“Smith?”

I lifted my head because my manager called everyone by their last names—easier to keep track—and since I didn’t know my real one and had adopted the generic, “Smith” was me until I got my memory back.

I said until all the time. The other word I used was when. It was beyond imagining that I would spend the rest of my life not knowing who I really was, so to remain positive, if had been stricken from my vocabulary. There had to be an end. But I couldn’t stop the questioning and the worrying.

“Where’s Keith?” Eliza Abernathy asked as she stepped around in front of me.

I gave her a huge grin, way over the top, but said nothing. She smiled back, couldn’t help it, and we’d figured out why weeks ago. She really liked me. I was a stray she’d taken in off the street, and seeing me get my footing, my confidence, pleased her. So as she stood there and I acted like a dork, Manager Eliza melted away, and there was only the warm, maternal woman left. And then, of course, she realized that I’d gotten her to switch gears, and after a moment of us standing there like idiots, she turned a glare on me.

“What’s with the face?”

“Really?” she prodded me.

“Pardon?” I asked innocently.

“This makes nine days straight.”

I cleared my throat, hitting her with another smile. “Do you want the long version or the short one?”

“Oh God, please, short. I can’t deal with long at this point.”

“Okay, so he’s stuck in Vegas, but he says for sure he’ll be here tomorrow.”

Her sigh was long and exasperated. “You know I’m about done with everyone taking advantage of me.”

“Oh, no, I would nev—”

“Not you,” she corrected, reaching out and taking hold of my bicep.

I ignored the pain. I’d found that anyone touching me at all, gentle bumps, a hand squeeze, a hug, or a pat on the back, all shot excruciating bolts of pain to my nervous system. If I was hit with a tray or a door, that was normal—or what I perceived as so—and caused only a moment of surprise. But hands on me, anyone at all doing that, forced me to steel myself against the wall of hurt I slammed into. But I allowed normal interactions like Eliza hugging me because I truly liked her, and the momentary discomfort was worth it to strengthen our bond.

She had continued talking. “I appreciate you working all the doubles and the extra days, and you must believe me when I tell you that it’s been no hardship for me having you here.”

I knew that, logically, but she’d taken a huge chance on a drifter she didn’t know from anywhere, and I wanted her to understand how much it meant to me. I lived with the constant fear that something was going to change and she’d throw me out on my ass with nothing. It woke me up in a cold sweat some nights.

“You’re the best bartender I have,” she said. “You’re charming and funny, the customers love you, the staff adores you, and you’re the only one Hector doesn’t want to skin.”

The head chef and I had a mutual appreciation. He liked that I remembered all the specials the first time, listened when he explained how they were prepared, and never, ever, asked any questions. He’d been pleasantly surprised by the number of people eating at the bar because I talked up his cuisine. I liked his food and told him often, and now he never sent me home at night without dinner. Without fail, the last thing he made was a meal for me to take home. It had started when I had nothing, but even now, when I had a little, he still thoughtfully cooked so I didn’t go hungry. He was a blessing, as was his boss, our boss, Eliza.

“Jim.”

Back from my wandering thoughts, I met her gaze.

“And I’m sorry I made you cut your hair, but there was no way around it with the new investors I was forced to take on.”

She still felt bad about me going from having hair that fell long and wavy almost to my ass to a style short in the back and on the sides, and longer on top. I was clean-cut, without the beard and mustache I’d been sporting when I arrived, and I looked a lot younger than I had when I’d walked in, hoping to wash dishes or bus tables. Of course I had no idea how old I was, but late twenties seemed a pretty safe bet. “You know I don’t give a crap about my hair.”

“It was so pretty, but just not our aesthetic here.”

I shrugged. “I’d rather be part of your family than have a ponytail.”

That made her sigh. “You know I’d make you an assistant manager, but you make more with tips behind the bar.”

I was overwhelmed, as I was on a daily basis. She had so much faith in me after only three months, and though I didn’t understand why she did, I was touched.

“I know you don’t have your memory back, but honey, you took to this job like a duck to water. I’ll bet you you’ve done this kind of work before.”

Perhaps.

“But seriously, I need you to start taking your days off so you don’t get burned out. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I agreed, patting her hand still on my upper arm. “So what do we think? Can I get some drinks made for my customers, or should we bond more?”

She chuckled before tugging me close and holding me tight.

I hugged her back, even though it hurt, and then when we parted, she was smiling for a moment before she suddenly jolted.

“Eliza?” I asked, concerned.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said quickly, “I almost forgot why I came back here in the first place. Our semel, Alaine Boucher, is having dinner with his mate and his entourage, and he said he’d love to finally meet you. I already explained to him that you’re under my protection, and I vouched for you, so it’s really just a formality. But you know how much semels like their posturing and tradition.”

But I didn’t.

“They love to bore everyone to tears.”

I nodded, nervous, felt my hands shaking as my stomach twisted into a knot.

“You don’t have to worry. I explained that your memory has been affected by whatever you’ve been through and that you can’t speak your lineage to him.”

“And he accepted that?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t he?”

“That seems awfully trusting.”

“Sweetie, a semel has to trust his people.”

“Okay.”

“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

I shook my head.

“A good semel knows the names of every member of his tribe. He cares about them all and takes on the role of father and brother, leader and protector, confidant and counselor.”

“It sounds like a big job.”

“It is, and that’s why only a select few who are born to lead actually do so.”

“Sure.”

“But semels get their strength from their tribes, and what makes up the tribe is individuals. So when I tell you my semel values me, he does.”

“I believe you.”

“Good,” she said, putting a hand gently on my cheek. “I told my semel you were to be trusted, and he took me at my word. You’ll be fine.”

I took a breath. “Thank you.”

Her smile was meant to be encouraging. “So just go on back there to the private room when you get a minute, and—what? Why are you making that face?”

“The back room?”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Rosario and Val don’t have you believing that crap about those rooms being haunted, do they?”

I grimaced.

“I’ve had it checked out, for goodness sakes—just go!”

Moving quickly, I walked down the hallway leading to the dining room floor while I heard her yell for Suri to take my place.

I crossed the dining room and walked down a short stained glass–lined hallway—it felt like moving through a miniature cathedral—to the private area in the back. Once there, I slipped under the archway and bowed, waiting for someone to spot me. As loud as the conversation was, it would probably take a few minutes to capture anyone’s attention. Not that I cared, they could ignore me all night if they wanted. I was terrified of speaking to anyone, especially the semel. It wasn’t that I doubted Eliza—I didn’t—but she was the known and I was a stranger. She honestly had no way of knowing what her leader’s reaction to me would be.

There were twelve people in the room, nine men and three women, and everyone was dressed well: suits for the gentlemen, elegant dresses for the ladies. It didn’t help me feel any less intimidated by the gathering, with them all decked out and me in my uniform.

I thought I might need to leave and come back, but suddenly a man’s voice cut through the din.

“My semel, we have a visitor.”

The room fell silent.

“You may approach.”

Straightening, having spied the man who spoke, I moved quickly to the head of the second table, stopping in front of him and dropping down to one knee.

“You’re Jim Smith?”

“Yes, my semel,” I replied, adding the honorific “my” as I’d been told custom dictated.

Alaine Boucher nodded. “Eliza tells me that you’ve had a memory lapse and are unsure of your tribe or of your standing therein.”

“That’s correct,” I replied to the handsome man regarding me. He was, I guessed, in his late forties, striking, with gray hair and piercing cobalt blue eyes.

“And is Jim your given name?”

I wasn’t sure, but it felt almost right. If it wasn’t Jim, it was something very close. “I believe so, my semel.”

“Well, I’ve sent an e-mail off to the office of the akhen-aten, and since it’s not like it was before he took over, since everything is centralized now and he acts on information right away, I might actually get an answer about where you belong.”

“Yes, my semel.”

“I’m a great admirer of Domin Thorne. I met him when he came on his tour of the US a year ago.”

I remained quiet, listening.

“You know he traveled the world for five years total. The US was the last leg of it.”

“Oh.”

“Did you know that?”

“No, my semel.”

“Do you recall seeing him?”

“No, my semel.”

“Rise.”

I stood, and he and everyone else in the room did as well. The women all rose seamlessly with the grace panthers had, and the men were menacing, probably not on purpose, but I could have been wrong. I had a hard time reading people.

“Let me present to you my yareah, Catherine.”

Quickly I bowed, and his mate reached out and touched my shoulder. I lifted my head so I could see her face and found her smiling, which was nice.

“It’s a pleasure, Jim.”

“I assure you, my yareah, the pleasure is all mine.”

“Oh, such lovely manners,” she sighed, beaming. “You know, it’s odd, there’s no scent coming off you. I don’t sense that you’re a panther at all.”

“Others have also remarked on that fact, my yareah.”

“You’re certain you’re not human?”

“I have shifted since my memory was lost,” I told her.

“Have you shifted since you’ve been here?” Alaine asked, testing me, I was certain. Eliza had warned me that he would try to find out if I’d broken protocol.

“No, my semel, I would not think of it without your permission.”

“You know your law well,” another man said.

I turned to him. “It seems to be the only part of my memory that remains intact,” I lied.

It was all gone. All my memories, and even the smallest questions, like did I like vanilla ice cream, had answers I could not provide. Every day I found something terrifying to ponder, sometimes stupid things like did I have a favorite season, and at other times, were my parents still alive? I spent hours sitting in my apartment, on the window seat looking out across the French Quarter, and wondered if I’d ever have a real home. It was too easy to get lost in the self-pity, so I worked hard to not succumb. But sometimes, especially late at night when I couldn’t sleep… it was overwhelming. At those times I took stock of the small number of things I did know. For instance, I knew I was a panther, but that was no different than other people knowing they were human. But the laws themselves, the protocol—Eliza had given me a quick lesson, the dos and don’ts, so I wouldn’t screw up when I met the semel. One of the big don’ts, it turned out, was to shift in a territory without first being recognized as part of the tribe inhabiting said area. That was taboo.

“It’s a good beginning,” he said, smiling at me. “And you couldn’t have picked a better shield than Eliza Abernathy.”

A shield, I had come to understand, was a person who was basically your guardian. You could speak their name to others, and they were responsible for what you did while you were visiting. Their name carried weight and protection.

“She’s been very kind to me,” I replied.

The man who had spoken came around his semel and held out his hand. “I’m Luther Hockney, sylvan of the tribe of Kynum.”

I reached out, but our hands never met.

“Wait,” the man on the other side of the semel cautioned sharply before he stepped around the sylvan to face me.

“Nazar?” Alaine asked, concern in his voice.

“I—” The man in question began before suddenly grabbing my bicep, spinning me around, and shoving me over the end of the table to hold me down.

“Please don’t hurt me,” I pleaded, struggling to get free, poised to run at any opportunity even as my stomach roiled from the instant pain and threatened to empty.

“Alaine!” Catherine was horrified; I could hear the surprise and revulsion in her voice. “Control your sheseru!”

“Nazar, what is the meaning of—”

“Please let me go!” I begged. I could hear my voice broken, frightened.

“Wait!” Nazar, yanking roughly at my tie and collar, holding me immobile at the same time, snarled back.

No one moved, because only a semel could challenge a sheseru, the enforcer of the tribe. Reaching over my shoulder, he yanked until the top buttons were ripped away, flying across the table laden with food.

“As I thought,” he announced, wrenching my shirt down in back so that it nearly choked me in front as it pulled free from where it was tucked in my pants. “He bears a semel’s mark.”

Instantly he released me, and I heard others gasp as I pivoted around to face the room. The sheseru, the man who’d just had his hands all over me, was on his knees in front of me.

I couldn’t control the shiver that ran through my body. The manhandling was terrifying, and I wanted to run. Not just out of the restaurant, but all the way out of the territory that this sheseru called home. Swallowing fast, trying to coach my stomach from spasming, I breathed through my nose to try and settle down.

“My ray-ah,” he breathed. “Forgive me for touching you without permission, but I had to be sure and my instincts were—hard to control.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Eliza had not gone over ray-ahs—whatever he was saying. “How—” I began. “—can you tell?”

His gaze was locked on my face, and in his eyes I saw… devotion? “A sheseru would always know a ray-ah. We are enforcers of the tribe, yes, but all sheserus are first the protector of the true-mates, or ray-ahs. When we are made, it becomes instinctual.”

“How?”

He smiled at me and shrugged. “How does a semel know his ray-ah? How do we know how to shift the first time? It’s instinctual.”

I cleared my throat. “Do I have a scent to you?”

“No, and I’m thankful for that. I suspect if you did, I would be fighting every man in this room to keep you safe.”

“And you would do that?”

“I would do anything to keep you safe, my ray-ah.”

“You would not fight your semel,” Catherine snapped.

He turned away from me with some difficulty, still not rising, but giving her his attention. “All other duties are second to the protection of the true-mate of the semel.”

“But he’s not your semel’s ray-ah, so it shouldn’t—”

“Stop,” Alaine commanded, taking hold of his sheseru’s shoulder and squeezing gently. “I’m pleased that you know the law so well, Nazar.”

It was easy to see the two men had a strong friendship and a tight bond, and while I was charmed, I could also see the semel was worried.

“A male ray-ah, though?” he asked Nazar. “I heard about one, years ago at the Feast of the Valley, but I thought it was just a silly story. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“No, I haven’t, but you saw that mark. Nothing else explains that.”

“Yes. As soon as you showed it to me, I knew exactly what it was. No mistake there,” Alaine said crossly, taking a tentative step closer, reaching out a hand to me. “But a true-mate who’s a man is—”

“An abomination,” Catherine spat, intercepting his hand, stopping him.

He turned to her.

“I meant to say mutation,” she quickly amended.

“Catherine,” he began. “You have—”

“I don’t want you to touch him,” she said harshly, her voice brittle. “He may not be that ray-ah, may not be truly mated. I would not be taurth if this man, this person, is in fact your true-mate.”

It was unnerving being in the same room with them while they talked about me as though I weren’t. Alaine was appalled, Catherine was disgusted, and I was just supposed to stand there acting like them discussing how revolting the idea of having me in their tribe didn’t hurt.

He inhaled deeply. “I can’t even catch his scent. There’s no possible way he’s anything to me. I would know a true-mate on sight, and I would definitely know his smell. He’s not my mate, my yareah. You’re in no danger.”

But she didn’t appear convinced, and that was the scariest part. I wanted nothing to do with the man, and he was repulsed by the idea of a male mate, but still, she was scared because I was a kind of cat that was a ray-ah, and there was apparently power in my touch. The whole thing seemed far-fetched.

Reaching out, I slipped my hand around the sheseru’s forearm. While it still hurt, the pain wasn’t quite so bad when I did the touching. He immediately turned and gifted me with a warm smile.

“May I ask just a few questions?” I ventured.

“Anything, my ray-ah.”

“That word you’re using for true-mate, is that like yareah with the y and the a taken off?”

“It is.”

Now I could see the word in my head. “And I know that yareah is mate, and you said that a reah is a true-mate?”

“Yes. Reahs are very rare, and only a handful of semels are ever gifted with one. Most are mated just as normal people are, meeting their yareahs and falling in love, but your semel, he is semel-re, as he has you.”

I nodded.

“Reah means ‘home of the soul,’ where the semel goes for sanctuary. I can only imagine how much your semel is missing you.”

Smiling quickly, I said, “I hope so,” even as my heart tripped.

He was telling me there could be a man, my mate, somewhere out there wanting me, missing me? That was too much to hope for.

He scowled. “There’s no question. A true-mated pair should never be parted.”

“And the mark this semel gave me?”

“A semel only marks his true-mate. Any other, yareah or simply chosen mate, doesn’t receive one. For a semel to claim one who isn’t their true-mate in that manner would cause great pain and, perhaps from the loss of blood, even death. I couldn’t imagine a cat other than a sheseru even being able to bear such.”

I wondered if any semel had ever tried.

“Jim,” Alaine said, reaching for me.

Again his yareah deflected his hand.

“I wouldn’t take a man to my bed,” Alaine promised, visibly tired of being doubted, but moving to cup her face gently in his hands. “I’m not gay. You know that.”

“Yes,” she said, searching his face. “I do. I simply ask that you keep your distance until we know the truth about the reah.”

“Agreed.”

“And you should not share what he is with others,” she continued, “as they will perhaps come to challenge you to take possession of the reah, and as you’re honor bound to protect him until his semel comes to claim him or other arrangements are made… you’ll be constantly fighting.”

“That’s good counsel.” He released her and turned back to his sheseru, who had risen to stand beside me, and his sylvan. “Only the small group of us here in this room needs to know about the reah. Anyone else, Jim is merely the newest member of our tribe.”

All the others consented to keep my identity a secret.

“Jim,” Alaine said, his attention back on me. “With this discovery, I really don’t think you’ll be waiting long to know who you are. Even though I’ve never been to a Feast of the Valley or to Sobek, I can’t imagine that there is more than one male reah out there. I’m sure your mate, or your mate’s tribe, will come forward to claim you very quickly once I send an addendum to Domin Thorne.”

“Thank you,” I said, trying to squash down the hope inside of me before it ate me up. I could not pin all my hopes on something that might not be true.

He coughed softly. “In the meantime, as you are another semel’s mate and are a guest in my territory, I am bound by the rules of honor to keep you from harm.”

“Of course,” I agreed, even though I had no idea what he was talking about. It was imperative that I get out of the room and away from him and his yareah who hated me, so if saying yes to protection I didn’t need would do it, I’d accept.

“So I have to insist that you consent to my protection.”

“Yes, semel,” I said. I didn’t use the “my” since he was clearly not. I had a home, more importantly, I had a mate. Or hoped I did. Somewhere out there was a man I belonged to, and I prayed he was looking for me. “May I ask, what happens if my semel is dead? Is it possible that the reason I’ve been walking around the world alone is that after the death of my semel, I had been cast out?”

“It is possible,” Alaine answered. “A reah—or yareah, for that matter—who doesn’t want to become the mate of another when their semel dies would have no recourse but to leave their tribe to ensure that outcome. Perhaps you ran so as not to be claimed by another.”

The very idea filled me with terrible sadness. What if my mate had passed and I had no memory of him at all?

“Just be patient, Jim. I think your answers will be here very soon.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.