Stealing Ula: A Fada Shapeshifter Prequel
Ireland, early 1850s
The silver-eyed shifter from Portugal was up to something.
Ula glanced at where Nisio do Rio was eating dinner at a table with some of the warriors. Big and broad-shouldered with long dark hair, the man stood out among her Irish sea fada clan like an outsized black wolf.
One cheek was slashed by a scar—and the fada didn’t scar easily. They were shapeshifters, a mix of animal, human, and fae along with a touch of the god Dionysus himself. That mix of god and magic meant that fada healed quickly and cleanly. But Nisio had a jagged white scar streaking from the corner of his eye to his jaw.
It was a wonder her da had extended clan hospitality to the man, but then, Chas Gallagan didn’t scare easily. And to be fair, as alpha of the Shannon Sea Fada clan, her da hadn’t had much choice. Water fada were the wanderers of the shifter world. Their animals were dolphins, sharks, seals—water lovers who roamed the world’s oceans and rivers. Tradition held that the travelers were treated as honored guests, and to the fada, tradition had the force of law.
Ula turned her attention back to her dinner. They were gathered around plank wood tables in the great hall, the huge limestone cavern at the heart of the Shannon Base. High above, fae lights hovered near the ceiling, casting a soft glow over the crowd below.
She ate slowly, savoring the fresh taste of wild salmon and the last greens of autumn—after last year’s famine, she’d never again take any meal for granted. But she couldn’t help worrying at the mystery of Nisio do Rio. As the alpha’s only daughter, it was her job to make sure guests had everything they needed.
The Portuguese shifter had been polite but close-mouthed. About all he’d told her was that he was a Douro River Fada. When she’d blinked, his mouth had twisted.
“Sim, senhorita. I see you know of us.”
“I do.” The Douro men had a bad reputation even among the fada. They were mercenaries and assassins, hard, ruthless males who made a living by hiring themselves out to the highest bidder. Men like that didn’t aimlessly ride the waves.
And her da knew that as well as her, but he seemed content to allow Nisio the run of the place. “He’s a guest, love. I won’t be frightened of a man on my own territory. Besides,” her da had added with a toothy grin, “if he tries anything, I’ll carve out his heart and throw him to the fishes.”
Ula stole another look at the Portuguese fada. Thick black lashes lifted and his silver eyes heated into something bright, molten. The sounds of her large and sociable clan eating dinner faded as she stared at him, arrested. She found herself swaying in his direction.
It was an effort to drag her gaze from his.
She could feel him eyeing her as she stared resolutely at her plate. Her heart smacked against her rib cage, fast and hard, until he turned his attention back to his food.
She sagged and expelled a breath.
“Ula.” Aunt Janette elbowed her in the ribs. “You haven’t heard a word I said.”
“Sure and I have.” Ula replayed her aunt’s last comment in her head. “You were speaking of the midwinter festival.”
It was the clan’s most important holiday, held each year on the eve of the winter solstice. They would celebrate during the day with the children, exchanging gifts, lighting the Yule log and eating rich foods. Night was for the adults and the bacchanalia, the raucous party celebrating the erotic arts and the fada’s connection to Dionysus.
“And I asked you to do what?”
“Um—help with the children’s games?”
“Wrong.” Janette was a big-boned brunette with the personality to match—outsized and a tad overbearing. Her wide, mobile mouth turned down. “Honestly, Ula, pay attention. I’m wanting you to tell fortunes.”
“Me?” Ula felt a familiar frisson of panic at using her Gift. “Absolutely not. My Sight isn’t a parlor trick. For one thing, it’s not reliable. You of all people should know that. You’ll have to find someone else.”
“Who? The festival is in five days. And besides, there’s no one else.” Janette leaned closer and pitched her voice for Ula’s ears alone. “Look, love, I’m not asking you to foretell anything. But with your mam dead these many years, you’re the only one in the clan who has even a hint of the Sight. If you say something, they’ll believe it. And of course I understand it’s not a parlor trick—didn’t I know your mam? Still, with your Gift comes a powerful dose of intuition, plus you’re the sort of woman who notices things. You should be able to cobble together a decent fortune without ever using your Gift.”
Janette sat back and went for the jugular. “Besides, it’s for the Widows and Orphans Fund. The village priest himself asked your da for a donation.”
Ula sighed. The clan took care of its own, of course, but they also contributed to the local humans’ care. The Shannon sea fada had lived on this estuary for hundreds of years, long enough to become intertwined with the local villagers. They fished with the humans and drank together in the local pubs. Now and then, a fada even mated with a human.
“I’ll not lie,” she warned her aunt. Their fae blood made it difficult for fada to tell lies. A white lie just made you queasy, but a full-out, barefaced lie could make you ill for days.
“Of course not.” Janette patted Ula’s hand. “That would only be after making you sick. But there’s no harm in stretching the truth a wee bit. No one expects a true foreseeing—we all know it’s just for fun.”
Ula pressed her lips together. Why couldn’t she have a useful Gift, like healing or hunting? No, she had to be a Seer, with a Gift that tormented her by flicking on and off without her volition, providing her with glimpses of the future that were often impossible to interpret until the event had actually taken place—or showing her a future she’d have given anything not to know.
“Well?” Janette asked. “Will you do it, then?”
Ula blew out a breath. “I will. But you’ll owe me, Aunt.”
“Anything, love.” With a satisfied smile, Janette turned to her next victim, her son Fergus. Ula made a sympathetic face in her cousin’s direction and listened as he agreed to take a two-hour shift with the younger boys. No one held out long against Aunt Janette.
Ula’s gaze drifted back to Nisio. He was applying himself to his food with a single-minded focus. She was suddenly certain he’d known hunger as well.
Molly Regan, a tall, sultry brunette a few years older than Ula, stopped to speak to Nisio. Ula frowned, irritated, then caught herself. What was it to her if Molly flirted with Nisio?
Molly said something that made his lips quirk and Ula felt another shaft of irritation. She scowled down at her plate.
Then her erratic Sight switched on full force and she forgot all about Molly. The great hall was gone and she was on her back in a grassy hollow. Above her, clouds raced across the dark sky, blotting out the rising moon. A large man knelt astride her, his face shadowed. To the east, the ocean boomed, and somehow she knew she was on an island.
The man traced a finger down her cheek. She stared up at him, her breath coming in pants. She caught the gleam of teeth as he smiled. A dark, satisfied curve of his lips.
He caught her wrists, pressing them onto the grass on either side of her head. Desire filled her belly, hot and liquid.
“Please,” she whispered.
He murmured something soothing and settled on top of her, his body a warm, welcome pressure down the length of hers. His face lowered. He was going to kiss her, and she was both afraid and wanting it with every cell in her body.
She strained up to him. As his lips touched hers, she closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she was back in the great hall, heart hammering like a wild thing.
She inhaled shakily. Nisio was looking straight at her.
His nostrils flared, and every hair on her body raised. Because she knew, with a bone-deep certainty, that it had been him in the vision—and she’d been desperate for him to take her.
He made to rise, but her brother Robbie growled something at him. Nisio tore his gaze from hers and sank back onto the bench to answer Robbie.
This time her aunt’s elbow in the rib cage made Ula flinch. “Leave off, Ula,” Janette hissed. “He’s not for you.”
Ula swallowed and stared down at her plate. “What do you mean?”
Janette made an irritated sound. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Ula Gallagan. You’re a fool if you take up with that Douro fada. He’s got trouble written all over him. And hasn’t Gerrit O’Brien been courting you? What will he say if he catches you making eyes at another man?”
Ula tightened her grip on her fork. At forty-one turns of the sun, she might be young for a fada, but she was still a grown woman, too old to have to listen to scolds like this. And she didn’t give a damn what Gerrit thought—she hadn’t agreed to his courtship.
But Janette was right. She’d be a fool to get involved with Nisio.
Ula gave a terse nod. “As you say, Aunt.”
Dionísio do Rio—Nisio to his friends and when he didn’t wish to share his full name—realized he’d eaten half of his meal without tasting it. Around him, people chattered in a melodious mix of English and Irish but he barely heard them, his attention on Ula Gallagan.
She was so beautiful she made his heart hunger. Fine-boned and creamy-skinned, with a heart-shaped face, midnight hair and eyes the blue-black of the deep ocean. She was also the only daughter of the alpha of one of Europe’s largest and richest fada clans. A powerful man like Chas Gallagan would never allow his daughter to take up with the third son of the alpha of a poor river clan.
And Lord knew, the last thing he needed was to get involved with a Shannon woman. So he needed to keep his eyes to himself—and stop picturing Ula on a bed of soft grass with him astride her, undoing the buttons of her simple blue-and-white dress and jerking down her chemise to expose pale, pretty breasts. Somehow he knew her nipples would be a soft rose. He’d take one into his mouth and suck—hard—until she was squirming beneath him, begging him to touch her there, lower…
Another woman stopped to flirt with him. He answered her politely enough, but she soon sauntered off in search of other prey.
Something was wrong. Ula’s eyes had gone almost black and she was staring at him as if he’d grown a second head.
He’d started to his feet when he realized that across the table, her older brother was scowling at him. Robbie Gallagan followed Nisio’s gaze to Ula.
“Try it and I’ll skewer you,” he growled.
Nisio sank back down on the bench.
He took a moment to form a sentence. Fortunately, he learned languages quickly, but his English was still of the slow, careful variety. “I mean your clan no disrespect.”
“Then stay away from our women—especially my sister.”
Nisio inclined his head, but Robbie wasn’t through. He leaned closer. “I don’t care what my da says. I want you to leave Shannon. Tonight.”
Nisio raised a single brow. “I am your father’s guest. Unless I have broken some rule…”
Robbie’s upper lip curled. “You may be a guest, do Rio, but that doesn’t give you a right to our women. Keep your hands off my sister or I’ll break every bone in your body—and then toss you out of Shannon myself. And if I don’t, Gerrit O’Brien will. Ula is his. He intends to mate-claim her.”
Nisio stared back impassively, but beneath the table, he palmed his stiletto. Robbie Gallagan was a tough, heavily-muscled warrior, but Nisio was a good two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, and a battle-hardened mercenary to boot. If he were nothing but the traveler he claimed to be, he’d teach the man a thing or two about throwing out threats.
But he couldn’t afford to draw attention to himself.
He waited long enough for Gallagan’s agitation to go up a notch before inclining his head. “As you say, senhor.”
Fortunately, another man stopped at the table with a murmured request for Gallagan’s attention. With a last, narrow-eyed look at Nisio, Gallagan picked up his plate and followed the man to a free table.
Nisio returned his stiletto to the hidden sheath in his waistband, put his head down and finished the rest of his dinner in peace. He rose to his feet and handed his plate and cup to a nearby server before glancing again at Ula. She’d finished eating as well and was at the edge of a laughing group, smiling and talking with the rest of them—and yet somehow separate.
He frowned. He’d been at the Shannon Base for over a week, long enough to see Ula was a warm, caring woman. When she wasn’t welcoming guests, she worked in the nursery, and the little ones loved her.
So why did the adults keep her at an arm’s length? She wasn’t friendless, but it was clear she wasn’t fully accepted. As the alpha’s only daughter, her friendship could only benefit another clan member—and yet they avoided her.
Gerrit O’Brien edged next to Ula. O’Brien was the son of a Shannon lieutenant—and Robbie Gallagan’s best friend.
The big redhead cupped Ula’s nape and murmured in her ear. So O’Brien was courting her?
Nisio’s right hand clenched. He fought the urge to bury it in the other man’s gut. He tightened his jaw and strode out of the great hall.
The Shannon Base stretched for a mile underground along the north shore of the estuary at the mouth of the Shannon River. The clan had held this area of western Ireland for centuries. Over the years, they’d carved out a labyrinthine lair of tunnels and large, comfortable rooms from a system of caves along the estuary. Green and blue fae lights floating near the limestone ceiling cast a watery tint over the fanciful folds and whirls of the vanilla-colored stone.
Envy twisted through Nisio. The original water fada clans were based in and around the Mediterranean Sea, having originated during the period when the cult of Dionysus was at its height. The people of those clans, including the Douro River Fada, thought of the younger fada clans as more primitive.
But the Shannon Base was a palace compared to Douro’s cramped, overcrowded caverns, and this was just part of Shannon’s holdings. The clan also had three smaller outposts farther up the estuary, which stretched sixty miles from the Atlantic to the city of Limerick.
A human would’ve been lost in the tunnels within minutes, but Nisio’s primary Gift was that of the hunter. He’d learned his way around the base within hours of his arrival. Now he strode unerringly to his room in the out-of-the-way hall where he was staying along with other travelers and a handful of unmated males.
He needed to get far away from Ula Gallagan before he did something foolish, like challenge Gerrit O’Brien to a mate duel for her.
Keeping reading Stealing Ula!