The Unraveling, Volume One

The Unraveling, my debut novel, is the first installment in a three-part serialized novel called The Luminated Threads. It’s a fantasy romance–though some may call it a paranormal romance–with magic, shapeshifters and witches set in steampunk Victorian England, and geared to a New Adult and older audience.

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Volume Two will release the fall 2015, Volume Three in the winter 2016. To be notified of these releases, sign up for Laurel’s Newsletter.

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The Unraveling, Volume One of The Luminated Threads

In 1868 England, the competition to control agriculture is fierce…

…and nobody says no to Derby’s industrial magnate.

Except Annmar Masterson. The nineteen-year-old rejects his improper advances and instead takes an advertising position on a farm. She discovers the isolated valley is home to gifted species—including animal and plant shifters—who hide their lives from the rest of England. The blue threads only she sees on their clockwork machinery prove her heritage is rooted with theirs, but their world is so different that Annmar doesn’t know if she’ll ever belong.

Shapeshifter Daeryn Darkcoat blames himself for the death of his mate and swears he won’t be responsible for another pack. But when the farm he loves falls victim to an endless run of strange pests eating the crops, he joins the hunt, taking charge of an unruly team of predator shifters. In the midst of the battle, Annmar stirs feelings he can’t resist.

As Annmar becomes entangled in the fight against the pests, and with Daeryn, she discovers her magic might help…if she can learn to use it properly. If not, she’ll be forced to leave the people she has come to care for and become what she fears most: nothing more than another cog in the magnate’s gears.

 

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An excerpt of The Unraveling

 

Chapter One

Derby, England

September 1868

A volley of curses rang out, adding to the noise of sputtering steam engines and the clanking from the open windows in the towering factory walls. Giving a side-glance to the drivers of two mechanized carts that had nearly collided, Annmar Masterson walked on. Best to ignore them. Besides, she had precious few minutes to ensure she had her lines right. “While I appreciate your consideration, Mr. Shearing,” she recited, “I cannot accept your offer of a drafting shop.”

She must get the words out before he fumbled her tongue with another improper proposal. “How does that sound?” Annmar asked Polly. However, her friend stood steps behind, craning her neck to see the ruckus in Derby’s industrial district. As Annmar whirled back, several workmen turned in their direction.

Oh, heavens. Polly’s blond hair and brighter, candy-striped clothes for her work in the sweet shop stood out far more on this grimy street than Annmar’s brown hair, somber blouse and black walking skirt. Shielding their faces with the rolled illustration she carried, Annmar linked arms with Polly, and the two nineteen-year-olds wove a path among the carts blocking Full Street.

“My word,” Polly muttered, “I haven’t heard language such as that since leaving the countryside. Your employer has some gall sending you to see a client here.”

“Mrs. Rennet’s decisions are greased by gold.” At the lift of Polly’s brows, Annmar intoned, “Make decisions to make the customer happy,” words the illustrators working for Rennet’s Renditions heard a dozen times a day. “I do appreciate you accompanying me when the other illustrator couldn’t. The client’s building is there.” She lifted her chin toward the three-story machinery factory ahead.

“I wish to see this Mr. Shearing for myself, especially after a girl I work with said his blue eyes are the fairest south of the Peak District.”

Annmar frowned. “Blue eyes have nothing to do with anything.”

“Then make him believe it,” she said. “Go on now. Say that last version again.” Annmar did, and Polly groaned. “Too ladylike.” She stopped Annmar. “Look me in the eye and say only the ending line as firmly as you did last night. Like you mean it.”

Annmar closed her eyes briefly. When Derby’s most successful tradesman first urged her to pursue her own business, his encouragement fueled her dream of the shop she and Mother planned to open before Mother died. With her own shop, Annmar could turn a profit instead of funneling the proceeds of her illustrations to Mrs. Rennet, or whichever business-savvy art dealer offered money for materials and the largest cut. Except, over the months, Mr. Shearing’s offer of sponsorship became less about the shop and more about…him.

Remembering her disappointment made it easier to lower her voice and say, “I cannot accept your offer of a drafting shop.”

“It’ll do, with that edge to your voice, but I still say you should be blunt.” Polly shook her head, sending yellow curls over the high collar of her blouse. “Tell Mr. Shearing outright what he can do with his indecent suggestion. Offering you rooms above the shop, indeed. He’s after another mistress, and he’s picked you.”

They approached the factory’s steps. Annmar pressed a hand to her corseted middle to quell her twisting stomach. She would not be Mr. Shearing’s mistress. Even her lifelong dream was not worth losing her dignity. Nonetheless, she must stay employed with Rennet’s. “Not before this drawing is approved.” Annmar waved the rolled paper she carried. “Mrs. Rennet fired a fellow last week for leaving a smudge on the corner of his illustration. I can’t hinder an advertisement’s progress.”

Steam hung in the crisp September air around Shearing Enterprises, muting the office’s glossy green door. Over the brick archway, tall, gold lettering proclaimed the business pledge across a signboard: The Latest in Agricultural Technology, Backed by the Best Craftsmanship in Derbyshire. Decorative gears and rods at the base formed a trademark as strong as the businessman they represented.

Oh, why did Mr. Shearing’s eye have to fall to her? Going against him would be difficult, and under Polly’s tutelage it seemed likely Annmar would create some reason for Mr. Shearing to have her fired from Rennet’s Renditions before the morning was over.

Polly patted her arm. “Do you want to practice your refusal again?”

Giving a shake of her head, Annmar raised the brass door knocker and rapped it.

The secretary left them in the outer office with the bookkeepers busy at their desks and went into the factory in search of Mr. Shearing.

Polly looked around the richly paneled room and sniffed. “It’s true then: Mr. Shearing’s fancy trims are worthy of any business on The Strand.” She lifted a dubious brow. “Mrs. Shearing won’t stop him from taking on another mistress. The paper says they’ve money enough to set up his interests and her fancy men.”

Annmar raised her brow in turn. “Which paper? Your favorite, the one printing fantastical serials of wolf-men seducing farmers’ daughters in the Peaks? That’s not real news.”

Making a little huffing noise, Polly turned and peered at the framed engravings of Mr. Shearing’s machinery, all from the advertisement illustrations Annmar had rendered. Several were missing, the ones submitted to the New Works Competition. He’d embarrassed Annmar by sending only hers and not any from other illustrators at Rennet’s. His farm machines would make it into the next round—or not—based on her drawings.

Eyes wide, Polly clasped Annmar’s arm. “Oh, my Lord. I have no interest at all in machines, yet these feel…I don’t know, like a bull poised to charge, but by way of some sort of magical workings.” She gestured to the printed initials—AM—at the edge of a reaper illustration. “How can you draw a machine that seems so real? Alive, even?”

Annmar shrugged. She had no idea what made her drawings different, but she explained it off like she always did: “It’s just the flow of the lines, as Mother taught me.”

Polly shook her head and dropped her voice even more. “No wonder he’s plotting to secure your skills exclusively for his business. You must insist you don’t want the shop before the competition announcement.”

A wave of foreboding coursed through Annmar. Polly might have discovered the reason for Mr. Shearing’s recent persistence. If he won, the additional business meant funds to advance more inventions, and their advertisement. The demonstrations of the finalists’ machines were tonight, the announcement of the competition winners two nights from now, time enough to make the newspapers. The real ones.

She had to say no, and say it firmly and businesslike—not ladylike—before her choices were no longer her own.

The door to the factory opened, admitting a brief racket and Mr. Shearing. Broad-shouldered and fit, save for the slight paunch visible when he removed his custom-tailored, dark green coat, he stood a head taller than her five and a half feet. The businessman kept his waves of dark hair neatly trimmed and his strong jaw clean-shaven. Though not a dandy, he dressed well, in the appearance of Derby’s prosperous merchants, down to the black gloves he was tugging into place. One covered a hideous scar she’d once caught sight of and hadn’t forgotten, yet she’d never dared to ask its origin.

He greeted them with a pleased smile.

Dismissing her knotted stomach, Annmar extended her gloved hand in a practiced motion. “Good morning, Mr. Shearing.”

He clasped her hand, and his gaze dropped briefly, as it always did, to her bosom.

His unseemly glances no longer made her twitch. But given his unwanted attention, she still wore unfashionable, high-necked mourning blouses in maroon with dark skirts, though it had been a full year since her mother’s death.

“Good day to you, Miss Masterson.” Mr. Shearing tipped his head to Annmar and turned to assess Polly. “And to your companion, Miss…”

“Porter,” they answered in unison.

“We’re on our way to work,” Annmar added. “I’ve brought the changes to your latest illustration. Mrs. Rennet wishes to send it to the engravers this morning to meet the Mercury’s deadline.”

“Timely, our Mrs. Rennet. Please come in, and we’ll take a look.” He led them into his private domain with its large walnut desk, sturdy chair and piles of orders and invoices. With Polly along this time, the door stayed open.

Mr. Shearing spread the illustration over a side table and bent to study the fine pencil lines. Properly apart from him, Annmar waited, stock-still, yet her weight was balanced on her toes in case she had to take a step back. She forced her gaze to the drawing, but movement caught her eye, as it always did.

Businesslike, she reminded herself, but nonetheless, vines rippled down from the waves of Mr. Shearing’s nearly black hair. Leaves burst forth, and the tendrils spun like miniature gears—

No, that isn’t right. Mr. Shearing did not sport twining plants, any more than vegetation sprouted gears. Annmar dashed her hand across her eyes to dispel the image.

Polly nudged her.

Annmar jerked her gaze to her friend. Polly saw nothing amiss with the man’s hair. No one ever saw what Annmar did on Mr. Shearing or, more commonly, in the wild places along the River Derwent. Her fanciful imagination seemed destined to get her in trouble.

Giving a nod to Mr. Shearing’s back, Polly tapped her temples and frowned. Clearly she was indicating his, which yes, were graying. The man had seen his fourth decade, after all. Eyes rising slightly, Polly mouthed, Old, and shook her head.

Oh, heavens. She never should have confided in Polly…but no, she needed someone to help her out of this fix.

“As of a week ago, this was correct,” said Mr. Shearing, a hint of remorse in his voice. “I’m afraid the mechanic made an adjustment to the shape of the seed hopper.” He pointed to a box on the front of the planter. “An angled base allows the last of the seed to fall evenly. Would you be able to correct the drawing now?”

“Of course.”

He smiled. “I have no doubt we will surpass William’s and Fairing’s attempts in mechanized production, especially with your help, Miss Masterson. Shearing Enterprises is getting the finest advertising in the whole of Derbyshire.”

“With Rennet’s Renditions’ help,” Annmar corrected and waved to the drawing.

His smile broadened. “For the present.” Lifting the illustration, he scanned it once more, then his gaze returned to her, lingering. “Looks splendid. Exactly as I desire.”

He was never this careless in front of Mrs. Rennet. Her face heating, Annmar pivoted and urged Polly out of the office.

Mr. Shearing followed with the illustration and held the factory door. The whir of saws and metallic raps from ball peen hammers added their rhythms to the throbbing chaos. Work bays lined both sides of the long building, and from them spilled metal sheeting, rods, cogs and other metal parts. Pools of gaslight fell over machines in varying stages of construction, attended by mechanics and their helpers. Annmar recognized each, whether it be a tiller, fertilizer spreader or reaper. She spotted the planter and went to study its new seed hopper.

In no time, Mr. Shearing set up drawing space on the adjacent bay’s workbench and gestured her next to him. She resisted raising an eyebrow at the barely proper distance between them and concentrated on erasing the original lines. Just how would she get into position to draw without touching him? She took the drawing pencils from her satchel and met Polly’s gaze with a plea.

Polly nodded. “I grew up in Duffield parish,” she said. “No one there had equipment as elaborate as this.”

Mr. Shearing straightened. “Ah, my dear Miss Porter, soon they will. In the last five years, Shearing Enterprises has transformed the business of agriculture all across southern Derbyshire, and we’re expanding northward.”

Annmar sighed to herself as Mr. Shearing launched into the same speech she’d heard numerous times. He smiled his winning smile that put everyone at ease. Even her, at first. With plenty of elbowroom, she lightly stroked in the correct pencil lines with a hard graphite.

“Here at Shearing Enterprises, we research every science related to efficient farming, from breeding hardier stock to hybridization. Our aim is to put the best on your table at the lowest cost to you and the farmer.” Mr. Shearing clapped his hands and called, “A demonstration for the lady.” The workmen jumped to do his bidding.

He offered his arm to Polly and escorted her from the bay. “The Midlands New Works Competition is boosting all of the entrants’ notoriety, and our success is flowing into the agricultural community we aim to help. Post a letter to your dear family in Duffield and ask for the news.”

He wouldn’t suggest that unless he knew the news would favor him and Polly could then repeat it. Already, the autumn farm reports promised bountiful harvests and steady employment for both agrarian workers and their industrial suppliers. But given how Annmar’s own situation had toppled after Mother’s death, she understood how unpredictable finances could be.

In the factory’s center aisle, the workers started up the planter. With Polly ensconced in the care of the lead mechanic, Mr. Shearing returned to Annmar’s side just as she picked up her softer, darker graphite and a straight edge to define the finished line. He peered down as if inspecting the drawing.

“Ah, perfect as usual, my dear Miss Masterson,” he murmured. Light fingers stroked across the small of her back.

Annmar flushed and stiffened, her eyes darting around. The man had made certain his attentions were out of sight of the crowd, all focused on the engine depositing a line of seed along the floorboards. Still, the touch was unsuitably forward.

His hand settled more firmly. “Do you have an answer for me?” His thigh pressed hers through her skirt and layers of petticoats.

Her stomach flipped. Her fingers trembled, unable to move the pencil over the sketch. She drew in a breath. Despite his confining, awkward nearness, she would do this. “While I appreciate your offer, I cannot—” The hand drifted lower. Her breath caught.

“If you are concerned about your”—his head dipped closer—“first experience, let me reassure you I will make it most pleasant. For both of us.”

Annmar clenched her pencil and her lips, determined not to be ill. His improper closeness…his most improper words. She stepped aside. “I cannot accept,” she said, but couldn’t lift her gaze past the gold emblem above his coat pocket.

“Hmm,” he murmured. “Take another day’s consideration. I’ll send my carriage for you tomorrow. Then, we may visit the shop and discuss the matter in private.” His words carried the same tone as his weekly insistences that Mrs. Rennet send Annmar to the factory on her own.

Without waiting for an answer, Mr. Shearing strode to Polly’s side and asked her an inane question about the color of the machine appealing to the purchasers’ wives.

Annmar squeezed shut her eyes and drew a long breath. She had mere moments before he’d return—no time to think of how he’d just handled the most private region of her posterior. With the familiar comfort of the pencil in her hand, she bent to align the straight edge.

Regrets could be sent…oh. He would only suggest another meeting, pressing her—with likely more than words—for answers he wanted to hear. Bile rose in her throat. She couldn’t let this man decide how she was to get her shop, or to live her life. But how was she to persuade him to leave her alone?

 

 

Chapter Two

 

In her rush to descend Shearing Enterprises’ front steps, Annmar nearly dropped the rolled illustration. Her face still burned. Mr. Shearing’s improper suggestion rang in her ears. He’d deny it if asked outright, and of course the canny businessman would never put those words—his sponsorship’s price—to paper for her, a lowly illustrator.

Mr. Shearing was a powerful talker, one who could sell a reaper right after the harvest ended. Mrs. Rennet grumbled over his deals, but once they were written out and signed, Mr. Shearing never defaulted. Daily, she made some comment about his influence in Derby, recent ones predicting he’d win the Competition. If you worked for him, your business was sure to grow with his. If you didn’t, if you dared to cross him…

Annmar kept pace with Polly walking up Full Street, but she couldn’t help glancing back at the huge factory and fancy sign. Shearing Enterprises…Backed by the Best Craftsmanship in Derbyshire. Mr. Shearing still stood in the open door and, seeing her, smiled. Vines erupted over his shoulders. They spiraled around the man, slithered to the walk and wrapped gears and rods in a flourish of leaves. The metal tendrils spun the tangle of plants onward, closer and reaching for her heels to snare—

Gasping, Annmar stumbled. No!

The image snapped away.

Polly caught her arm and pulled her close. “You told him no, didn’t you?”

She struggled to steady her voice. “I did. He offered me more time to decide.”

“Annmar, you can’t be serious.”

“I don’t want him…it, the shop.” She might be poor, but her choices would be hers. “I just wish…” She wrapped an arm to her middle. “Hang it all. On my own, it’ll take twenty-some years to achieve what Mr. Shearing offers overnight.” She winced. Oh, no, she’d actually said…that.

Polly snorted, a sound equal parts scandalized and incredulous. “He sponsors four other girls, you know,” she whispered.

Her friend’s information sources could compete with the penny dreadfuls, the sensational novels Polly loved to read. “I won’t be one of them,” Annmar said. “But you’re right, I’ll never deter him. Not without losing my job. Possibly losing any job in Derbyshire.”

“Even that little curmudgeon on Bold Lane would be a better choice of a sponsor,” Polly said. “Your watercolors grace his windows, and he speaks of the magic of your drawings to any who will listen.”

Oh, Lord. The magic of her drawings. Mother had always cautioned Annmar about letting whimsy into her work. Annmar thought she’d kept her imaginings reined in after Mother’s death, but if what Polly said was true, she hadn’t. She must double-check each sketch. “But in Derby that’s precious few buyers. Steam-engine drawings garner more money than naturescapes.”

“I mean, Mr. Bell isn’t asking for…you. I know his sales of your lovely little woodsy drawings are low,” Polly said, “but he’s proof something else will turn up.”

Annmar nodded, but her hand clenched as they hustled up the street. She took her sketchbook from the satchel and hugged it close, smelling its leather binding. Mr. Shearing’s relentless determination scared her. He treated her like she had no say in the matter. If she agreed in the slightest, she’d become another cog in Mr. Shearing’s plan to further his business. “I will find a way to make my answer clear, but it cannot be at the expense of my position at Rennet’s.” They finally turned onto The Strand and melded into the thoroughfare’s stream of people. “Young women like us, living on the margin of homelessness, cannot take chances—”

“On the margin? We are not on the margin.” Polly huffed out a breath and motioned to the wide, clean-swept avenue with its well-kept shop fronts, their goods displayed behind sparkling windows. “Fine, respectable jobs, both of us, and all of us able to pay the rent with enough to eat well and dress—”

“Right. Possible only with four to the boarding house bed. If she sacks me, do you suggest adding another two girls to our room on pallets to resolve my financial problem?”

Polly leaned her frowning face close to Annmar’s. “You don’t have a monetary problem. Really. It’s your dreams you have to get a hold of, this saving for a shop. With your mother passed, you must adopt a new plan. Tell him no, and if he persuades Mrs. Rennet to fire her best machinery illustrator, then so be it. We’ll tell the rest of the girls and devise something until a new position turns up. One with no extra requirements.”

Annmar swallowed. The consequence of unemployment looked the better option. “I’ll put an end to Mr. Shearing’s attention,” she told Polly, but she would not let go of Mother’s dream. Her dream, too, she reminded herself.

They said good-bye, and Annmar scurried the half block to Rennet’s Renditions, trying to rid herself of the lump in her throat. Perhaps she’d have been happier if this opportunity had never surfaced. Though the late September morning promised to be warm, she felt chilled as she approached the shop door.

A hand encased in a worsted glove beat hers to the handle. Instead of pulling it open, a gray-haired man dressed neatly in a country-style tweed suit and top hat blocked the door. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, but may I have a word?” He rushed on without waiting for her answer. “You are Anna Mary Masterson?”

Ann Marie Masterson didn’t bother correcting him. She hadn’t set anyone right since Mother’s business matters had fallen to her, a task made easier if Annmar pretended to be her young mother. The pretense was no longer needed, but…

“To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” In the confines of Rennet’s windowed entrance alcove, she eyed the unfamiliar man.

He extended his hand and grasped hers firmly while he searched her face with narrowed gray eyes. “Please allow me to introduce myself. Mr. Fetcher of Gapton.”

Gapton. The village where Mother was born up in the Peak District, a place she would have been able to have a conversation about, but Annmar could not. Still, Annmar smiled and nodded for him to continue.

“I represent Wellspring Collective, a growing agrarian business near Gapton. The owner, Constance Gere, is quite anxious to hire local talent to create a special look to advertise her line of vegetable and fruit products. I see you have continued your craft, and I’m fortunate to have tracked you through your work. The illustrations displayed in the New Works Competition emphasized your technical skills, and the owner of Bell’s Gallery graciously reviewed your watercolors while speaking highly of you.” Mr. Fetcher inclined his head to the shop windows. “I have not announced myself to your employer.”

Annmar followed his gaze. Beyond the rows of drafting tables, Mrs. Rennet sat at her high desk, illustrators lined before her awaiting approval for various projects. Mr. Fetcher might be disappointed if he did approach Mrs. Rennet. She wouldn’t be very welcoming of the prospective client once she heard the business’ location. The soils in that White Peak area were notoriously poor due to the underlying limestone. Yet, in a paradox that kept the agricultural community mystified, and talking, Gapton farmers consistently shipped quality produce. Mother wouldn’t speak of her home, but had always bought its vegetables.

Another look at this representative’s out-of-date clothing said Wellspring Collective probably couldn’t afford Derby’s rates. Too bad, though if Mr. Fetcher hadn’t entered Rennet’s Renditions already, perhaps he didn’t intend to. Annmar couldn’t assume he wanted to hire just her…or, rather, Mother. “Mr. Bell is generous with his compliments. I’m happy he directed you to us. Shall we go inside?”

Mr. Fetcher shook his head and gestured to the sketchbook she held. “May I see a sample of your work?”

She’d guessed correctly. Her personal sketchbook wasn’t something Annmar usually shared. However, Mother would have liked working with this farm, and Mr. Fetcher said he was seeking talent from the Peaks itself. That description fit only Mother, but perhaps if he liked her daughter’s drawings, Annmar would have a client if Mr. Shearing forced her to leave Rennet’s.

She offered the leather-bound book.

Mr. Fetcher extracted a pair of half-moon magnifying lenses from his breast pocket, shook them open and put them on. His nose dipped to the book as he flipped through the pages. He nodded, saying, “Yes,” a few times. But he didn’t spend any longer than seconds peering at any individual pencil sketch or watercolor of her favorite river scenes.

Disappointment washed through her. Though she was glad he hadn’t stopped to question some of her more fanciful drawings, she’d also worked with enough clients to know when one wasn’t interested. Perhaps he’d like one of the other illustrators’ styles better and become a client for Mrs. Rennet, earning Annmar a finder’s bonus.

Mr. Fetcher handed back her sketchbook and put away his spectacles. “Your talent is exactly what I was shown in paintings back home. Surprisingly just as strong after years away. Mistress Gere authorized me to engage your services.”

Annmar’s heart leaped. He was interested. Someone still had Mother’s early paintings? They must be two decades old. She would love to see the work Mother left behind, pieces the young Anna Mary had created when she wasn’t burdened with producing what a client wanted. That discovery aside, this offer was an opportunity for new work, without, as Polly had said, extra requirements. Mr. Fetcher had barely looked at her.

Could Annmar pose as her mother?

This older gentleman had already overlooked that she wasn’t the right age. Annmar and her mother shared a nearly duplicate artistic style of loose strokes that somehow knitted together to form vibrant images. Plus, Annmar had a year’s experience producing advertisement illustrations.

So she might…no, she would do this. Repeating that phrase had gotten her through mourning and into proper work after Mother died.

A glance at the window showed Mrs. Rennet still busy at the back of the shop. Annmar hated to lose her job, but she’d survived Mrs. Rennet’s temper only because Mr. Shearing favored her work. Securing this Mistress Gere’s position would mean Annmar needn’t worry if Mr. Shearing lodged a complaint with her employer because she refused him.

Mr. Fetcher was loosening the drawstrings of a linen bag. He sidled closer and poured the contents into one large palm.

Annmar sucked in her breath. Gold. Gold half sovereigns, eight of them. She forced her gaze from the sizable earnest money hidden between them up to Mr. Fetcher’s face.

He dropped the half sovereigns back into the bag, pulled the strings and offered the pouch to Annmar. “Travel expenses. Double of two weeks’ pay. Mistress Gere requests a two-week trial and, if the arrangement works, will retain you through the winter. The trial payment will be given to you upon your arrival.”

She stared at the pouch in his proffered hand. Her head swirled. A month’s pay for travel? Twenty shillings a week? All she could say was, “Arrival?”

“Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. My client would like for you to do the work on site, at Wellspring, where you can see the produce growing and sample the recipes to more accurately depict the products in your illustrations. The farm cooks concoct hundreds of different canned goods, each requiring individual labels to be designed.”

Annmar nodded slowly while considering living there. Mother’s few tales of her home had left Annmar sure it was unlike the rest of Derbyshire. The stories of remote Gapton weren’t comforting, but far more appealing than being alone in Mr. Shearing’s office. “A reasonable request. I—”

Brrring! The bell on the shop door sounded. Annmar caught her breath, but it was only the girl who did the inking, impatient for the illustration Annmar still held. She winked as Annmar handed it over, and Annmar furtively searched the shop behind her. Mrs. Rennet wasn’t in sight. “Thank you,” she said as the door closed.

Annmar returned her attention to Mr. Fetcher, who wore a patient smile. His hands passed the coin bag back and forth, making a pleasant tinkle. Imagine, that much money. But the work must be done there.

The Peak District wasn’t far, some thirty miles north, and accessible by the rail system that brought in their goods. But once there, travel to this farm could be difficult. Mother had said the mountain folk were rough, the hillsides impassable in the winter months, and the wild animals—

“With the new train, Wellspring Collective is within easy reach of Gapton.” Mr. Fetcher eyed her. “The town still isn’t much compared to the bustle of a Midlands borough”—he swept his free hand toward the flush of morning business along The Strand—“but it’s grown into a significant trade center. No longer the backwoods.”

He punctuated this with a toss of the cloth bag. Of course, that’s why the pay was so high. They had to make the rural location appealing to attract someone. Though Mother had left before Annmar was born, surely she would have said yes for this well-paying work.

Eight gold half sovereigns would cover her train ticket north and living expenses, as well as a return ticket if this weren’t proper employment. The distance resolved her immediate problem of Mr. Shearing’s unwanted demands. However, Mrs. Rennet wouldn’t take her back if she knew Annmar had been doing other illustration work. Maybe she could ask for a break in service for family reasons?

“When would Mistress Gere like me to begin? I would need to find lodging in the area.”

“Room and board are included in your employment,” Mr. Fetcher said. “Wellspring’s employees all live on site. Mistress Gere hopes you can begin immediately.”

Room and board. Twenty shillings a week. It should be enough so that she could avoid Mr. Shearing’s offer in case she didn’t pass the trial and had to return to Derby with no position. But if she did pass it, the months of work that followed would give Annmar the money she needed to lease a shop herself, free and clear of Mr. Shearing and his…conditions.

Mr. Fetcher gestured with the pouch. “Will you accept?”

She stared at the bag, both giddy at the prospect of freedom and queasy at the deception she would attempt. But facing Mr. Shearing loomed with worse distaste.

“Yes,” she whispered, stepped closer and grasped the linen-covered coins. Mr. Fetcher released the bag, and Annmar sighed as the unexpected weight sank her hand. For a few seconds, the hidden half sovereigns slipped over each other between her fingers, clinking faintly like the call of carefree sparrows. Then she wedged the bag between her sketchbook and her bodice.

With her arms wrapped tight, Annmar smiled, the first heartfelt smile to grace her face in over a year.

Mr. Fetcher returned it and handed her a folded paper packet. “Your letter of directions.”

She broke the blue wax seal and scanned the contents. The instructions were clear, but one item puzzled her. Annmar lifted a double-sided medallion of blue wax pressed over a cord and attached within the folded letter. “Why the second seal?”

“Your Gateway Proof,” Mr. Fetcher said simply. “Keep it with you.” And with a tip of his top hat, he turned and left.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Wellspring Collective

Daeryn Darkcoat’s paws carried his polecat form in a weasel’s rolling leaps along a dirt road. The moon, just past waxing, lit Wellspring Collective’s rows of plants in the sharp grays and blacks of his nocturnal vision. Butternut squash on the right and a late planting of beans to the left. Nothing amiss.

And yet squeaks, pitched higher than the thrum of crickets, carried across his assigned patrol section. Perking his ears, Daeryn caught the stray sound again. There. Homing in, he slunk his long, brown body down the hill to the open front of an equipment shed.

Scritch…scritch, scritch.

Not calls, but scratching. Claws on metal. Deep shadows hid one of the pests they’d been hunting for days, but it was there. Somewhere. Daeryn padded closer to the row of tillers and raised his snout.

No scent but engine oil. He hesitated. This animal’s actions were different. What farm pest entered a rain shelter full of equipment when hundreds of acres of vegetables lay available for the taking?

Scritch…

Daeryn charged through the tillers.

A shadow shifted at the back wall. The forest of metal legs stuck out everywhere, the low water tanks blocked his leaps. He twisted and—

—slammed into an inches-wide crack, nose tickled by disappearing fur.

Damn. He scuttled back, skirted machines and tore out of the shed. Behind it, he jumped on a crate and paused on his toes, ready to spring. Broad squash leaves covered the still field.

Nothing. Nothing.

At least his teammates’ fleeting glimpses had gained them clues: The pest ran versus hopped, had black fur, no tail on a low body—shorter even than his polecat height of eleven inches on the paw, Jac had taunted.

He couldn’t justify more time here. Bunching his hindquarters, Daeryn sprang. He hit the dirt road with a bound and raced it to a crossroad on a hummock. Along the farm boundary, up and down the tree line beyond the fields, only the autumn leaves stirred.

Maraquin should have been visible. Where was that wolf bitch?

On the trail of a mystery pest? And who was he to complain, being late himself? He glanced skyward, picking out Tracker, the brightest star above the mountainous ridge on the northern horizon. An hour past midnight. If the previous three nights were any indication, those pests already should have snuck into Maraquin’s section of fields. If they bit into the tomatoes like last night, the collective kitchen would be bushels low for sauce canning. Again.

He passed the caged tomato plants drooping with ripe plum varieties. If Maraquin didn’t catch up with him, he’d start that additional section they were covering for an absent teammate, and then find her—

Woof.

He jerked around at Maraquin’s low bark and met her emerging from the tomato rows. Her robust wolf form rose onto hind legs and slimmed. Moonlight accentuated her bare curves, the best of them hidden beneath the thick hair spilling over her shoulders and chest. He averted his gaze, which each team member did out of courtesy, though they well knew each other’s bodies through their work routine.

“Twice I heard and chased something,” Maraquin said, “but found nothing. You?”

He shook his head without bothering to shift to human. Why report the same?

“Drat. I know they’re in there, but don’t have the time to search with the extra section. Can you cover the cornfield without me?” When he nodded, she sighed and dropped to all fours. “I wish Owen would come back.” The last words became a snarl as she shifted to wolf.

He felt the same, but what could they do? Owen had to take over the family harvest for his ill brother.

Maraquin shook her thick, silky coat and nimbly closed the space between them, a jump that brought her nose down to his. She licked the side of his round face, her tongue wet on the bare skin fronting his ear. He grabbed her snout in a playful bite, not sinking his canines. Fun, he was telling her, had to wait. She huffed a half growl of understanding and they separated.

He’d see her after dawn, or not, depending on how their night went, and if Jac agreed. Alpha wolves were such a pain, and he was glad he didn’t have to answer to one. But Maraquin did. It wasn’t that he was that interested, just that Maraquin was sometimes available. Which was just as well. He’d never meet another female who’d match the one he’d lost.

Eyes and ears alert, Daeryn bounded toward the cornfield. He’d race through it before meeting the next nocturnal team member on his rounds. The five of them had easily covered Owen’s absence until the pests showed up. Now their shameful inability to run down even one of the creatures revealed how much Wellspring had relied on the older fox’s decades of experience in outsmarting prey. If their team didn’t identify the species and pinpoint these pests’ habits, there would be no stopping the crop damage—damage occurring at the worst possible time, the peak of the autumn harvest.

An hour past midnight and no new sightings of the mysterious species. He, for one, didn’t want to face the head grower in the morning without an explanation for why his workers were showing him bites in half the vegetable varieties.

A faint vibration under his paws shook Daeryn from his thoughts. He turned its direction, north. Jac’s section. Seconds later, the tremor became a pounding of paws on dirt. Light ones. The animal wasn’t a wolf, but a fox. Terrent, the newest and youngest member of their team—sixteen to Daeryn’s twenty-one years—must have worked himself into a nervous wreck because Daeryn was late.

But why was he running hell-bent? And from Jac’s section?

Maraquin’s heavier footfalls beat through the tomatoes. Daeryn signaled his location with a chattering call. The red fox veered to him, with Maraquin appearing a moment later. Terrent skidded to a stop and shifted form in a fluid transition, spoiled when he promptly sat down hard on his ass.

“Damn,” he gasped out, his breath harsh. “Jac ran me halfway to the stream chasin’ one of those black pest creatures. Stupid, I know, but there’s no telling Jac anything.”

Daeryn shifted to human. Hell, what was Jac thinking, leaving Wellspring’s borders?

“I shouldn’t have left her, I suppose, when no one knows what this creature’s capable of.” Terrent shook his head. “But I figured the rest of youse should know.”

“The fool. Where is she now?”

“Searching where she lost the creature among the outcrops on the woodlot at the Davies’.”

Maraquin raced off.

“She could be there or anywhere,” Terrent yelled after her. “If she found that creature, she’ll pursue it clear to Breakthrough Gap.”

Daeryn raked fingers through his hair. Right, but if she had found it, Jac could also be in trouble. They had to check, but the folly of every team member charging into the woods stopped him.

“Find Zar,” he said, then added, “Would you?” Ordering his co-workers wasn’t his place. “Tell him where we’ve gone. If we aren’t back in fifteen minutes, go ring the bell and rouse Miz Gere.” There, that should keep the team in the owner’s good graces for observing safety precautions.

“All right,” Terrent grumbled. “I hate being at the bottom of this team, especially with no leader to follow.” The fox boy rolled to his feet and shifted.

“No kidding,” Daeryn snarled back from mid-shift. But complaining wouldn’t help. He leaped away. His muscles bunched and stretched with each growing stride. If Owen had been here, Jac would have reported in, not taken the decision herself, as her alpha tendencies were more and more inclined to do these last two weeks. A leader would never allow them to waste this much energy on the foolish pursuit of a single destructive pest. Hell, for all they knew, that one animal was a decoy, leading most of them off so a group could enter at another of Wellspring’s borders and destroy more crops.

Just then he passed another equipment shed. Could the new pests be sentient enough for sabotage? If that was the case, could a number of the vermin plan an attack on a solitary member of their nocturnal guard team?

Daeryn quickened his pace and raced up a long rolling hill. Alone, dammit. Every one of them was alone now, the team’s routine of patrols and backup totally abandoned. Terrent and Zar might be in just as much danger as Jac, or Maraquin and himself, for that matter.

He crested the rise, his lungs burning. Below, at the far side of the root crops, Maraquin’s large wolf form ran, tail up and nose to the ground, tracing Terrent’s scent. Or, more likely, Jac’s. Maraquin’s long-standing beta position to Jac went back to their home pack in the Wildlands shire, so their detection of each other was flawless. The wolf came to an opening at the woods’ edge and entered.

Daeryn followed on the same path, one of the network all the animacambires used for excursions off-property. His sensitive ears picked out Maraquin’s paw beats, fainter, more distant than he’d thought they’d be. He bounded after her, autumn leaves scattering under his paws and filling his nostrils with their earthy scent.

Fifty feet, a hundred, five hundred. The stream lay twenty times this distance away. Was Jac there? Closer? Farther? Safe? Daeryn stopped thinking and ran.

Minutes, and a mile later, barking broke out ahead.

Maraquin. Her vocalization had an edge to it, one that stopped his breathing for the endless moment it took for an answering bark.

It rasped. Jac. Close. Alive. He shot forward, running with all his might. Maraquin barked again, and this time the return call came deep and strong—alpha-like. When Maraquin issued forth a series of growls and barks that could only be the telling off of her packmate, Daeryn slowed and filled his lungs.

Hell, Jac was fine. Probably full of herself, returning from a needless search that expended everyone’s energy and left the property open to other invaders.

By the time he caught up to them, the wolf bitches were rolling in an outright fight, the beta Maraquin for once taking on her headstrong alpha. Leaves, dirt, fur and snarls flew in confusion. He couldn’t tell which was faring better, but he’d take a piece of that action. With a burst of energy, he raced forward and leaped. His nose verified the landing pad was some part of Jac’s anatomy, so he sank his claws and let loose a series of spitting cries and growls, a pissed-off message in any language.

She froze beneath him, then tried to shake him off like water from a puddle. Daeryn clung, the muscles of his smaller European polecat form tight with the effort.

I’ll show you—

The heavy body, and whiff, of a lynx slammed them sideways—their teammate Zar. Daeryn landed with a jolt several feet away.

Just as well. He rolled over and crouched up against a log, gasping.

Apparently, Zar was even angrier than he’d been. The lynx danced a mean streak, pouncing, snarling and biting at the thick fur of Jac’s ruff and hindquarters. She twisted and snapped her heavy jaws at him, but between his agile moves and Maraquin’s worked-up anger, the fight raged on, bloodless, but just barely.

Any longer and the integrity of the team might be damaged. Daeryn shifted and swatted at the nearest furry rump. “Break it up.”

Maraquin rounded on him and growled, but sank on her haunches and shifted. Her thick, black hair fell across her face and shoulders, with the rest of her front hidden behind crossed muscular arms and the shadows of her bent knees.

Zar shifted, too, but didn’t bother to cover his heaving chest or the rest of his body. He threw his broad, muscular physique aggressively back and forth, yelling between gasps, “What the hell? What the hell were you doing…taking off alone? Trying to get yourself…maimed? No one knows what that beast is capable of!”

Jac’s upper lip curled, but no snarl emerged.

Smart Jac, because any hint of her usual uppityness and Daeryn wouldn’t be able to stop himself from taking her on, big carnivore or not. But she didn’t give him an excuse.

“We don’t—” Daeryn sucked a breath to steady his tone, to make his point sound reasonable. “We don’t run down every animal that crosses onto Wellspring.”

“That’s right.” Zar jabbed a finger at her, nearly hitting the fur between her eyes.

Jac flinched back, changed to human form nearly identical to her cousin Maraquin’s, and fell to a sit. “Fine. I get it.”

“Do you?” Zar barreled on. “All a guard needs to do is run a beast off the farm property, same as every other beast who threatens the crops. Nothing more. If Owen were here, he’d have your hide for this foolish lark.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Jac said. “This beast is different. It must be foreign, from Outside the Basin.”

“You don’t know that,” Zar spat out. “By the Path, no one of us can properly identify the variety of life—animacambire, planta or just plain creatures—lurking in the back bowels of Blighted Basin.”

Jac jumped to her feet and snapped, “Would you let me finish?”

Daeryn stepped between them. “Let her talk. This team isn’t pack. With Owen gone, we’re equal members and have to hear each other out.”

Between his mustache and beard, Zar’s lips twisted like he’d scented carrion.

But Jac dipped her chin to him in a rare show of appreciation. “You didn’t see what I saw, so you can’t fault me for running down the one I finally found. It’s bad. Tonight those pests didn’t just bite up some vegetables. They’ve gnawed the stalks at the base and destroyed an entire row of acorn squash.” Jac waved her arm this way and that, her excitement from the chase still evident. “The teeth on those things must be as sharp as axes. This proves it can’t be sentient. Nor an animacambire. No ’cambire pulls that kind of crap, ruining a crop so the plants die and the vegetables can’t ripen.”

The four of them remained silent. This was bad. A few of these beasts, over a few nights of cutting through plant stalks, and Wellspring Collective wouldn’t have a viable crop left. Or sales…or cash…or workers.

Daeryn swallowed. This was what ruined farms. Drove farmers and their hands to town jobs. After nearly three years, he wasn’t just a hand, but a vested collective member. This farm was also his, just as it belonged in part to Jac, Maraquin, Zar…all of the longtimers.

If Wellspring went under, he wouldn’t just be seeking a new position, but a new home.

Jac sank down onto a log. “You lot should be thanking me. I ran that thing right off the property, tail between its legs, then chased it farther than the beast ever took it into its head to run on those short legs.”

“’Cept it doesn’t have a tail,” muttered Zar. Now calmer, the man in his late twenties had returned to his usual sparse remarks.

“But you didn’t catch it.” Daeryn wasn’t asking. He knew. Otherwise, she’d have the body. And they needed that body to figure out what it was. To stop it…them.

Jac glared at Zar before glancing around. “It escaped down a burrow.”

“Great,” Maraquin said. “So they’ve made dens—”

“No.” Jac shook her head. “A rabbit burrow, one with the faintest scent of something I’ve never smelled.” She jerked her thumb northward. “Come on.”

They all shifted, and Jac led them a couple of hundred feet around a rock outcrop and down a dry ravine. To Daeryn’s polecat nose, the burrow in the bank was exactly as she’d described: overwhelmingly rabbit, but with a trace of that other scent lurking around the damaged crops, that…something else.

Maraquin snorted the air from her nostrils, took another whiff, but shook her head when she changed. “I smell it, but have no idea.”

Zar backed from the hole, looking the most puzzled. “This sounds stupid, but it reminds me of my old granny’s house.”

“What?” Jac said. “Your gran lived in a rabbit warren?”

The group broke into laughter, albeit nervous laughter.

He shrugged. “I weren’t more than a kitten when she died, but I practically lived there. Would rather not of, with her always shovin’ us aside with her broom, cleanin’ each dropped crumb. Had floors you could eat off of.”

“That beast is long gone out a second or third burrow exit.” Daeryn waved toward Wellspring. “We’ve left our jobs unattended far too long.”

Jac rolled her eyes. “Terrent will have picked his fox tail bare—”

“Damn.” Daeryn started to change, then stopped to tell them, “I asked him to fetch Miz Gere if I didn’t return in fifteen minutes.”

“I suppose I’ll have to explain why we’re off-property.” Jac stomped her foot.

Zar snorted. “Not that it was your idea to ignore her policies, or our safety procedures, or any common sense—”

Daeryn didn’t wait to hear the rest. He dropped to all fours and started running.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

The chug, chug, chug of the steam tractor reached his ears long before Daeryn broke out of the woods. Too late. Terrent had probably scampered for help the minute he’d told Zar where they’d gone. But news of the most recent way the sharp-toothed pests were damaging crops should distract Miz Gere from the nuisance of being woken and the team hunting off-property.

Daeryn emerged just when the tractor’s engine shut down. The dying sound marked the location up the hill—

He groaned. More than thirty farmhands swung lanterns over the northern fields. Terrent had brought in a damned search party. With lights. Every pest in the place should have fled by now. Daeryn certainly wanted to. Better than facing Miz Gere. Likely she was the tall figure rising from the seat behind the driver, but he couldn’t make out her face. Or attitude.

“The team’s back!” a man called. “Over at the turnips.”

Wellspring’s dayworkers converged on Daeryn, mainly growers, but also the three diurnal guards. He blinked in the lantern light, the flashes of color at the edges of his nocturnal vision blinding him. He halted. The rest of the nocturnal team caught up, their nervous excitement besieging his other ’cambire senses. Beside him, Jac growled, as did Maraquin a second after her alpha.

Calls rang out. “Is everyone accounted for?”

“Any injuries?”

“What’s this creature look like? Who caught it?”

“They’ve all turned up, Mistress Gere,” shouted the leader of the day guards. “No one’s limping, so I’d say we’re done here.”

Daeryn put his head down and shoved between several human legs. He wasn’t shifting while surrounded. The others followed, and together the team stalked up the dirt road to meet the tractor and Wellspring’s owner.

Miz Gere must have dressed quickly since she wore her split trouser-skirt and gumboots, but the high collar of a flannel nightdress peeked above her woolen wrap. Instead of being pinned in a roll, her brown hair fell down her back in a braid. Still, she acted her usual formidable self while scanning their group, taller than most of them even if they’d been in human form. Her gaze lit on the dark-furred wolves, Zar’s wide whiskered face, then came to rest on Daeryn, her brow raised in the same implied question she’d posed to the others: How are you?

Daeryn nodded.

“It’s late,” she announced. “Growers, return to your beds. I’ll fill you in during the morning report. Day guards, please remain.”

A few of the growers persisted with questions about the crop damage. A mistake.

“What can you do now?” she snapped. “Morning is time enough, and I want this team back on patrol as soon as possible. Now go.” She took a breath and waved to the night team. “Robes are in the cart.”

The males hung back to let the wolf bitches grab clothes first, then trotted around. Rivley, a tall, lean fellow, sauntered up as Daeryn tied his sash. Of course his best friend, and a fellow ’cambire, had responded to the call for help. He’d probably remembered the robes for when they’d be surrounded by humans. Daeryn wouldn’t have expected less, and would do the same if their positions were reversed.

“Riv. Thanks for coming out.” Daeryn nodded back to Miz Gere. “Never heard her in such a fury.”

Rivley waved a dismissive hand, though his short hair stood on end. “More worried. Though I can’t say the same for half the growers.”

Everyone was on edge. How could they not be? The collective was losing money every night. “Well, they can talk to Jac. She’ll take ’em down a notch,” Daeryn muttered.

Rivley grunted in agreement, and they stood for a minute watching the dozens of growers and their lanterns disappear over the hillside. The entire staff had responded. Daeryn slowly shook his head, but held his tongue. What happened over the next week would determine the harvest outcome. Their outcome.

He wouldn’t say anything to Rivley just yet, but he couldn’t stop his mind from rolling through the “what ifs.” If he had to look for work, he’d probably have to do it alone this time. They’d found guard positions together, but Riv had moved into a mechanic’s assistant position he wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—abandon. And frankly, because of everything else his friend had done for him, Daeryn couldn’t ask Rivley to leave. It’d be hard for both of them to find work anywhere except in an advanced agricultural operation like Wellspring. And returning to their home territory of Rockbridge wasn’t an option. At least not yet.

Downhill from the tractor, Jac had already planted herself before Miz Gere, her voice pitched low enough for only the boss’ ears. Maraquin and Zar joined them, and Terrent edged up to the group. Leaving Rivley by the tractor, Daeryn joined his team at the point of Jac describing their arrival in the woods. She skipped deftly over the row and continued with scenting the burrow.

While Miz Gere listened, her gaze roved the team members and came to rest on Daeryn. A little furrow sat in her brow, but didn’t make him flinch. Miz Gere was his first formal employer and, though he had none to compare, a good one. He and Rivley hadn’t known what to expect when they’d left Rockbridge, but they’d found more than work at Wellspring. Miz Gere was business-smart, but better, people-smart—and by that he included all of the Basin’s versions of people. Even with the crop loss, she’d be fair to the staff, vested workers and new hires alike.

Jac ended her terse report. She prompted Zar to add more to the scent description, but the gruff man seemed to have spent all his day’s words back in the woods.

“Clean,” he said with a shrug.

“Anything else?” Miz Gere’s gaze swept across them.

Maraquin noted her section’s disturbance had turned up empty. Daeryn added his shed-scratching incident.

When he finished, Terrent spoke up. “Running down that beast weren’t a decision all would have agreed to.”

Miz Gere’s brow shot up. Daeryn’s did, too. Terrent never spoke at team reports. Though not the smallest ’cambire—Daeryn had that dubious distinction—the fox boy had shown little confidence since his arrival at the start of summer.

With hands fisted, Jac rounded on him, a low rumble lacing her first words. “And I suppose you’d let them pass, take inventory of the destruction, hold a committee meeting to make a decision. Meanwhile, they’ll gather their fellows and damage us threefold this evening before we have a chance to tighten our defenses. I sent the message not to mess with us.”

Terrent stared back, his lips pressed firmly together. He held his ground, but clearly he wasn’t about to say more. Daeryn didn’t blame him. But then again… Daeryn leaned forward, the slight motion drawing everyone’s gaze.

“Not you, too?” Jac snapped before he could speak.

He lifted his chin. “Yes.” He waited a beat, and when all she did was cross her arms in a show of exasperation, he continued. “Your departure with Terrent left the rest of us in the dark, the checkpoints abandoned, and Zar alone a mile away. With pests you claim have teeth like axes. Terrent deciding to return was a good decision—for the team. Sure, you found out a bit more about a pest, but was it worth risking the rest of us?”

Jac huffed out a breath. “Next time, I’ll communicate and cover our tails.”

But she wouldn’t. Jac would snap out impulsive orders and expect them to be followed, or dive into headlong chases, endangering herself and others. Things she’d never do if Owen were here to lead.

“Look,” Daeryn said. “All I’m saying is with these beasts afoot, having each other’s back is our top priority. Without Owen, all of us”—he looked around at his teammates—“have got to pay extra heed, not just Jac. We fight, and live, as a team.” For seconds, none of them said a thing. Then, one head bobbed in agreement, setting off all the others.

“Got it,” Jac said. “We’d better resume our patrols.” With a toss of her hair, she turned to go.

Miz Gere put a hand on her shoulder. “A moment more, please.”

Jac met her gaze, chin lifted.

“You’re a large ’cambire, a smart fighter, one well-suited for the action you undertook.”

That tone. The other shoe was about to drop.

“So I’m sure you’ll save me the trouble at this early hour of repeating Daeryn’s points about teamwork.”

Jac nodded. “The crops—”

“The crops are not lives.” Miz Gere’s glare cut off the excuses.

No one made a sound, least of all Jac, who had the good sense to just nod this time.

Miz Gere dropped her hand and crossed her arms. “I can grow more crops. But not people. This team makes me proud, functioning so well together, putting wholehearted effort to the patrols, and even plotting to solve new problems like this mysterious pest. Owen left you short, but you five devised a solution, so I never thought to intervene. Now our harvest is”—she drew a breath—“not a normal one. With landholders reporting an increase in the vermin across the northern Farmlands shire, and no date set for Owen’s return, I see the need for an interim change.”

Daeryn frowned. It was late in the season to get another nocturnal guard, a decent one at least. But wait. The lady hadn’t said addition, she’d said change. Which meant—

“Finally,” Jac muttered.

“Temporary, mind you,” Miz Gere said slowly as she looked around the group. “But until Owen returns, Daeryn, would you fill his place as team lead?”

* * *

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