Read The Stubborn Lord Online

Authors: Michelle M. Pillow

Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Paranormal, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Demons & Devils, #Science Fiction

The Stubborn Lord (10 page)

BOOK: The Stubborn Lord
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It was only by chance that Alek detected the muffled clank of chains on stone. He changed direction, running in shifted form through the forest toward the old rock quarries. The mines had been abandoned centuries ago, but the ruins were still there, overgrown with trees and brush. The sound stopped. Alek paused, listening past his pounding heart. Another clank. The noise was louder than before but still muffled. He crouched to the ground. This was not how Attor usually fought. The Var king was boastful, prideful. But if not Attor or his men, then who? Who would take Bron?

What if there was no enemy? Alek could detect nothing of the cat shifters. There were no tracks, no scented markings on trees. If Bron had gone for a run in the forest, which was likely by the way the new duchess acted about being married, then it was possible he’d been mad and careless. What if he had fallen down a weakened shaft? Of course, in such a case, the duke should have been able to claw his way out of it.

Nothing about this seemed right.

The clank sounded again. Alek moved toward a sink hole in the ground. He pushed a pile of brush aside. “Bron?”

Nothing.

“Bron, are you down there? Bron?”

It took a moment, but he heard a muffled answer, “Alek? Is that you?”

“Bron, hold on, I’m coming!” He glanced around the forest before dropping himself down into the hole. Light streamed in from above into the dark tunnel. The walls were crumbling stone and the hole smelled of earth and insects. He heard the ticking of tiny creatures behind the stones as the insects crawled around him unseen.

“Have the Var captured you as well? Are you harmed?” Bron asked.

Alek moved toward a boulder and began to push. There were fresh markings on the floor where the stone stood. Someone had recently shoved it into place. The stone scraped. Alek pounded his fists alongside it to knock the boulder loose. It had been jammed against the uneven wall to block a thick metal door. He kicked at the rusted metal to jar it free on its stiff hinges before bracing his feet on the wall to pry it open. Finally, he was able to fit his hand through the opening along the metal edge. He bit back a growl as he broke in to where his brother was held chained to a wall. The hollowed-out prison was pitch black. Bron had been buried alive and left to starve.

Who would do such a thing?

Alek coughed lightly as he breathed in the dust stirred by the old door. “I saw no Var, but that does not mean they are not close. There were boulders against your door. Someone did not want you found.”

“Help me with the chains,” Bron commanded. They both pulled, using their shifted strength to force the chains free from the wall. The metal pins gave with a loud crack of stone. Bron threw the chains over his shoulder as the cuffs were still attached to his wrists. “How did you find me?”

“Your wife.” Alek slid through the broken doorframe and passed the dislodged boulder. The old shafts were hardly safe and this one had no support beams, only crumbling stones to form a dilapidated wall.

“Aeron?” Bron asked. “Is she all right?”

“I caught her trying to travel down to the palace with your ceffyl.” Alek paused, breathing deeply to sense their surroundings. Tension tightened every muscle. Still, he detected no one. Absentmindedly, he reassured his brother, “She is safe.”

Bron nodded. He looked like he wanted to ask more but refrained. Right now they needed to get clear of the old mines and figure out what was happening. Alek didn’t volunteer more information about Aeron. Nothing he had to say would be useful. He knew little of the woman but that the gods had chosen her for his brother. In that he had faith she was a good fit to the family honor and a deserving woman. Still, there had been something about the way she denied her marriage to Bron that did not inspire sympathy within him. She had not known Alek and Bron were brothers when she said it. It was dishonorable to deny a marriage, and so soon after the ceremony was finished, especially out of the circle of family.

Alek led the way toward the light. Bron blinked heavily before letting his eyes shift from dragon to human. The human eyes would be less sensitive to the sudden change in brightness.

“Careful,” Bron warned. “They disguise their scent. I did not smell them coming for me. I was running and then I was in that dungeon, as if only a second had passed in between.”

Alek leapt up the hole. His tone hard as they clawed their way up a narrow shaft toward the light, he asked, “How could you not detect their foulness? Has your bride tainted your thinking so much?”

They appeared on the forest floor. The smell of the mountain instantly replaced the stagnant earth. The forest was still, but for the gentle call of the birds. Bron didn’t answer.

Alek continued, “How did the Var know of this place? We have been all over these mountains and I have never heard of an underground prison. It looks to be a relic of the ancient wars. They must not have expected anyone to find you. I think they left you to rot.” Alek gave Bron a meaningful look. “I am glad the gods had other plans for you.”

“I owe you much, brother,” Bron said, by way of a thank you.

Alek nodded once. “It was your bride who alerted me. I may have been harsh with her.” The words were possibly an understatement, but it was all the apology he would make on the matter.

“I will take care of it,” Bron said. “I will make her understand.”

Alek took a deep breath, ready to sprint. “Can you run? I left our brides at the cabin when I came to track you.”

Bron answered by leading the way at full speed. The thick chains bounced against his shifted flesh. Alek followed behind him, keeping pace. With each passing second, he thought more of Kendall. He wanted to get back to her, to know she was all right. The fear was irrational. He would have sensed danger before he left them. The cabin was safe.

Still, a nagging fear in light of the fact that Bron had been captured would not leave him. As they neared the cabin, Bron slowed his pace. Alek breathed deeply and focused his senses. The forest was clear. He detected movement inside the cabin. It was light and nonthreatening.

“Seven out of eight of us found brides,” Bron said, pulling his brother’s attention away from the women.

Alek frowned at the statement. “All but Mirek, yes. Did they strike you on the head? I know who found brides. Do you not remember that I was at the ceremony?”

Bron matched his brother’s look. “My head is fine. My point is that seven of us found brides. Marriage means children and our heirs will grow to power.”

“If you try to speak to me of how children are made, I have to tell you, brother, I am not as innocent as you assume.” Alek couldn’t help his smirk.

“I feel sorry for your bride,” Bron returned. “You will probably come at her like a ceffyl male in heat. Do try to remember ladies don’t like to be bucked in the head before the mating ritual.”

Falling instantly back into the more serious conversation, Alek said, “You think that someone kidnapped you and locked you away in order to stop the next generation of leaders?” Scary as the prospect was, Alek had to admit that it was a good plan. The best way to stop an age-old battle was to ensure the enemy had no future generations to lead or to fight. “If that is true, none of us are safe. We should inform the king and warn the princes.”

“And Vladan,” Bron added. “I have no desire to start a war with the Var, but who else would do this? Mirek has said nothing about threats from off world.”

“It is unlike King Attor to capture a prisoner of high worth only to ignore him. He would want everyone to know about it.”

“Perhaps he needed it kept secret.” Bron took a step toward the cabin. “And perhaps there was not enough time for his boasting.”

Alek hated the Var. The smelly cats were deceitful, prideful and represented nothing but death and war in his mind. His father had felt the same way. It was why the man had preferred to run the mines rather than be on the battlefront. When called, Alek’s father had gone to war as was his duty, but he preferred the easy life in the mountains.

“Even if Attor wished to keep it secret, he would have wanted you to know who captured you and abandoned you in the ancient dungeon.” Alek paused next to the cabin, out of sight from the windows. He could hear the women moving inside and knew they were safe.

“I’m not sure how much you know about mining,” Kendall said, the sound of her beautiful voice muffled by the walls, “but this planet is one of the only mineral-rich sources of the
galaxa-promethium
, a semi-radioactive element that not only has stable isotopes, but whose elements can be harnessed to fuel long voyaging starships. Normally, only very trivial amounts of the element can be found naturally.”

Alek forced his attention away from his bride. She was well. There was time to discuss this with his brother before they went inside. “He would have marked the wall, or clawed your skin.”

“Who else would dare?” Bron asked.

“Who else would gain by it?” Alek returned. “Perhaps you should speak to your bride.”

Bron stiffened and clenched his fist. Alek refused to elaborate on his comment, but he didn’t need to. Any further words would have just been insulting. However, it needed to be said. If Aeron’s past lover—or lovers—wanted Bron out of the way, it would make sense. What better way to stake claim to the woman than to make it look like her new husband had run out on his marital duties? He couldn’t believe that Aeron was behind the kidnapping directly. The gods would not have allowed such a match.

Alek was surprised when Bron didn’t hit him. If his brother had even hinted such a thing about Kendall, he would have punched him and rightly so.

“The king told you,” Bron stated.

Alek quirked a brow, not understanding. Bron mistook his silence as confirmation.

“It is true. I was unable to resist my bride and consummated the marriage early. This could be nothing more than a punishment from the gods.” Bron didn’t meet his eyes. “Come. I need a bath. Let us hope this is the end of it.”

Alek looked up toward the sky, studying the green tint of the heavens. He couldn’t help but wonder if the gods intended to punish him for his own lapse in tradition. He should have resisted Kendall. Yet, how could he have? Just thinking her name caused his body to lurch in reaction. He should have brought her to the bridal procession. He should have waited for her to take off his mask. He should have done many things differently.

“Alek,” Bron insisted when he didn’t move.

Alek nodded and followed his brother into the cabin.

“It’s a certification program. I’m working on finishing Fuelologist and Station Engineer training through the Exploratory Science Commission,” Kendall stated. “It made sense, being as I grew up on a space fuel port.”

“Who are your people?” Aeron asked.

“They are called Haven, like me, Kendall Haven,” Kendall said.

Alek reached out to stop Bron from entering the cabin. He wanted to hear more. He moved too late. His brother pulled the door open, shoving the wood aside much harder than was necessary. It slammed, causing both women to gasp loudly.

“What happened to you?” Aeron demanded, standing within seconds. Relief flooded her face she hurried toward her husband.

Kendall didn’t move to greet them. Disappointment filled Alek as he stepped past his brother to move toward the table.

“Spoken like a true wife,” he muttered.

Aeron frowned at him. Alek gave her a blank look in return. He wasn’t sure why he gave the woman such a hard time, but it most likely had something to do with the way she’d denied her marriage. Perhaps being cold toward Aeron saved him from voicing his frustrations over his own failing marriage.

“It is nothing for you to be concerned over,” Bron told his wife.

“Nothing to be concerned over?” Aeron repeated in disbelief. “How can you say that? You disappeared. There was no trace of you anywhere, and then you come back looking like you clawed your way out of a gravesite, and you say it’s nothing to be concerned over? Are you daft?”

Alek tried to ignore them as he went toward Kendall. She didn’t run to him, merely watched him approach. What had he expected? That the small time apart would have changed her mind and made her want to be with him forever? Doubtful. If anything, she was probably holding her breath waiting the appropriate amount of seconds before asking him to find her a way off his planet.

“Why?” Bron asked somewhat loudly. “Were you concerned about me?”

“I doubt your wife would dishonor our family name with worry,” Alek inserted, reminding them that there were two other people in the cabin. “No woman would want a weak husband who hides behind her skirts.”

“Dishonor?” Kendall asked before Aeron could get out whatever sputtering answer was forming on her lips. His new sister-in-law seemed braver now that her husband was by her side. Aeron met Alek’s gaze challengingly, nothing like the timid creature he’d first seen coming down alone on the mountain path. Maybe he had misjudged her.

Kendall continued, forcing him to turn his eyes to her. “How is being worried about someone dishonorable?”

Alek wondered at the heat in her question. The answer was so logical it should have been obvious. “You should trust the will of the gods, and in the strength of your man.” He lowered his voice so the others wouldn’t hear him—unless Bron listened really hard, but the duke’s attention was elsewhere. “A man is not a man if he cannot protect what is his, Kendall. Women are soft, fragile. They are to be protected. All men know this.”

She arched a brow.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Alek asked. “What I say is logical.”

“So now it’s a man thing?” Kendall demanded loudly.

He didn’t understand the cause of her irritation, but she was gorgeous with her flushed cheeks and widened eyes. He was overcome with the sudden urge to drag her to one of the back rooms to finish what Aeron had interrupted.

Kendall seemed completely unaware of the fantasies playing in his head. “I’m not sure I like your tone. Are you implying that women are weaker than men? That we should just sit back and let the men folk handle everything?”

BOOK: The Stubborn Lord
2.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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