Authors: Jessa Slade
Once, tigress shifter Yelena Morozova wanted to change the
world. Now she can’t even change herself. While searching for the reason behind
her inability to shift, she stumbles through a magical portal—and into the arms
of a dangerously sexy
With the barrier between the
court and the sunlit realm of the humans fading, Arazael
must use all the strength he possesses to close the portals for good. If he
doesn’t, no one on either side will survive the bloodbath. So when Yelena
appears, Arazael can’t let her leave—not until he figures out how she got in.
But the desire between them is impossible to deny, and soon he is tempted to
keep her with him forever...
Every time I open the first blank page of a new story, it’s a thrill. Thrilling like a rollercoaster, soaring and nosediving, laughing and screaming. (Let’s just say there’s a reason so many writers write alone!) DARK PRINCE’S DESIRE is the fourth story in my Steel Born series of dark and sexy preternatural beings and still I feel every bit as excited now—and terrified—to put it in front of you as I felt with the first story. I guess that’s part of the adventure. Thank you so much for following along with me wherever this adventure takes us!
I hope you’re still watching out for me.
Arazael—known as Raze the Ruiner to the rightfully wary inhabitants of the
, the court of the magical
—braced his back against the cold marble wall, staring at the iron door in front of him.
“It is over at last,” he murmured. “After all the battles we survived together, I am done.” As he sank wearily to his haunches, the athame belted at his side clacked against the floor. The pristine white stone made the black iron even darker.
Raze was close enough that the cold-wrought metal bit at him, though he was not technically on the barricaded side and could have dragged his sorry ass down the corridor to escape the painful burn. In the sunlit realm, iron had given way to steel as the humans forgot the vicious wars that had decimated the
But here in the Queen’s dungeon, the torture of black iron was never forgotten.
He was the thrice-damned bastard who made sure of that.
A vein of darkness stained the white marble floor in a rough circle around the iron: the remnant of a ruined gateway that had once connected the
to the human world. Two
had escaped the court through that portal and now lived in the sunlight, their rebellion feeding a troubling restlessness in the court.
A rebellion that had to be crushed.
As if in answer to his thoughts, a crack appeared in the marble and traced the circular vestige of the portal, spreading in both directions, seeking an out. But the fissure found only itself as it reached the opposite side of the ring. Frost flowers bloomed in the wake. The delicate silvery tendrils of ice sparkled with poison salt.
“There is no out,” Raze said to the black iron. As if either of them needed the reminder.
The frost curdled, streaking the marble with improbable drops of crimson as it melted.
Averting his gaze from the iron and its caged fury, Raze drew his athame. The geas symbols carved into the steel refracted the flitting lights of the few will-o’-the-wisps who had followed him this far. He stripped off his gray gloves and pushed back his gray sleeve to bare his muscled forearm, revealing more geasa carved into his skin.
A few of the wounds were still raw. It had taken even longer than he’d feared and it was almost too late, but he’d finally marked every portal in the
where the dangers of the sunlit realm might seep in—and where the even more dangerous
might sneak out. His long-wrought spell needed only one last element: him.
“I’m sorry, my King. There was—there
no other way to save the
As the pool of blood and saltwater tears seeped toward him, he set the blade against the tangle of geasa scarred into his wrist.
* * *
Yelena Morozova counted the empty shot glasses in front of her. There were a lot. Or she was seeing double. Either was a bad sign since for all the best, fiery efforts of the high-powered home-distilled whiskey, she still felt the cold knot deep inside her. Maybe another shot. Or seven...
“Party’s over.” A hand reached over her shoulder to pluck up the bottle.
She whirled to set her back against the bar, her pulse pounding.
Beck straightened slowly, his palm held out in an appeasing gesture. “Sorry. Too fast.”
Behind him, Merrilee bustled past the pool table with a tub of rattling tall boys. “Silly Alpha, you should know better.”
Yelena let out a hitching breath. When she’d emailed Beck Villanova to see how he was recovering from his injuries, he’d talked about the peace he’d found back in his small Eastern Oregon hometown with his new girlfriend. He’d lured Yelena with the promise of long winter nights, much like her motherland, where she might find her idealistic dreams again. She’d gone, hoping he’d be right, knowing he wasn’t.
Instead, for the past week, she’d imbibed too much at Beck’s Sun-Down Tavern—as an NGO volunteer, she’d learned to drink army boys like him under the table—then spent the rest of her sleepless hours wandering around the chilled forest, the November wind nipping at her skin.
But no matter how much skin she exposed, no matter how the cold chomped down, still the
—the Second Truth that was her wereling heritage—evaded her.
She’d been at the same hospital where they’d brought Beck with the wounds that had ended his military days, but she’d known even then his injuries weren’t as bad as hers. Shredded muscle and broken bones would heal, especially for a strong Alpha wolf like Beck, but her damage, though unseen, went deeper.
That cold at her heart sapped even a hint of hope. “If I fall to the
, you’ll stop me.” She didn’t make it a question.
The wolf werelings glanced at each other, the bond between them like a silent song. Their merged strength soothed the jagged edges of her anxiety for a moment; together, they would be enough to end her.
But Beck shook his shaggy head. Though his hair had grown out of its regulation oorah high-and-tight, his jaw was set with the same obstinacy she remembered from grueling days of PT. “Don’t borrow trouble. You’ll find your way to the
When she growled low in her throat and he rumbled back, Merrilee touched his hand to quiet him, her blue eyes half-lidded. “Whatever happens, Yelena, we’ll be here. This is our home and we won’t let anything threaten that.”
Yelena nodded, grateful for the rock steadiness in the other Alpha’s stare. A woman who had brought a wolf to heel—sort of, since he was willing, anyway—was a woman to respect.
A pang of longing for the wolves’ closeness, even in their disagreement, shook Yelena more than she cared to admit. She’d never gotten around to seeking a mate, being too focused on “more important” things.
Some had thought teaching at a girls’ school on the edge of Helmand Province was asking for trouble, but she’d armed herself with grand dreams. She’d hoped to prove a fractured country might be put back together so maybe she could give her family hope to overcome their own difficulties.
She’d gone to Afghanistan to change the world.
Now she couldn’t even change herself.
She pushed away from the bar, relieved her feet stayed under her. “I need some fresh air.”
“Don’t go too far.” Sliding the tub of empty beer cans across the oak, Merrilee reached out as if to pat Yelena’s shoulder.
Yelena sidled away. The coldness inside felt too brittle to bear even the lightest touch.
Under a full moon, with fresh snow on the dark trees, the whole world seemed to have turned to black and white: beautiful but dead. At least the cold darkness kept everyone else away from her. Going so long without the
left her vulnerable to lapses of judgment and loss of self-control. Those whiskeys weren’t helping matters either, but the effects of alcohol wore off eventually while the consequence of failing to change would only worsen.
She didn’t mean to wander, but numb as she was, she didn’t even notice the passage of time until her boots crunched through the snow to the edge of a high mountain lake. Ice rimmed the still, inky water, slowly freezing inward.
She knew too well how that felt.
If only she could sleep.
perchance to dream.
She hadn’t taught Hamlet to her students. Her half-sisters had been underwhelmed by Ophelia’s convenient madness, and she doubted the Afghan girls needed schooling in patriarchal oppression. So she’d focused on Shakespeare’s comedies instead, letting the language and the laughs form a bond with the girls. But in the end, tragedy had found them anyway, and now...
Like the mad Dane, she could see no way out. She was trapped, broken and plagued by nightmares when her only goal had been to set others—those Afghan girls and her troubled sisters—free in a world where their hopeful dreams might come true.
Her eyes burned with the cold and whiskey and sleepless nights as she edged down to the waterside. Past the frozen rim, the full moon blazed a white hole in the open center of the lake like a pathway to some other realm. If she thought for a second she might find her lost other half there, she’d willingly brave the water’s icy kiss.
“What dreams may come,” she muttered as she started to turn away.
Despite the stillness of the night, a ripple made the reflected moon dance. Before the wave subsided, a wash of crimson turned the white orb to blood.
Startled, Yelena glanced up at the moon—pristine-white, as always—and the sudden unbalancing made her boots skid.
She windmilled her arms but found nothing to hold onto. Her ass hit the snow hard enough to jolt a curse from her, then she was sliding. The icy rim at the shore shattered, and the shock of the lake water was as sharp as a knife. She drew a breath to shout—but darkness closed over her head.
Raze pressed the point of the athame into the geas on his wrist, feeling his pulse beat against the steel. A bead of red welled up. His blood would feed the wards he’d carved around the court and seal the
forever. He needed to slice deep and fast before—
Though he was holding his breath, the crimson frost that had melted across the floor riffled, as if an unseen finger swirled the pool. Suspicion stayed his hand. He was the only one in the corridor. Nothing could pass the wards he’d carved. Except...
Letting the athame fall to his side, he leaned forward to peer into the pool.
He had only a glimpse of a wild golden eye before a massive form burst from the shallow pool. Impossible, of course, but the
had a way of throwing the impossible in one’s face.
Just as he was face-to-face with those golden eyes, not to mention the ivory fangs connected to a giant, infuriated tiger.
A spray of icy water followed the beast in a scintillating veil that smelled of dark forests and moonlight. And something hotter, spicier. Instinctively, Raze raised the athame, but the tiger batted it away. In all his battles during the Iron Age, even when defeat had become inevitable, he’d never lost his grip.
He lost it now.
The athame spun away down the corridor, the metallic clatter lost in the tiger’s roar that shook the marble. The sound vibrated in his bones, and the beast’s spicy breath swept his face.
He spun the opposite direction of the lost knife, whirling behind the beast, feeling the smoldering heat from that big body.
He had a tigress by the tail.
Not literally, though. The long striped tail lashed him across the thighs with power enough to stagger him.
This was no illusion of the
, no glamour to melt away come daylight. This was a creature of sun and shadow, her pelt hued from richest gold and saffron to darkest night. And her claws were almost as long as his athame.
He dodged as she raked at him, faster than anything that size should be. He jumped the other direction, reaching toward his blade, focused on summoning it to his hand.... But one claw snagged in his gray cloak. He stumbled as she dragged him back with another furious roar, pulling him beneath her body, her front legs straddling him.
He lifted one bared forearm, the geas scars gleaming pale against his dark skin, to block her jaws. His hand braced against the soft, damp fur as he tried to fend her off. The thud of her massive heartbeat echoed through his palm, as clear as a morning bell tolling.
She froze above him, lips drawn back in a snarl. A surge of power almost made him turn his head, but he refused to look away from his oncoming demise. So he saw the faint shimmer on every long whisker and strand of lush fur that signaled her change.
This time he did shudder, the force of the
irresistible. He’d never been so close to a shifting wereling. All but enclosed within her embrace, the sensation was... intoxicating. The shimmering energy danced across his skin like trailing fingertips, as if the
wanted to mold him into something else, something new.
But he was no wereling with a Second Truth. The
had a million faces, none of them true.
He steeled himself against the tingling in his skin that made his blood race. In another moment, that tidal pull in his flesh would get embarrassing under the loose gray clothes he’d worn for the final, bloody step of locking down the wards.
The tigress tilted back her head as the change pulsed through her, bones shrinking, hard muscles softening to curves, the coarse silk of her striped pelt merging into even silkier skin.
Bare, wet skin, and his hand remained centered in the valley between the enticingly full mounds of her breasts.
Crouched above him, the woman angled her head to look at him, and her cinnamon-hued hair streamed over her creamy skin to tickle his knuckles. Her eyes were still golden, still the beast.
“What did you do to me?” she growled.
With her suddenly smaller form pressed into his, the growl reverberated through him, a sensual rumble. She was wedged so close, her knees tightly framed his hips. He’d had
lovers, once upon a time, but the wild heat of this wereling scorched those memories to ash even as other parts of him surged in silent answer.
“I haven’t done anything to you,” he said.
was implied. His free hand slipped down to settle on her haunch.
She reared back, sweeping his hands aside. If she’d still had claws, he would have had his last wish and filled the geas with his blood.
Instead, he only winced at the bruising blow and pushed to his feet, facing off with her across the bare white corridor where the shallow pool was rapidly drying.
She cast one searching glance around her. “I slipped into the lake and then...” Her gaze arrowed back to him. “This is the
He nodded once. Holding one hand open in front of him, he knelt to retrieve his dropped items. The wereling watched suspiciously as he tucked away the knife and gloves. In his mind, he imagined her long tail lashing.
He kept his voice steady and soothing. “How did you breach the
“I have no idea.” Her tone was anything but soothed. “How did you spark the
“You did.” She paced, her long legs eating up the width of the corridor, each bare footfall in the pool slapping her ire. The remaining water didn’t even cover her toes. She spun on her heel to face him. “Do it again. Change me.”
A note of desperation made his eyebrows rise. “That’s your trick, not mine.”
She snarled, and he glimpsed the beast inside her. “I want out.”
For a moment, he thought the beast itself spoke to him. “I can’t let you go.” When she took a threatening step toward him, he lifted one finger and added, “Not until I find how you got in.”
“I told you. I fell into the lake. I swallowed some water and then I was here.”
“You swallowed more than water,” he noted with a deliberate sniff. “Overindulgence in spirits is a time-honored way into the
” She sputtered, but he asked over her indignation, “Where is this lake?”
Her jaw worked a moment before she answered, “Mad Dog Valley. In Oregon.”
Ah, now he recognized the scent on her. A pair of wolflings from the small mountain stronghold had recently driven off the Queen’s hunters. Raze had sealed that gateway behind the disgraced
, as he’d sealed all other routes.
And yet this tigress had come to him along that path.
Apparently, his geasa weren’t complete. Just as well he hadn’t yet killed himself.
What had he missed? He studied the tense wereling in front of him, which was no hardship. Lean muscles rolled easily under her skin, and she seemed oblivious to her nakedness. He didn’t have that calmness, and the rough abrasion of the robe only made him more aware of the difference.
But her stripped splendor and the scent of night clinging to her hair wasn’t what he needed. He needed answers.
“I am Raze,” he said. “Prince of the
and vizier to the Queen. What shall I call you?”
She barred her teeth in an insincere smile. “A taxi?”
He tilted his head. “This is a joke from the sunlit realm, I think.” He’d had little to do with the world since the Iron Wars.
Her smile upended. “Not joking. I want out. But first I want to know how you forced the
on me. Tell me.”
Despite the demand in her words, the furious gold had faded from her eyes, leaving a darker amber flecked with green. Raze relaxed a bit since she seemed less likely to rip him apart.
“This court is a place of enchantment,” he reminded her. “Perhaps the magic here inspired you.”
“The Second Truth isn’t a two-penny magic charm I rub between my fingers,” she snapped. “It’s what I
He hummed in the back of his throat and traced his gaze over her nude silhouette. “Your wild side is quite charming, although I admit, I find this shape even more so.”
A rosy flush brightened her cheeks, and she angled one arm across her body. The move only served to plump the curves she sought to hide. Beads of water glistened on the upper swell of her breasts and across her flared hips. He was a beast himself to tease her, but he had not been named the Ruiner for his kindnesses.
“No wonder Mom said to stay away from
,” she muttered.
“Your name,” he reminded her. “Your name in exchange for my cloak.”
When she narrowed her eyes, a glint of gold shone beneath her dark lashes, but she said grudgingly, “Yelena,” and held out her hand. “Morozova, of the Amur tribe.”
He shrugged out of the gray cloak, keeping the loose trousers and sleeveless tunic for himself. But instead of passing over the robe, he took her hand—though he should not have done so without his gloves—and raised it to his lips. “Yelena,” he breathed across her skin before his mouth grazed the soft ridges of her knuckles.
From the way she clenched her fist, he guessed the courtly gesture had expired sometime since he last walked the sunlit realm. A pity, for the touch told him much. Under the pads of his fingers, he felt calluses with a reserved strength behind them. This was no pampered house cat.
Also, the simple touch was a pleasure.
She, however, did not seem particularly pleased as she plucked the cloak from his slackened grip and slid it over her shoulders, wrapping it tightly around her waist. Scaled for his breadth, the folds went nearly twice around her until she secured the belt. The gray cloth looked rough and dowdy against her creamy skin. With a whisper of magic, he could match the cloak to the amber glow of her eyes, reweave it as a silken gown to skim her curves....
With a ruthlessness to befit his name, he crushed the fantasy. He wore the crude homespun because every twitch of his power sustained the geasa. He needed all his magic to find the flaw in the wards.
And she was the key.
“There was a
portal in that lake,” he confirmed. “But it should have been closed. I am uncertain how you got through. Or how to send you back. What were you doing when it opened?”
“Nothing.” She wrinkled her nose. If she’d had whiskers, they would have twitched. “I was looking at the moon, and it turned red.”
Bloodied water. Raze glanced at the cell door. The slow weep from the iron had halted, and the metal seemed to quiver with silent intensity. The silence of attentive listening.
“Come.” He reached for her arm, but she avoided his touch, as lithe as a tabby arching away from an unwanted petting. “If you want out, I need to be in the center of my power.”
She stared at him through narrowed eyes. “Do I have another option?”
Inclining his head, he considered briefly. “No.”
She swept one hand ahead of her. “Then after you.”
He stepped ahead of her, making his way down the corridor.
Leading had never been his intent. Despite the legacy that made him a prince, in the desperate days of the Iron Wars he had become a soldier. He’d served as vizier only because so few survived, but now, with the barrier between the
and the sunlit realm fading, he knew he had to finish what they’d been so loathe to do: seal the court forever.
If he didn’t, no one—not the
, not the werelings, not the humans—would escape the bloodbath.