Into the Pride (Nuuba Pride Shifters #1) by Michelle Monkou (3 page)

“They were a close-knit group created to guard the king.” Anger sharpened her tone.

“The king died. The queen died. And the heir is gone. Their bodyguards were rounded up, imprisoned or executed brutally. I can still recall the bloody scenes, body parts. The smell…” His voice choked. “The stench of death doesn’t fade. The city burned for days.” His heart filled with hate for what had been done and self-loathing for what he’d failed to stop.


Our
High Priestess answered to the queen. We were created to protect the royal family because of the sisterhood’s keen healing skills, but also because we were ferocious warriors. We had to train to protect ourselves from the constant threat of invasion and assaults.”

David shook his head. The idea of this slender-framed woman, with delicate features, and a phenomenal imagination, kicking anyone’s ass was laughable. “I’m sorry. You are a fascinating creature.”

Did she just growl at him?

“You’re wasting your time.” He really wanted to say
his
time. “There’s no such sisterhood or temple. The Royal bodyguards were the only ones trained and conscripted to protect the Nuuba Leader and his family. Ambassador Xavier betrayed the Pride to partner with the humans and their continued effort not only to take down the realm, but to eliminate it from existence.” He stood, marking the end to this unusual visit.

She’d dredged up raw emotions. His lion paced, unsettled and irritated. Its essence stormed through his blood, looking for a way to release its anger.

“Ambassador Xavier would not have betrayed the realm.” She shook her head, clearly frustrated. “Look at the file. Maybe then you’ll change your chauvinistic mindset. I know the temple existed.” Her chin jutted out. “Are you afraid to consider that not only the men of Nuuba held power?”

David liked a feisty woman, except when said feistiness was used on him.

She continued. “There may be tunnels. The temple was built behind the queen’s living quarters.”

“I know every inch of the palace grounds. The queen’s side of the palace had no building for a temple.” He waved off her protest. “Let’s say that you aren’t delusional. And you find the temple. Then, what?” At least he had a real reason to find the kingdom.

“I think you’re being deliberately offensive. Typical. The temple was constructed below the queen’s private quarters. The area continued underground with another entrance beyond the walled city.”

No denying that there was a ring of truth to what she said. Didn’t mean that he had the time to help her. Maybe, after he was done with his project, they could date and go on a private dig.

David was ready to close the curtain on this production. “Look, Starr, it’s been a long day. And an even longer night. I don’t have the time to help. I am intrigued, though, so please keep in touch. In the meantime, there is a museum on women’s history that may have whatever information you’re seeking. Tours are avail—”

Needle-like prickles spread across his chest. David opened his mouth to scream. The sound stuck in his throat. His fingers pulled at his shirt wadding the material in his hand. He wanted the stinging pain to stop.

Starr’s concerned face hovered. Her lips moved. Repeating something.

His knees buckled and he hit the floor hard. Searing pain expanded onto the left side of his chest.

Her hands cupped his face. Again, she spoke, but her words sounded distant and garbled as if he was submerged under water.

What the hell was happening? His beast awoke from a slumber. Pacing. Low growls over his human distress. Yet, no shift occurred.

The pain switched off.

“Take a deep breath.” Starr’s face slid into his view. It took a few seconds to realize that she spoke to him.

He obeyed.

“Now exhale.”

Again, he followed her soft, coaxing voice. His chest still suffered the afterburn of the searing heat over his skin. He pulled off his shirt to inspect the damage. “What the hell?” His skin was normal. Slightly red, but no bubbling of the top layer, no burns, no scorched smell. Nothing was different. Except the diamond embedded in his flesh glowed like a bright, white light, hot to the touch.

“Looks like you had an episode.”

He struggled out of her hold. The diagnosis, despite its non-specific nature, felt appropriate. Her touch, that he’d expected to be soothing, like her voice, ignited confusion. Clear thinking failed, along with calming his emotions.

“I’ll see a doctor,” David lied. His attempt to stand was awkward and slow. A couple times, she instinctively reached out. But he jerked away.

The stroke of her fingers against his cheek stirred his beast. It pawed, grunting, activated by her proximity. But it was his human spirit and body that was ready to take up the charge.

“If you’re all right, I’ll leave.” Despite her statement, she didn’t move.

He nodded. She’d wreaked havoc with his nerves. When she touched him, a longing sprang forward, too close to the surface. A longing to be with her. That wasn’t happening. He had no time for long-term relationships. And he certainly didn’t want an alliance with a so-called fighter-priestess, even one with a sweet ass. David coughed. His throat ached for cool liquid.

Without saying a word, she headed into his kitchen. He heard the cabinet door open and close and then the faucet turn on and off. She returned with a glass and offered it to him.

“Here. Drink.”

He gratefully took it. The cool water soothed his parched throat. “Thanks.”

She grinned. “From my perspective, I just saved your life. So, I’ve earned some credit for your help.”

“With only a glass of water?” His gaze dropped to her mouth, which tended to pout when she formed her words.

“Still counts. What would you have done if I wasn’t here?”

“That’s a good question—if you weren’t here.” He repeated the statement in his mind. The answer that popped up shifted suspicion to the only other person in his house. After all, she had stalked him.
Clove, anise, and cinnamon
. Then she’d shown up with her dogged determination to get his help. The curious mixture of pain and pleasure when she lay hands on him. The urge for her presence unsettled him—the man. Him—the lion. Should he push her away? Or should he pretend to hold her close until the end of his project?

“I need
you
to help me find the temple.”

“Okay, I’ll play along. You find your temple and then…” His eyebrows rose for the punch line.

“And then I can get to work.”

“Newsflash. The royal family is no longer in need here—king, queen, and prince—they died. So what work could you possibly do?”

“There is information that I’m seeking. People who could be of service to the Sisters.” She pinned him with those gorgeous hazel eyes.

Why, oh why, did she have to be a priestess?
“A recruitment drive? That’s it? You do know how to make an impression.”

“Read the file and then I’m sure we’ll have a deal. Here’s my card where I can be reached.”

His view traveled the full length of her body. Spending time together while he read that damn file of hers could prove interesting.
Why the hell not
?

“See you in the morning.” She slipped the satchel over her shoulder.

“Or, you can stay the night.” He looked at his watch. “It’s almost morning anyway.”

She shook her head. A shy smile teased a dimple near the corner of her mouth.

“It’s not like you haven’t seen the merchandise,” David taunted.

“I’ll admit that your outer trappings are impressive.” She turned her back on him and headed for the front door. But then, with a decisive sniff, she said, “I prefer to celebrate the true essence of a man, his true inner nature that rules his heart and mind.”

His beast stirred, sexually charged by her words. He pulled up short and pawed at the ground. David’s hand clutched his chest. His heart pumped hard under his palm. The diamond was still cool.

“Are you okay?” She gestured at his hand, still clutching his shirt.

“Would you care?”

“Yes.”

“Then you should make sure I have whatever I need.”

“I am. I’m making sure that you live.”

He frowned. “What the hell does that mean?” He pushed himself up. Was she laying down a threat? London had barely left with her life. If Starr was about to kill him, he didn’t intend to be generous.

“You may not understand, David. The temple is a life and death matter for me. I have searched long and hard to find you so that you can help me. Your well-being is, therefore, critical to my success. Call me.”

“You make the whole thing sound … unsexy.” David watched her exit out the door. “And damn it, I really want you,” he remarked to the now empty room.

 

Chapter Three

 

Starr hurried to her car, tumbled in and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. Breathe. Every arterial point on her body throbbed as if on the verge of a volcanic eruption. After witnessing a terrified woman running out of his house, the start to her adventure had been a bit shaky. But she was glad she’d stuck to her task. Whether it was luck or fate, she’d finally connected with David Chastain. No doubt remained. She had found the Nuuba prince and, though he didn’t know his true identity, she’d make certain one day he’d be king.

Once David read the file she’d left, there was no way that he could refuse to help her locate the temple. Besides, if the evidence didn’t sway him, then his overt sexual interest in her would be sufficient motivation. A shiver of excitement, for an entirely different reason, spiked her pulse. Either way, it was a win-win. Starr started the car and headed to her temporary home.

She pulled up in front of the inn. Although the place was dark and quiet, she doubted the innkeeper had retired. With a wary glance at the shadows, Starr was grateful for the outdoor lamps that lit the path to the front door. Would the owner hear if something happened outside her own door?

Starr reached for the doorknob, but the door swung open. A small, gray-haired woman, bundled under layers of colorful shawls, stood back from the doorway. A welcoming smile greeted her arrival.

“Madame Voorhees, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

The woman beckoned her through the living area. “Dear, I couldn’t sleep without knowing if you were okay. This city isn’t quite what it used to be.” Despite her fragile state, she moved efficiently through the rooms.

“I’m back, safe and sound. Sorry to keep you from your bed.” Starr was touched by Madame Voorhees’s kindness. The older woman had taken her under her wing, and treated her like a granddaughter. The concern and attention were needed after the hits and misses Starr had endured in finding Chastain. Danger lurked because of her pursuit and its impact. This haven provided the safety to think and recharge when her spirit felt low.

“Did you get what you were looking for?”

“I think so,” Starr hedged.

“What still worries you, child?” Madame Voorhees pulled at her shawls, drawing them tighter around her body.

“Nothing.” Starr appreciated the willing ear, but she didn’t want to reveal every detail. As in, she certainly couldn’t admit to manipulating a member of the Nuuba Pride. She’d temporarily incapacitated David with a tweak to his pain center to gain his trust, or at least tame his suspicions. Trained as a warrior, none of her skills could be used against the family. That rule didn’t take into consideration apocalyptic conditions. Maybe one day she’d have to pay the price for her transgression.

“It’s been a long night. Your way will be clear after you’ve rested.” Madame Voorhees added the usual smile to her advice.

Starr nodded. It had been a long journey to return to Theos. Once here, tracking down David Chastain had taken too much time. Deciding on the best method to meet him proved the difficult part. For several days she’d watched him, following his activities. Now that she’d met him and seen the tattoo of the Nuuba lineage, she feared that his enemies would confirm the positive identification. The diamond not only served as a tracking system, but was part of the royal seal, embedded in the body of the rightful bloodline. A ceremony that had occurred without his knowledge.

She couldn’t wait to resume her task and complete her mission.

The hot tea that Madame Voorhees left was ignored. Her thoughts sleepily wandered over David’s outrageous proposition. Another time and another vocation, she would’ve taken him up on his offer. To be touched and treated like a woman, again—that was a fantasy that she wanted to be real.

Starr showered quickly and fell into bed. “Ahhh.” Even her body sighed its gratitude for Madame Voorhees providing Egyptian cotton sheets and plump pillows.

Sleep took its time approaching. Her thought entertained flashbacks, one in particular. Before she’d lowered the veil on David’s memory, for one night, they had broken all the rules and made love. In that secret and special pocket of time, they’d faced each other naked of titles, stations in life, of responsibility. On the spur of the moment, basic natural instinct heightened their need for erotic sexual pleasures. They had more than satisfied each other. Their perfect fit had not been by chance. But separation was their destiny. With tears blinding her sight, a sob choking back her despair, she’d lowered the veil on the only man to awaken her body to love. Now she was a stranger to him. What they’d done, he may never remember, even when he returned to the throne. She turned onto her side and hugged herself to sleep with the thoughts of what could never be.

****

Starr awoke with a lazy yawn and long stretch. Judging from the brightness of the daylight streaming into her room, she guessed it was midday. A fresh cup of tea had replaced the cold one. Wisps of steam curled up, inviting her to sip the dark brew and reenergize.

“Thank you, Madame Voorhees.” She raised the tea cup in the innkeeper’s honor.

Minutes later, she emerged from her room. The delicious scent of freshly made muffins led her to the kitchen. She helped herself to the stack neatly arranged on the countertop.

“Good morning, Starr. Feeling better?” Madame Voorhees entered the kitchen with a tray of dirty dishes.

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