Outraged that her beloved brother’s soul is to be the Fae tithe to Hell, Elizabeth knows that she must save him. She is the only one in her family who can see the Fae, after all, and is already cursed by their king herself. Malcolm may have offered to replace his comrade out of honor, but Elizabeth knows who better deserves to live—and it is not the handsome rogue, Rafael, who is concerned with his own welfare alone. It should be easy to make a wager with a mercenary, especially as Elizabeth does not care about the cost to herself. To her surprise, though, Rafael proves to be the man who not only takes her dare, but banishes the Fae king’s curse with kisses that turn her blood to fire. Could this hardened warrior, who appears to have no heart, be the destined love she has awaited?
At first glimpse, Rafael believes Elizabeth to be an angel sent to judge him—and he knows what her verdict will be. He has made choices in order to survive, and is not proud of them. But Elizabeth dares him to change, with an audacity that awakens a nobility of purpose that Rafael has forgotten he possessed. Can this bold maiden heal the wounds of his past? Can Rafael earn the right to grant her the life she deserves—and do so before the Fae king springs his trap, making Elizabeth his captive forever?
The Warrior’s Prize is also available in audio.
An excerpt from The Warrior’s Prize:
There was a name to light a flame in the heart of a woman devoid of sense, and truly, Malcolm’s comrade was a man who might steal that heart with a simmering glance. Elizabeth had never met the like of him. He was dangerous and dashing, so vital and virile that he made the men of her former acquaintance look like mere boys, regardless of their ages. The way Rafael smiled, as if he savored a potent secret about her, or as if he might tempt her to partake of forbidden pleasures, made Elizabeth flush with awareness even though she knew his truth. He was dangerous and certainly wicked, a man who had undoubtedly despoiled many a maiden and broken many a heart.
Then carried on his way, without remorse.
How could a man who sold his blade be possessed of any remorse? Nay, this was a man who took what he desired, perhaps even savored it, then sought a new fleeting pleasure to satisfy him. He would be callous and reckless and readily bored, and certainly not one upon whom a lady should rely.
Unless, of course, she wanted her keep defended and could pay the price.
Elizabeth was sure Rafael’s price would be high.
Elizabeth had not believed her own audacity when she challenged Rafael to be a better man, but she had done as much for Malcolm’s sake. She had been surprised that Rafael had not replied sharply that she tend to her own business. Instead, this fearsome man had given her an assessing glance, as if he could peer into the very secrets of her soul and assess her merit. His look had sent a shiver through her.
Followed by a dangerous and beguiling heat.
Oh, that heat was seductive. It hinted of all the matters Elizabeth yearned to learn, of the reason why Alexander and Eleanor were so quick to retire to their chamber on winter nights, on the sly smiles she saw her sisters granted to their wedded spouses. She wished she could have been immune to the allure of this man, but evidently she was woman enough to still feel a thrill in his presence.
Was it because he could read her thoughts? Was it because he knew what she most yearned to know? There was something Elizabeth was missing, though she knew the basic details of what man and wife did abed. She was certain Rafael knew every nuance of how a man and woman might love. She was certain he would welcome the opportunity to demonstrate them all to her.
Even knowing it would be folly to invite his interest, Elizabeth wondered how a single kiss from Rafael would taste.
She did not doubt that it would change her view of kisses for all the rest of her days. Indeed, she doubted that any reputable man’s embrace would stand the comparison.
She would not dare to ask for such a token. Indeed, such curiosity could only lead her to woe. Nay, she had to convince Rafael to make a different choice, and that he had even considered her challenge for a heartbeat had been more of a victory than she had expected.
This was the man who should die in Malcolm’s place.
It would only be just.
Elizabeth studied Rafael, telling herself that she sought a means to awaken his sense of honor. That she was not certain he possessed one only meant—she assured herself—that he required closer scrutiny. That Rafael was a mercenary was clear. He was as tall and muscled as Malcolm, both a sword and a dagger hanging from scabbards on his belt. There was a quiet ferocity about him, as well, and she knew he was keenly aware of his surroundings. Indeed, he looked like a man who would miss no detail, as well as one who could kill with his bare hands.
He was garbed in severe black, not a speck of ornamentation on his garb. His chausses were black leather, simply cut and plain. His boots were tall and wrought of black leather, so similar to his chausses that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. Elizabeth also had no doubt that his legs were muscled and flushed a little to catch herself admiring them. On this day, he wore a white chemise of linen, the lace open at his neck to reveal both his golden tan and a tangle of dark hair upon his chest. His tabard was also black and fell to the top of his thighs, and he wore black gloves.
His eyes were darker than a midnight sky and his hair was as black as ebony. It possessed an unruly curl and glinted in the sunlight. His skin was tanned to a deeper gold than that of Malcolm, so dark that it must have been darker in the first place. His eyes were thickly lashed and surprisingly so, giving him a lazy and sensual look, one that was encouraged by the slight smile that curved his lips.
There was a whiff of the greater world about him, of conquest and battle, distant lands and potent kings. That had to explain her unholy fascination with him. Never mind that his voice was deep and his accent exotic. He moved with the lithe grace of a great cat, at ease with his body and its power as he strode to the far side of the hall. He leaned back against the wall and crossed his booted legs at the ankles, watching the portal with narrowed eyes.
Elizabeth understood that Rafael was prepared for whatever might occur. He was a fighting man with experiences far beyond her own. She knew of skirmishes and battles, but Rafael lived in the realm of war. He fought weekly, if not daily, dispensing death and capturing the spoils. There was no complacency or comfort in Rafael’s life, no moment to be at ease, no leisure. Rafael had lived with death and Elizabeth did not doubt that he had killed others himself.
Indeed, that realization revealed why Rafael, of all men, should be the one to make her heart leap. His familiarity with death had an affinity with her curse to witness it everywhere. When the mortal world seemed colorless and pale in contrast to that of the Fae, when she felt cold and distant from her fellows, it was welcome indeed to be shaken awake by the sight of this man, and warmed by his vitality and vigor.
The strange thing was, Elizabeth realized, that she could not see the shadow of death upon him at all. Every man in the hall bore a shadow of lesser or greater degree, but not Rafael. The realization gave her a start and she studied him more keenly. Rafael folded his arms across his chest and steadily returned her regard, looking long, lean and dangerous. He suddenly smiled so hungrily at her that Elizabeth’s innards clenched.
His confidence in his own allure was outrageous—and undeserved. He was not so finely wrought as that. Well, he was as finely wrought as that, but what snared Elizabeth’s attention was that he was different.
Her mouth went dry at the realization that Rafael thought she found him attractive.
How hideous that he was right.
Worse, he savored that knowledge. Worse again, Elizabeth did not doubt he would try to use it to his own advantage.
Elizabeth felt maidenly and sheltered, a sense that she intensely disliked.
And one she was tempted to change.
Aye, there was something about Rafael and his manner that challenged Elizabeth to make her life what she would have it be, just as he had certainly shaped his own. She yearned to be daring and bold, to defy convention—as her aunt Rosamunde had done—and to do all of that with Rafael. It was no small thing to lust for adventure, but in Rafael, Elizabeth had a treacherous sense that she had encountered a man who could fulfill all of her expectations.
If it suited him to do so. There was no telling how long such a man might be intrigued by her, if indeed he was, even now. He might simply be amused by her. That was an irksome realization. Elizabeth knew the right course, and believed that only she could sway Rafael to do what was right—if indeed, any other soul could do so. Though she knew little of men, she would have to flirt with Rafael’s interest in her to save her brother from Finvarra.
It was a prospect that made her mouth go dry.
It also meant Rafael would die, but better him than Malcolm. She reminded herself of the greater good. Indeed, did not all of these men expect to die without warning? They flirted with death daily, and every day they survived must be a victory. But Malcolm had left that life. He had a wife, a home and a son. It was unjust that he should lose all of that, while Rafael survived.
Particularly as it had been Rafael’s folly that had gained Finvarra’s attention in the first place. Nay, a man of any merit paid his own debts.
Elizabeth straightened with new conviction. It was folly to find any appeal in such a man as Rafael, despite his allure, and she knew it, though her body evidently did not. The man did not even have a ribbon that might be bound to a true love! Perhaps it was knotted securely within himself, as he was one who adored only himself. Perhaps he was incapable of love. Elizabeth nearly shook her head in disapproval. Rafael had an abundance of God’s gifts but wasted them with his choices.
She would appeal to him, solely to save Malcolm, not because she herself found any pleasure in it. Her heart skipped at the prospect, calling her a liar, but Elizabeth was resolved.
She could do this deed.
She would do it.
Excerpt from The Warrior’s Prize by Claire Delacroix
©2014 Deborah A. Cooke.