RUTHLESS by Gena Showalter
Publication Date: August 9, 2022
Publisher: HQN Books
Forbidden. Powerful. Ruthless.
Micah the Unwilling, fae King of the Forgotten, can tame even the most violent of beasts. Forged on the battlefield, this iron-willed warrior considers his soldiers his family, and he will stop at nothing to reclaim their dispossessed land. Gearing for war with a sadistic enemy, he is disciplined and focused—until a feral beauty he encountered long ago wanders into his camp.
Viori de Aoibheall wields a terrifying ability to sing monsters to life. Having spent her childhood in a forest, raising herself and her frightening creations—the only friends she’s ever known—she’s ill prepared for the scarred royal and his fearsome brutality. Not to mention the ferocity of their connection and the carnality of his touch. But the real problem? Her brother is Micah’s greatest foe. And though the sensual king makes her burn, she must stop him, whatever the cost.
Not quite present day
Fifteen-year-old Micah spun slowly, his jaw slack. What is this place? Spears of lightning forked across a dark sky heavy with darker clouds. Glowing silvery orbs hung from tree branches, illuminating a forest clearing he wished he hadn’t discovered. The eeriness of it all boggled the mind.
From the outside, thick white fog had enveloped the interlocking trees set in a wide circle. From the inside, however, he had an unobstructed view of the dried blood that stained the bark—and the faces carved within. Fierce expressions projected everything from dread to malice, and he shuddered.
Someone had gone to great trouble to make the gnarled giants resemble belua. Monsters of unimaginable strength, somehow birthed from the elements themselves. Able to live and breathe and walk among fae.
Micah tightened his grip on a makeshift dagger—a twig he’d sharpened with his teeth and what remained of his nails.
Beady eyes seemed to track his every movement as he trod deeper into the clearing. A large, moss-covered stone with a wide base and a flat top occupied the center of the ring. An altar?
A chilled breeze blustered past, rousing goose bumps on his skin. Scanning… The vibrant moss provided the only foliage here. There were no animals or insects. No other life whatsoever.
Death reigned here.
A crack of thunder boomed, punctuating his thought, and he almost jumped out of his skin. The next lightning bolt charged the atmosphere; electric currents pricked his spine. Micah dragged in the scent of ash and… What was that? Sweetness itself? A unique fragrance brimming with all the glories of the Summer Court. Sunshine, flowers and citrus.
His mouth watered, and his empty stomach protested. When had he last eaten?
Twig at the ready, he approached the stone and gathered a fistful of moss. The first bite proved bitter, the second more so. But as the greenery settled in his stomach, some of his pains faded; he only desired more.
He shoveled another fistful into his mouth, then another and another, unable to slow himself. For over a year, he’d wandered the wastelands of Astaria alone. Originally, he’d traveled with his guardian. A great warrior named Erwen. A great man, period. He’d found baby Micah inside a basket, and saved him from being eaten by trolls.
He bit his tongue, tasting blood. Erwen had died in battle with a belua. A massive snow beast in the Winterlands.
Micah had expected to perish alongside his guardian. A part of him had hoped to die. How he’d loved Erwen, his sole companion—the only person willing to be near him.
Like his guardian, Micah was a chimera. A rare fae born with dual glamaras that were constantly at odds. The clash created a negative force field around them. Unwanted by fae and humans alike. Feared by everyone. Known for scarring—outward evidence of weakness and a badge of shame.
Chilly wind rattled branches. Lightning peppered the sky, spotlighting— Micah froze, his breath hitched. Were their limbs untangling? Had the one to his left narrowed its eyes?
Genuine belua? Had he stumbled into a nest?
He dropped the newest handful of moss, preparing to bolt. But, from the corner of his eye, he perceived an array of color. Smooth gold. Vivid pink. Gleaming scarlet. He meant to glance, nothing more. A quick peek to ensure no one sneaked up on him. Instead, he stared and reared back, his eyes going wide.
Was he seeing what he thought he was seeing? Surely not. And yet…
Heart jumping, he lurched closer to the stone. Sucked in a breath. A girl. A fae. Exquisite. She slept upon the slab, seemingly growing from the surface. Or from the forest itself.
Lightning flashed, there and gone, showcasing a smattering of freckles, pink cheeks and cherry lips that were bowed in the center. Other details hit him, throwing him for loop after loop. They might be the same age. Flawless skin the color of sunlight, vibrant with life. Delicate features usually only found on royalty. A plain gown too short and tight to cover the abundance of shapely curves.
Who was she? Why was she here? What color were her eyes?
Excitement arced through Micah. Would she mind being friends with a chimera?
A rolling rumble precipitated the first splatter of rain. Cold droplets splashed his cheeks, and he grinned. Let the liquid soak him. What did he care? He’d uncovered a treasure of unsurpassed value.
The rain deluged her, too, her gown becoming transparent. Trembling suddenly more pronounced, he reached out to brush droplets from her cheek.
A rustle sounded behind him, and he wheeled around, ready to defend his prize. Too late. A tree loomed before him, and the truth hit, hard.
“Belua!” Hiding in plain sight.
A fat branch slammed into his head. He flew across the clearing, dropping his makeshift weapon when he crashed into another tree.
His lungs emptied. So dizzy. No time to recover. Another branch flung him in the opposite direction.
Ribs broke on impact, and agony seared him. Before he could rise, roots coiled around his ankle and attempted to eject him from the clearing. He clawed at the ground, determined to hold his position and shield the girl. Dirt and blood coated his tongue.
Bark scraped his spine. Limbs stabbed into different bones. Wheezing, fighting the urge to vomit, Micah rolled out of the way.
A limb pierced a vital organ, and an agonized scream burst from him. The pain! Then, suddenly, he was airborne, soaring across the expanse. When he landed, a world of darkness crackled open its jaw and swallowed him whole.
As Micah healed, he realized a startling truth. The monsters safeguarded the girl. They hadn’t attacked until he uncovered her. More than that, they hadn’t struck to kill him. Otherwise, he would be dead.
Why they guarded her—why they had shown him mercy—he didn’t know. But he wondered. Was little Red on that stone slab of her own volition or a captive?
There was one way to find out…
Micah returned to the clearing—to her—with a firm goal in mind. Befriend these belua. If he could join them, protect the girl until she awoke…
Was this a betrayal to Erwen and everything he’d stood for? Surely not. His guardian had lived by four rules.
Do no harm to the innocent. Protect what’s yours. Always do what’s right. Never be without a backup plan.
The sleeping beauty was vulnerable and in need of another fae. Just in case the trees held her against her will.
What better path to travel than keeping her safe?
Micah advanced on the creatures cautiously, both hands lifted. “You had every right to eject me,” he told them. In their minds, he’d committed a terrible offense. Touching a female without her willing consent. Or theirs. Now, he hoped to prove the innocence of his intentions. “I did your fair lady wrong. Allow me to present her with a gift of apology. And respect.” He revealed a red crystal he’d dug from the earth bright and early this morning. “So much respect.”
A prolonged hesitation followed his words, anticipation stealing his breath. Finally, the trees opened a doorway for him.
Giddy but remaining vigilant, he entered slowly, placed the present on a step leading to the altar and backed away. Rather than exit, he faced the largest of the bunch. “I mean her no harm, and I won’t touch her again. If you’ll let me, I’ll help you with her protection.”
He wasn’t immediately impaled, a good sign. Micah set up camp. As one week blended into another, the trees relaxed around him. As their tension faded, bright leaves budded, creating a vibrant paradise.
For the first time in Micah’s life, provision without price abounded. Various species of flowers, fruits and nuts flourished without cease, dropping from overburdened limbs.
Nourishment rained all hours. In offering or apology, he didn’t know which.
Morning and evening, he thanked his companions for the bounty. Never had Micah enjoyed such delicious meals. But…when will she awaken?
Fresh moss covered the girl, protecting her from sun, wind and rain. Her sweet scent magnified daily, coating the air; he considered every inhalation a precious gift.
How did she sleep so deeply? And why? For how long? Why did belua continue to protect her, no matter how much time passed?
Did she crave a friend? If the beautiful fae with freckles sought a fellow fae companion, shouldn’t he oblige her?
Longing gripped Micah. But you aren’t a fae, are you? Not exactly. He shifted in the bed he’d constructed with twigs and fallen hanks of moss. He just…he wanted to belong to someone. To be welcomed. Maybe even admired.
What did such affection even feel like? And what was the beauty’s name? Would she like his offerings? There were many.
Anytime a troll or centaur neared the clearing, Micah departed the ring to end the threat. He collected supplies left by the dead, amassing a treasure trove of weapons, dried meats, clothing, maps, coins and jewels. All for her. Well, mostly for her. He’d kept some of the clothing for himself, exchanging a filthy, tattered tunic and ripped leathers for higher quality garments. Even a cloak to help him hide the scars left by the tree attack.
Would she like him?
As he gathered an array of fruit for breakfast, he stole glances at her. For the first time, much of the moss withered, baring her fully. Morning sunlight lent her golden skin an otherworldly glow. Silken locks of auburn hair gleamed.
Curling black lashes cast spiky shadows over pinkened cheeks. Plump red lips with a bowed center and a stubborn chin added to her captivating allure.
The girl— Wait. Had that cherry mouth parted? Micah froze, every cell buzzing. Even the trees stilled, as if time suspended. Then…
A soft moan left her. The first sound she’d made since his arrival. Then she stretched her arms over her head.
He dropped the bundle in his arms, pink-and-red fruit thudding to the ground, rolling away. Startled by the noise, the girl jolted upright, auburn locks tumbling around her delicate shoulders. She blinked to orient herself.
His mind raced with a thousand thought fragments. Even more beautiful… jade eyes, brighter than the leaves…gown soon to tear apart at the seams…friend… Mine?
She turned, maneuvering her legs over the side of the bed. Standing. Stretching. As graceful as a swan he’d once spied in the Summer Court.
Micah stood in awe, utterly transfixed.
As if sensing him at last, she looked his way and gasped. Her mouth floundered open and closed, fright overtaking her expression.
He hurried to offer a reassurance. “I mean you no—”
A high-pierced scream burst from her. The most horrifying sound he’d ever heard. Sharp pains stabbed his brain, hot blood dripping from his ears. He slapped his palms over the blood-soaked shells, but it didn’t help.
The trees snapped to attention. In an instant, leaves wilted. Fruit dried up. The belua army lunged at him, and this time, they attacked to kill, stabbing and pummeling full force. Pain wracked him, each injury teaching him a new lesson in agony.
Deserve this. He’d foolishly shown favor to an enemy. Had thought to become friends with vessels of evil.
But the girl…
Will come back for her. The trees wouldn’t harm her. Even now, they kept her out of harm’s way. If she required freedom, Micah would free her. But first, he must survive.
He escaped the clearing, crawling out of range before collapsing in a beam of sunlight, eating dirt. Then the darkness came…
Excerpted from Ruthless by Gena Showalter. Copyright © 2022 by Gena Showalter. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
|Gena Showalter is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of over seventy books, including the acclaimed Lords of the Underworld series, the Gods of War series, the White Rabbit Chronicles, and the Forest of Good and Evil series. She writes sizzling paranormal romance, heartwarming contemporary romance, and unputdownable young adult novels, and lives in Oklahoma City with her family and menagerie of dogs. Visit her at GenaShowalter.com.|
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