Gerri Wilder settled down at her desk and took a sip of tea. She tapped her mouse to switch her net feed to Nova Aurora on one screen while she worked her way through her email on the other. The Arena League season was over, and with its end came the end of an era. The Blackpaw had retired, which meant she expected a call from him any day now.
She listened to the Aurora newsfeed with one ear while she filed messages, always on the lookout for the ones she could act on immediately. News of Blackpaw’s retirement had gradually dwindled now that the season was over, making way for buzz about the annual Hot Wings summer bet.
Shaking her head, she tutted softly. Champions were an odd, superstitious bunch who believed mating in their prime was a recipe for failure. True, the Champions with the most successful careers had been unmated. Blackpaw was one example, as was the Ebon Claw, who was still in his prime and going strong. But their beliefs were nothing more than superstition. Someday they’d figure out that having a strong relationship with a mate only made them more invincible.
She’d be ready for them when they figured it out. In the meantime, she would happily make her wager for the annual contest to see which of the Hot Wings duo bedded the most females during their summer off. Her money was going on Bryer Vargas this year.
As Gerri glanced away from the newsfeed, one email caught her eye. Ah, there was the one she was looking for. “I’m Ready,” was all the subject line said, and the return address was from Nova Aurora. The Blackpaw had emailed her to tell her he’d be on Earth soon and wanted to meet.
“I’m a step ahead of you, Gaius Osborn.”
The next email, from a woman who had been a thorn in Gerri’s side for the past two decades, would hopefully be the answer to Gaius Osborn’s request.
“Oh, dear,” she said when she read the email from Nina Baxter. She immediately opened her desk drawer and took out her communicator.
She placed the cross-galaxy call, and a second later, a vivid hologram appeared of a solemn-looking woman close to Gerri’s age. Deep lines of grief framed her eyes.
“Mrs. Wilder. Thank you so much for calling.”
“Nina, please. We’ve known each other for more than twenty years. You can call me Gerri. I am so sorry to hear the news. How are you and Nessa holding up?”
Nina Baxter’s lip quivered and she wrung her hands. “Oh, as well as can be expected. Gordon passed in his sleep. He is at peace now, but I fear Nessa is taking it much harder than I expected.”
Gerri nodded. “She and her father were always very close.”
She avoided venturing into the topic she knew Nina really wanted to discuss. The woman would have to broach it herself if she wanted Gerri to take action.
Nina was a sweetheart of a bear shifter, but an opportunist to the core. Gerri had always suspected Nina had mated Gordon Baxter for his connections to the upper classes of the shifter community. As a renowned chef, those connections allowed Nina to rub elbows with families such as the Karstens, the rich dragon shifter family her husband had been employed by for much of his career. And more recently, she had begun working her way up the social ranks of the southern Hill Clans, thanks to that recognition.
“Well, Gerri, you know how much I love my daughter. I hate to see her hurting. I think the best way to help is to finally find her a mate. Have you had any luck? The clan leaders’ sons are all coming of age within the next few years.”
“That they are. But it would be unethical of me to orchestrate a date unless they have reached out to me asking for one. Trust that the perfect mate will come along for your daughter when the time is right.”
Nina’s brows knit together in a faux frown that Gerri saw right through. Now came the manipulating pleas. “Oh, but it must be soon. I’m sure you know how important it is that my daughter mate one of her own kind. She spends so much time with those dragon boys. I just can’t countenance the idea of her winding up mated to one of them.”
Gerri gritted her teeth in her effort to maintain patience with the other woman. Her husband had just died, so she should tread carefully. The “dragon boys” in question were none other than the Hot Wings duo: Ignazio Karsten and Bryer Vargas. While the pair were most certainly manwhores of the highest degree, they were both honorable men and famous in their own right. Nessa could do a lot worse than having one for a mate.
But Gerri had observed them together early on when Nessa’s mother had first secured her services as a matchmaker. Nessa had barely been out of diapers at the time, and while Gerri preferred to work directly with the individuals who were seeking their own mates, it wasn’t unusual for upper-class parents to request her services for their children if a valuable inheritance was on the line. They trusted Gerri’s choices implicitly, and she never let them down.
Nina Baxter’s intentions were noble, though perhaps a little selfish. Not to mention Nessa Baxter was one of the most headstrong young women Gerri had ever met, even as a toddler. She was a lovely, talented young woman now, following in her father’s footsteps as a chef, and likely the last thing on her mind would be finding a mate, especially not in the wake of her father’s passing. Not all pairings could happen with a single date. Some required more planning, and much more patience.
“I understand your criteria for a mate for Nessa. It’s in her file. You need to trust the process, Nina. In fact, I have someone in mind for her who I think is ideal. He’s from a noble bear shifter family, and I am meeting with him soon. But even if he is ideal, it may not happen right away.” She spoke as gently, yet firmly as possible. Parents were the hardest to work with sometimes, and she had to emphasize that finding the perfect mate for someone often wasn’t instantaneous.
These two in particular would require some finesse, not to mention placating an anxious, grieving mother who really only wanted to see her daughter happily mated. Both Gaius and Nessa were headstrong, stubborn individuals. The age difference would also likely be a roadblock if she were to attempt to set them up on a blind date.
No . . . their relationship would need to build organically, and if Gerri’s instincts were correct, Nessa and Gaius were already on a collision course toward each other. With the death of Gordon Baxter, Ignazio Karsten would need a new chef, and Nessa was ideal to fill her father’s shoes in that role.
Gaius Osborn was one of Ignazio’s oldest friends and had just purchased land near the dragon’s northern estate.
If Gerri’s instincts were right—and they never failed—within the next two years, Nessa and Gaius would be within each other’s sights, and from there, fate would take its course.
Nina’s lips pinched together as though she were about to protest, but she thought better of it. Good old shifter superstition—Gerri’s perfect record spoke for itself. Not even Nina’s social aspirations would make her question Gerri’s methods.
“Thank you, Gerri. Please call me the very second you have a potential mate for Nessa. I hope it’s soon.”
“You have my word, Nina. Be well.”
She ended the call and pulled up her files on the two individuals in question. She’d preemptively created one for Gaius, anticipating his call, and her file for Nessa went back to her mother’s first contact around two decades earlier. The Champion had enjoyed a highly successful career in the arena for two full decades, which made him nearly two decades older than Nessa. Bear shifters on Nova Aurora aged slowly, so he was still in his prime, and probably even better mate material for having waited so long.
Nessa she knew less about, but the girl had certainly shown her colors when she was a child, already bossing around her dragon patron’s son despite their difference in age. That was one reason she knew for certain Nessa and Ignazio were not mate material for each other. She had the culinary sensibilities to satisfy a dragon, but the wrong temperament to tolerate certain other . . . appetites a dragon might have.
Gaius was most definitely the man for her. They just needed to receive a little nudge in the right direction.
* * *
Gerri’s meeting with the big Champion the following week only reinforced her conviction that the pair were right for each other. She gave him the same vague directive to “trust the process” and that she would contact him when she found someone. Gaius grumbled a bit, but as an older bear, he would settle into a routine in his retirement. The test would be how he reacted once that routine was disrupted by an enticing, tenacious young woman.
Meanwhile, she fielded monthly calls from Nina Baxter, who was “just checking in” on Gerri’s progress. Nina received the same reminder that it took time, and Gerri made subtle suggestions that Nina give her daughter the freedom to move forward with her career, telling her it was what her late husband would have wanted.
Indeed, it ultimately took nearly two years before the wheels began turning at a quicker pace. It began when Nina called to agonize over her daughter’s decision to move to the Karstens’ northern estate and fill her role as chef there. Ignazio Karsten was maturing, if he was finally choosing a permanent residence. But it also put Nessa Baxter within a few miles of Gaius, who now had a successful career as a builder.
Everything was falling into place. All Gerri needed to do now was watch and wait.