Madly & the Jackal (Madly #3)


by M. Leighton

CHAPTER ONE

I looked over at Jackson where he swam strongly at my side. We both knew he could easily leave me behind to reach his destination more quickly, but he didn’t. Despite the seriousness of our task, he held back to stay with me, to stay by my side. It’s where he’d promised he would always be.

He glanced sideways at me and smiled. My heart melted inside my chest as if it was made of chocolate and I was lying in the sun. Although I loved him more than anything on the planet, as any Mer would love his or her mate, not even Jackson could erase the deep sense of foreboding that had overwhelmed me. It swelled inside me like the waves of the ocean swelled over my head, and it eroded my confidence just like those same waves eroded the sand on the shores.

When Jackson and I had joined hands and walked into the water as a couple—ready to take on all of Atlas, all of the world if need be—I had felt as if nothing could bring me down, like nothing could stop us. But I was wrong. Unfortunately, the excited optimism I’d experienced had drifted away as easily and as completely as my clothes in the ocean’s gentle current.

I shook my head the tiniest bit, determined to control my negative thoughts. There was no sense borrowing trouble when there was plenty hovering on the liquid horizon, so I glanced back to Jackson and let his being consume me—mind, body and soul.

After only seconds of diverting my attention to my gorgeous mate, he was somehow able to dominate my thoughts. It happened much more easily than I’d expected. I supposed it would take a while to get used to how fully he could captivate me.

Jackson was amazing in his Mer form, every bit as much as he was in his human form. He always had been. He’d been stronger, faster and more perfectly developed than all his classmates and that had never changed. I let my eyes slide over his body, my brain taking in the details of his beauty like my lungs were taking in the sea water and converting it into oxygen.

Although his powerful arms were tucked against his sides, I could still see each well-defined muscle. His pectorals twitched rhythmically as he swam. His abdominals rippled with each flick of his powerful lower body, and I couldn’t help that my eyes strayed to just beyond his navel, to where his scales began.

Several shades darker than his clear blue eyes, each shimmering disc flashed in the waning light as Jackson moved his large, fan-like tail against the water, smoothly propelling himself forward. As if sensing my gaze traveling his body, Jackson turned his head toward me and winked. Between his dark scales, his tan skin and his midnight hair, his eyes looked even paler than usual, seeming to glow from within. I felt them cut right through the growing unease that had surrounded my heart and replace it with a calm warmth.

Reaching out, Jackson wrapped his fingers tenderly around my wrist and drew me to a stop. He turned me to face him, our lower halves brushing as we swirled our tails to remain stationary.

“Stop worrying,” he commanded gently. “I’ve got this. Trust me.”

I nodded and smiled, trying to infuse the gesture with all the confidence I had in him. It wasn’t Jackson that I doubted. Not at all. It was…everything else. I just couldn’t escape the feeling that there were things going on in Atlas—horrible things, things more treacherous than we could imagine—that we had no way of preparing for, no way of defending ourselves against. The bracelets held all the power of the oceans, all the power of our race, and in the wrong hands that power could be more devastating than anything the earth had ever seen. I wasn’t sure Jackson even had a full understanding of what we were up against. I wasn’t entirely confident that I did.

“There are two things I was born to do. One is to protect Atlas,” Jackson began. He paused, tracing a fingertip from my temple to my jaw. “The other is to love you. If you don’t believe in anything else, believe in that. Trust me. Trust in me.”

My face tingled where Jackson touched, as if his words, his assurance was pouring from his skin into mine and making its way to my heart.

“I do trust in you,” I pledged softly. “I’m just afraid of what could happen to you. I mean, I just found you and I don’t think I could survive if something happened to you, if someone took you away from me.”

Even as I admitted my biggest, most bothersome concern, I felt threads of fear wind their way around my heart and constrict, as if speaking the words aloud gave them the power to hurt me.

One corner of Jackson’s mouth pulled up into a lopsided grin. “You’re never getting rid of me. You got that?”

“Jackson, I’m serious.”

“So am I. There is nothing and no one on the face of the Earth that can take me from you. As long as you want me, I’m yours. Always.”

“But there are—”

“Shh,” he whispered, laying his index finger over my lips to still them. “Nothing, Madly.”

I wanted so desperately to believe him, to believe that he was stronger than anything in the world, that somehow our love could protect him from harm. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was trouble ahead, trouble the likes of which neither Jackson nor I had ever seen. Some promises were made to be broken and I was afraid Jackson’s was one of them, whether he knew it or not.

Smiling, I cast my eyes down and nodded, hoping he would think I was just feeling shy. It didn’t matter if that’s what he really thought, as long as he didn’t see the fear in me.

“Okay,” I agreed, adding a cheerful lilt to my voice that I hoped sealed the deal.

It must’ve worked.

“Okay,” Jackson repeated as if the case was closed.

I felt his lips against my forehead as his hands came to my upper arms and stroked a lazy circle on each of my deltoids. I felt a zing of electricity shoot through my body and land in my core like a crack of thunder.

Letting my eyes drift closed, I lifted my face toward his and sucked in a lung full of water when his lips settled over mine. As long as I lived, I would never tire of the way his touch, specifically his kiss, made my body come alive.

For a moment, the world didn’t exist. There were no threats, no humans, no other Mer, no other creatures at all. Only Jackson and me and the fire that was between us.

When my lips parted, Jackson pulled away, dragging his mouth across my cheek to my ear.

“Are you sure you’re not a witch?” he teased lightly, his teeth nipping at the sensitive lobe of my ear.

My stomach twittered excitedly and I leaned into him.

“If I’m a witch, you’re a devil,” I returned breathlessly, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t stop, that we could just continue on in our little bubble of oblivion.

Jackson chuckled, a sound that sent chills racing down my back.

“Now that’s entirely possible,” Jackson admitted, leaning back to grin down into my face. When his eyes settled on mine, his smile died and I fell headlong into the intensity of his sky blue gaze. “I love you.”

He said it so softly I could easily have convinced myself I’d imagined it. But the way my blood sang, I knew I hadn’t. I would never tire of hearing Jackson say those three little words. I never would’ve imagined how powerful they could be, how full of hope and motivation and breath and life.

Raising my hands, I cupped his face. “I love you, too.”

Jackson smiled and I knew his heart was soaring as high as mine. Although I’d known about it most of my life and I’d looked forward to feeling it nearly as long, I had completely underestimated the sheer strength of the tie. I made a mental note to be careful and not to get carried away by it; I feared that would be all too easy.

“Much as I’d like to stay here and explore that delicious body of yours, we’d better get going, my princess.”

Jackson took my hand and tugged, pulling me back into a swim. And I let him.

My princess, I thought with a shake of my head. I couldn’t help but be amused by the fact that something that had so thoroughly annoyed me only a few days before had quickly become a term of endearment. More than I loved to hear him say my name, I loved it when he called me his princess.

I reveled in the warm, fuzzy cloud of our little break for several minutes before the weight of our mission began to darken my mood again. By the time Jackson slowed to a stop just outside the secure perimeter surrounding the portal, I was a bundle of nerves. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were swimming right into a cleverly laid trap.

Jackson turned to me, holding the tiny pearl from my bracelet up between us, rolling it lightly between his thumb and forefinger. It was hard to believe that such a small, outwardly beautiful object as the ebony orb could contain a Lore the likes of which I’d never encountered. Ulrich Wolfhardt. He was evil, vicious spirit escapee number one. We still had seven left to capture.

Shaking off that discouraging thought, I met Jackson’s eyes over the top of the pearl.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

I nodded, but my insides were quivering. I was so not ready.

“Madly, you have to promise me you’ll do exactly as I say. This is going to be dangerous enough without any mistakes. We have to be extremely careful.”

“I will,” I assured him.

“Promise me,” he insisted.

I smiled at his cautiousness.

“I promise.”

“Good, then you wouldn’t dream of breaking that promise if I told you to stay by the portal, would you?”

My mouth dropped open.

“What?”

“You heard me, Madly.”

“No, I don’t think I did. Because it sounded a lot like you were telling me to stay by the portal, but I know you couldn’t have said that, right?”

“Why? Why couldn’t I have said that? Is it such a terrible thing that I want to protect you? That I will be much better able to get this done if I know that, no matter what happens, you’ll be safe? Is that such a terrible thing?”

When put like that, it made me sound selfish and unreasonable for balking. Unfortunately, sounding selfish and unreasonable was the least of my worries. There was no way on God’s green earth that I was letting Jackson go without me. I’d waited for years to find my mate and I was nowhere near ready to let him go. Nowhere near!

Smiling sweetly, I thought I’d try to appeal to Jackson’s sensible side.

“It’s not such a terrible thing, but Jackson, I can help you. We will have a much better chance of success if I’m with you. You know that as well as I. For one thing, I have a bracelet,” I said, holding up my right wrist and jingling the cuff for emphasis. “Plus, you know we’re stronger together. Maybe you should think of me more as a weapon than as a liability.”

Jackson chuckled.

“I don’t think of you as a liability. I think of you as the woman I love. Madly, I couldn’t stand it if something happened to you, not now. We haven’t had enough time yet. Maybe in another thousand years or so, but not now.”

That irritated me. “And you don’t think I feel the same way? I’d rather go in there with you and take my chances than to sit out here and wonder if I’ll ever see you again. Jackson, if I die, I die. I’d rather die fighting for the right reasons, by your side, than waiting on the sidelines. If you go, I go. If you die, I’ll—”

“Don’t say it, Madly,” he warned. “Don’t even talk like that.”

I sighed.

“Look, for argument’s sake, let’s just agree that we feel the exact same way about each other. How would you feel if the situation was reversed? Would you just sit blithely by and let me go in there by myself? Could you just sit here and wait?”

Jackson’s lips thinned and he said nothing at first. I knew what his answer was and why he didn’t want to give it. He would have to admit that he would never do such a thing and then I’d have him right where I wanted him.