Being a bride is a state of mind, not of body.
Prince Ronan of Moorcondia knows he is one of the luckiest boys alive. As the king’s second son, he has status and wealth without the heavy weight of the crown. Every man admires his hedonistic ways, but his behavior masks a shame that he feels. What he really desires is a quiet life with a man whom he can love.
Jarl Tarben is on a mission to save his people from starvation. Efforts to forge a treaty with Moorcondia have come to naught. In a desperate bid, Tarben has been tasked with abducting Ronan and forcing him into marriage. As distasteful and dishonorable as the scheme is, duty demands that he obey. He refuses to bed the prince by force, however, leaving it Ronan’s choice.
Ronan vows not to succumb to the temptation that Tarben presents. Pride alone dictates that he remain chaste, even as he grows closer to the barbarian. Tarben is everything Ronan ever dreamed of, and the lure of him grows stronger with each day that politics keeps them together.
When unseen forces threaten to consume them both, they must put aside pride and join forces to protect both their peoples.
Reader advisory: This book features an instance of sexual assault and a forced marriage.
General Release Date: 23rd August 2022
“Drink up, your highness. You’re falling behind.”
Ronan, younger son of the king of Moorcondia, shot his companion the kind of prideful grin that he’d carefully cultivated since arriving at the university. “Alas, I have to leave for an assignation with a lady and can’t afford to be too much in my cups.” He slid the glass of beer back in the direction of his classmate.
The boy barked out a laugh and clapped Ronan on his shoulder with the kind of bone-jarring exuberance that seemed so common among boys of their age. Ronan didn’t understand why every interaction had to turn into a contest of inflicting pain and humiliation. The others thought it all hilarious, reinforcing what he’d known for most of his life. He was not like them, not like any boy he’d ever met.
Not even his studious older brother thought anything strange about the rough and tumble lives of their male friends. It was merely that as the future ruler of their country, Morlen had the weight of duty on his shoulders and had to prepare for the time he would ascend to the throne. Such was the fate of the one of them who’d come out of the womb first, even by mere moments. He joined them when he could for nights of drinking and carousing, careful always not to do anything to tarnish his reputation. As the ‘spare’ in the family, Ronan had no expectations and could do most anything he liked. No, not really. He was only able to get away with what people thought a young, rich man would do. Too bad those were things he didn’t like at all.
He didn’t let his desires show on his face and instead bade his companions a good night. They gave him a raucous send-off, filled with innuendos of what they assumed he would get up to and demanding a full report the next day. He joined in the merriment with rehearsed bravado. “Now, lads, you know a gentleman never speaks of what happens between the sheets. I shall only say that I’m glad we don’t have classes tomorrow.”
Ronan threw on his heavy cloak and braced for the chilly night he knew waited for him outside. Spring was only grudgingly arriving, but his semester of classes would soon come to an end, and he could return to Moorcondia for the summer recess. It would be a relief to finally go home. This first year of university had proven more taxing than he’d expected. It wasn’t his studies. It was the strain of keeping up his pretense of being a profligate rake. No one forced him to play this charade. Morlen certainly didn’t care. But Ronan feared that if he didn’t present the image of masculinity that everyone expected, they would easily see inside him, to his true self. He wasn’t sure he could bear the scorn he felt certain would come his way.
I am a coward.
He considered, as he had many times, asking his parents to let him drop out. A university education was relatively new among the royal family. They might not care if he came back or not. But if he didn’t, what would he do then? No matter how everyone had become accustomed to his uncle’s new wife, Ronan wasn’t so stupid as to assume his family and the members of court would accept him in any role other than an advisor to his brother. He would be expected to marry the proper noblewoman to add to the next generation of the family. That was his destiny, and staying at university helped put that eventuality off for a few years. There was value in that.
Ronan’s personal guard, a somewhat grizzled man who was nonetheless capable of breaking a man’s neck with a single twist, pushed away from the wall he’d been holding up in the drinking house and silently followed in Ronan’s wake. He hated having to be chained to someone else all the time, but one older man who held no interest for him and kept his opinions to himself wasn’t so bad, although the man’s silent censure was often palpable. It was better than the contingent of younger guards who surrounded Morlen day and night—not that anyone really thought they were at risk here in this seat of learning… Still, it was important for the realm as well as each of them personally that they be safe from any violence. With Sir Frauk at his back, no one dared so much as shoot an angry look at him. Ronan simply had to pretend he didn’t care about being shadowed by another who undoubtedly gave the king regular reports on how his younger son was running wild. His whole life had become one long effort at play-acting. It felt as if no one truly understood who and what he was, not even his twin.
Ronan tugged his cloak closer as he walked through the nearly empty streets of the old city, the sound of Sir Frauk’s heavy-booted tread behind him. Monks had settled here long ago, attracting more people and founding a community. Starting a place of higher learning had come naturally to those original men, and now the university was surrounded by a vibrant city that existed on the edge of Moorcondia. It was a hub of trading, as well, attracting commerce from all over, except from those people who dwelled in the Dark Mountains. They kept to themselves, enigmas as much as the land where they lived. The craggy rocks were not inviting and rose high into the clouds.
They cast a looming shadow over this part of the city in particular—not surprising, given that this was where one went for less savory pursuits. The boys at the university considered it a badge of courage that they ventured here late at night. Ronan despised it and couldn’t wait to reach his apartments. All he wanted to do was take a relaxing bath and curl up in bed with a good book. He could picture his valet waiting patiently for his return. Unlike Frauk, Igon was quick to show his disapproval of Ronan’s nighttime pursuits. But once he’d settled Ronan into bed, he left him blessedly alone.
Ronan picked up his pace with eyes on the uneven cobblestones to ensure that he didn’t slip. The fashionable boots he wore pleased him, but they weren’t very sturdy. The last thing he wanted was for Frauk to think it was drink that made him stumble. The man suddenly uttered a muted cry, very unlike him. Ronan turned to see why and froze at the sight of the large soldier crashing to the ground. Another man, little more than a dark figure, heavily armed, loomed over him. Ronan stepped forward, although to do what he couldn’t fathom. He was terrible at the martial arts and didn’t possess so much as knife on him.
A rush of air and a flicker of something out of the corner of his eye was all the warning he got before someone grabbed him from behind. He was swept off his feet, and a cloth was pressed against his nose and mouth. Trained in warfare as he was, he instinctively started to put up a fight. Whoever had him, though, was far stronger, the man’s massive arm holding him around his chest in a vise-like grip. And there was something soaking the gag, a sweet smell that made his head swim. As he fought to regain his freedom, the drug caused his muscles to go lax. Then there was nothing.
* * * *
Ronan came to with a pounding headache and a thick tongue. It took him a moment or two to assess his situation. It was night still, only now he was among the trees of a dense forest, not the stone buildings of the city. And he was on horseback, the gentle swaying of such a beast well-known to him. But he wasn’t riding so much as being carried astride. His head and back were propped against a hard, yet warm, wall. He might have drifted back to sleep due to the rather pleasant location, except the circumstances of his attack came to him in a flash. Popping open his eyes farther, he struggled to gain freedom.
An arm that had lain loosely against his waist tightened. “Easy, your highness. I have you securely on my mount.”
Those were not comforting words, given the situation, and they were uttered with an accent that was unfamiliar to him. They rumbled through the broad chest against which he was being held. He tried to claw that arm away, but covered as it was in thick leather bands, he had no impact. It was while he did so that he noticed there were others riding around them, slipping in and out of his field of vision among the trees. To a man they were large, imposing figures dressed in dark clothing. They reminded him of the evil specters he’d seen illustrated in one of his favorite books. He wasn’t so fanciful, however, as to believe them to be anything other than men who wished him harm, so he opened his mouth to yell for help.
His captor’s hand clapped across his lips before he could utter a sound. “We have not yet cleared the outer farms of the city. If you scream, men may come running to your rescue, and we’ll be forced to kill them. I don’t want that. Do you?”
There was something about the man’s tone that skittered up Ronan’s spine and made him shudder. It wasn’t fear, although that was there in abundance. It was a different kind of emotional reaction that nevertheless frightened him, too. He shook his head, because the man seemed to be waiting for a reply, and of course, the last thing Ronan wanted was for his father’s subjects to die in vain on his behalf.
“Good. Now do I have your word that if I remove my hand, you won’t cry out?”
Galling as it was, Ronan nodded, and when his mouth was liberated, he kept his promise. That didn’t mean he would stay silent. He tried to turn to look at his captor. “What do you think you are doing?”
The man stared down at him, his broad, close-bearded face partially concealed by the nose plate of his helmet. “Kidnapping you.”
Ronan huffed in indignation. “I am aware of that. Why? What do you want from me?”
“From you, nothing much.”
“You must be seeking money. I have access to plenty of coin if you take me back to the city.” Surely that was all it would take for this nightmare to end.
“I don’t want your money.” The infuriating man spoke as if they discussed the weather and not Ronan’s fate, whatever that might be.
Reaching inside his shirt, Ronan pulled out the simple, yet very valuable, dark sapphire pendant his mother had given him on his eighteenth birthday. Morlen had received one exactly like it, masculine and beautiful at the same time. “If not that, what about this? Take it and leave me to find my way back.” He knew there was a flaw to his logic. The man could yank the necklace from Ronan’s neck and still hold him for ransom. Perhaps the guy and his cohorts weren’t very bright.
The man huffed what might have been a laugh. “Your trinket doesn’t interest me in the least.”
That answer stunned Ronan into silence. The pendant was very valuable, he was sure. His mother would never give her sons anything less. Nothing about this misadventure made any sense. And as they traveled deeper into unknown territory, Ronan had to work to suppress his growing fear.
“Then tell me what you want!” He was careful to keep his voice down but couldn’t hide his emotions, never could.
“It is complicated. Here and now is not the time or place to explain. We’ll make camp for a short while once we have crossed the Moorcondian border. For now, you need do nothing more than rest, if that is your wont. As I said, I have you securely on my steed.” There was silence for the space of a few horse steps, then, “I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
As ridiculous as that reassurance was, it nevertheless sent something like relief coursing through Ronan. Encircled in the man’s powerful arms, he perversely did feel safe, if one didn’t count the danger the man himself presented. “You mean other than being knocked unconscious by some drug and stolen away by brigands for the gods know what reason?”
There was a pause. “Yes, other than that. And I don’t know about your gods, but the All Mother understands what is at stake and sees what is in my heart. This is necessary.”
“So you say.” Ronan couldn’t help fuming. Another thought popped into his aching head. “What of Sir Frauk? You killed him.” While he’d resented the man’s presence, he hated the idea that he’d died trying to save him.
“We did no such thing. He was knocked out, tied up and we even found a reasonably warm place for him to remain until he wakes.”
“You’re lying.” Ronan knew brigands, especially those who ransomed wealthy people, had no scruples.
“Why would I bother to do so? You are already furious, yet well within my control. There would be no benefit to lying about the fate of your man.”
Ronan had to admit to himself that there was some logic in what his captor said. He kept that observation to himself, however, and said no more. His head still ached, and he was exhausted. There was nothing he could do to free himself at the moment. The only option open to him was to bide his time and hope for a chance at escape. He tried to keep himself upright instead of leaning against his abductor, but his fatigue mixed with the gentle rhythm of the horse’s movement made that impossible. As hard as the man’s chest was, it made for a decent resting place. Ronan couldn’t keep his eyes open.
“Who are you, anyway?” he managed to ask in a sleepy voice.
“I am Jarl Tarben of the Dark Mountains.”
That information intrigued Ronan as much as it alarmed him. He’d never before met anyone from that mysterious and isolated country. But as the man had called him ‘your highness’ he undoubtedly knew the prize he possessed. With the last of his strength, Ronan used that identity as a warning. “I am Ronan, prince of Moorcondia. My father the king will have your head for this.”
The man sighed silently, only the movement of his chest telling the tale. “Well, he can try.”
Ronan made an effort to rally with a retort, but he was too tired to do so. Besides, even as he issued the threat, he wasn’t sure he wanted that outcome.