Authors: Bonnie Vanak
THE MATING INTENT
Book 4.5 in the Werewolves of Montana series
“I am the king’s Shadow Guard. I am Light and Dark and vow with my blood and bones to be the shield for the earth, and rid it of evil whenever I may. I am the secret right hand of the king and will keep my vow unto my dying day, keeping my spirit and body pure for my duties.”
Oath sworn by Sienna Bennett, Shadow Guard to Cael, king of the Fae of the Northern Light
Table of Contents
Florida Everglades, 1989
Sienna Bennett was destined to die a virgin.
As the Shadow Guard to Cael, king of the Fae of the Northern Light, her vow of celibacy prohibited her from having sex. Sex with fellow Elves, sex with humans, or Skins, as the Fae called them, or sex with the beast shifters.
No matter how attractive the beast shifter. And with his sleek muscles, long dark gold hair and charming smile, Gabriel Sanders could tempt the strongest Elf.
Not. Going. There
A blue bucket filled with damp sawgrass saplings in her gloved hands, she watched the big panther prowl through the ankle deep marsh waters. June in the Florida Everglades was humid and hot, the relentless sun constantly warming the earth, but the climate had little to do with the warmth curling down her spine. Mud, damp earth and Gabriel’s rich, spicy scent filled her senses.
In panther form, Gabriel was dangerous.
In human form, he was devastating.
This was an assignment, she reminded herself, biting her lip as she stared at Gabriel. Polluted with phosphorus and nitrogen, the Everglades had become overgrown with cattails, pushing aside the sawgrass and prohibiting birds from feeding. Gabriel had asked King Cael for assistance in cleaning up his territory. Because Gabriel was Guardian of the sacred spring of Danu, Cael immediately agreed. The king sent Kendall, the most powerful terra Elf in the kingdom, and ordered Sienna to assist.
Just an everyday assignment to purify the earth, helping an everyday Wylding shifter with a smoky gaze the color of green meadows…
Ten panther shifters belonging to Gabriel’s clan scouted the outskirts of his territory to guard against human intruders. Smoke curled through the air as Kendall destroyed the invasive cattail with an enchantment spell. Sienna opted for khaki shorts and a powder blue T-shirt, but despite the heat, Kendall wore the traditional Elven garb of black pants and forest green leather jerkin. The lanky Elf lowered his hands and morosely regarded the swamp. Kendall never looked happy about anything. Her mentor probably didn’t even smile when he got laid.
Gabriel splashed through the water and dug out a hole with his big paws for her to plant the saplings he’d cultivated in his nursery. Sweeping her gaze over the flat plain of swamp, she felt a sudden kinship with the cat and his love of this land. It was wild, untamed and…
“Sienna, stop daydreaming and help Gabriel so I can destroy the last cattails,” Kendall ordered.
Bossy. Kendall always did everything in order. When his back was turned, she flipped the Elf the finger. The panther watched her, showing his teeth in a grin.
Barefoot, she waded through the water, mud and silt oozing through her toes. Sienna filled the bucket with swamp water and grabbed a sapling with her gloved hands, planting it in the muck. Gabriel stood nearby in panther form, his jade green gaze centered on her, not the saplings. Nostrils flaring, as if he’d scented something enticing, he padded closer.
Then he raised his head and regarded her with his gleaming gaze.
Wind rustled through the nearby cocoplum trees. The loamy smell of swamp water and fetid earth tangled with Gabriel’s rich, musky spice. Suddenly she wished to shed her clothing and be like Gabriel, running free and wild through the Everglades.
He came close enough for her to touch. Mesmerized by the intensity of his gaze, Sienna yanked off her right glove, reaching out to run her hand through Gabriel’s thick fur.
“Sienna! Stop wasting time,” Kendall snapped.
Guilt flashed through her. She dropped her hand, reached into the bucket for a sapling and grabbed it with her bare hand.
Sienna winced as the sawgrass’ teeth bit open her palm. As she shook her hand, crimson droplets dotted the shallow water.
Gabriel shifted back into Skin. Naked, he walked toward her. Heat curled down her spine as she caught a glimpse of his impressive sex nestled in a thatch of dark gold hair. Sienna quickly averted her gaze. This panther was walking temptation. He examined her injured hand.
“You cut yourself,” he murmured. “Sawgrass is very sharp.”
Turning her hand over, he stroked a gentle finger over the cut. A shiver raced down her spine, not at the stinging pain, but the assuredness of his touch.
“I have something for that back at the house,” he told her.
Not a good idea. Kendall was impatient to finish and get home to Oregon. He’d scold her for being careless. “I’m fine.”
Gabriel arched a brow. “You’re bleeding and Elves don’t heal as fast as shifters. If you keep dripping blood into the water, George will come along and decide you’ll make a tasty Elf treat.”
“Local gator shifter. He’s even-tempered, but not very discriminating when he’s hungry.” He glanced at Kendall, examining the next batch of cattails. “Though he’d avoid pain in the ass Elves like Kendall. Some meals just aren’t worth the indigestion.”
Sienna giggled, the first real laugh she’d had in weeks. Gabriel grinned.
“But he does enjoy virgins, so you’d be a special treat.”
Heat suffused her face. “How did you know…”
His grin widened. “I have an acute sense of smell. I can scent your innocence. It’s vanilla and citrus. Very sweet.”
He turned and splashed through the water. Sienna stared at the taut globes of his buttocks, a tingle rushing to her female parts as she wondered how he’d feel, his strong naked body atop hers, those smooth buttocks flexing as he drove deep inside her…
Gabriel retrieved his jeans on the sand and tugged them on. He turned and looked at her with a knowing smile, as if he’d sensed her naughty thoughts.
She should not accompany him. Her hand would heal on its own and she had work.
Suddenly she tired of work, tired of doing the right thing.
“Kendall! Be right back. I cut myself.”
Without waiting for his response, she followed Gabriel on the dirt pathway leading to his two-story house. Inside the kitchen, he pulled out a chair and made her sit. He opened a cabinet door and removed a glass jar filled with yellowish cream. When he unscrewed it, the tangy smell of oranges and ginger scented the air.
“My homemade salve. This is going to hurt.”
She eyed the jar with misgiving. “Maybe I should bathe in the sacred spring of Danu. Make it easy on you.”
“The spring is for cleansing away negative energy from the spirit, not disinfecting cuts. Be brave, pixie.”
Sienna pursed her lips. “Pixie?”
“A nickname. You’re as feisty as one. But far prettier and more intelligent. The Fairies I’ve encountered have too much air between their ears. Probably from all the flying they do.”
As she sputtered with laughter, he applied a thin layer of ointment over the laceration. It stung and Sienna flinched.
“It smells divine, but hurts like hell!”
“A little blood and slight pain is necessary before experiencing life’s more enjoyable pleasures,” he murmured. His gaze darkened and she instinctively knew he referenced losing her virginity. Gabriel made “pleasure” sound sinful. It would be with him.
He bound her hand with a white bandage. “Sienna. Such a lovely name for a beautiful Elf. I’m glad Cael agreed to my request to send you here.”
Flushed with pride, she smiled. “You asked for me?”
“I saw you once at Cael’s court and you caught my eye when you gave a lecture on the importance of saving the environment. I knew you shared my love of restoring the earth to her natural state.”
Unaccustomed to praise, Sienna gave a modest shrug. “Kendall is the most powerful at cleaning the environment. He’s been my mentor since childhood. I’m only a Shadow Guard.”
“A dark Elf who fights for the Fae King, but always remains in the shadows and hovers on the line between darkness and evil.”
“A dark Elf who fights her own nature because only Elven of the Northern Light are permitted in the king’s court. Elves who are not like me.” Bitterness soured her pleasure.
“Only ‘good’ Elves, such as the pompous, self-righteous Elves fluttering around good King Cael.”
Sienna blinked. “You have been in court and more than once to make that assessment.”
How she loathed the prim and proper attitudes, yet craved acceptance by Elves of the Northern Light. She’d been only ten when her mother was forced to give her up to be fostered by a member of the royal court. As a bastard daughter conceived during an illicit affair with a dark Elf, Sienna held the rare distinction of having both light and dark powers. She’d fought for inclusion in the privileged circles of light. Yet she’d never quite broken in, always buzzing around the perimeter like a mosquito.
“More than once.” Bitterness tinged his own voice now.
“The other Elves don’t like me much,” she admitted.
“Because you have a dual nature. I know what it’s like. I’m not fully a shifter. I have a dual side to my nature. But it’s my cat side that dominates my life.” He raised her hand to his mouth.
Gabriel’s lips were warm and soft upon her hand as he brushed a kiss across her knuckles. His smoky gaze held hers as he lowered her trembling hand.
“What was that for?”
“Because you are a lady, and a lady deserves to be honored with a kiss. And I’ve longed to do that since you set foot upon my land.”
He was a dangerous panther who would never gain entrance to the elite circles of Elven culture. With his faded jeans and blue chambray work shirt, Gabriel was as removed from her world as the Everglades was from Oregon’s lush forests. But he was real, earthy as the loamy swamp he protected, and solid. No pretense.
Gods, she tired of falseness.
But too many disappointments saddled her with suspicion and mistrust. Sienna drew back. “Why are you being so nice? I only did what Cael commanded.”
Gabriel’s mouth quirked. “So direct and honest. I like you, pixie. You have secrets to hide, yet you wear your emotions like a cape.”
Stunned he’d so easily assessed her, she gave a philosophical shrug. “Out here, I feel freer to express myself. It’s not the same as home. Or the other places I visit, cleansing the land and trying to repair the damage others have done to the earth.
“You’re always on the move?”
“Part of my duties. I never remain in one place for long. I have to have freedom to move around to fulfill my obligations. And when I go home to the king’s court, I have duties as well.”
“And in the king’s court no one knows your true self. You have faced many trials and your strength has seen you through dark times, enduring loss after loss.”
“I haven’t mourned anyone. My father abandoned me when I was born, but my mother still lives.”
His gaze sharpened, as if he’d seen into her true heart. “Loss isn’t only death. Your losses stung harder, losses of acceptance and self. Facing obstacles to prove your worth while others blithely sailed ahead, gaining with ease what you fought to accomplish.”
He leaned close. “I watched you at court twice. I saw how others reacted around you, saw how you tried to fit into their tight circles by pretending you were one of them. Giving all a wide smile so the whispers would not begin, your pride a thin shield but the only one you possessed.”
Sienna’s mouth wobbled. All these years she’d hidden behind a wide smile and a graceful demeanor. And in two short days this panther had splintered and then shattered her facade, as if seeing behind the glamour.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m fighting with myself. Always trying to balance the light magick with the dark magick inside me.”
Concern filled his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to get personal. We beast shifters out here in the scummy boonies tend to be blunt.”
Sienna gave a slight smile. Upon first seeing Gabriel’s ramshackle nursery business, Kendall complained about being regulated to dirty work in the “boondocks of scummy swampland.”