as if her flesh seemed to know something about him she didn’t. She drew in a deeper, stealthy breath to see if she could taste a fellow aberrant, though she wasn’t sure she’d recognize the smell.
But she stopped trying to catch his scent when the click of metal against metal reached her ears. He held the gun.
So it would end with a bullet. Anna waited to feel fear, but her vision sharpened and her flesh burned with the urgent need to shift; her transforming body would support no form of weakness. There was only the surging need…to attack and devour. She struggled to keep her eyes closed, because if she opened them, her animal would be released at once. It would streak to them both, for the throat and the blood.
It might even make her swift enough to beat the bullet.
Her blood pounded with the lust and confusion. Stay still, she commanded. The animal in her gnawed at the artificial restraint she’d built inside her. It bit at her, creating actual pain, but Anna would not give in.
Should the man be human and not like her, she must not surrender to her aberrant lust; her jaws would snap his neck seconds after she opened her eyes.
Do not kill the innocent, her grandfather had said. That rule made her tasks much harder, but it made her life bearable. Other rules they’d planted in her—such as acting the polite young lady whenever possible—also made her existence far more complex. But they kept her from destroying herself.
Not yet, she ordered the beast again, fighting the promise of bliss that letting go offered. She’d worked so long and hard; she’d trained herself to subdue the desire, but her joints and head ached, and her eyes burned behind her lids, filling the dark with red.
Isak Arnesen caught the salty-sweet odor before he saw her, and his body knew before his mind understood—a full-blood Varelse lurked near him. A female? He hadn’t known they could be women.
He kept books, lists of facts about Varelse. If he survived this encounter, he’d add this new bit of knowledge to his store of information. The smell of her obviously woke his own weakened version of the creature. The excitement of discovery didn’t help soothe the dratted sensation coursing through him. He’d seen only one other being in the flesh, and that had been an old, old man—his great-great-uncle.
The woman hidden behind the copse of trees didn’t move. She’d frozen still as a statue, so she must know he was aware of her.
He didn’t know what he could do, other than draw her attention away from the fool sprawled on the ground. If Isak ran, she’d follow, and perhaps he’d even outpace her, although, hell, that heady overlay of ozone to her scent told him she had a great deal more healthy Varelse blood than he did. It smelled like desire, and his belly lurched as he remembered the joy of that freedom, the release.
What had his uncle’s notes said about encountering others? Would they fight for dominance? He could recall nothing. His thoughts vanished as his body grew too ensnared in her presence.
He shifted from one foot to the other slowly, standing, then moving to put himself between the unconscious man and the Varelse. He clutched his revolver, a second later realizing drawing it had been a stupid thing to do. She might consider it aggression. He certainly would.
He wanted to call out to her, to chirrup invitingly and speak to her as one would a nervous animal, but he had no idea if that would draw her attack faster. When his own Varelse rose inside him, he found the sound of a person’s voice more irritating than soothing.
If he didn’t do this correctly, one or more of them would end up dead. He suspected that he and the drunkard who’d wandered onto his land would be the dead ones.
Then he recalled something his great-great-uncle had had him write down years earlier. Advice for any human encountering a Varelse: go to him. Don’t wait for him to hunt you down. You must be entirely unafraid, approach in a submissive position—and you might survive.
As his great-great-uncle had pointed out, the trouble lay with the “unafraid” part. No sane person could manage that. And the submission—that must not be taken too far, or the creature would interpret it as weakness. To know the difference meant life or death. Or so his great-great-uncle had said. Most people couldn’t feel that difference. But after all, Isak wasn’t entirely a person himself. For once he found comfort in that.
As the thoughts buzzed through his head, he forced himself to stand almost as motionless as she. He had to force himself to approach her instead of running the hell away. Obviously the Varelse didn’t want to attack, or he would be dead or in a fight for his life by now. Why didn’t she?
Was she hurt or sick?
Now a wave of concern for the woman washed through him. That was good, because it pushed off the fear but not the strange excitement. That old, almost forgotten, anticipation. The hunt.
Years ago, before the famine, before constant hunger and thirst had weakened the Varelse in him, he’d craved that itch to change and to hunt.
Now, everything around him gleamed with the brilliance and clarity of the old days. His heart beat as quickly. Ah, but therein lay the difference. For the first time in his life, he was potential prey. A new version of the longing filled him.
He felt alive.
He moved slowly toward the trees and the Varelse, the gun loose at his side. The fear wasn’t going to vanish entirely, but he’d ignore it and concentrate on the life coursing through him. Tilting his head, he exposed his throat.
Silence, except for his harsh breathing. She would hear his panting fear. To cover it, he began to sing an old drinking song another of his long-dead uncles, a sailor, had taught him, and he slowly strolled toward the trees where danger waited.
He glimpsed a flash of orange and yellow fur wrapped in the remains of a white blouse and blue skirt, and she sprang. The transformed woman. The full Varelse, sleekly feline, primitive yet elegant. And utterly lethal. He had to look, which helped him fight the instinct to protect himself by curling into a ball. Good, because anything defensive would draw her fangs to his throat.
She drove him to the ground. Stones bit into his back, and the sun haloed the outline of her predatory muzzle and glistening fangs, but he forced himself to stay as still as possible.
The sleek hide pressed against him. In his state of hyperawareness, he could see every detail of her lithe body, the catlike curves, the fluid muscles beneath the quivering flank, even the stitching in the tatters of the clothing still clinging to her. The heat of her breath washed against his bare throat, the knife-edge of her claws dug into his arms as she forced him to drop the gun.
He breathed. His throat remained unripped.
Isak tilted his head up to look directly into her orange eyes that glowed less than two feet above him. Savage, cold, lion’s eyes, yet like no lion that had ever walked beside man. A unique creation of a cruel god, the lean Varelse outweighed the pumas that roamed the mountains, and her canines curved slightly past her lower jaw like ivory scimitars. Gold stripes spangled her glossy pelt, and four-inch claws pricked his skin. A living nightmare from the dawn of time, growling softly on his chest. English—all language—deserted him. He whimpered, but more than fear pushed that noise from his throat.
He had to transform and have her. The Varelse he’d thought had died in him slid along his veins, making his mouth water, his skin itch.
Isak forced it back. Later, later, he promised the Varelse that flooded his body and his cock with heady, unfamiliar desire. Now he must control the lust and fear. He watched her.
Her eyes widened, then closed. As he gazed, her body and the air around her seemed to blur and shiver like waves of heat. Isak couldn’t look away even if he wanted to, though a small, hysterically babbling part of him wondered if it was perhaps rude to stare. After all, one wanted to mind one’s manners when under the power of a Varelse. But then, abruptly, a nearly naked brown-haired woman straddled him, her seemingly dainty fingers holding his wrists. Her eyes opened, brown now—and filled with fear.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no.” She scrambled away from him and leaped to her feet. Human feet, with no sign of the beast she’d been only moments before. “Oh, Lord, no. Please.”
Very slowly, he sat up.
Her frantic string of words ended abruptly. “You’re alive?” she whispered.
“Yes.” He decided to stay seated until the effects of her proximity faded. Although the sight of her body, as sleek and lithe as her animal and draped in tatters, didn’t help matters. He could see the curve of her full breast, and even her dusky nipple showed through her torn chemise. With her even more delicious human form mere inches away, his desire for her remained unabated, though his weak Varelse had gone into hiding again.
“Y-you…” She had to have noticed the direction of his stare, because she looked down at herself and gave a small gasp of obvious dismay. She turned and walked swiftly back to a bag she must have dropped next to the trees. “You are alive,” she said again as she knelt and unbuckled the bag. She hauled out a blouse and split skirt. “I don’t understand. You’re an aberration as well?” She dressed with practiced ease, throwing on the pale blue blouse and dark skirt over most of the remains of her ruined clothes.
She looked up again. “Who are you?” Even in her agitation, her accent was crisp and her words articulate. Upper-class British, he thought. Easy for him to understand, which was impressive at the moment, because blood had coursed away from his brain. His English was good, but he spent so many weeks alone, he tended to think in Swedish.
“My name is Arnesen,” he said. “What did you call me?”
“I’m certain you are an aberration. You are an animal. Like me. Except no. No, you didn’t change.” She slowly walked toward him, looking remarkably unremarkable for a woman who wore nearly a whole outfit beneath another layer of clothes and who’d been an animal only a few minutes earlier. “And even when I was…” Her face reddened. “Even then, I believe I would not have harmed you. I wanted something else when I attacked.”
Some devil made him ask, “And what did you want?”
She ran her hands down the sides of her skirts and looked for all the world like an embarrassed young maiden, no trace of a ravening animal in her. “I’m not certain,” she said coldly. He could hear the thin hiss of her lie in the words.
Sitting in his field with two strangers, bruised from an odd attack by one of those strangers, Isak smirked. He’d felt it too. Ravening. Starving, frothing at the mouth, need…to fuck. An extraordinary sensation, because Isak had very rarely felt this hunger.
He’d heard about it from ribald remarks of other men and even seen it in a few of the women who’d seduced him. He knew that desperate moment at the end of the act when he would reach his climax. It held the echo of need, only a shadow of what he felt now.
Certainly he could perform in bed; the women had shown him that. All very pleasant, but hardly overwhelming.
He’d burned with fever like that only during an occasional dream.
He’d never been rendered mindless with lust until he’d seen this woman. Never wanted to twine around another, skin to skin or fur to fur, in human or animal form, finding hot, slick release inside her.
He schooled his rampaging thoughts as she knelt near him. Not so close that they might touch if either reached out. Damn. “We can speak. Even more remarkable, we are both alive. How did you stop yourself?” she said. “How is it you could keep it—that wretched thing—away from you just then?”