The Lion’s Mail Order Bride – Ruby Knoxx

Sales reports from the last quarter were up. This was especially due to Leo’s fundraiser to plant a community orchard with the goal of helping the struggling elven population in the Marhan area. While extra profit was always good, Leo had lived in Marhan for most of his life, and what he really wanted was to do everything possible to draw the local magical community closer together. Leo signed off on the new expense requests to prepare for planting the orchard next spring and leaned back in his leather office chair. His office was simple, sparsely decorated with only his desk and a matching couch and table on one end, so he could have drinks with his clan members whenever they came by. The walls, though, were cluttered. Framed photographs and illustrations of African savannahs and grasslands covered every inch of paint. Prides of lions, grazing gazelle, peaceful watering holes, and gorgeous sunsets. Leo had arranged the pictures for efficient use of space, giving him an eternal view of the land that his lion side craved. It’d been years since he last went to Africa, and if it were up to his lion side, they never would have left the savannahs at all. But Leo’s home was Marhan, no matter how much his lion side wanted to say otherwise. Maybe they couldn’t run in the grasslands together, but there was wildland enough here in Pennsylvania. What mattered more was the clan they ran with, and that was ever-growing. Soon, he would be able to walk between rows of apple and peach trees, cherry and pears. Those were merely foreign fruits to his lion, but to Leo, they would represent the community he desperately wanted to build.

He would own the orchard in name, but everyone who acknowledged him as their Alpha, the guardian of their community, would be allowed to eat of the trees’ bounties. Everyone would be a part of his clan, his pack, and everyone would take part in the growth of both the orchard and everything those neat rows of trees would represent—especially the elves, who were struggling in this region. The orchard wouldn’t replace the feeling of the true wilds and the forests for them, but it was a start, and it would, more importantly, help with food scarcity and, he hoped, bring them to trust Leo more. Savannah Enterprises, Leo’s business, was relatively small; sometimes, it felt like it was growing quicker than he could manage. So much success, far quicker than he imagined. Most magical communities throughout America were fractured. Shifters kept with shifters, elves with elves, fae with fae … and so on. When tragedy struck one community, the others shunned those affected. Once, before Leo came to Marhan, he had been on the receiving end of that shunning … and he’d vowed to do his best to stop that from happening. Ever since, he’d been developing a close-knit community of everyone who would join him. It was harder than he ever expected—getting people to work together against their nature, but after years of care, involving himself with all different types of peoples and magics, everything was starting to come together. The elves were one of the few communities who’d yet to vouch for him officially, even though he had quite a few elves on his side already. He hoped the orchard would be the final tick he needed for them to finally trust him. Until then … he had another project to plan. He shifted the documents on his desk aside, but as he was about to open his laptop, there was a knock on his office door.

“Come in,” Leo said, and the door swung open to reveal one of his employees. Aaron Hunter’s unusually shiny, gray-brown hair was a mess of sweat and dirt over his scalp. A bit of blood smeared his cheek, and his gray eyes were wild and wolfish. He’d shifted not too long ago, as evidenced by how his clothes were almost pristine, while the rest of him was not. Leo stood, his fighting instincts set into motion. His lion self rippled beneath the surface, ready to spring out at a moment’s notice. “What’s happened?” “There was an attack,” Aaron gasped, his breath still ragged from running to Leo’s office. He collapsed onto the couch on the other side of the room. “Are you injured? Do I need to call Lianne?” Lianne was the fae healer on staff for incidents like this, or any other workplace-related wounds. “I’m okay. The blood’s not mine.” As if to try and make his point, he tried to scratch the dried streak off of his skin, but only tiny flakes came off at a time, so he gave up. “No one’s hurt bad enough to warrant healing, either. Just scrapes and bruises, mostly. But the shipment …” Leo relaxed and poured Aaron a sip of scotch to ease his nerves.

The wolf shifter accepted the glass, downing it in an instant. Aaron, alongside a crew of other guards, had been escorting a shipment of valuable plants grown as a part of one of Leo’s newest ventures. Rare herbs and plants used by various types of magic for healing, protection, and even curses, depending on how they were used. “Tell me everything that happened,” Leo said, sitting down across from Aaron. “We were transporting the shipment from the plant nursery to the warehouse for distribution, like you told us to,” Aaron said. “But as soon as we left town, our truck was attacked. The tires were blown out, and we flipped into the ditch. Rio was quick enough to shield us as we went down, so none of us were hurt much in the initial explosion. Everything after that happened so quickly. “They had a time warlock, I think. Instead of attacking us, they made us sluggish, stole the goods, and backed off. Farrah wasn’t affected and tried to stop them, but she was no match for them. They hit her with a paralysis spell and left.” “How many were there?” “Eight. We all agreed on that number.

” Eight attackers meant they were organized, had been planning to hit one of Leo’s shipments. But who could have known where and when the transport was being made? An unfortunate possibility came to mind, but he needed more information before he could say for sure. “I’m sorry to barrage you with questions, but I need to know more so I can gauge how serious this is,” Leo said. Aaron waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about me. Like I said, I’m fine. If there’s anything I can do to help get these punks, you’ll have it.” “Were they all warlocks? Did they wear anything memorable?” “There was at least one other wolf shifter there, and a couple of them were witches, not warlocks.” Aaron tilted his head in thought. “Now that you mention it, yeah, they all wore a crimson skull on their backs.” Leo tightened his grip on the arm of the couch, his claws threatening to come through and tear the leather apart. The Crimson Skulls weren’t new to Leo, not by a long shot. They’d kept out of his way for the last couple of years, for the most part, but of course they would return right as things were all starting to line up for Leo, his business, and his dreams … “One more question. Did you hear them say anything?” Aaron sighed and rubbed his temples. “Yeah … I was saving that for last.

One of them, the one I believe was a wolf shifter, said something like ‘Leo’s time as Alpha of Marhan is over. He should step down from his throne, or we’ll have to take it by force’ and maybe something else about how your policy of everyone being a part of the clan or pack is tearing shifter identity apart. Which is bullshit, by the way. What you’re doing is helping everyone.” But of course, not everyone saw Leo’s work that way. Other groups in the magical community, not just in Marhan, thought that he disrupted the natural order of their world. He had never, not once, agreed with that perspective. Everyone should be working together toward a common goal, period. It only made sense, especially when, even combined, there were far fewer of them than humans. Worse, he had a history with the Crimson Skulls … and not just because they’d come knocking around before. A long time ago, he had a business relationship with them. “You’re looking really scary right now,” Aaron said. “Do you know who they are?” Leo’s lion form had been increasing its presence inside him without him realizing it. He took a deep breath, and his primal need to get his opposition out of the way faded from an overpowering necessity to a suggestion in the back of his mind. For once, he didn’t disagree with his lion’s opinion.

They needed to get the Crimson Skulls out of the way for good, but Leo wanted to avoid a violent confrontation if possible. “They’re going to be a problem,” Leo said. “I have no intention of abdicating my ‘throne’ as the Alpha of Marhan.” If he did, that would destroy all of the work he’d done so far. The Crimson Skulls, who were essentially a gang of nefarious criminals, would bring only violence and terror to Marhan, not peace and cooperation like Leo wanted. Aaron grinned. “If you tried, I think there would be a riot. Why do you think they’ve got their panties in a bunch over this?” Leo knew exactly why, but that wasn’t information he was willing to disclose to Aaron. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Aaron … Leo was ashamed of his association with the Crimson Skulls. Years ago, when Leo was still naive and first starting on his dream of uniting everyone, he started with criminal organizations because he thought he could rehabilitate people from the lower rungs of society by creating opportunities for them to create a new community away from that lifestyle. New work opportunities, a better way of life. It had worked for some people. Several of Leo’s oldest employees were from various gangs, and you’d never be able to tell them apart from the average person anymore. For others, though, Leo had underestimated the draw of money. Working with them had made loads of cash that he needed to really kickstart Savannah Enterprises, which he did only after completely severing ties with those types of connections.

But once those gangs started making a lot of money, they thought that either they were above the law or that they were the law. The Crimson Skulls were one such group. “Their leader, Trev, has always disagreed with my philosophies,” Leo said. He ran his fingers through his wild, golden beard, as he sometimes did when deep in thought. “I once undermined his authority in front of his whole gang, and he’s had it out for me since. There’s no negotiating with him.” “That means we need to get ready for a fight, doesn’t it? What’s the plan?” Aaron said. Despite his injuries, he was already perked up, like he was ready for another go. Leo imagined he was: from the sound of it, Aaron didn’t get much chance to fight. His wolf was probably going crazy, wanting to kick some Crimson Skull ass. Leo’s lion wanted a fight, too. They couldn’t let disrespect like this go unanswered, or else it would cause a ripple of trouble through all of Marhan. It could threaten not only his business but the community he was building. His clan. And that, he would never let pass.

His people were more important to him than himself. A threat to them was a threat to him. And unless he dealt with it swiftly and thoroughly, it might never go away. He needed to act decisively. Just because Trev was an ass, though, didn’t mean that Leo couldn’t negotiate with the gang. Reaching out to the members and seeing if they shared the same opinions as Trev, and trying to get them on Leo’s side if they didn’t … it could work, but it was a risk. Either way … Leo had other priorities right now. “Have you already been back to the plant nursery?” Leo said. “I came right here to tell you what happened.” Aaron scratched at the dried blood on his cheek. “But Rio, Farrah, and the others went to the nursery to make sure that the attackers didn’t go after the facility next.” “If they did, we would have heard about it by now.” Aaron nodded. “So Stella and the rest of the nursery staff are safe.” “I’m still going to check on them.

I’ll have to brief Stella about the attack since it was her work that the Crimson Skulls stole.” Leo rose from his seat, and so did Aaron. “I’ll come with you, just in case.” “No, you need to get some rest. I doubt they’ll make another attack so soon after the first, and if they do, I can handle myself. Thank you for coming straight to me with this.” Aaron sunk back into his seat with a sigh. “Sure, I just feel bad about the lost shipment. You’ve done so much for me, and you’re trying so hard to help everyone in Marhan … I can’t help but feel like this was my fault, or like I failed you somehow.” “This isn’t your fault, or anyone else’s. If anything, it’s mine, and I’m going to fix it before anything else happens.” Before Aaron could argue further, Leo left the office, heading straight for the plant nursery, aptly named ‘Lion’s Den Plant Nursery,’ which wasn’t too far from the main Savannah Enterprises building. While he trusted that the employees there could all keep themselves safe if it ever came down to it, it was his job, as their boss, to make sure they were never threatened in the first place. And that was exactly what he was going to do. *** About half an hour later, Leo pushed open the front doors to the plant nursery’s main building.

The warm, welcoming customer reception area was lit with string lights that wrapped around the room and circled the ceiling alongside real ivy. Though it was technically business hours, someone had the mind to change the sign out front from ‘open’ to ‘closed,’ likely due to the recent attack, and for that, he was thankful. For Leo, profit was never worth putting peoples’ lives at risk … unless they were being duly compensated for work that they understood, in advance, may pose certain risks. Regardless, the reception desk was empty when he arrived, but he saw Rio and Farrah walking toward him on the other side of the reception building, of which the back half was made entirely from glass to show off the grounds, where hundreds of different types of plants were on display. Everything from garden flowers, shrubs, trees, and various magical varieties. Rio and Farrah looked about the same as Aaron, damage-wise: that was to say, they looked a little roughed up, but normal. Farrah’s long, black hair was braided into a tight knot that curled around her shoulders like a scarf. She had the pointed ears of an elf; she was one of the first to join Leo’s cause, even though the rest of elven kind was lagging behind. Rio, on the other hand, was bald, his scalp tattooed with a pattern of stars that enhanced his wizard magic. His pointed nose gave him an intimidating appearance, but once you got to know him, it was easy to see why everyone liked him. “Leo, you’re finally here,” Rio said, a broad smile of relief crossing his features. “Report?” Leo said as he met them at the doors and stepped outside. “There’s been no more activity here. We set up a perimeter just in case, but this place is too well-protected. I don’t think they’ll dare.


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Updated: 10 June 2021 — 18:24

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