Leslie Golden and his five brothers were the first of their kind. Born leopards, they were blessed with the magic of being the first leopard shifters. Morgan, their mother by proxy, raised them to blend in with humans and to be good men. Blessed with immortality, they all lived together on Morgan’s Leap, a sanctuary for all nature.
Venetia had been thrown from a vehicle and left for dead at the edge of the Golden’s property. When found by the Goldens, she couldn’t remember what had happened to her.
It didn’t take long for Leslie to realize who Venita was to him. Everything was happening so fast to him and all his brothers. Now, a car crash at the edge of their property left them with three kids to raise. Then it hit him all at once. He had a mate, and he was a father… What else would be in store for his new family?
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Carroll Golden and his five brothers were the first of their kind. Born leopards, they were blessed with the magic of being the first leopard shifters. Morgan, their mother by proxy, raised them to blend in with humans and to be good men. Blessed with immortality, they all lived together on Morgan’s Leap, a sanctuary for all nature.
Hanna March worked for the FDA. She had always wanted to visit Morgan’s Leap, but it was closed to the public, so when she was given the opportunity to inspect their orchard on some bogus complaint, she jumped at the chance. The place was beyond anything she ever expected, and Morgan was the perfect host. But when someone took a pot shot at Morgan from the field, a huge leopard came out of nowhere and took them both down. Hanna, hitting her head on the way to the ground, was down for the count.
Carroll shifted back to human as soon as the women were out of danger, but finding out the pretty FDA agent was his mate took Carroll by surprise, and boy was she going to be mad when she woke up.
Leslie made his way to the side of the house, where the wraparound porch made the corner. Sliding to the floor, he stretched out his legs and let out a long slow breath. It wasn’t as if he wasn’t used to having the house at high decibels all the time. It was just too much with all the women and others there as well. When the door opened and closed at the front of the house, Leslie wondered if his mom was coming out to scold him or to join him. He was surprised to see Venetia standing at the railing, not five feet from where he was sitting. “I’m remembering more and more all the time.
There are a great many things I’d like to forget, but one I did want to share with you is that I knew that Betty and Sherman weren’t my parents. They told me when I fell from the bleachers at school and broke my ankle. They didn’t know any of my history.” She looked at him. “Are you unhappy with me being your mate?” “Not at all. Nervous? Yes, I’m that. But not unhappy. I was overwhelmed by all the noise in the place.” She nodded as if she understood that as well. “Would you like to take a walk? I can show you around, and we can get to know one another.” “I’d love that.”
He got up and stretched. “You’re very tall, aren’t you? I was going to say large, but that’s not all. You’re in great shape and have good bones.” “It’s the magic that keeps us trim. And the fact that we all work around here. I’ll point out some of the things going on as we walk if you’d like.” Again, she said that would be good. “We’ll start this way. I’ve been craving an apple for most of the morning. Mom handed them out to your parents, which is good. I’m glad everyone is enjoying the fruits of our labors and—I’m babbling. I don’t usually get all tongue-tied when I’m talking. I think it’s mostly because you’re so beautiful, and I want to make a good impression.”
“You have. All of you have. I don’t know my biological parents all that well, but they’ve been singing your praises since they arrived.” They started for the woods as she continued to tell him what her parents were saying. “I like your mom, too. And Hanna. She’s very intense, but I like her very much.” “She and Carroll are going to have a baby. We’re all still trying to figure out how that is going to work.” Venetia asked him what he meant. “We’re the first shifters, and since we were made by two leopards, we’ve no idea if she’ll have kittens that will shift or humans that will shift. But whatever they have, we’ll all love them and protect them with our lives.”
“I don’t know you well enough to judge, but it’s been my experience that people talk a big game and don’t follow through on their promises.” He said they would. “As I said, I don’t know you well enough yet to say yes or no. I’m not trying to pick a fight with you, Leslie. I believe you when you say it, but humans aren’t usually so good about following through on promises. You do know I’m a witch, don’t you?” “I do. I didn’t until you found out, but yes. It doesn’t bother me if that is what you’re asking. In fact, I’m glad that if something—” “Your lordship.
You must go to the river. Now.” He took off in the direction of the river after asking Venetia to please be careful. The urgency of Hale’s voice had him running. Shifting to his cat so he could move faster, he arrived at the river’s edge in record time. “There. See it?” The car was upside down in the water. Shifting once again, he was able to roll the car to an upright position. It was then he saw the car had two children inside, with two adults in the front. Smashing one of the windows, which were all closed, he pulled the man out first. “I can bring the car to the edge.” Venetia did just that, pulling the car right out of the fast-moving water and onto the edge of the shoreline.
“I’m sending the faeries up and down the river to see if there are any others around.” “Good thinking. Thanks.” Coming out of the water, he was embarrassed slightly that he’d not thought to dress himself. As soon as he did, he laughed when Venetia’s cheeks were as red as he was sure his were. “I didn’t think beyond getting the people out of the car.” “That’s fine.” The two of them pulled the people from the car. “Can you save them?” “Yes. However, not the man. He’s been dead too long for me to be able to bring him back without consequences.” Nodding, he pulled the smallest child—he thought her to be about six or seven months old—from the car seat and laid her on the ground.
They realized the little boy was hurt badly after she was able to bring him back. “They were drugged. There is a great deal of something in their system. They would have not been able to survive had you not been warned. The poison in their bodies was lethal.” “Do you know what it was?” She said it was heroin. “All of them, or just the children? The reason I ask is, the man was shot in the head, and the gas pedal was pushed down. Also, and I have no idea why this just popped into my head when I opened the door just now, the lights came on, as well as the sounds. So I’m thinking they weren’t in the water very long.” “I think you might be correct.”
Leslie reached out to his family and let them know what was going on. The baby started crying but quieted down some when the little binkie thing was put into her mouth. “There are things about this that make me think the woman was supposed to live. She wasn’t buckled in, nor did there seem to be much in the way of drugs in her system.” Just as Venetia was going to say more, the woman woke up and started screaming. Nothing she was saying, however, was helpful in getting to the bottom of what had happened here today. “My babies. My little babies. They’re dead.” Venetia told her that they weren’t, actually. The look of shock was there and gone so quickly that had he not been looking at her, he would have missed it. “They’re all right? When we went into the water, I thought we were all dead.”
“No. Just the man there.” She looked in the direction that Venetia pointed. “He didn’t drown, either. I think he was murdered before going into the water.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She looked around. “Where is Wendy? She was in the backseat as well.” Looking along the shoreline, he saw Hale, Venetia’s faerie, and Noodle, his faerie, laying a child on the ground. When he started for them, Noodle told him to stay away, then came to stand on his shoulder so she could speak to him. “The child is fine, your lordship.
She is afeared of her mother. Wendy, her name is, said her mother shot her daddy. She thought her asleep, as the others were. The little tyke said she pretended to fall asleep with the others so she could save them. But she hit her head and must have fainted before she could act.” He asked if she could be taken to the house to be kept safe. “Yes. I’ll take her myself. Also, you should know that the babe has been drugged before. The mother isn’t a nice person.” “I’d say you were right.” He asked if they had a name other than Wendy. Noodle told him all he knew was the child’s first name.
“My family is coming here now. Go to my mom and tell her what you told me. Then if you could have Daniel come here in the cruiser, we’ll get this straightened out quickly.” The children were still upset, and the boy—his name was Sammy, it turned out—was sick. Twice now, he’d thrown up, and his mother ignored him for the most part. Looking at Venetia when she coughed, he watched as she put her finger to her lips and pointed at the woman. She was talking to herself, thinking that neither of them could hear her.
“What the fuck? What the glorious fuck? You couldn’t even make sure you weren’t found, could you, Samuel?” Leslie watched as she kicked the dead man. “I was going to be saved while you and the brats were dead. Mother fuck, I hate you more now than I did when you were living.” “Hello, son.” He turned and hugged his mom while she fussed over the children. Handing each of them a bottle of juice, she changed out the one for the baby to a bottle of milk. “There you go. You just drink that down, and you’ll feel so much better.” Mom picked up the baby and looked at Leslie.
“Daniel is on his way. Noodle is getting things ready at the house for our guests. The dray horses are being brought in to pull the car to the driveway so it can be taken away as well. Are you all right, Venetia?” “Yes. Just peachy.” There was a tone there that made him think she was far from peachy. But she did smile at Mom. “I’m assuming you’ve been privy to the things going on around here?” “Yes. Hanna has been keeping us all updated.” Mom winked at him before speaking to the other woman. “This is Mrs. Rebecca Canavan. Her husband was Samuel. The two children here are Sammy and Bethy.”
“Where is Wendy? When you were saving the rest of us, where is Wendy?” Mom told Rebecca she was safe at her home. “Your home? Why? How did she get there? She was in the car with us when my husband decided to take a leap into the river.” “I don’t think so.” Hanna hugged first Venetia then him as she continued. Rebecca asked her what that was supposed to mean. “Samuel was dead a full hour before you put him in the car.
The children had been drugged about the time you decided you didn’t want them around you anymore either. You’ll not lie to anyone again, Rebecca. By the way, your lover has been taken into custody. He is singing to anyone that is willing to listen about how you had the perfect plan. You should have made sure you really had drugged the children before you assumed they were unable to listen to your plans.” “What did that brat say?” She seemed to realize what she’d said and smiled. “I’m a little stressed about all this. What did Wendy have to say about anything going on? Just so you know, I’ve had disciplinary trouble with her for the last few years.”
“Yes, you have. But only because you didn’t like her telling Samuel there what you were up to. Why don’t you tell us how you worked the plan out, Rebecca? I’m sure now that the police are here, you’d like to get it off your chest.” Rebecca bit her lips so hard they were bleeding profusely. “Tell us. Now.” “I hate them all. All of them were sucking the life right out of me. I wanted to get the insurance money so I could go off and reinvent myself.” Mom asked about Samuel. “Samuel? Christ, if there was a more stupid father and lackluster person in the world, I’d never want to meet them. He would do anything for me but have his body thrown from the car so he’d not be found until he was nothing more than fish food. The kids too.
Christ, how did Wendy survive that shit? I’ll tell you how. She has nine lives. If you knew how many times I tried to rid my body of her before she came squirting out, you’d give me the golden ring. Then, after she was born, all she did was try and find ways to make me look bad. I should have shot her too. All of them.” Sammy got up and came to sit on Leslie’s lap. Mom was feeding the baby still, and Venetia stood nearby. Rebecca was unhinged. Not only that, he was sure this wasn’t her first attempt at getting rid of her family. She kept talking about how she would try again and that she’d win next time.
Win what, he didn’t even want to hazard a guess about. Daniel kept telling Rebecca that he was recording everything she said. The horses arrived just as a couple of Feds walked onto the scene. They were still in town for the things that had been found on the Mission property. Once she was taken into custody, kicking and screaming about how it was Samuel’s fault they were all alive, Mom handed him the baby. Hooking up the car to the horses didn’t take any time at all, and they were on their way in a few minutes.
When they arrived at the house, he handed the baby over to Venetia so he could talk to Daniel first, as he had been first on the scene. Venetia would too, but he wasn’t going to mess this up for the kids. Their mother was going to prison, hopefully for a very long time. Leslie had been a police officer before. He, along with his brothers, had been a lot of different things. Being a cop was something he didn’t like at all, not even on the best days. Daniel seemed to be having a better time than he’d been having before. Having had his Parkinson’s taken care of certainly made him more relaxed about everything, he thought. Rebecca was taken away once she was able to tell her story again. It seemed like a slam dunk, but he knew better than to count on that. Stranger things had happened before.
As he held the baby while Venetia told her side of what happened, Wendy came to sit next to him and her sister. “She’s so little, and Mom wanted her dead.” Leslie told her he was sorry for that. “Me too. I tried hard to make sure she was no trouble, but I couldn’t take her to school with me. She would give her drugs while I was gone. I’m so sorry about that.” “You did everything you could, honey. Including telling the police what you’d seen at the time of your father’s death.” She nodded as she held onto Bethy’s hand. “My brother, the doctor, Marley, said all of you are in good shape but need to eat better. I don’t think you’ll have that trouble for very long. My mom and my brothers will keep you here until someone can be notified to come and get you. Do you have any aunts or uncles that might want to take care of you guys?”
“Nobody is left. Mom had a brother, but he killed himself a few years ago.” She looked up at him with shock on her face. “Do you think she killed him too? I’d not put it past her anymore. She killed the lady that came to dust the house too. The police officer wants me to go and show him where the bodies are.” “Bodies?” She nodded and watched her sister fall asleep. “You can stay with us for as long as you need to, Wendy. We’ll never let anything happen to you. I swear it.” “Thank you, Mr. Leslie.” Putting Bethy on the blanket on the floor, he went to find his mom. He knew where she’d be.
The kitchen was a place she’d go when she had something to work out. He only hoped she wasn’t trying to make bread again. It wouldn’t be fit to eat if she was. ~*~ Venetia watched Morgan as she stirred the chips into the cookie batter. They’d not be chips for long, more like shavings if she kept at it the way she was. Taking the bowl and the spoon from her, she told her to have a seat, and she’d take care of the cookies. Venetia was just putting the first batch of cookies in the oven when Leslie came into the room. “We’ll need you to go into town and find something for the kids to wear. Also, bottles. I have plenty of milk from the cows this morning but no bottles.”
Venetia said she and Leslie would go after the cookies were done. Then she winked at Leslie when he whispered, asking about his mom. “Thank you. And I’m doing just fine, Leslie. Don’t be rude. We’ll need some cloth diapers too. I’m not even sure they make them anymore.” “I think so, but I’d not use them either. They’re full of chemicals to make them not stain as much. I can take care of that and the bottles for you.” Morgan nodded and seemed to be lost in thought. Venetia looked at Leslie when he took a hot cookie from the sheet pan.
“Hale told me that he was my faerie. Noodle also introduced herself to me.” He said he was sorry about that. He’d meant to do it today. “No reason to be. It’s not like we’ve had a normal day so far. Anyway, Noodle and Hale are going to fashion a baby bed for Bethy. If you’ve no problem with them being with us, I’d like to make sure the kids have a place to sleep that they can call their own.”
“Wendy and I were just talking about that. I’d very much like it if they would be our children if you would like that. I also should have told you I have a place for us to live.” She asked him where it was. “Here. The seven of us, including Mom, have lived here our whole life, and with the magic we were gifted, we were able to take our rooms and make them into something much larger than it appears from the hallway. You and I have four bedrooms, living, dining, and a few other rooms in the one we have. Also, we can change it around any way you wish, but I think we can be comfortable living here.
If not, then we’ll think of something else.” “No. I think I’d like to be right here. This is the heart of this family, and I like that we can live here and be separate from the rest when we want to. All right. I’ll make sure things are set up how the kids will want them. If, as you said, they need or want something different, then we can work on that. Do you know if there is anyone else we can contact?” He told her what Wendy had said to him. “I can look into that, but I’d have to be with the body. I’m to understand that Hanna can do that sort of thing. Find lifelines to people with only their name.” Leslie laughed and said she could do amazing things. “Yes, well, I’ve picked up a couple more things too since coming here.
I can—” “The children. They’re going to need someplace to live. I can make sure they’re well fed, but as far as raising them, I’m not sure how good I’d be any more at being a motherly type. I’m a great deal older than I used to be. I wouldn’t know the first thing about new rules and such.” They all laughed about that. Venetia didn’t tell Morgan when she spoke up that they’d already discussed that very thing. Instead, Leslie told his mom what he was thinking, and she nodded at him. “They’ll be safe here. Also, they’ll get some good food in their bellies. I’m thinking they’ve not had much in the way of home cooked anything for a while, if ever.” “Mom, are you all right?”
Morgan stared at Leslie when he asked her. “You seem to be thinking very hard about something. Tell us so we can help you.” “She was willing to kill her own children.” Venetia had an idea that was what was bothering the other woman. Leslie hugged his mom as she sobbed out her hurt at what had been done to the children. “I can’t stand the fact that she isn’t going to die the same way she hoped her children would have. People, humans, aren’t even nice to their own offspring. Are they, Leslie?” “Mom, I was going to talk to Venetia later about this, but I’d like to adopt the children. All three of them.” Venetia said that was what she was hoping to do as well.
“Then it’s settled. You’ll have three more grandchildren to spoil rotten and fatten up as much as you wish. If we can convince the courts to allow us to have them.” “They’d better if they don’t want me to come down on their asses.” Morgan perked up after that. She even smiled when she took one of the cookies off the cooling rack. “Let me make a few phone calls on your behalf. I think they’ll be good for all of us around here too. What with Hanna and Piper having babies, it’ll be like we’ve finally got something to celebrate at the holidays. Thank you both for this.” Morgan left them, and Venetia finished up the cookies. She noticed that Leslie only ate them when they were hot out of the oven, but he didn’t eat all that many either.
Thinking of being a mom to three kids, she wondered what else was going to be in store for the two of them when Leslie spoke, interrupting her thoughts. “We should get married. I know this is fast, but I think we’ll stand a better chance of getting the children if we’re a married couple.” She told him that was fine by her. “Whether you want a large or small wedding, it can be easy enough to arrange. However, we have people that can file that we’re already married now so that when Mom makes her calls, the paperwork will be finalized.” “I’ll talk to my parents, but go ahead and have everything filed.
Also, so you’re aware, I’m in love with you.” He stood up so quickly that she backed away from him. “Did I say something wrong?” “Never, when you tell me you love me. I love you as well.” He moved toward her slowly. “I’d like to kiss you right now. I’d like to take you upstairs and make you mine, but I know there are things going on that are going to need our attention right now.” She kissed him anyway. Knowing that at any moment anyone could walk in on them, she pulled away when he tried to lift her up to the counter.
It took her fuzzy mind a few seconds to realize that the timer was going off for the next batch of cookies. Pushing him to the side, she scolded him for being in her way. All he did was laugh. “I’ll be back later. My room is the one at the top of the stairs on the left. It has a yellow door.” She turned and looked at him, asking if he wanted her to wait on him. “No reason for that. You make notes of whatever you think we’ll need, as well as the kids. Hale will be with you if you need something right away. Barring that, you can have him bring in the faeries and take care of most anything you wish.
Also, just to give you a heads up, they take everything you say literally. Like, if you tell them you want the room painted, you must tell them the walls. Otherwise, they’ll have the entire room the same color. Same with the kitchen appliances. I know we’re going to need a larger refrigerator, but tell them you want one that’ll fit a certain space. For some reason, they think the bigger things are, the better you’re going to like it. Trust me on this one. We’ll have a walk-in refrigerator if you’re not specific with them.”
She thought he was kidding her, and after he left, she put the cookies that were cooled enough in a tin she’d found. Her sister joined her as she was pulling things out of the pantry to make some other kinds of cookies for the kids to snack on. “Did you know they send their wheat out to be milled, and that’s why they have flour?” She told Zippy she’d not seen that as yet. “They do everything right here. When Bailey told me that, I thought he was joking. They don’t even own a car or truck but use horses to do the plowing and moving of the foodstuffs. I’ve not had an opportunity to talk to you much since we arrived. How are you, Veni?” Smiling at the shortened version of her name, she answered her. “I’m doing well now that I have my memories back.
Some I wish I’d never had, but they’re all there. I’m a good deal stronger as a witch than I was before. Do you suppose it has to do with being here?” Zippy told her that was something she was working out too. She was mixing the batch of coconut cookies when Zippy asked her if she hated her. “Why on earth would you think I hate you?”
“I should have gone back for you. I tried to find what happened to you, but you were so small when you were taken that your magic hadn’t been acquired by you yet. I could have found you easier if I had had some kind of tag to look for. I’m so sorry.” Veni held her sister as she cried, telling her over and over that it was all right. She’d had enough to deal with in taking care of their parents.
“Did the other family treat you well? That’s all I’ve been thinking about since I heard you’d been found.” “They were nice to me. I knew from an early age I wasn’t theirs. I didn’t know the entire story, but most of it. I thought my parents were dead. I don’t know that they knew about you at all. It was never something that came up.” She went back to making the batter for the cookies while her sister composed herself. “I was working for the FBI about Henderson and Applegate. I was getting very close to having all the information needed to bring them in when they caught me one night looking in files that I had no access to during working hours. Luckily I was able to send off what I had before I was tossed from the car.”
“I’d like to be a part of making them pay for what they did to you. To all of us.” Veni told her she’d have to stand in line. So would her new brothers. Zippy smiled then. “It’s strange, isn’t it? That both of us are mated to brothers. Our children will be double cousins or something. Don’t you think?” Wendy came into the room then with Bethy in her arms. Zippy took her from the older child and put her in the highchair she was sure wasn’t there before. As soon as Bethy was strapped in, Wendy asked if they could have a snack. Since she’d baked the kids the cookies for after dinner, she cut them both up an apple—smushed up for Bethy and sliced for Wendy—then after cutting grapes into smaller pieces for the baby again, Veni put some grapes on the plate, and gave both the little girls some juice.
“When we lived at home with Momma, she wouldn’t let us have any juice. She said it was for mixing whiskey in and not for brats.” Veni looked at her sister when she started to speak. Shaking her head just enough, Zippy asked Wendy how often she would be putting juice and whiskey together. “Every day. She’d give a bottle of it to Bethy, too, when she was fussy. That seemed to be all the time. But she’d pinch her too.” “Your mother would pinch the baby?” Morgan came in and sat down at the table with the girls and shared the grapes she was cutting in half for Bethy. “I’m assuming she did similar things to you and your brother?” “Yes. Mostly it was to lock us in the room.
We called it that because that’s all it was. No lights or rugs. There wasn’t even a window we could open. Just a pot in the corner for us to do our business in.” Wendy handed Bethy a sippy cup that Morgan had. Things were popping up all over the place for the children, Venetia thought with a laugh. “I saved all the bottles she gave us to drink from too. I didn’t ever drink enough to go to sleep, as Bethy and Sammy did. Someone had to watch them. So the night we were put in the car, I was wide awake, and I got out before the car flipped over. I couldn’t save them then. I got tangled up in some branches that hung me in the water for a long time. Until Noodle came to rescue me.”
After finding out where Wendy had hidden the half-empty bottles of water, Veni, a nickname that was growing on her, told Leslie where she was going. He told her he’d meet her there with the police and for her to be careful. I’m going to kill her is what I’m going to do. He asked her to wait on that. I’ll give it my best shot. But she drugged these children—they’re very lucky to be alive, I’m thinking, after the way they were treated. Damn it, Leslie, I’m pissed. So am I, honey. I’ll meet you at the house. Be careful. And bring Zippy with you. I think between the two of you, we’ll have no trouble finding all the little things around the house that were used against our kids. She liked the sound of that and told him so. I like it too. I love you, Venetia. So be careful. She decided to tell him her new nickname later. Right now, she needed to put her focus on the task at hand and look for enough evidence to put Rebecca Canavan behind bars forever.