After three years at war, Ennon bears the burden of seeing the High Lord’s vast armies home. Keeping thousands of fiercely independent lions in line isn’t easy. When his soldiers discover a beautiful, royal female hidden beneath an illusion spell, the lure of her inheritance threatens the order of his camp.
The men of her family protected Kisri, until the war stole them away. Tired of defending herself from greedy suitors, she’s in search of her only remaining male relative. Instead she finds Ennon, her cousin’s most dangerous warrior. Perhaps the only man in the kingdom who has no interest in claiming her birthright. Which makes him unique…and tempting.
Delivering Kisri to his High Lord’s side–while keeping his distance–is Ennon’s one and only duty. Yet Kisri’s untutored advances crack his formidable resistance. And she proves to be a dangerously adept student. Especially when their passion wakes a magic beyond their control…
Read an Excerpt
Once, the kingdom stood united.
It was strong then, strong enough to stand against invaders who sought to break it apart and seize parts of the whole as their own. The four races of shapeshifters fought together, died together and emerged victorious.
It wasn’t until later, when the threats had died, that the kingdom fell apart. With no one to fight, no one purpose to unite them, they began to fracture.
And then they began to fight one another.
The four nations warred for generations, until the High Lord of the Plains and the High Lord of the Forest chose to put aside past grievances, though wolves and lions have ever been natural enemies. Together they brought peace to their people, and commanded their most trusted generals, the First Warlords, to help them drive the armies from the mountains and the navies from the seas back to their own territories.
Brutal war reigned for years, but the new alliance emerged victorious. The High Lords and First Warlords parted as brothers and returned to their own lands, where they sought to enjoy the peace they’d struggled so hard to secure.
The First Warlord of the plains bore the responsibility of seeing their army home. He dreaded this task, one of administration rather than glory. All that changed when he found an unusual soldier hidden under his nose, a soldier whose very presence created chaos in his carefully ordered camp.
They called her untameable.
Men came from the four corners of the plains to woo her. Not because she was a great beauty–though most would insist they found her pretty enough–and not because of her skills and accomplishments, as those who were honest would admit she had few suited to life as a noble lady.
They came to her father’s house for her fortune and her bloodline, because she was the cousin of the High Lord of the Plains. To conquer a lioness is to be the master of all she calls hers, though few would dare enrage her male relatives by attempting to conquer by violence.
They called her untameable until the war began to claim those male relatives, one at a time. And with her cousin the High Lord so far away, some began to think this lioness looked very tameable, indeed.
Ennon stared down at the cracked gem in the palm of his hand. “I don’t understand, Pritt. What am I looking at?”
“Witchcraft.” The grizzled old lion spat in the dirt. “There was a scuffle in the meal line and one of the green soldiers got caught in the middle. That got ripped off’a his–her neck.”
“Her?” he asked sharply. “Tell me you’re joking, and quickly.”
“Wish I were, Warlord. She’s a wee bit of a thing, but a spitting little cat. Took two guards to drag her to your tent, and the gentle goddess only knows how long they’ll put up with her clawing at them.”
A glamour charm. Ennon had heard of women going to such lengths in order to join battles when they should have been tending matters at home–you couldn’t flip through a tome of poetry without running into an ode to a warrior queen–but in his camp… “She must be here alone. No husband or father would allow such a thing.”
“No sane man at all.” Pritt frowned and scratched his cheek. “She’s familiar, but I can’t say why. Something in the eyes.”
Lesser nobility, with his luck. “Thank you for coming to me, Pritt, and for handling this with your usual quick efficiency.”
Pritt executed a sharp salute. “If you don’t mind me saying, my lord…you might want to step quickly.”
“I’m heading there now.” Ennon barely managed to keep the exasperation from his voice as he dropped the ruined charm and left his maps unrolled on the table.
Odd, now that he thought of it, that Pritt had not brought the girl to him. It would be easy enough to question her and send word to her family. Securing proper transportation or lodgings for her would, likewise, be a simple matter.
No reason to sequester the girl in his tent, none at all.
Curiosity as much as concern quickened his steps, and he knew the answer to those questions as soon as he entered his tent. “Oh, hell and damnation.”
Kisri’s long dark hair was braided tight to her head, and her clothing was cut in a man’s style, but without magic, not even a blind and drunk fool would have taken her for anything but a woman. One guard held her arms behind her back in a brutal grip, and the other eyed her warily over bleeding scratches across his cheek.
Huge brown eyes found his, and her struggles ceased abruptly. “Hell and damnation is right.”
Her resigned tone barely registered as rage thundered through Ennon at the sight of her arms wrenched behind her, the angle and pressure no doubt painful. He addressed the guard who held her, his voice amazingly even. “Unhand her and get out. Both of you.”
The men had fought alongside him long enough to recognize danger. They retreated hastily, one leaving a belt and scabbard on the table as he backed toward the flap of the tent.
When they were gone, Kisri stretched her arms carefully, as if they ached. “Ennon.”
He had to remain calm. It wouldn’t do to terrify the High Lord’s favorite cousin. He reminded himself of that a few times as he poured two cups of wine. “How long have you been here, hiding behind your charm?”
Her wary gaze followed him. Not frightened, but cautious. “In your camp? Only a few days.”
“Why did you come?” He asked as a courtesy, because it didn’t matter what her answer was. She’d put herself in danger, and now he was responsible for her.
“I am seeking my cousin.” A wry smile curled her lips as she drifted toward the table. “You’ll be pleased to know that your army keeps his location very quiet.”
“Your cousin’s safety is, in fact, my job.” Ennon watched her edge toward the weapon and smiled as he held out the wine. “Leave the blade for now. Have a drink.”
She arched one elegant eyebrow. “Surely the First Warlord can handle one little lion, whether she bears a sword or not.”
“Do you wish to fight me, Kisri?” His body tightened at the thought. He’d never sparred with a woman without the skirmish ending in the blinding release of sex.
Color rose in her cheeks, as if she knew the path of his thoughts, but she lifted her chin and closed her fingers around the hilt of her sword. “I’ve had my fill of fighting. A lifetime of it, in the past few months.”
“Mmm. Why are you searching for Malrion?”
Her fingers tightened until her knuckles stood out white against her skin. The scabbard rattled on the table. “The war has been hard on the High Lord’s family. So has illness. As of two moons ago, Malrion is the only male relative I have left.”
The words stopped him cold, and Ennon frowned, searching her face. “Your uncles. Both of them?”
“Within the last two moons, along with my father, last year. And my brother, three years ago.” She swallowed hard. “Malrion knew about them, but he may not know the rest. His court will be in chaos when he finally makes his way home, but my concerns have been more personal.”
Only one thing could have happened in the absence of a protector. “Who’s trying to force your hand?”
Her spine stiffened, as if the reminder summoned long-forgotten rage. “Plenty of the men too cowardly to fight for their lord. As if I’d lie down for a craven weakling.”
No, she wouldn’t. A woman like Kisri would fight, and a man would have to prove himself. He would have to be worthy to be chosen.
Ennon’s cock stiffened even more.
She jerked the steel blade from the scabbard in one smooth gesture and held it in front of her, her grip easy. Familiar. “I won’t lie down for any man. Not even you.”
He blinked and bit back the curse that rose to his lips. He knew only two things for certain–one, that he shouldn’t have let her see his attraction. And two, that she was lying.
But none of it mattered, because he had a very specific way to resolve this situation. “You’ll stay here until we break camp. I can guard you myself, and there’s plenty of room for a second bunk. Then, I’ll escort you directly to Mal. Untouched,” he added, “in case you have thoughts about using that blade.”
The tip of the sword wavered. A heartbeat later it dropped, until the point came to rest on the coarse rug. “Will you take me running soon?” she asked in a soft voice. “I haven’t dared. The magic would not have been strong enough to disguise me.”
Unexpected sympathy made his chest ache. How terrified she must have been, and yet she’d pressed on. “You are a lioness, Kisri, and a true warrior. We can go tonight, after dusk.”
“Thank you, Ennon.” She smiled, still bluster and bravado instead of the weariness he knew must linger under the surface. “It is good to see you. It has been many years, since before the war.”
“It’s good to see you too.” She’d been little more than a child then–though he supposed, in a way, they all had been. “Did you eat before they dragged you away from dinner? What can I bring you?”
“Food would be welcome. And sleep.”
“Then you shall have both.” He ducked his head through the tent flap and bellowed an order for a tray.
He didn’t wait to see that his orders were followed. He didn’t have to. They always were.
She slept with naked steel close by.
It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Ennon. Of all the men left in their world, he surely numbered among the few who would never harm her. He was First Warlord, her cousin’s most trusted ally. He had long been a friend to the royal family.
She trusted him as far as she trusted any man who was not Malrion, but it didn’t lessen the terror of recent weeks. A bed was the last place she felt safe, even a rough army cot like the one he’d had brought for her.
So she slept with her sword on the ground next to her, her dreams fitful and restless. Darkness came late in the summer, especially on the vast plains where the sunset lit the endless skyline. The need to run had become a painful ache, a magic that cut at her from the inside, a thousand tiny slices that would only be healed when she felt dirt under her paws.
Dusk, he’d said. But he was an important man, the entire vast armies of the lions under his command. For that reason it surprised her when she started from another half-dream to find him standing in the last lingering hint of twilight.
“Up, Kisri,” he murmured. “It’s time.”
Small aches and pains vanished as she rose so quickly she nearly tripped. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears, a primal throb that would soon match the rhythm of her paws slamming against the earth as she ran and ran. Sheer gratitude made her dizzy. “Thank you.”
He eyed her, his arms crossed over his strong chest. “These clothes, are they attuned to you? If they’re not, I can wait for you outside.”
A detail she had not considered–one she’d had no reason to consider, not with her other form too dangerous to assume. At home she had an embarrassing abundance of gowns and trousers alike, all enchanted to vanish when she became a lion and return when she regained human form.
The army had a wizard who did nothing but attune armor and uniforms to the soldiers, but Kisri had studiously avoided him. He would have seen through her glamour too easily.
She swallowed hard and hoped her cheeks weren’t pink from the furious embarrassment churning in her gut. “I’ll join you outside.”
Ennon opened his mouth, then closed it with a nod and vanished from the tent with silent steps.
The overwhelming masculinity of her surroundings was so much more threatening as she worked at the fastenings on her clothing. Commoners might regard nudity as a natural state, but the nobility could afford to have all of their clothing attuned to them. One undressed to bathe or to mate and, with Ennon’s musky scent curled around her, the act of stripping off her clothing seemed painfully significant.
Foolishness. At least he’d brought her bag to her. Crammed into one corner, she found the only thing she had from her own wardrobe–the gauzy shift she’d been wearing the night she’d fled her home. Scant protection, but she felt better slipping it over her head. Less vulnerable.
The change had never come so easily. She curled her toes against the rough carpet and closed her eyes, and magic spilled free in a relieved rush. Giddy, joyful even, and soon enough she stretched all four legs, heavy claws pricking at the rug as she padded forward and nudged aside the tent flap with her nose.
Ennon waited as a lion, on four legs instead of two, with lush fur and a thick ginger mane in place of his dark blond hair. “Ready, Kisri?”
His voice, stroking inside her mind in a dark caress. She wasn’t small for a lioness, but she still felt dwarfed by his size as she stopped next to him. Around them, men had begun to gather, their murmurs low but their gazes all too telling. She wasn’t so naive as to think there weren’t women stashed somewhere, the quiet camp followers who sold their attentions to the soldiers who could afford them. But they were tucked away. Hidden.
She felt on display. “I wish to run.”
When the soldiers moved too close, Ennon snarled, a low, angry rumble, and they scattered. “I know a place.” He dug in, the muscles in his haunches rippling, and shot off toward the edge of camp.
Fast, but not fast enough. A child could have seen he was checking his speed, going easy, as if she was a fragile creature and not a woman grown. She shoved her claws into the dirt and launched herself after him. No holding back, no pacing herself. The need to be free burned through her, so she trusted in her new protector and ran.
They cleared the camp in no time, soldiers flinging themselves from the path of their wild flight. For so long she’d been locked up, trapped in her fragile human body. As a woman she was half of herself, a song with only a few notes or a story with every other page torn away.
Like this, sprinting across the plains, able to claim two legs or four paws as it suited her–like this, she was whole.
Ennon avoided the small stands of trees scattered here and there as they crossed the plains at a ground-devouring lope. Only when they neared the forest did he round in a wide arc.
They had to be miles from the camp by now, and the sweet thrill of exertion filled her, the quiet burn in muscles too-long neglected. She slowed to a walk, her sides heaving with panted breaths as she padded through the gentle night, the sky stretched above her like black glass with thousands of twinkling diamonds spilled upon its surface. This close to the woods everything was wild grass, green and fragrant. She inhaled and dragged in the scent of clean air and the nearby woods and–
“Feel better, Kisri?”
She’d shared thoughts with dozens of family and friends. Hundreds, maybe. Never before had another lion’s words brought with them such delicious warmth, an intimate touch that would have brought color to her human cheeks. It made her wonder what he felt in her quiet reply. “Very much so.”
He’d stopped on a small, elevated knoll that would afford a useful view of the surrounding plains. He sank to the grass, rolling once before turning his head to watch her. “Does this bother you?”
“Does what bother me?”
He didn’t blink. “My thoughts in your head.”
Kisri turned and circled behind him, stretching her legs with every slow step. “No, it does not bother me.” The truth, as far as it went, since she liked the brush of his mind too much.
“But it unsettles you.”
The danger of such communication was the inability to lie. Anyone who grew up with royal connections, however, learned to shroud their fibs in false truth. “You are very male, Ennon, and I have had cause to be wary of a male learning the secrets of my heart.”
He actually yawned. “A few days more, and you will be safe in your cousin’s care. That is what you want, yes?”
The casual dismissal cut for reasons she did not care to examine. Her tail swished angrily as she studied his profile and considered biting him. “Of course.”
Something in his eyes sharpened, as if she’d answered a question. “Of course.”
Kisri hissed and crouched low, digging her paws into the grass as she sought the best footing. The urge to pounce was overwhelming, to fling herself at him, test her strength. To play, or fight–the same thing, perhaps. It simmered inside her, a pulsing need. “You are too accustomed to being obeyed.”
He merely stretched, though she knew somehow that he could be ready in a breath to meet any attack. “Is that not what I am? I am the First Warlord, a commander of lions.”
“A commander of lions,” she agreed. Anticipation shivered through her as she settled her back legs, felt muscles tense. “But I am a lioness.”
With a challenge so blatant hanging between them, he would expect her to lunge. Lunge she did, not at him but past him, drawing on the speed of her compact body as she dove into the grass and savored the thrill of being alive. Wild.
He crashed through the grass behind her, his greater bulk bearing down on her as her muscles tired and she slowed, just a bit.
Enough for him to catch her. He pounced with a roar, tumbling both of them to the ground in a roll. She twisted and bit at his jaw, a teasing nip, then wiggled away and crouched low, her tail whipping through the grass.
Play. Easy, perfect play, with no fear and no violence. Even when she pounced again and he rolled them easily, no darkness intruded. She didn’t feel threatened when he wrestled her to the ground, when one enormous paw batted at her, claws carefully sheathed. Ennon did not seek to conquer, to hurt.
She shuddered beneath him and went passive, her muscles trembling with exertion. He growled, a low purr, and held her for a moment longer.
Then he released her and backed away. “I sent a messenger to your cousin. If I know Mal, he will trust no one but me with your safety. When we hear back from him, we’ll travel on.”
Which meant soon she’d be safe under the watchful eye of her cousin, whose wrath no one would dare test. The long months of guarding her virtue against men determined to claim her birthright would be over.
So would her long months of relative freedom. When Mal turned his attention once more to the mundane matters of day-to-day life, the unmarried state of the youngest royal lioness would not go unnoticed.
That he might force her into an undesired mating was unimaginable, but his tolerance was limited. She doubted it would extend to open-mindedness when it came to her observance of the rules of courtship. She’d go to her husband’s bed a virgin, ignorant of all of the ways one found pleasure in a mate. Ignorant of passion, and how to choose a man who could inspire it.
This was her last chance…and perhaps her greatest opportunity. Ennon was a man with little to gain. He had the High Lord’s ear, estates and riches beyond the average man’s imagining, not to mention his pick of women. Claiming her could cost him more than he could hope to gain.
Foolishness. Kisri rested her chin on her paws and relaxed, banishing temptation. Ennon might stir her curiosity, but even her inexperienced instincts recognized the danger. A girl should not play games with a warlord.
Even if learning the rules from him would be–
No. She’d ignore Ennon’s grace and strength and the odd way her body tightened when he stalked past her with such intensity.