- Author: Lisa G. Riley & Roslyn Hardy Holcomb
- Genre:Historical, Vampires & Shapeshifters, Multicultural, Fantasy & Paranormal
- Cover Artist: Christine M. Griffin
As a member of Eshu, those who can shift into any animal at will, Jacob Adams is used to knowing and getting what he wants. And when he meets Mary Katherine Day as they work together on the Underground Railroad, he not only knows that she’s going to be his wife, but he expects her to accept her fate willingly. A businesswoman of independent means, Mary Katherine has no interest in marrying, which to her mind is bondage only slightly less vile than the slavery she works so hard to help others escape.
Jacob embarks on a campaign to lure her into his bed by awakening her virginal body to the delights to be found there. Though she struggles against her sensual nature, Mary Katherine eventually succumbs to the irresistible lure. Initially she’s convinced that they can maintain their sexual relationship without marriage, but their passion is too intense to hide in such a small town.
But marriage is just the first hurdle; then there's the enemies and the secrets that threaten to destroy their lives.
- Note:This book contains explicit sexual content and graphic language.
Carrying a specially shuttered lantern designed to emit as little light as possible, she rushed down the stairs to her cellar. Even though the house was empty, she automatically walked close to the wall on her descent to lessen the possibility of one of the risers squeaking. Fortunately she'd made the trip in near darkness many times before because she didn't dare light any additional lamps. It was never possible to know whether her house was being watched -- so she always assumed that it was.
Two sharp taps, a pause, three more taps, followed by one more, sounded on the cellar door. That was the correct code for the week, but she still approached the door cautiously. Betrayal lurked around every corner. Bounties paid for runaway slaves were so high now that even the most loyal friend could be turned. She opened the door and immediately had to check the impulse to close it again.
The man on the other side was no traitor, at least not to the underground. But Jacob Adams had a very uncomfortable effect on her senses. Had she known who her late-night caller was, she would have taken the time to dress, no matter how great the emergency. Despite his massive size, Jacob entered the cellar in a stealthy motion that demonstrated why he was so valuable to their cause. The man was big, big in the way that mountains are big. Unlike most of the men in town, he was clean shaven. He even kept his head nearly bald.
The lines of his dark face were almost too strong. High cheekbones and a broad nose would have made him quite mean looking, except for a pair of very large, expressive brown eyes. The first time she'd met him, those eyes had reminded her of a puppy she'd had as a child. And now? Well, now their penetrating gaze made her feel as though she were a particularly succulent meal that the unmistakably full-grown, hungry dog had every intention of enjoying, down to the last morsel.
That look made her acutely aware that it was not respectable to meet a male caller in her nightclothes, no matter how dire the circumstances. He looked down at her in that penetrating way of his, and instinctively she tightened the tie on her robe. She was more than adequately covered, but the look in his eyes made her feel as though he could see every bare inch of her body and was thoroughly enjoying all that he saw.
Her eyes narrowed fractionally. Beast.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, struggling to keep the annoyance out of her voice. From the way his bright smile flashed even in the low light of the cellar, she knew she'd failed. Fortunately he didn't comment on it.
“Cameron didn't respond to the signal,” he said, referring to the blacksmith, who was another stationmaster. “You're his second.”
Mary Katherine nodded. She hadn't known about this run; as always, only the people who were directly affected knew about any deliveries, and even then they were told with as little notice as possible. It was crucial to always be prepared.
“I hope Cameron isn't in trouble,” she said, though they both knew that an unanswered signal usually meant there was bad trouble. “What do you have?”
“Two: a man and a woman. They're not sick or anything.”
Mary Katherine raised her eyes heavenward in thanks. The last fugitive she'd housed had been deathly ill and had required nursing for weeks; even so, she'd nearly lost him.
“I think they're from the Deep South though,” Jacob continued. “They've been out for a long time, and they're both skinnier than anything.”
Mary Katherine frowned. Runaways from the Deep South were uncommon, especially with the new Fugitive Slave Law, but when they ran, they often made their way to Gist Settlement. Their town had been settled after slave owner Samuel Gist, who had died in 1815 and manumitted his slaves in his will. He'd made arrangements for them to be moved to free land. Altogether his estate purchased over two thousand acres of land in various Ohio counties for newly freed slaves and their descendents. As a result, Gist Settlement was an attractive destination for runaways.
Of course, Jacob was only speculating about these two being from the Deep South. Conductors and even stationmasters like her deliberately learned as little about their cargo as possible. Typically they didn't even know their names, where they'd come from, or where they were heading. No one could torture them into betraying what they didn't know. “Bring them in,” she said as she walked over to what looked like a stack of old barrels on the back wall of the cellar. Her father, who had become a stationmaster almost immediately upon moving to the area a decade before, had built the concealed door.
Though she was as familiar with the mechanism as she was with her own name, she was still amazed by the clever device, which was totally undetectable. The barrels were of the type commonly used to store all manner of commodities. They didn't look out of place, considering that she also owned the general store next door. A hoop on one of the barrels was slightly warped, and when she grasped and pulled slightly, it opened a door to the right of the stack of barrels. Mary Katherine had instinctually directed Jacob to go get the fugitives before she'd opened the door. Though she trusted him, years of coaching by her father made her automatically cautious.
A few moments later Jacob returned with a man and a woman. Both were dressed in little more than rags, giving mute testimony to the length of time they'd been on the road. Their bedraggled state indicated that Jacob was probably right; more than likely they were from the Deep South. Slaves were usually given a new set of clothing each year, and the condition of these indicated that they'd been worn for some time. Unless of course they'd had the misfortune to be owned by someone who didn't bother to clothe their slaves. It also meant that this was their first connection with the network. Usually stationmasters gave fugitives a change of clothing if at all possible.
The man and the woman were big boned but had clearly lost weight over the weeks and months of their desperate journey. Mary Katherine assessed them with an experienced eye. After leading them into the secret room, she walked over to an old sea chest that was concealed behind her potato bin. She rummaged through it for a few minutes and pulled out some suitable clothing for each of her guests.
She looked up and instantly became annoyed when she realized that Jacob was still standing in the doorway. For the love of -- What would he still be standing there for? He knew as well as she did that getting away as quickly as possible was crucial. If the soul catchers were watching her house, he had no real excuse for being there. She knew he prided himself on being able to melt away into the landscape, but it was much too dangerous these days to take unnecessary chances.
“Was there something else you needed?” she asked.
“I wanted to let you know that I'll tell the next conductor about the change in plans,” he said as he backed out the door.
Mary Katherine pondered his odd behavior for a moment; after all, he had to let the next one know where to pick the couple up; there was no need to tell her that. Their rotation was fairly simple and based on which book of the Gospel the pastor of their African Methodist Episcopal church would read from on Sunday. Each stationmaster was assigned a Gospel, with a backup for emergencies. Conductors knew which station was next to receive cargo. Even if someone missed a sermon on Sunday, there was only one church in town, and it was easy enough to ask about the sermon in casual conversation. Aside for an odd hiccup when the pastor went on a thirteen-week run on the Gospel of Luke, the system had worked very well over the years. It was designed to run smoothly, with as few meetings as possible.
Of course, she didn't know who the next scheduled conductor was, but she hoped they would arrive quickly. It was unsafe to have guests in the cellar when she didn't have any in her boardinghouse. Anyone monitoring the amount of food she used, or even the number of chamber pots emptied into the outhouse, would quickly realize her secret. She didn't let Jacob's behavior trouble her for more than a moment before she hurried back to the secret room. There was too much to be done to waste time worrying about him and the strange turns he took from time to time.
When she reentered the room, she realized that the woman was shivering. Her thin shoulders shuddered under the coarsely woven cotton shirt she wore, though it was a warm summer night. Her hair had been cut close to her scalp so that she looked like a man. Few women escaped, and the ones who did usually dressed like men. The man took her into his arms as she began to sob. Even more proof that this trip had been a difficult one. Mary Katherine knew from experience that the woman's collapse was the result of being pushed past her endurance.
The stress and strain of making the escape from slavery was enough to overset anyone. A good hot meal and a night's rest would do wonders for their fortitude. She wished they could stay a few days, but even though Ohio was a free state under the new law, they still weren't safe here. They had to be secreted all the way to Canada before they could truly rest.
“I'll go upstairs and get some hot water so you can wash up. I've got a change of clothing here for you as well,” Mary Katherine said, passing the bundle of clothing to the man. He reached out to take it with one hand; his other arm was still wrapped around the woman's shoulders as she hid her face in his broad chest.
“Thank you. We appreciate your kindness. This has been rather hard on my wife. I'm sorry.”
“No need to apologize. What should I call you?” Mary Katherine asked.
“Ben,” he said and then gestured toward his still-shaking wife. “This is Sarah.”
Mary Katherine nodded and offered her own alias, Rebecca. Like everything else it changed regularly, but it was impossible to interact with other human beings without calling them something. “I'll get the hot water. Or would you prefer to eat first?”
Sarah finally looked up from where she'd placed her head on Ben's chest. “Could we have something to eat first? I'm thinking that at least part of this” -- she gestured toward her still-wet cheeks -- “is because we're so hungry.”
“Of course,” Mary Katherine said, picking up a quilt from the foot of the bed. She wrapped it around the woman's quivering shoulders.
Leaving them downstairs, she scurried back upstairs. Stoking up the wood-burning stove was risky; if anyone noticed smoke coming from her chimney on such a warm night, they might investigate. The couple looked as though they could really use a hot meal, but she could offer only bread, cheese, and sausage. Tomorrow Coraline, her cook, would prepare some good hearty meals for them. It was through foresight that Mary Katherine always kept the cistern on the back of the stove filled with water, and it was still warm from when dinner had been cooked hours before.
She took the food down to her guests with a small bucket of the warm water, so they could at least wash their hands and faces before eating. They fell on the plain fare as though they hadn't eaten in days, making her feel even worse that she couldn't offer them a hot meal. While they were eating she went to get more water so that they could wash more thoroughly before bed. Ben helped her with the heavy bucket, while Sarah looked at the water as though Mary Katherine were delivering manna from heaven itself.
She made them as comfortable as she could and warned them to make as little noise as possible. The hidden room was in a part of the cellar that was built into a hill behind her house and should be soundproof, but nothing was guaranteed.
As Mary Katherine left the small room, a shadow near the cellar door moved, and she jumped, startled. With some relief, she realized that Jacob had returned.
“Gracious, you gave me a start. What are you still doing here?”
“Just wanted to point out that you look mighty fetching this evening, Miss Day.”
“You know it's not proper for you to speak to me that way.”
“Why not? We're practically betrothed.”
“We are not!” she said and had to resist the urge to stamp her foot for emphasis. Damnation! The man so often makes me feel like a petulant child! She bit back an unladylike retort and almost kicked him when he grinned knowingly. “I have told you time and again that I will not marry you.” She finished as calmly as she could -- hard to do between clenched teeth, but she managed. And of course the words you great big, mule-minded clod remained locked in her head.
Jacob's grin widened, as if he knew that her thoughts were hardly what would be described as kind. “So you've said, Miss Day, but I still think you look mighty fetching with your hair down like that. Might set a man to thinking about how he might want to hold on to one of those braids --”
He never got to finish whatever scandalous thing he was about to say.
“Mr. Adams!” Mary Katherine screeched, no longer caring if she disturbed her guests. Before she could say anything more, he reached out and grabbed one of her thick braids. Using it to pull her closer, he bent his head and pressed his lips against hers. Mary Katherine gasped at the spark of sensation that raced through her body, making her nipples stiffen and moisture gather between her legs. Jacob took advantage of the gasp to slip his tongue between her lips. The silken caress escalated the sensations that were already making her shiver. Without thinking, she returned the gesture, stroking his tongue with hers. Now it was his turn to cry out, his lips traveling from her mouth to her neck.
“'Behold thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks...'“
It was a moment before what he was saying penetrated the sensual fog that had swamped her senses, but when it did, she gasped and tried to pull away. Appalled, she could only stare at him for a moment. Surely she'd heard wrong. “The Song of Solomon?” she said slowly. “You're actually quoting from the Bible while you try to seduce me?” she demanded, leaning away to stare at him.
Smiling wryly, he pressed his mouth against hers again and whispered, “The man had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, my sweet Kate. It's pretty obvious that he knew more than his fair share about love.” He kissed her again.
Mary Katherine pulled away, more forcefully this time. “But, but it's the Bible!” she sputtered.
Jacob took her chin in his hand, eager to continue what he'd started. “Yes, it is,” he acknowledged. “And men and women are as they've always been,” he told her with simple logic. “'Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet'“ -- another soft kiss -- “'and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.'“ And as though following the lines of the verse, he caressed her temple with his lips.
Lulled by the seductive quality of his voice, Mary Katherine let her eyes fall shut, and she held her breath. She knew her Bible very well and knew that next there was a description of the neck, and after that -- Good heavens! Eyes wide open now she pressed her hands to his chest and began to push him away. If he started describing her bosom, she'd be in more trouble than she'd ever been in before. She didn't think she would be able to stand up, let alone continue to resist him.
Thankfully, he didn't give her a problem. He released her without a fuss.
Still leaning over her, he placed another kiss on her forehead before stepping back. Without another word, he touched his forelock as though tipping his hat. Then, quiet as a shadow, he slipped out the cellar door.
Mary Katherine remembered to lock the door behind him this time. Indeed, for a moment she contemplated moving something in front of the door for additional security. Instead she stood there, stunned by what had happened. Jacob Adams had kissed her, and she'd let him, had even returned the kiss. She tentatively touched her bottom lip, which was still tingling in the aftermath of his kiss. It wasn't her first kiss; men had courted her over the years, and several had even been bold enough to kiss her. But this! This was so different from those chaste encounters that it strained credulity to call them both the same name.
Those kisses from other men had been pleasant, and she'd even found some of the men attractive and enjoyed their kisses, but none of them made her want to rip her clothes off so that she could feel the heated press of his bare flesh against hers. And to think, she'd gotten aroused from a man quoting the Bible. The rich baritone of his voice had left her shivering with desire. Land's sakes! The man had been proposing to her for months now, with no encouragement. Goodness only knew how he would interpret her response.
If he weren't the world's most aggravating man, she had no idea who might challenge him for the title. He'd actually had the audacity to propose matrimony the first day she had met him, almost six months before. She'd known his family for most of the ten years she'd lived in Gist Settlement; her parents had been good friends with his father. Jacob had only recently returned from out West. She wasn't really sure what he'd been doing out there, but his family didn't talk about him all that much. Then suddenly he'd simply reappeared.
She'd first encountered him when she went by the Adams home to call on his sister, Grace. He never said anything -- just stared at her until she wanted to scream in irritation. He'd been so rude, she'd wondered if he were simpleminded. She'd even thought that it was a pity that such good looks were wasted on someone who was clearly daft. Well, he'd quickly disabused her of that notion. Jacob Adams was too clever by half, and that very same afternoon he'd proved it.
Mary Katherine shook her head as she climbed the stairs to the second floor. She touched her tongue to her bottom lip. Taking in Jacob's smoky, slightly salty flavor, she couldn't help but respond to that kiss all over again. She quickly took off her robe and slipped back into bed. Tomorrow would be a busy day, to be sure, and she needed her rest. She deliberately focused on work and the inventory she needed to check that week. Despite her best efforts, her thoughts wandered back to Jacob as she drifted off to sleep. She sniffed indignantly. Fetching, indeed. Ha!
* * *
His steps measured and sure, Jacob took his time walking back to his family's home. He couldn't get Mary Katherine out of his thoughts. Moreover, he didn't want to. Thinking about her was no hardship. In all his life, he'd never met a woman like Miss Mary Katherine Day. A peace had settled over him the instant her soft brown eyes had locked with his for the first time all those months ago in his father's parlor. The words finally she's here had sounded in his head, and he'd heard them as clearly as he would have heard a whisper in his ear.
“I didn't know I was searching for her until I found her,” he said softly now as he continued his walk, and the wonder of it could still be heard in his voice. He thought about how he'd proposed to her the moment he'd gotten over the surprise of her, and smiled. Her body had gone stick straight with indignation, making her large bosom even more noticeable, while a tinge of embarrassed pink had made itself known under the smooth brown of her cheeks.
Jacob had taken it all in with a single glance, but he'd barely paid attention. What he'd concentrated on was her answer. He'd expected her to deny him, but when she had, he hadn't been able to keep the disappointment from coursing through him and leaving him feeling more than just a little hollow.
He'd rallied, of course.
Mary Katherine Day was meant to be his wife. This sudden and dizzying fact was visceral knowledge for him now, so he didn't question it. Even as a boy, he hadn't questioned when he'd felt things that deeply. He'd just accepted and done what was necessary, no matter the situation. Things always turned out the way they were supposed to. Some called this phenomenon a special gift; some called it unholy -- both of which, as an Eshu, he was accustomed to hearing. He simply called it instinct. He listened to it, and nothing went wrong.
Instinct told him that Mary Katherine was to be his wife. Not only that, she calmed a restlessness that had been running through him since his mother's death when he was barely out of short pants. It had been a part of him for so long that he wouldn't recognize himself without it, and more often than not, he felt tortured by it.
Yes, she was the one for him. And despite what he was sure she considered his blasphemy with the Song of Solomon, he was a religious man, so he hesitated to call her his salvation, but she was close enough.
“A man would be a fool to walk away from even near salvation. And while my mama and papa might have raised a pack of animals,” he said wryly, “they sure didn't raise no fools. So, my sweet Kate, the chase continues.”
Copyright © Lisa G. Riley & Roslyn Hardy Holcomb
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