An accursed werewolf knight fights to reclaim his birthright and the woman he loves.
Noble Romance site
Book Page on E.D. Walker's website
Lady Kathryn’s father sends her to court to find a husband, but being penniless and disinterested doesn’t bode well for her success. Bored by the petty intrigues of court, her frustration and loneliness are eased when the king charges her with the care of his newest acquisition: a wolf he and his hunters have recently captured. What the king doesn’t realize is his remarkable pet was once Gabriel, his favorite knight, cursed into wolf form by an unfaithful wife.
The beast’s too-knowing eyes and the way he understands and responds to her every utterance convince Kathryn he is more than what he seems. Resolving to restore him, she doesn’t count on the greatest obstacle being Gabriel himself. The longer he stays in wolf form as a captive of the court, the harder it becomes for him to remember his humanity and to fight his wolfish urges to maim and kill.
As Gabriel and Kathryn grow to care for one another despite his horrific curse, rumors of an uncanny wolf reach the ears of Gabriel’s former wife and her unscrupulous new husband, Reynard. Together, they plan to dispose of the king’s pet, knowing if Gabriel ever regains his human form he could strip them of everything they have schemed so hard to gain.
Only Kathryn’s affection and determination stand between Gabriel the wolf and Gabriel the man. But when Reynard returns to court, will Kathryn’s love be enough to keep Gabriel from exacting a brutish revenge that will condemn the wolf to death?
Lady Kathryn de Réméré understood where her duty lay. She did—truly. The hitch, though, the tricky part, the really twisty trouble was . . . . Well, she was actually having a difficult time convincing herself that her duty was to do her duty.
The royal court had not taken part in a hunt since the marriage of the Princess Aliénor to their king a month previous. Kathryn had only been one of the queen's ladies since Aliénor's marriage, but in one short month Kathryn had grown very fond of her queen. She would do almost anything for her, but . . . did it have to be hunting?
Riding had never been one of Kathryn's favorite pastimes either, and when her father had gambled away the funds necessary to keep their horses, the loss of her late mother's bay mare had caused Kathryn only a small touch of regret.
Kathryn certainly liked horses, and riding could be pleasant, but this—this neck-or-nothing tear through the woods, the bouncing and jostling and branches hitting her in the face, and all the while the great brute below her ignoring all her most urgent instructions.
The horse recognized who was master, and it certainly was not the featherweight astride his back pulling ineffectually, and rather irritatingly, at his reins. He had his head now and would not have slowed for a rider twice as skillful as Kathryn.
Her horse broke from the group of hunters and went careening wildly off into the brush. A bare moment later, Kathryn heaved forward off her horse's neck, the ground rising up to meet her. She lay stunned in the damp leaves, the musty smell of the dirt thick in her nostrils, while the careless beast gleefully galloped his way back to his home stable for some oats and a good brushing down.
The chase was on, though, and Kathryn would not be missed by her companions for some time yet.
Only slightly dazed, when her wits recovered sufficiently and the world stopped spinning, she stood with the aid of an obliging tree trunk to take in her surroundings. The lush forest possessed a heavy covering of brush on the ground, clustering around the roots of the tall trees. Kathryn put a hand to her chest, trying to calm her still-hammering heart. "Help. Anyone? Hello?" The forest swallowed her cries, and the only sounds around her now were the gentle rustlings of the trees. She swallowed sudden fear, stifling it, and started walking, hoping someone had noticed her difficulties and come looking.
She would be having a long day if they had not.
Kathryn gulped in a deep breath, then tilted her head to listen as a strange noise caught her attention. She froze and held her breath.
Barking, horses and—the high-pitched howl of a wolf?
I thought we hunted the hart this day. This thought was swiftly chased away by another and rather more alarming one: They're coming this way. The crashing of hooves through the underbrush filled her ears, along with the bloodthirsty cries of the hunting dogs and the triumphant shouts of the men.
She stood at the edge of a small clearing. A hoyden in her youth, Kathryn had little difficulty maneuvering even with her hampering skirts. Quickly, she swung herself up onto the first branch of the nearest tree. Just in time too. The king and his entourage, having trapped their quarry at last, came thundering into the clearing, trampling over the place where she had been standing.
The wolf smelled the dogs before he heard the sounds of the hunt echoing in his forest. The hounds scented him before they gave chase, howling and baying while they tracked his progress through the woods. The werewolf's scent would drive the dogs mad, as the stench of magic always did the trick on poor beasts.
Ah, well. The wolf believed himself to be rather smarter than even the wiliest hunting dog and had tricks enough to bring himself safely home. He stretched his muscles and broke into a run, shoulders flexing, muscles singing at the exercise.
He caught a hint of smell then—the merest breath to fill his nostrils. But this was enough. A spasm of grief choked him, and a whine broke from his throat. The wolf stopped. He could not have moved if he'd wanted to—and he did not want to.
My king, he thought, just before the hounds caught up to him. He ran then, cursing himself as he darted between the trees and slogged through the tangles of underbrush. Idiot. You let one smell on the air distract you long enough for the bloody dogs to get your smell. And now what's to do?
Befuddled and at war with himself, he fumbled through his escape, stumbling and taking wrong turns. His baser instincts pulled with every fiber of muscle for him to slip away and lose himself in the forest, foiling this hunt as he had so many others. His human heart and what parts of his head it still had sway over urged him in the other direction—back to the humans. Back to the king.
The wolf's hesitation, his dreadful indecision, gave the hunting dogs the edge, and the wolf wore himself out running from them and from himself. As he tried to speed ahead of the hunting pack, his mind was betraying him, thinking of his king when he should be strategizing a way out for his wolf's body. If he didn't focus—and soon—the dogs would get him.
The werewolf found he didn't care much.
* * * * *
The swift greyhounds chased him for hours, wearing the wolf down, tiring him out so he would be too weak to give more than a token fight at the end.
He remembered this tactic well from when he had been the hunter on the horse. He winced in memory now at the number of poor beasts his prized hounds had chased down for him, of the terrified, fatigued creatures he had put to death, then ceremoniously carved up and fed to his hunting dogs.
At least I know what happens next.
The largest of the greyhounds finally caught up with the werewolf, pacing along beside him, the hound's rasping breaths loud in the wolf's ears. They were of similar height, though the wolf's body had more weight to it, larger muscles. The greyhound, a whipcord of wiry strength with jaws of iron, pounced on the wolf. The werewolf dodged expertly, and the deathblow meant for his neck fell instead to his shoulder. The greyhound thrashed and bit down with bruising strength. With true remorse as the wolf remembered how fond he had been of his own sport hounds, he savagely locked on to the hound's neck. With a bone-shattering crunch, the wolf snapped the dog's neck and ripped its throat open. Gurgling, eyes rolling back, the dog fell dead to the soft turf of the forest.
Even as the wolf mourned the hound, he reveled in the metallic stench of the dog's blood and swallowed with savor the hot broth. He did not linger long over his kill, though. He could not afford to, as the other dogs caught up to the leader, with their masters not far behind. He could still taste the hound's blood in his mouth, however, mingling with some of his own. The wolf's stomach still rumbled from hunger; his body ached from fatigue. So tired . . . .
His wounded shoulder betrayed him, and he stumbled. His body rolled across the spongy earth, kicking up the wet scent of mud and the sharp tang of broken greenery.
Wet and sticky with blood, the wolf rolled to his feet with a snarl of pain and fury. He blinked bleary eyes to focus on his surroundings. The hounds had pressed his back to a tight knot of trees, and he faced a pack of snarling hounds with their masters within shouting distance. He tried to stagger out of the clearing, to shelter, to safety, but a hound snapped at him and, growling low, forced the wolf back.
Ground vibrating from the force of so many horses, the hunt thundered into the clearing. The riders circled the wolf around on all sides, cornering him as the hounds closed in. Slowly the dogs slunk nearer to tear him limb from limb for the delectation of their keepers.
Let them come. I can no longer lay claim to any of the honor I once possessed, and I am not a knight, but I can still fight.
This I will do to the end.
To the death.
Through his haze of fatigue, he wondered idly why the dogs had not finished him yet, and his human memory cheerfully supplied the answer to the wolf's addled wits. In a hunt like this, the actual kill was saved for the highest-ranking member.
The king was going to kill him; then the nobles and other worthies would hack him to bits. Very ceremoniously and reverently, of course, but all the same there would not be much left of the wolf. Then, of course, in reward for a job well done, the dogs might get to eat some of his mangled carcass.
As far as an ugly death went, it was hard to top that.
But oh, his body ached and his heart hurt, and if he got to see his king again . . . .
God, that might almost be worth it.
* * * * *
The hunters' prey was a wolf. The largest wolf Kathryn had ever seen or heard tell of. As large as a man, with something unnerving about the beast. The wolf suddenly turned to face its attackers and sat on its haunches. The beast growled at the group, almost as if he realized what was coming. Kathryn pressed a hand to her throat, shocked at the beast's remarkable display of . . . defiance?
Kathryn had never seen a wolf so closely before, and she studied it in fascination from her vantage point. The beast had a rather luxurious black pelt and a long snout, almost regal in repose, even as the wolf hunched in the center of the clearing, panting. Ugly wounds spotted the beast's black coat, and a deep bite mark on its shoulder glistened with blood.
The wolf raised its head and hurled the defiant snarl of the damned at its tormentors.
Kathryn's breath caught in her throat. Those eyes. No wolf's eyes ever looked like that. She had seen wolves from a distance at night near her home. True, all wolves had uncanny eyes. Kathryn had always half believed they could see to your soul and back again. Their eyes held knowing, but not like this . . . .
The wolf's eyes, they—they were human. The dark blue, round-pupiled eyes of a human.
Kathryn gasped, and the rider below her tree glanced up. She found herself staring down into the amused face of the king. Oh dear.
"What have we here?" The king laughed. His voice reminded her of the wind whispering through the pines at night. "A tree dryad? A nymph, mayhap?" His mouth turned up in mild amusement. "Lady Kathryn, is it not?" he murmured so others would not hear.
Kathryn had never before spoken to the king in her time at court—she had barely seen him—and so she studied her ruler for a long moment in mute fascination. Broad-shouldered and vigorous despite being in his mid-forties, the king had a quiet dignity, an inborn strength. His face was lined with the years and troubles of his life, but his visage had a rugged appeal, the fascination of a face well lived in. His features had a certain leonine cast to them, but with the same graceful appeal and refinement of line as a cat's. The king's eyes were kind, though dimmed from within by some terrible sadness. His smile never lit his eyes and yet was still charming and easy, pleasing.
She realized she'd been staring and hastily executed the most graceful bow she could manage while clinging to her tree. "The wolf, my lord—"
"Yes, a magnificent beast. Too large and certainly too wily to be anything but magical. His pelt will be a fine prize."
"No." The syllable tore itself from her throat before she could think the better of speaking.
At the blaze of anger in the king's eyes, she lowered her own, and embarrassed heat fanned her face as the rest of the hunting party craned to look at her and realized she was in the tree.
A voice broke through the weariness pounding at him. He looked into the canopy of trees above. He could see only a pale oval hanging in the dark cover of branches. A sweet face, and sympathetic, with rosy cheeks and light, kind green eyes. The first human face he had really looked at in two years.
Well, if I am to die today in this accursed form, at least I have seen the face of human compassion one last time.
The green eyes lowered, and his own eyes followed them. His gaze fell on a face as well known to him as his own human face had once been. The king's face.
A sight more beloved than any other.
He looked into the face of the king, his lord and his master, and his heart clenched with pain.
Not quite knowing what he did, the werewolf gathered what remained of his strength. With a grunt of pain at the tearing hurt from his shoulder, the wolf leapt over the ring of dogs separating him from his liege lord.
He landed by the hooves of the king's horse, and, before the animal could shy away from him, the wolf had caught the stirrup of the saddle. As best he could manage to with his lupine snout, the wolf humbled himself before his lord and licked the great man's boot.
The king stared down at this marvel for a full minute and might have still longer but for Kathryn's intervention as she screamed, "My lord, the dogs."
The king looked up and finally noticed that not only the dogs but their keepers advanced on the wolf with deadly intent.
"My lords." The king raised one leather-gloved hand. All action in the clearing halted at this slight gesture. The dogs were brought to heel, and the men waited, holding their collective breath. The ragged rasping of the injured wolf became the loudest noise. Even the accustomed rustlings and murmurs of the wild things in the woods seemed to have stilled themselves to hear the king's announcement.
"Behold this marvel," said the king as he signaled regally to the wolf on the ground. "A humble beast begs for his king's mercy. Truly"—he paused and looked more closely at the wolf—"I think he has the mind of a man. Take my dogs away."
And because he was their liege, the meadow soon emptied of all save the king, his most trusted retainers, the queen, Kathryn—still in the tree—and the beast.
"Do you require assistance to descend, my lady?" the king asked Kathryn, a grin twitching at the corner of his mouth.
Kathryn composed her face and shook her head. She leapt down from her sanctuary, light as a squirrel, landing but a few feet from the wolf. She gazed at the disheveled creature, the labored heaving of its sides, the bloody patches on its hide, and pity stabbed at her heart. "What will you do with the beast, my lord?"
The king alighted from his great horse, offering her his arm, and as she stepped forward, he briefly covered her hand where it rested on his elbow. A quick wink came and went so fast she could not be sure she'd seen the movement at all. After this, the king addressed himself to his courtiers. "As I am king, hear me and obey. I do here and now extend the hand of mercy to this creature. He is rational. He has a mind. No one is to harm him. Ever." The king sighed then with great weariness. "And now I shall hunt no more today. Let us return."
One of the knights surrendered his mount to Kathryn and led the great stallion by the reins as she rode. The knight smiled over his shoulder at her as he led the horse, but Kathryn only gave him a wan smile in return. She closed her eyes, the swaying gait of the animal soothing her as she drooped with fatigue in the saddle.
She blinked her eyes open and looked to her escort.
"The king requests that you attend him."
Kathryn stifled a sigh and nodded, taking the reins from the knight's outstretched hand. She trotted the horse to the front of the column to ride beside the king as requested. On the king's other side, the queen frowned at Kathryn. Kathryn wet her lips, uneasiness itching at her nerves. Why does the queen frown so? What have I done?
"Well, Lady Kathryn, what think you of this?" The king motioned to the ground on his right side.
Kathryn had believed the wolf all but dead back in the clearing. Truly she thought they had left him there. A misapprehension apparently, as the wolf limped wearily but quite determinedly behind the king's horse.
"While you were being helped to a mount, a few of my men tried to dissuade him from this course of action. They were, shall we say, disabused of the notion he would be parted from me." The king scratched the line of his bearded jaw with one thumb and grinned.
Kathryn grimaced. She hated to think they had been wrong about a noble, knowledgeable beast after all.
"Oh, nothing serious," the king explained, perhaps noticing her discomfort. "Just some light scratches and bruising," he said cheerfully.
Kathryn laughed to find the king so nonplussed at the potential threat of some of his best men being mauled by a mystical mammal.
"What shall I do with the creature, do you think?" the king asked her.
The queen opened her mouth but quickly pinched it closed, swallowing whatever she'd been about to say. She creased her brows, glaring at Kathryn.
Kathryn blinked in surprise, at the king's question and the queen's anger. She could find nothing to say to either ruler and stared hard at the back of her horse's neck. Please don't let them banish me.
Worried, she darted a sideways glance at the king. A corner of his mouth tipped up. "Perhaps inspiration will strike me when we reach my castle." He grinned, and Kathryn found herself smiling back, but quickly stopped herself at the unhappy look on her queen's face.
My king. The werewolf trotted—well, limped eagerly—along at the heels of Samson, the king's warhorse. The werewolf, despite his still-blighted life, basked in the glow of not only his king's mercy but also his generosity in taking along an injured wolf. What good have I done in the world to deserve so great a boon from heaven? Not only to behold the face of my lord, but to be with him, ride with him again. Beast or no beast, what does my form matter if I am to have a chance to serve my lord again?
He smiled to himself, happily padding along in step with the king's horse. His happiness wavered, though, as the maiden from the tree craned around in her saddle to look at him. Her hair was disheveled, and mud had splashed the front of her gown and spotted the line of her jaw. She seemed very vulnerable to him, innocent even, but the wolf had learned his lesson about women.
The green-eyed girl might have saved his life back in the clearing when the dogs would have killed him. But past events had, and with good reason, led him to mistrust the feminine sex.
He pushed aside his gloomy thought and stared again at the king.
No, the wolf would allow nothing to tarnish his joy at this reunion.
I have my king again, and nothing—and no one—else matters.