And the Beast, Story Three
After three years at war, the First Warlord of the Forest alone faces the newly won peace with trepidation–a curse ensures the wolves of Farran’s family line are fit only for violence. Denied an enemy, he would prefer to return to his remote keep alone and turn that inevitable rage inward. Unfortunately, there’s the small matter of the bride he took in a moment of madness.
Iloria is a gently reared lady, trained from childhood to be the wife of the High Lord himself. Instead, she finds herself wed to his brutish commander, a man who offered kindness in her weakest moment. She’s more than willing to turn her dreams toward building a life with Farran, but her new husband seems reluctant to speak to her, much less bed her.
Farran’s isolated castle offers him little respite from the temptation of Iloria’s stubborn affections. Every encounter with her chips away at his self-control–a dangerous thing for a cursed man. If he takes her to his bed, he won’t stop until he’s mated his virgin bride…but if he fails to consummate their union, he risks losing the only person who’s ever made him feel like more than a beast.
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 Woods 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.
With no violence on which to feed the beast within, the First Warlord of the Forest intended to return to his solitary castle. He never imagined he’d bring a well-bred lady with him—one ignorant of the curse that had plagued his family for generations.
She was untouchable.
The men who’d thought to try their luck were quickly turned away by her family’s lofty plans for her future. She was to wed the High Lord, of course, and no mere noble could hope to compete with that.
Then the High Lord took another as his mate, and those men who had looked at her with covetous eyes began to wonder why. What fault had he uncovered, what infirmity did she bear?
She was untouchable.
If he hadn’t already known madness ran in his family, Farran would surely suspect its presence now.
Iloria walked beside him, every inch the perfect well-bred wolf. A torment, to have her so close, her sweet scent curling around him as they paced the endless corridors of his ancestral home. She was a beautiful creature, as out of place surrounded by the gray stone walls as a delicate flower on a battlefield.
He’d been mad to bring a woman here, madder still to bring one so proper she’d been intended for the High Lord himself. They’d been home for a candlemark and he already wondered if he could send her away.
That she was too polite to look as if fleeing was her fondest wish only made it more difficult. They’d walked too long in silence already. He had to speak before she thought him mute.
“The castle has little in the way of decorations, but if you wish, you can add your own touches.”
“Of course I shall.” She sounded grateful and entitled, all at once.
Such a perfect lady. Ciar might have known how to handle her, but the High Lord was already mated to a wild woman who made his heart sing. Iloria would have to settle for him. “There are some things which should not be changed. The housekeeper can tell you what those things are.”
She turned to him, dark eyebrows arched over dark eyes. “Should not be changed for what reason?”
On some things he could not bend, not even for beautiful eyes. “Tradition, my lady. Tradition that must be respected.”
“I see.” Her expression told him plainly that she did not, but she would obey just the same. “Will your housekeeper also explain how you prefer domestic matters to be handled? I’m told I shall have plenty of time left over from my social duties, so I can attend such things myself.”
If she performed any social duties, she’d be the first lady of the castle to do so since his grandmother had passed away forty years before. The nearby village looked to them for protection, but only the bravest ventured forth for an audience with the lord of the castle.
More might, if they knew Iloria’s smiling face would greet them instead of his severe frown. “To be honest, I’ve been so rarely at home that my staff has made all the decisions for me. Perhaps, now that I’m likely to be here for a time, you and I can come to a new consensus together.”
She offered him a smile, tentative but genuine. “I would like that very much.”
Oh, but she was dangerous. So bold in some ways, yet so shy in others. Young and untouched, as any woman hoping to mate the High Lord would surely be. The war had dragged on for many years, and his body ached at the thought of one of Iloria’s sweet smiles curving her lips as he touched her.
Dangerous, indeed. Farran found it necessary to clear his throat as he urged her down the hallway again, though in truth he’d forgotten their destination. “Some find the castle’s layout perplexing, but it was designed as a defensive keep and expanded later.”
“I’m sure I can manage.” Her pale cheeks colored, and she stared straight ahead. “Where are my rooms in relation to yours?”
He shouldn’t answer. He did, regardless. “We share a wing of the castle.”
“Oh.” If anything, she seemed relieved, not frightened.
The knowledge shouldn’t have intrigued him. “Shall I show you now?”
“Yes, please.” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I would speak frankly, if it suits you.”
If she spoke frankly on the subject of bedrooms and beds, he might still terrify her. And yet, it was impossible to tell her no. “Of course.”
“I accepted your offer of marriage with some…trepidation.”
His chest ached. “I imagine so.”
Her blush returned. “I admit now, though, I hold out hope that my first assumption was wrong, that perhaps you were motivated by something more than—than pity.”
It was all too easy to recall the moment of his rash action. Ciar had chosen another, and Iloria stood alone, young and beautiful and lost, a woman whose reputation would forever be tarnished through no fault of her own. How well he understood living in the shadow of someone else’s mistake.
“Not pity,” he agreed carefully, unwilling to give away too much. “You’d be a prize for any man, Iloria.”
She nodded and dipped her head. “I’ve always known this was my lot in life, Farran. Marriage to a man I did not choose, not because I wouldn’t have but because I did not possess the liberty to do so.” She seemed to be struggling for words. “I will be a good wife.”
Kind words that deserved kindness in return, but if he offered the truth, it would be anything but kind. I will be a wretched husband. Not through choice, but some things were beyond his control. They always had been.
And now he’d cursed her to live out the nightmare of his legacy with him.
Her new husband did not want her here.
Iloria blinked back tears and rubbed her arms as she surveyed her sitting room. Farran had escorted her here—and then he’d run like the hounds of hell were chasing him. A polite man would have at least attempted a lie, smiled and told her how happy he was to have her at the castle.
It seemed instead that Farran’s reputation for being gruff and aloof had been well-earned.
She pushed through the antechamber door and into her bedroom. A huge four-poster bed dominated one side of the room, and Iloria sank to it wearily.
The last thing she’d wanted was to wed a man who didn’t want her. She would have preferred solitude, even if it came with the scandal of having been jilted by the prince. She was of noble blood, from one of the oldest wolf lines in the land. She would have survived.
Now, instead, she’d have to smile through her misery and pretend happiness. She was willing and ready to work hard to ensure the success of her marriage, but there was nothing she could do with a husband who resented her presence.
An unmitigated disaster, truly.
A knock sounded on the door. “My lady? Lord Farran bid me introduce myself. May I come in?”
Iloria hurriedly wiped her eyes and rose. “Yes, enter.”
The woman who stepped in was tall and sturdy, a strong woman who looked old enough to be Iloria’s mother. Her expression was firm but kind, and she dropped only the briefest curtsy before straightening. “I’m Magda. My husband and I have managed this castle for twenty years now.”
“Pleased to meet you.” The first order of business was to establish that she was no danger to Magda’s position or authority. “I’m told there are traditions here, ways my husband wishes things to be done. I was hoping I could trespass on your kindness, and perhaps you’d explain them to me.”
The older woman nodded. “One is of utmost importance. You may do with the decorations what you will, but you must not touch the tapestries.”
Iloria had noticed them, heavy and sturdily woven. “Not even the ones covering the windows?”
Was it her imagination, or did the woman flinch? “Not even those.”
“As my Lord desires.” Iloria shivered. “I wish to give my husband a wedding gift, but I had no time to procure one before leaving the capital. Have you any idea what he might enjoy?”
The woman hesitated for a moment too long. “My lord has always been partial to his privacy, but it is my instinct… That is, I believe he would be grateful if you invited him to dine with you tonight.”
Prior to their arrival, it had not occurred to Iloria to do anything but dine with her husband every evening. Now, the idea made her want to shrink into the cold stone floor. “Thank you, Magda. I believe I will do that. If my husband is amenable, that is.”
Sympathy filled Magda’s dark eyes. “My lord is a difficult man to know. There are things…” She shook her head. “But it is not my place to say, if you do not know the legend.”
“I have heard of no legend.”
Magda pressed her lips together. “I’ve already said too much.”
“No, please—” Iloria reached out, then snatched back her hand. “Please tell me.”
“It—” The woman stepped closer and lowered her voice. “The First Warlord of the Forest always comes from this family. The men are fierce and skilled soldiers, because they carry violence in their blood. An ancient curse.”
A curse. Violence. Iloria had feared for her contentment, but never for her safety, not even in idle, passing fancy. Not until now. “Are you saying he’s dangerous?”
“Our traditions are set in place to minimize danger. Lord Farran has never harmed one of his vassals.”
It sounded more like a confirmation than a denial, and Iloria wanted to hear no more. She couldn’t, not if she planned to stay. After a moment’s hesitation, she took a deep breath. “Would you deliver a note to my husband, please? I’d like to extend that dinner invitation.”
Magda curtsied again, more deeply this time, and respect stood plain in her eyes. “As my lady commands.”
Iloria sat at the wide desk by the window, where a supply of stationery had already been laid in. She wrote quickly, all the while formulating her plan.
She’d packed her marriage robes for her journey to the capital. They still lay folded in one of her trunks, waiting. The ceremonial silks were meant to be worn on her wedding night, and there was no faster way than wearing them to demonstrate her commitment—or to test Farran’s.