Mischief and the Masters by Cherise Sinclair


  The thought of why Max needed to be a good shot sent concern shivering through Uzuri. Appetite gone, she stared at him. “This isn’t a good time to be a cop. People hate you.”

  “Some do, some don’t.” Max’s sharp blue eyes softened. “It’s a simple fact: Our country has a shitload of racial problems.” He took her hand.

  “Quite so.” Alastair sighed. “All humans are hard-wired to belong to a tribe of some kind. Perhaps someday our tribe will be all of Earth rather than a country, race, or religion.”

  Yes. That would be a goal to strive for. Every day. Her fingers curled around Max’s. “Still. Your job is dangerous.”

  “Darlin’.” He moved his shoulders. “I’m a detective, not out on patrol.”

  Alastair pointed to Max’s plate, filled with bacon. “He’s in more danger from what he eats than from someone shooting at him. There’s also—”

  Max snorted. “Thanks, Doc. That’ll do.”

  “—the stress,” Alastair continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “He needs to learn to lighten up.”

  “I see.” Uzuri nodded at Alastair who, in her opinion, had just given her a physician’s prescription. Kind of. She knew all sorts of ways to get a Dom to lighten up.

  Smiling, she glanced at Max before studying Alastair. Doctors were under stress, too, weren’t they? She’d seen that already. All right then. As she nibbled on a piece of bacon, a paw tapped the top of her foot. At the reminder, she broke off a piece to hold under the table.

  Max gave her a stern look. “We have rules about feeding him, baby. Don’t get yourself in trouble.”

  “I would never dream of getting into trouble.” She blinked innocent eyes at the big, bad Dom as, under the cover of the table, Hunter gently took the bacon from her fingers.

  Alastair took a sip of coffee. “Uzuri, I didn’t get a chance to catch up with how you’re doing these days. What is happening with the people at Brendall’s?”

  That wasn’t such a pleasant thought. “Fine in the marketing and buying departments. In the actual store, it’s not going as well. The sales associates who were Carole’s friends have been spreading nasty rumors about why she was fired. And me. It might all blow over. If it doesn’t, then…”

  “Then you’ll handle it,” Max stated firmly.

  “Yes, you will.” Alastair’s gaze held only confidence—wonderful, ego-raising confidence.

  She pulled in a breath. “Yes. I will.”

  * * * * *

  UZURI HAD LEFT—AFTER helping with clean up—and Alastair poured another cup of tea and climbed the tower stairs to the third floor. He stepped through the sliding glass doors onto the rooftop terrace and took a deep breath. Florida in the fall had the finest weather in the world. The brisk morning air held a briny tang. Down near the Bayshore walk, seagulls were calling to the tourists and joggers.

  Settled on one of the four terrace couches, Max had his bare feet up on the low center table with the dog stretched out beneath his legs. “Hey, cuz. Time to talk about Zuri?”

  Max knew him well. In turn, Alastair knew his cousin well. Today, Max was relaxed in a way Alastair hadn’t seen since his cousin had joined the Marines. More than physical satiety, Max radiated a soul-deep contentment. Uzuri was good for him.

  Being with her was…life affirming.

  And more. He’d never met anyone who called to him so deeply. Although she was quiet, she gave all of herself with no holding back. Generously. Sweetly. And held within that quiet personality was a wellspring of humor that bubbled to the surface in adorable ways. She had a mesmerizing mixture of traits—all of which appealed to him.

  Whether logical or not, his emotions were already engaged. “Yes. I want more.”

  Max snorted. “Here I thought I was the impulsive one.”

  “Actually, no,” Alastair said judiciously. “You’re the paranoid one.”

  His cousin barked a laugh. “True. But hell, I can’t stay paranoid about her. There’s no meanness in that little subbie. Now that we’ve learned what she was concealing, she doesn’t have any hidden corners. What you see is what you get. I like that.”

  “And?”

  “Fuck, I feel the same way. She fits with us in a way no one ever has. I’m in.”

  “We could continue as we are,” Alastair said in an effort to present all sides of the argument. “Dating, having her over.”

  “Nah. With our work schedules, we’d see her only a couple of times a month.”

  Alastair winced. Uzuri worked long hours, often leaving the city for trade shows. Max’s schedule was erratic at best, depending on homicides. With rotating on-call times, Alastair’s was probably the worst. “You have a point.”

  “I’ve been thinking…” Max reached down to tug at Hunter’s ears. “Even though Anne says Zuri’s stalker is in Cincinnati, I’d say Uzuri half expects him to show up here. She’d sleep better in our house.”

  Lifting his cup to his lips, Alastair paused. He had noticed her quiet nervousness, how her tension never seemed to disappear. He’d attributed it to her fear of him. Of men. On the other hand…she’d been far more relaxed here than at her duplex. “I wonder how much of her troubles have been because she rarely feels completely safe.”

  Max’s determined gaze met his. “We can fix that.”

  “We can.” The need to do so was as strong as anything he’d ever felt.

  “So…let’s talk her into moving in with us.” Max grinned. “Sunday would be perfect.”

  Andrea and Cullen’s wedding was Sunday. Women and weddings.

  Alastair chuckled. “That is almost Machiavellian.”

  Chapter Sixteen

  ON SUNDAY, UZURI paid off the taxi driver and hurried up the sidewalk toward the Catholic Church. Entering, she paused to dip her fingers in the font and crossed herself before walking across the vestibule. Enjoying how the tall arched stained glass windows glowed in the late afternoon sun, she took a slow breath. Older cathedrals had their own fragrance—candles and incense and flowers and perhaps even the perfume of generations of prayers.

  As she crossed the room, Holt spotted her and walked over, bending down to kiss her cheek. “You’re late, sweetie.”

  This wasn’t the time to explain. “You know, you look great.” All of the Shadowlands Masters who weren’t groomsmen were ushering and doing anything else needed—and they’d dressed for the duty. She certainly wasn’t going to complain. “You should wear a tux more often.”

  His “I don’t think so,” was accompanied by a no-way-in-hell expression. “But you look fantastic.”

  “Thank you.” With a pleased smile, she smoothed her tea-length, sleeveless pale blue dress. A lacy shrug covered her bare arms and cleavage-displaying scoop neck so she could wear it in church. With a resigned sigh, she’d passed over her fuck-me stilettoes for more modestly heeled blue and beige sandals. She did look good—and her dress was perfect for the reception to come.

  “C’mon, let’s get you seated before it’s too late.” Holt tucked her hand in his elbow and escorted her down the aisle.

  An amazing number of people were in the nave. Despite the immense size of the church, Andrea and Cullen’s families and friends had managed to fill the place.

  To her surprise, Holt walked right to the second row on the bride’s side before motioning her in. “Andrea reserved these two rows for you guys.”

  The pew was filled with all Uzuri’s friends, and she felt the sting of tears with the quiet cheering at her appearance.

  After a second, she realized the second and third rows were mostly Shadowlands people. The bridesmaids, Jessica, Kari, Beth, and Sally weren’t there, of course, as they were up dressing the bride along with a wealth of Andrea’s relatives.

  Andrea had a huge Hispanic family; Cullen a huge Chicago-Irish one. After much discussion of how to choose between brothers, cousins, and best friends, the two had selected their bridesmaids and groomsmen from the Shadowlands members who had helped bring them together.
Or, as Cullen said with his booming laugh, had helped bring them back together again.

  Smiling, Uzuri gave a general wave to everyone. Gabi and Kim, Linda, Rainie, Dara, Austin, Maxie, Cat. Andrea’s buddy, Antonio, was sitting with his boyfriend. Mistress Anne was with Ben. Olivia had brought her newest interest. So many people.

  As Holt headed back down the aisle, Kim took Uzuri’s hand and pulled her in. “Where have you been? We’ve all been calling you.”

  “I’m sorry about not answering the messages. There was a…problem.” Uzuri sat, belatedly realizing her tone had come out too unhappy.

  “What do you mean a problem?” Kim grabbed her shoulders. “What happened? Are you all right?”

  On Kim’s other side, Gabi and Linda leaned forward with worried frowns.

  “It’s not that—” Uzuri broke off when Kim gave her an impatient shake. Okay, right. She was learning to share. Right. “Somebody threw a rock through my front window. It shattered glass all over the place, and I had to call the rental management company. They found a handyman to board the window up until the glass company can replace it tomorrow.”

  “Oh my God. You can’t stay there,” Kim interrupted. “You should come home with—”

  “Tonight you’re with us,” Gabi interrupted. “Marcus and I have a spare bedro—”

  “You come home with me tonight,” Linda interrupted Gabi. “You’ll let Sam and me take care of you.”

  For the second time in five minutes, Uzuri felt tears fill her eyes. “Thank you.” She squeezed Kim’s hand and smiled at the other two. “I’m sure it’s merely stupid teenagers. But—thank you.”

  To her relief, the priest entered, and Uzuri let herself fall into the comfort of the familiar ceremony.

  Kim never let go of her hand.

  By the time Cullen and his groomsmen appeared, Uzuri was relaxed and enjoying herself. And didn’t Cullen look fine, just fine. Not nervous at all. Completely happy. However… Uzuri’s eyes narrowed. At the front stood Masters Dan, Nolan, and Raoul. Three, not four groomsmen?

  The priest smiled benevolently at everyone and spoke into the mic. “The bride requests that everyone remain seated.”

  Uzuri’s gaze turned toward the ancient woman who sat in the mother-of-the-bride’s spot. Andrea’s beloved abuelita. Although the “little grandmother” had a will of iron, standing and walking hurt her aged joints.

  Andrea had told the priest that tradition could be tossed out the window if it made her grandmother hurt. And everyone would stay seated so her grandmother could see.

  Cullen had said once that his woman was beautiful, but it was Andrea’s loving heart that had truly captured him.

  The music changed to Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”, and people craned their necks to see the procession.

  In a teal bridesmaid’s dress, Jessica walked up the aisle. She was so beautiful with her blonde hair in curls that bounced slightly. Then Kari. The schoolteacher was walking carefully as if counting each step. Beth was next and the dress was almost the same shade as her eyes. She didn’t like being the center of attention, but she’d do anything for Andrea. Finally, Sally appeared, and her smile was so wide it was contagious. By the time she reached the front, everyone in the church was smiling.

  Uzuri was grinning too. Trust Sally to brighten up even a traditional church wedding.

  Holding her bouquet of gold and ivory roses, Andrea appeared at the back of the church behind the flower girl. Her strapless A-line, wedding gown showed off her beautiful shoulders, and the champagne-ivory color was perfect with her golden-brown skin. Crystal beading on the floor-length gown added sparkle.

  Perfect.

  Then Uzuri frowned. The bride should be glowing. Instead, she looked…sad.

  ANDREA’S HEART ACHED as she watched her tiny cousin start her walk toward the front of the church. So cute. Missy was dutifully scattering flower petals every which way—and occasionally throwing them over her head and giggling.

  My turn. Andrea pulled in a breath, willing herself to take the first step.

  The church was filled with her family and friends. Her aunt and abuelita and so many relatives were crowded into the front pew. Her friends in the second and third row were beaming at her.

  And there was her beloved Señor waiting for her at the front. She’d never known her heart could hold so much love—and feel so hollow.

  Even knowing the reason she hurt didn’t help. Not now.

  Why aren’t you here, Papa? He’d been a mess, and yet he’d loved her and she’d loved him and now…she missed him. Wasn’t that completely stupid? She had an entire church filled with her friends and family. How could she be so silly to want someone who’d died years ago?

  Why did the aisle to her Señor have to look so long and lonely?

  Firm hands closed over her shoulders and turned her, and she looked up into silver-gray eyes.

  “Master Z?” Wasn’t the best man supposed to be standing next to Cullen?

  He smiled down at her. “Come, little one. I don’t think your Master is willing to wait much longer before he claims you.” He tucked her hand into his elbow.

  “You’re…you’re going to give me away?” She hadn’t wanted anyone to do that, had she?

  He bent and said very softly, “A submissive may think she knows what she wants. It’s a Master’s job to see she gets what she needs. It is my great honor to step in now since your father cannot be here.

  Oh. Oh, she hadn’t realized how much she’d wanted all of the tradition. Her eyes filled, her throat closed, and all she could do was nod.

  “Good girl.” He kissed her cheek, turned, and nodded. The resplendent chords of “The Prince of Denmark’s March” filled the church.

  She hadn’t ordered that, either.

  It was like the fairytale dream of her childhood. She could hear the music and the murmurs around her.

  “She’s beautiful.”

  “Lovely.”

  Her gown swished as she walked.

  Without Master Z’s guiding hand, she might have walked into a pew…because suddenly, the tears were gone and all she could see was Cullen’s face. So strong. So filled with love. Her gaze never left his as she simply floated down the aisle.

  How funny that she’d worried all through the practice that she’d trip. Master Z would never let her trip.

  And as she continued on life’s journey, now she’d have her Cullen beside her. Hand in hand. They’d walk the path together and help each other over the hard parts. She’d scold him in Spanish. He’d laugh his big laugh that made the entire world brighter.

  They’d grow old…together.

  When Master Z gave her hand to Señor, Andrea was so filled with happiness that she wrapped her arms around Cullen and hugged him with all her might.

  The priest stammered to a halt.

  Never at a loss, Cullen gathered her in even closer, kissed her long and hard, and then his booming laugh filled the church.

  Dios, how she loved him.

  UZURI LET OUT a happy sigh. When she’d called Master Z, she hadn’t been sure he understood about Andrea. He had.

  Andrea had beamed as she walked down the aisle on his arm.

  And she’d positively glowed as she caught Cullen up in a happy hug.

  An unexpected, long-lost hope struck Uzuri deep inside. Someday, maybe, perhaps, she’d be the one walking down the aisle. Since Jarvis, she’d put those ideas far, far away, but now…maybe she’d find someone who would look at her like Cullen was looking at Andrea. Would laugh and hug her as if he’d never seen anyone so breathtaking in his whole life.

  I want that.

  Of course, she’d have Andrea’s dilemma if she ever did get married. Uzuri had no mother. No father to walk her down the aisle. Not any close relatives. She was alone in the world. An ache set up residence in her chest.

  She watched Master Z take his place beside Cullen. After shaking his head at his teary-eyed Jessica in the line of bridesmaids, he glanced at the a
udience…and spotted Uzuri. He nodded as if to say she was a good girl.

  Then his eyes narrowed. A second later, he shook his head reprovingly, and his faint smile said for her not to be a foolish submissive.

  He would be there for her, too.

  The tightness in Uzuri’s ribcage loosened. She wasn’t alone, was she? How odd that she could have that feeling while surrounded by her friends. Her besties—and any Shadowlands Masters—would step in to help her, if she could only bring herself to ask.

  From farther down the pew, Rainie leaned forward and met her eyes before motioning, “I heart you,” followed by a thumbs-up. She’d figured out who’d told Master Z about Andrea.

  With a happy smile, Uzuri sat back and simply enjoyed the rest of the lovely wedding ceremony, marking the highlights to remember and sigh over later.

  Like the way Andrea gazed into Cullen’s eyes as they said their vows. Her softly accented voice was clear and strong and completely sure. Just the way it should be.

  After they exchanged rings, Cullen stopped the normal proceedings to announce, “During Z and Jessica’s wedding, he gifted her with something that symbolized their journey together. I liked the idea.”

  Smiling down at his bride, he cupped her cheek in his hand while tangling his fingers in her darkly golden hair. “When I first saw you, I thought you seemed like an Amazon, and in the time we’ve been together, my opinion hasn’t changed. You’ve overcome every trial life has set before you and only become stronger. You truly are a Wonder Woman. I know you forget that sometimes, and I want you to realize you don’t have to face your battles alone. Ever.” His lips quirked. “If I tried to get you to wear a superhero breast plate and cute little skirt to work, you’d probably deck me, so I abandoned that idea.”

  When Andrea sputtered, laughter rippled through the church.

  “I settled for this in hopes it would remind you every day of your courage and your strength—and that you have a mate to fight beside you.”

 
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