Marigold raised her chin, giving the three brothers a stare she hoped would convey her determination. When she had told them she would mate with Matheson to save their inheritance and to thwart Governor Hertz, she had meant it. She was tired of being a damsel in distress, cowering behind Berrin and Polaris for protection. It was time for her to help. For a several moments, no one spoke, no one blinked, and no one moved. Marigold’s heart beat as steady as the ticking of the cherrywood grandfather clock, which stood in pride of place between two portraits of what she assumed were Auburn ancestors.
Berrin gave a subtle shake of his head. “You don’t have to do this.”
Marigold lowered her gaze to the marble floor. Mere days ago, it had been covered with the blood of the brothers’ parents, and their murderer was now trying to steal their home and fortune. She pursed her lips. Could Berrin not see that this was the only way to save them from the machinations of their uncle? She glanced up through her lashes to find Polaris, the oldest of the three brothers, giving her a nod of approval. Matheson, the middle brother and the only dragon in the hallway who wore clothing, dropped the contents of his arms. The leather dossier hit the ground with a thud, breaking the silence.
“Mari.” Berrin placed his hands on Marigold's shoulders. “Think of what you’re saying. You couldn’t possibly mate with Matheson when you’re mated to me.”
“If you would listen, you would understand what I’m suggesting,” said Polaris. He bent down, picked up the dossier and a ruby-red King’s Regiment uniform jacket decorated with medals, and handed it to her.
With a grateful smile, she took the garment and shrugged it over her shoulders. The cool silk lining of the jacket brushed over her skin like a caress, and a warm scent of sandalwood and burned pine cones engulfed her in a cocoon of safety and masculinity.
From the corner of her eye, Marigold spied Polaris’ broad, muscular body. She hadn’t noticed it before, due to the shock of having been attacked by four bear shifters. And shortly after, Berrin had explained that she was not a human but a she-dragon.
Now that her shaking had subsided, she could appreciate the similarities and differences between the two brothers’ physiques. They were both the same height of six feet and two inches. Both had bronzed skin covering their strong bodies, but where Berrin was lean and muscular, Polaris’ muscles were fuller and more defined. The mahogany depths of his dark chocolate hair, combined with his stormy, indigo eyes, gave him an air of dominance in contrast to Berrin’s softer, fairer features. She gave her head a mental shake. Now was not the time to be making comparisons.
Berrin turned to Polaris, an angry flush on his cheeks. “All right, then. What’s your plan for Matheson and Marigold?”
“We will petition Judge Embers again, this time explaining that Matheson has reached his majority due to having mated.”
A relieved sigh escaped Marigold's lungs. It had taken all her strength to volunteer to become Matheson’s mate. She wasn’t the type of person who would leave a debt unpaid. The brothers had sheltered and protected her from both the authorities and Governor Hertz. And when her life had been in danger, both Berrin and Polaris had come to her rescue. No one had ever shown her such generosity and kindness. Even Matheson, who seemed to resent her presence in the house, had not given away her hiding place to his uncle. She owed the brothers her life, and she did not take such debts lightly. However, a pretend mating with Matheson was far preferable to a real one. While the red-haired dragon might be more handsome than his brothers, he had the most unpleasant personality.
Matheson curled his lip. “You are forgetting something.” He pointed at her. “Dragons can fuck human girls as much as they like, even dress them up in finery and treat them like wives, but they cannot ever be mates.”
Irritation surged through Marigold’s veins. She flared her nostrils, folding her arms over her chest. “I’ll have you know that I’m a she-dragon.” Matheson placed his hands on his hips and turned his lazy, green-eyed gaze over Marigold’s body. She raised her chin, not letting herself be intimidated by his pitiful attempt at a leer. “And I’ll thank you not to be nasty about someone who is doing you a favor.”
He bared his teeth. “I have heard a lot of desperate ploys, but this ‘I’m a dragon’ storyline is far-fetched. No judge, especially one who is friends with Uncle Hertz, would believe that she’s one of us.”
“She is,” said Polaris.
Matheson folded his arms. “Did you see her transform?”
“If you were thinking straight, you’d understand why that’s a stupid question,” snapped Berrin. “She-dragons can’t shift until they’ve had their first child. However, after mating with the most wonderful she-dragon in existence, I transformed.”
Marigold’s cheeks warmed at the pride in his voice. It was strange to have a male speak of her in such glowing terms.
“You can shift.” Matheson’s voice shook. His skin turned the color of sour milk, and his gaze darted from Berrin to Marigold. “That’s why you’re naked and she’s covered in soot.”
“Two of Uncle Hertz’s shifters were trying to kill her,” Berrin whispered. “I burned them in the gardens.”
Polaris patted Berrin on the back. “Don’t feel guilty. Any dragon would have done the same to protect his mate.”
Heart twisting, Marigold intertwined her fingers with Berrin’s. Although Polaris was right, it was obvious that her poor mate was struggling with the notion of having killed two people. Marigold’s stomach churned at the memory of stabbing her probation officer in the eye. The enraged shifter had promised to carry out what he had tried to do in that brothel, and she couldn’t let herself become his victim. She bowed her head, not wanting to see the scorn in Matheson’s eyes when her murderous activities came to light.
“Congratulations, brother,” said Matheson, his voice tight. “For achieving your transformation and for finding a mate.” Without another glance, he turned, heading towards the huge, oak double-doors. The lanterns posted on the stone door frames made his hair shine like burnished copper.
“Don’t leave,” said Polaris. “We have seven days left to overturn Judge Embers’ ruling, and we need to work together. The best way to do this is by proclaiming that you’ve mated with a she-dragon.”
Matheson stopped but did not turn around. “The judge will want proof.”
Marigold chewed her bottom lip and glanced up at Berrin, who was still staring at her as if she’d lost her mind. His aquamarine eyes shone as brightly as the sandy highlights in his caramel hair. She snatched her gaze away. He seemed to be still in shock from his stab wound, making his first transformation, and killing those shifters. It would be best to wait until they reached the privacy of his room to discuss whatever was bothering him.
Polaris shook his head. “Asking a dragon to transform for reasons other than defense or in service to the King is a breach of etiquette that not even the judge will attempt.”
Matheson’s shoulders lowered several inches. He turned his cool gaze to her. “Why would you help me?”
“It would help Berrin and Polaris, wouldn’t it?”
His lips tightened, and Marigold grimaced. Surely, he wasn’t expecting her to say she wanted to help out of love and admiration for him? Matheson continued to stare at her, and she fought the urge to shrink under his attention. She had done nothing wrong, and after escaping the wrath of four violent bear shifters, she wasn’t in the mood for another male’s scrutiny.
Polaris broke the silence. “If you can think of an alternative way to have your case heard, I’d be willing to take it into consideration.”
“We’re only going to pretend to be mates for one day,” said Marigold. She really couldn’t understand why Matheson would be so resistant to telling a lie to save his family estate. Governor Hertz had arranged for his own brother and sister-in-law’s murder to get his claws on that fortune. Why couldn’t Matheson put aside his hatred and stop his uncle from reaping the benefits of evil?
Matheson shook his head. “How do I know this isn’t a ploy to wrest the fortune for yourself? I cannot believe you would help me because you’re enamored of my brothers.”
“If you’re going to spit on my offer,” she said through clenched teeth, “I’ll take it back.”
Matheson was about to retort, when Polaris raised his palm. “Do not scorn Marigold's generosity. Having her publicly acknowledged as your mate also means she will no longer be pursued as a fugitive.”
Angry blotches, redder than his hair, formed on his cheeks. “Now you’re saying that if I don’t pretend she’s my mate, I’ll be responsible for her hanging?”
The reminder of her troubles writhed in her gut, bringing up a fresh bout of nausea. For the tiniest of moments, she had thought that being a she-dragon would solve all her problems. Wiping her damp hands on the side of her thighs, she asked, “Won’t they be able to tell that I’m a dragon?”
“Not without someone to vouch for your pedigree,” spat Matheson.
“If everyone thought you were Matheson’s mate, they’d expect to see you out together at social events. There has to be another way,” whispered Berrin.
Polaris shook his head. “There is not.”
A chill crept down her spine, and her shoulders tightened. It was one thing to appear in court, pretending to be mated to Matheson, but spending time with him alone felt like a step too far.
Berrin frowned. “But—”
“If you want Uncle Hertz to stop sending bear shifters after her, you must let Marigold go through with the charade,” said Polaris. “She’ll still be your mate behind closed doors.”
Marigold swallowed. All this talk of her status as a fugitive, the bear shifters, and Governor Hertz was making all her fears resurface. What if the older dragon sent more people after her? She couldn’t cope with another brutal attack so soon after those awful bears. Clutching at her stomach, she swallowed hard, trying not to retch.
Berrin wrapped an arm around her waist. “Are you all right?”
The warmth of his body made her insides relax. “I’d feel better if there were no more of Governor Hertz’ bear shifters around. Now that we know how they’ve been accessing the mansion, I don’t feel so safe.”
“What do you mean?” snapped Matheson.
Marigold took a deep breath and explained to him that the bear shifter who had claimed to be hibernating in the stables was the brother of two of the brutes who had broken in to capture her. When she added that they been working for Governor Hertz, Matheson’s face paled.
“I knew it!” He turned to Polaris, his eyes bloodshot. “We should have challenged him at the Crown Court and fought him in the pit.”
Marigold’s eyes widened. She didn’t know that dragons also used fighting pits to sort out their disputes. In Boreas, where she had grown up, the bear shifters in charge often settled their differences in the pits. Noblemen, such as Lord Arctos, always paid professional pit-fighters to battle on their behalf.
Lord Arctos was the aristocrat responsible for having her sent to the House of Corrections. He had confiscated her dragon’s gold charm bracelet, her sole inheritance from her mother, on the grounds that a lowly human must have stolen such exquisite jewelry. She clenched her fists. If Marigold had had Berrin by her side at that time instead of Unwin, her duplicitous ex-fiancé, she would have asked him to immolate Lord Arctos in the pits.
She glanced up and caught Polaris’ gaze. A jolt of something she wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge shot through her chest, and she lowered her eyes. Getting strange feelings from the brother of her true mate was wrong. Shame washed through her, and she tugged at Berrin’s arm. “Can we go upstairs for a bit?”
“Are you well?” Polaris and Berrin asked at the same time.
Matheson snorted. “I’ll go along with your plan if only to snatch back the family fortune from Uncle’s greedy claws. While you two are fawning over Goldilocks, I will check the perimeter of the house.”
“I will fly over the lands.” Polaris turned to Marigold and Berrin. “Did either of you see their vehicle?”
They shook their head. Matheson hooked his thumb at the double doors. “There’s an unmarked four-horse carriage outside in the courtyard.”
Polaris frowned. “You said four shifters. I only saw three bodies. Where is the fourth?”
“I checked the building for heartbeats,” said Berrin. “Whoever remained from that party must have escaped on foot.”
A low, angry growl reverberated from Polaris. “Or has put himself in a deep state of hibernation.”
Dread stuck its claws into Marigold’s stomach, pulling at it so hard, she moaned. Poda, that wretched probation officer, might still be alive. If the bear shifter had wanted to violate her for having spurned his advances in the brothel, he would tear her to shreds for having stabbed him in the eye. Her legs shook so hard, Berrin had to keep her propped up.
“Go upstairs and rest, the two of you,” said Polaris. “I will check the house for signs of the remaining shifter.”
Berrin pressed a kiss on Marigold’s temple. “Come on, let’s get cleaned up.”
She gave him an absent nod, and he guided her towards the grand staircase.
“Matheson, please send a message to Dr. Squamatus via swift.” Polaris’ gaze drifted to the part of the hallway covered in Berrin’s blood. His face tightened, and when he noticed they had stopped, he gestured with his head for Berrin to take Marigold upstairs.
“We will discuss this scheme of yours later.” Disapproval sharpened Berrin’s voice.
Marigold exhaled and leaned into Berrin’s side. She couldn’t blame her mate for his resistance to the plan. But he needed to understand that if Governor Hertz gained their family fortune, the results would be disastrous. As they ascended the grand staircase, Marigold gave Polaris a tiny smile of appreciation. She clutched her borrowed jacket to her chest, ignoring the heat of Matheson’s appraising stare.