Home > Fire Maidens Venice (Billionaires & Bodyguards #7)

Fire Maidens Venice (Billionaires & Bodyguards #7)
Author: Anna Lowe

Chapter One

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Cara tossed her mud boots from the boat to the dock, then followed them with an easy jump. Picking up her boots, she turned to bid her colleagues goodbye.

“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” one of them asked. “It’s a long walk all the way across town.”

She hid a smile. Most people would consider a walk across Venice a dream come true. Even now that she got to do it every day, it never got old. Well, dodging tourists had its trying moments. But after four months in Venezia, she’d memorized the maze of backstreets to see the city at its finest.

“I’m fine, thanks. A domani.”

Her colleagues waved, echoing her words. “See you tomorrow.”

She watched the boat motor away then shouldered her backpack and set off down the waterfront promenade.

Ferries crisscrossed the Canal Saint Marco, and sleek black gondolas bobbed along the quay. A handful of locals walked their dogs, while tourists snapped selfies. All in all, just another beautiful day in La Serenissima.

Then Cara spotted a couple in eighteenth-century garb and wavy wigs. Oops — right. It wasn’t just any day. Carnevale had just started, so the city was buzzing with excitement — and jammed with visitors. A good reason to avoid the main drags, but Cara walked one more block before cutting into a side street. As always, her favorite monument called to her, and she couldn’t resist visiting it once more.

Even from a block away, she could make out the monument commemorating Italian unification in the 1800s. But as Cara approached, her eyes moved from the equestrian statue on top to the fierce female warrior glaring out from the east side of the monument. The sword the woman brandished was broken from a hard-fought battle, yet her expression was one of sheer determination and inner power.

Cara took a deep breath, channeling her inner Amazon. Did she have it in her to be that tough if necessary?

Pray you never find out, her mother would probably say.

But be prepared, just in case, her wary uncle would have thrown in.

Cara’s chest rose and fell in a sigh. Some people were born in times of epic struggle and heroic deeds. Others, like her, had the luxury of living in modern times.

Crazy times, her inner lioness murmured.

Cara sighed, agreeing with her hidden, shifter side. Then she let her gaze drop to the massive bronze figure at the warrior’s feet — a male lion chewing on symbolic chains of oppression. The sculpture was so vibrant, Cara could practically hear the sound of snapping steel.

Cara gazed at it a moment longer, then circled to the far side of the monument. The lion on the east side was amazing, but the one on the west side always took her breath away.

Literally. She paused and stared.

“Wow. Nice lion,” a passing tourist said to a friend.

Cara nearly snorted. Nice wasn’t the word. More like ferocious. Proud. Powerful.

Triumphant, her shifter side murmured.

Cara moved her lips, whispering, “Buongiorno.”

Grrr. She imagined the bronze lion replying in a Halt! Who-goes-there? roar.

Was it silly to talk to a statue? Possibly, but she couldn’t help it. The lion seemed so alive. So breathtaking. So…so…important, somehow.

She was a lion shifter herself, but still — that lion was like none she’d ever seen. He faced the lagoon, snarling at an invisible enemy. His ears and whiskers lay back in fury, and his tail stuck straight out in warning. His eyes were laser-focused on some point in the distance, and lines of muscle rippled along his flanks. His mane shook with fury, and his wings…

Cara’s heart thumped. Wings…

A soul-deep yearning filled her chest, and she nearly reached out to touch the feathers etched into bronze.

Bronze, she reminded herself. Just a sculpture. Someone’s fantasy, based on a legend. Nothing more.

But what if… her lioness whispered.

She closed her eyes, imagining how that might feel. Not just shifting the way she usually did — by dropping to all fours, dipping her head, and letting her skin give way to smooth, tawny fur — but adding one more step. The itch she often felt on her back would become a burn, and wings would suddenly appear. Big, beautiful wings, making her feel strong. Regal, even. Instead of trotting around on terra firma, she could take to the air.

It was so real, so clear in her mind. The brief burst of pain as her wings formed, the whoosh of air when she snapped them open. The tickle of wind through her feathers, and the change of perspective from high above.

Then a passerby bumped her, and she opened her eyes to reality. No wings. No lion at all. Which was a good thing, since she was out in plain sight. All shifters knew never to reveal their animal sides. Humans had no clue, and it was better to keep things that way.

Imagine if we could fly, her inner lion rumbled, still fixated on those mighty wings.

It was all too easy to since she’d dreamed of flying often — all the more since moving to Venice.

Her smile slowly faded as she remembered the ridicule she’d been subjected to as a kid.

Someday, I’ll fly too, she’d announced to her siblings.

They’d hooted. Sure. A flying lion. Can’t wait to see.

She’d run away, red-faced, and collapsed into tears.

Now, as then, she forced herself to keep her chin high. Being able to shift into lion form was special enough, and she ought to be grateful for that ability. Why wish for more?

But somehow, she couldn’t help it. Not just wishing or dreaming but yearning from the depths of her soul. If only those dreams would come true, giving her wings just like the statue before her.

She forced a little smile. Just like it — but without the mane. She was a female, after all. Plus, her curly human hair was hard enough to manage, so she could do without the mane.

And the other hardware, her lioness giggled.

She resisted the urge to check how anatomically correct the sculpted lion was.

Just then, the bell tower across the water at San Giorgio Maggiore rang in the hour.

Bong… Bong… Bong…

Cara checked her watch and cursed. Six p.m. already?

Then she spotted another garishly costumed couple and groaned, remembering her plans for the night.

Not exactly our plans, her lioness grumbled.

She set off, scuffing the pavement. Parties weren’t her thing. Why had she agreed to attend a fancy ball tonight?

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