Conquista

By: Suzanne Rock

Chapter One



Somewhere in the Amazon Rain Forest



“Please, Father. Don’t do this.” Reya dropped to her knees. She didn’t like begging, but she was running out of time.

“Get up child, and don’t be so over-dramatic. It isn’t like I’m sending you to your death.” Carmelo, clan leader of the most feared and ruthless shifter tribe in the Amazon jungle, waved a hand in dismissal.

“You don’t understand.” Reya got up off the grassy floor of the hut and smoothed her long, tan skirt. God, she hated skirts, but this was the traditional dress of her people. She couldn’t very well ask her stubborn, backward father for a favor while wearing something he found too modern and offensive. “It just isn’t right. In this day and age—”

“In this day and age, children are raised to have no respect for the old ways.”

“The old ways are outdated.”

Carmelo snorted in disgust. “The old ways have kept our tribe safe and our children strong.”

“Just because it’s tradition, doesn’t make it right.”

“So, you don’t want to see our bloodlines thrive?”

“No, it’s not that.”

“You want our tribe to die out like our cousins to the north?” Her father asked from his throne-like chair. “Those fools have intermingled with the humans and diluted their magic so much that they’re indistinguishable from our enemy. They have become one with them.”

Reya didn’t think that was such a bad thing, but she’d never tell her father that. The throbbing vein in his temple might burst and then she’d never get what she so desperately needed—a chance to control her own future.

“Father—”

“Child.” Carmelo let out a weary sigh and leaned against the arms of his large, throne-like chair. Reya should have known better than to confront him in the judgment hut. Her father was never in a good mood after listening to tribe members’ grievances for hours on end.

“I know you are not the only one who wishes me to throw out the old ways,” he said.

“You do?”

“What kind of leader would I be if I didn’t know about the secret parties sneaking out into the human city to share drinks with the enemy?” Carmelo snorted in disgust as the guards standing on either side of him glanced at each other with worried expressions. “I hear that they come back smelling like filth and talking of riding great machines.”

“Motorcycles,” Reya corrected. “They are called motorcycles.” Reya heard that her tribe mates had been fascinated with the two-wheel machine that could cover ground as fast as their leopard forms. Motorcycles were smaller and easier to navigate than cars, and there was something about being in the open air that appealed to their inner shifter.

“Whatever.” Carmelo waved his hand once more. “Believe me, as soon as I have proof, I’ll put a stop to it. First, we become friends, then we become mates. We must keep our bloodlines pure if our magic is to remain strong.”

“Why?”

Carmelo eyed his daughter and ground his teeth. When he spoke, his words were slow and purposeful. “Because being a shifter is part of who we are. When we lose the ability to touch our animal side, we lose the essence of our ancestors. We lose the very thing that makes us powerful and unique.”

Reya wanted to keep questioning him, but knew that she had pushed her father as far as she dared. She had heard the stories of humans and shifters riding motorcycles on the open road, of drinking beer and playing darts in bars, of living in the moment and not worrying about bloodlines, tradition, or the future. For a girl who was brought up with war and segregation as her playmates, it was like some wonderful dream.

Reya looked at her father’s guards, two Neanderthal-looking, shirtless men who stood on either side of her father, spears in hand. Like their leader, each wore their hair long and bound at the nape with a leather strap. Each had intricate tattoos inked up and down their arms, worn like a badge of honor.

Hypocrites. They were the biggest culprits. Reya had asked them to take her into the city, but they refused, saying that they were too scared of what might happen if her father found out. Part of her wanted to expose their secret, but she didn’t dare. She wanted to get back to the subject at hand—her arranged marriage to Navarro.

Reya took in a ragged breath. If she was ever to escape this torment, she’d have to use a different tactic. “Navarro doesn’t even love me, Daddy. You say that you aren’t condemning me to death, but every day I’m forced to submit to a loveless marriage, a little piece of my life will be taken away.”

“Oh, child.” Carmelo stood up from his chair and approached her. Reya sank into his outstretched arms as despair welled up inside her chest.

After a brief hug, Carmelo leaned back and framed her face with his palms. “These are desperate times, Reya. You know that.”

She covered her father’s hands with her own. “The Jaguarundi have split, I know.” In her father’s mind, jaguar shifters were little better than humans. They were vile, disgusting creatures that needed to be purged from the Amazon Jungle.

“They are too self-absorbed to listen to reason.” His grip on her face tightened. “That old coot, Nicaolo, can’t see what’s right in front of his face.”

Reya sighed and fought the urge to pull from his grasp. “What do the Jaguarundis or the humans have to do with finding me a mate?”

Carmelo’s fingers loosened and his expression warmed as he stroked her cheeks with his fingers. “We must breed warriors if we are to survive, Reya,” he said softly. “Our magic must be strong to fight these humans and their machines. Every day, a little more of our homeland is being taken away. Every day, we are herded from our highlands and forced into Jaguarundi territory. Nicaolo sees this as an invasion on his lands, and I don’t blame him, but there is little else we can do. I won’t let our people suffer at the hands of those humans.”

Reya closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. “I can’t do this, Daddy.” On some level, she was jealous of the human women. From what she had heard, not only oculd they chose their own mate, but they could choose their own path in life as well. Being a Leopardi heiress, Reya enjoyed no freedoms. She went from one royal duty to another, always doing what was expected of her. Even her quiet rebellion of having sex with some of the warriors had fallen flat. They only fucked for their own personal enjoyment, taking what they needed and leaving her empty inside. They thought that by dominating her in the bedroom, they could manipulate her into appealing with her father to become her mate and be his successor. They were sorely mistaken. After word got out that she couldn’t be manipulated, no one would touch her.

No one except Navarro. While she didn’t mind Navarro, there was no connection between them. He was just like the rest, thinking only of war and his own selfish desires. He took what he wanted and left her bed as quickly as he came. There was no passion, no romance, and Reya couldn’t help but feel that Navarro saw her as another of his many obligations, not a wife. Certainly not an equal partner in life.

More than anything, Reya wanted someone who would treat her as a human being. She wanted to become an equal partner who made decisions and took charge of her own destiny. Unfortunately, everyone in her life, including her father, saw her as little more than a pretty decoration that could be bartered and traded.

“Look at me, child.” Carmelo waited for her to open her eyes before continuing. “You must do this, for all our sakes. I cannot order our people to follow the old ways if my own daughter adopts the manners of the heathens.”

“I have never broken your laws, Father.”

“And I know you won’t do so now.” He brushed his thumbs over her cheeks, wiping away the tears. “Navarro will be good to you, child. He is a worthy mate.”

He was also rumored to be having sex with some bar bimbo in Rio.

“He doesn’t love me,” Reya said.

“He will grow to love you, in time.” Carmelo leaned forward and placed a loving kiss on her forehead. “Trust me. This is the best for our tribe—and for you. I am an old man, and need a successor who has the courage and wisdom of a thousand men.” He sighed and lowered his hands. “Navarro is that man.”

“I can’t.”

Her father’s features hardened. “You will do as I say, Reya, or be cast from this tribe.”

Reya jerked back in surprise. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“I will do anything to save my people.” A deep sadness filled his features. “Even if that means sacrificing my daughter.” He brushed a lock of hair from her temple. “You underestimate the vow I took when I rose to this position. The security of this tribe must come first. Always.”

“I don’t understand how this will help. It will be years before any baby I have with Navarro reaches adulthood.”

Carmelo turned his back to her and returned to his seat. “A strong successor, proven on the battlefield, will give our people courage. His child will give them hope for a better future, one where the Leopardi bloodlines will remain pure and our magic strong. It will make the tribe members turn from their old ways and embrace the true beliefs once more.”

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