Meet Cale and Kendra . . .
Meet Cale, Prince of the House of Terriot:
Cale took another long pull at his beer and stared listlessly up at the stars. They’d been bright against that black sea when he’d first come out on the patio with a small group of revelers, but now, as he sat alone, he could hardly tell they were there. He closed his eyes, frustrated and discouraged. And lonely, despite being surrounded by family.
He’d been properly congratulated and openly admired, but none of that did a damn thing to erase the memory of Kendra’s disdain. Perhaps he should have let himself be beaten to a pulp to gain her sympathy. He remembered how sweet that was, how gentle she could be, how tender her touch. Of course, she’d been little more than a child then, but his memories had aged her progressively with every passing year.
He sighed and took another drink. The competition had served its purpose. He’d spoken his claim and reinforced his ability to make good on it. The only one left to convince was Kendra. At the moment, he didn’t believe she could think less of him.
She was right. He was a beast. He’d had to be, to win this chance to have her. He’d have to show her he could be other things, too. Good things, noble things, admirable things. Protector, mate, friend. And lover, not just the throw-her-down-to-sink-a-claim-and-carry-off-a-crown the rest of them were interested in. He was interested in that, but only as a secondary goal, far removed from the one that would have her looking at him as she had when they were young. Who needed to see the stars when that glimpse of heaven was in her eyes?
Tomorrow he’d have another chance to breach that gap between them . . . that yawning open grave filled with the bodies of her loved ones. Just how, he didn’t know, short of falling to his knees to proclaim the truth. I have loved you all my life and will never be any kind of man without you.
He stood in the shadowed doorway. Before him was everything he’d ever wanted, there for the taking, but for the first time in a long time, he was afraid to make a move.
A blush of moonlight filtered down from the skylight to bathe Kendra’s sleeping form in a tender halo. So beautiful that it hurt to look upon her while dark, urgent thoughts prowled. His gaze adored the relaxed innocence of her features, the way her fair hair rippled across the pillow like silk. No protective bulk of fleece tonight. Something silky and shimmering detailed the contours of her graceful shape.
His soft exhale of longing was tempered by the fisting of hands that still shook. He couldn’t keep himself away any longer. His need had intensified into an agony of desire and regret. Her scent drew him inexorably where he shouldn’t go, where he couldn’t trust himself to be. Close enough to be a threat to her. Because promises had yet to be sealed with a bond.
She stirred in her sleep, murmuring softly, rolling onto her back. That slippery gown whispered across her breasts and hips the way his hands yearned to. He watched her take unhurried breaths, unaware of how harsh and forceful his own had become.
It was the way his family did things. Swift, purposeful action, necessarily brutal, to take and hold what was theirs. His queen, beside him. His heirs, inside her.
That dizzying heat returned, scalding his brain, flaming through his body in a shuddering rush. An inferno of raw determination.
She’s yours by her own vow. Claim her!
She shifted within that seductive wrap of silk, and all he could think of was tearing it off her, feeling the warmth of her body, exulting in the glorious relief of joining with her beautiful spirit.
Staining it. Bruising it. Crushing it along with her trust and any love she might ever have felt for him.
The cool touch of her voice pierced through the pounding rage of his intentions. He faded
back into shadow, silently withholding his presence from her until she settled back to sleep.
“You honor me with your attention, my king.”
“It’s been an honor having you placed in my care.”
Over the corpses of my family. Teeth gritted, Kendra kept her reply mild. “You’ve been very kind and generous. And patient.”
“My concern for you is the reason I’ve called you here.” A sudden wracking cough made him pause; he began again with a slight wheeze. “I’m being unpleasantly reminded that I’m not immortal. I need to make sure our clan is entrusted to the right hands. I have eight eligible sons. All would make strong leaders if they had you beside them.”
Kendra almost dropped to her knees as they went traitorously weak. Time’s up. Her breath caught as he continued.
“I have four bonded sons who have fine mates, but none of them would be my choice as queen. You’re the one I would have seated next to my successor.”
Her thoughts scrambled desperately. “I have no political pull, no experience.”
He cut her off. “You have sentimental ties to my people. They’d rally behind you no matter which of my sons you pick. Your father was beloved by our clan. He was a great man with many friends.”
Her shock and distress loosened a tongue she ought to have held. “Then perhaps you shouldn’t have killed him.”
Her soft words echoed in the room like the sound of a trap-door dropping out from under her feet. Kendra could see her death in the widening surprise and slow furious narrowing of Bram’s eyes. The fact that he refrained from immediate retaliation had her wondering if she held some degree of power after all.
“One makes mistakes that are later regretted,” he told her with careful control. “I plan to amend that by bonding you to one of my sons.”
Cale stepped forward with a quick “I demand the right of first claim.”
Startled, Kendra glanced his way. His tightly leashed intensity reminded her that behind the civilized veneer, a barely restrained attack dog quivered at the end of its chain. She had no doubt that if released by a word from his father, he would take her to the floor right then and there to seal the deal for that coveted place on the throne.
Bram chuckled. “I’m sure you do. But you’ll wait your turn, just as your brothers will have to. The decision is hers. Step back and be silent.”
Cale inclined his head slightly, withdrawing to stand beside his siblings, though his coiled focus never wavered. His stare remained fixed upon her.
Bram offered an apologetic smile, saying, “Boys,” with an indulgent shrug as if that explained away everything. “Patience is not a virtue of the young so I’m afraid I must insist on an answer before the decision is taken from you.”
Kendra swallowed in panic. “How could I choose among them, my king? I’ve never even exchanged words with most of them, so how could I pledge my future? I can’t rush a decision this important if I’m to serve your crown by choosing wisely.”
Impatience wasn’t just a curse of the young. She could see it thinning Bram’s lips before they eased into another smile. “I was right to select you, my dear. You’ll give this task the gravity it deserves and this clan the heirs it needs.”
Suddenly, all Kendra could hear was the hard rhythm of Cale’s breathing. Imagining the forceful heat of it on the back of her neck quickened a shiver. She held her ground, but not without difficulty.
“If it’s courting you want,” Bram announced, “that’s what you’ll have. A little contest to put my sons through their paces will be good for them. Some competition to impress you and some conversation to woo your affection. And then you’ll choose.”
Kendra had no interest in getting to know the fiercely misogynistic Terriot princes. What she already knew was the stuff of nightmares. All she was after was a stay of execution that would give Silas time to snatch her from their grasp. And keep her from their beds.
“Thank you for the opportunity to be fair and wise.”
And, if she were very lucky, to escape.