The Cursed King by Abigail Owen
Three months ago…
Angelika Amon stuck to the perimeter of the large training room in the mountain stronghold of Ben Nevis in Scotland, headed for the smaller, human-sized door that led to the platform outside. Jedd would kill her if he knew she was planning to go out there at all, let alone without him.
Then again, he was supposed to be her bodyguard.
The night her mother died, she had sent each of her daughters to different protectors— Kasia to their faithful hellhound Maul in Alaska, Meira to gargoyles in some still unknown place, Skylar to a rogue dragon shifter in South America, and Angelika to a pack of wolf shifters in the Pyrenees. The same pack that was with her now, living inside a dragon shifter mountain just to give her a cover story. If she hadn’t believed in miracles before, that would have convinced her.
Jedd, one of the best fighters of the pack, was her best friend more than bodyguard these days. She hated to worry him. Even so, she had to get out. Alone. The cave walls felt as though they were closing in on her.
Not claustrophobia. Not exactly. Worries piled so high she couldn’t see her way around them.
The Kings’ War had set dragon shifters on opposite sides. The Black, Blue, and Gold Clans had risen up against the corrupt regime in place for five hundred years: the Red, Green, and White Clans that supported Pytheios, the no-longer-rotting King of the Red Clan. The same king who’d murdered both of Angelika’s parents as well as her grandparents and many others in power in order to secure the Red throne for himself and declare himself High King. A position that had always been held by the king mated to the phoenix.
Only he hadn’t had a phoenix.
She and her sisters had been in hiding with their mother—the best-kept secret in history for five centuries—thought to be extinct.
Now their mother was dead, her sisters were outed, and Angelika was the only one still a secret, hiding in plain sight while her world fell apart around her.
Kasia and her mate, Brand, were barely holding on to the Gold Clan he ruled. Skylar and Ladon ruled the Blue Clan here. They were fine by comparison but losing their allies in rapid succession. Meira was supposed to have mated the King of the Black Clan, but that had gone sideways in a hurry. She was out there right now, running from one danger to the next in search of her missing king.
And Angelika…well, she hadn’t inherited any of her mother’s phoenix powers or the ability to shift like her dragon father, so she’d been rendered obsolete in this war. No one seemed to know what to do with her.
Worse, Pytheios claimed to have found another phoenix, which was impossible. Four was already unheard of. There had only ever been one at a time.
What else could go wrong?
She needed to get out. Fresh air and a moment to herself would center her just so she could keep going.
She had taken precautions, at least. White-blond hair bundled under a black beanie—check. All black clothing, like a badass black dragon—check. One of Jedd’s jackets, making her person smell even more of wolf and less like the phoenix she technically wasn’t—check, check, check.
See. Precautions appropriately taken.
As usual, a shifter was guarding the massive dragonsteel door that shut the mountain off from the outside world—open during the day, it remained sealed shut at night. Ignoring the grumpy face, she gave him a cheerful wave where he sat inside a glassed-in control room. Except the door didn’t click. She turned back to face him, eyebrows raised, then flashed a thumbs-up, gestured at the door, and another thumbs-up. Rolling his eyes, the guard reluctantly pressed whatever combination of buttons needed to be pressed to automatically unlock the smaller, human-sized door leading outside to the flattened ledge used as a landing pad.
Outside, she paused and closed her eyes and breathed, letting the tension drain away as she stood under the clear, open sky.
“It is not good for you to be out here unaccompanied.”
Angelika stiffened, her eyes shooting open. She knew that voice, though only from afar. Like dark silk or smooth bourbon, low and even. Measured. From a man impossible to overlook. Turning her head, she found Airk Azdajah standing at the precipice, the white dragon shifter’s toes practically hanging over the edge to the canyon below.
“I can take care of myself,” she said. Knee-jerk response. Everyone seemed determined that she was in need of protection.
“You did not even know I was out here until I spoke.”
Unlike most shifters, whose speech changed slowly over time, the same way humans’ did, this dragon still spoke more…formally. She liked it. It made him sound old-fashioned, or chivalrous, even, which was why she smiled a little.
He shook his head in obvious disgust. “Return to the mountain, little wolf.”
Angelika ignored the imperious order. Besides, she was curious. “For someone still struggling to shift, you’re taking an awfully big risk, standing there.”
Though she’d spoken the words with kindness, Airk’s shoulders drew back, his spine going steel-rod straight.
Before he could snap back, she crossed the distance between them. “What are you doing? Trying to force your dragon to emerge? Isn’t that dangerous?”
He turned ice blue eyes on her, quietly intense in a way no man she’d met before came close to. That was saying something, given the natures of shifters, whether wolf and dragon. Probably Airk’s way was a holdover from centuries kept in captivity with few to talk to. The thought of him alone and caged like that made her heart ache.
She expected him to dismiss her again—that or dismiss the danger. Instead, his expression eased. “I am less concerned with falling to my death than I am with releasing a feral dragon.”
He had never released the animal within, according to Skylar, who knew him best, though that wasn’t by much. Not long ago, her sister had been captured by Pytheios and locked in the Red Clan’s prison in Everest…with Airk. He was the one who’d helped Skylar escape, or, more accurately, they’d helped each other.
“Then what are you doing out here?” she asked.
Airk looked down into the deep ravine below before he raised his gaze to the stars, the cool light of the waning moon illuminating his face and setting his white hair aglow. His lips twitched as though a smile was beyond him, unused, stiff and almost shaky. “After centuries inside a mountain…”
He left off the rest, but she caught his meaning.
“I don’t blame you.” Without thinking, Angelika reached over and took his hand, giving it a squeeze.
His fingers twitched in her grasp, and he stared at their clasped hands. “You dare touch me?”
The question came out not angry or offended but almost…bewildered. She got it. She’d seen how all the dragons in this mountain avoided Airk.
She shrugged. “I’m a hugger.”
He cocked his head and studied her, seeming to be as confused by the words as by her simple act of reaching out. “Most are afraid of me. Or disgusted.”
“They don’t know you.”
He slipped his hand out of hers. “You do not know me.”
Angelika sighed as he stepped back, putting more space between them. “I would offer to be friends, but I don’t think hanging out with a wolf shifter will help you integrate into dragon society any better.”
“This is true.”
Disappointment shot through her, but that was nothing new in Angelika’s world. As always, she shook it off. She had sort of been hoping he would ignore that truth and want to be friends. Because the fact was, she found this man fascinating. Gorgeous. Distant. Lonely.
And she was drawn to him in a way she’d never felt drawn to another.
He gestured to the door she’d come out. “Allow me to escort you to your chambers.”
As much as she would like to stay out here with him, even if they simply sat in silence, she could tell by the tightness in his jaw that Airk would prefer things this way.
Maybe next time he’d be inclined to linger.
Together, they walked through the human-sized tunnels, which were rarely accessed in the daytime and abandoned at night. The wolf pack had been given suites that had clearly not been used in years and were a good distance into the mountain and up.
About halfway there, Angelika couldn’t help herself. “Tell me, Airk Azdajah, what do you want?”
Hands clasped behind his back, he leveled her with a look. “You have much to say.”
Angelika almost laughed at the irritation that flickered in his eyes. Clearly, he was ready to hand her off to the wolves. “I mean, for a long time, I’m guessing you’ve only had two goals in mind. Survival and escape.”
After a second, he gave a jerking nod.
“Well then…now that you’ve accomplished both, what is next for you?”
“You had to have pictured in your mind what you would do once you got out, right?”
Wariness stared back at her from a harshly beautiful face. “Why do you ask me this?”
She tried not to take offense at the suspicion in that question. “Because I get the impression that you’re…floundering a bit. I know what that’s like.”
Boy did she ever. Running her entire life, never feeling as though she had roots, no matter how long they’d spent in any one location. Now she was the only sister with no powers. She’d hadn’t figured out how, exactly, but she wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of her being part of taking Pytheios down.
“Floundering.” Airk stopped and frowned, mouthing the word as if tasting it. Then he scowled so harshly, a lesser person might’ve backed off. He reminded her of a wild thing in pain, bunching its muscles to lash out, even if it meant striking the person who had come to help.
He jerked his gaze to her, mouth open as if to tell her off, then paused, seeming to search her expression. Such guardedness. If she thought he would have let her, Angelika would’ve hugged him, penetrating that icy outer shell with the warmth of kindness. He was a dragon shifter, damn it. Ice shouldn’t be part of his makeup.
Slowly, he closed his mouth. “If you were me, what would you do?”
She didn’t even have to think about it. “I would find a way to kill the monster who did that to me.”
After a beat of shock, Airk’s gaze intensified, and his presence filled the space around them, power and purpose clotting the air.
Alpha.The word whispered through her mind.
Not that she should be surprised. His father had been her own father’s Beta once upon a time. Airk had more claim to the throne of the White Clan than anyone except her and her sisters. A king destined by the fates. A king that, maybe, might have been destined for her.
If things had been different.
Her body heated at the thought.
“I shall consider your words,” he said.
Then he waved her to continue on. Again, they walked side by side in silence. Only this time, the vibes that continued to pulse from him filled the space, surrounding her, penetrating her. Angelika practically wanted to crawl out of her skin. But to do what? Help him? Hug him? Fuck him?
Oh, Gods, do not think about fucking the hot, lonely, dangerous dragon shifter.
Finally, they reached her door, and she paused. “This is me.”
He gazed at her, unspeaking.
Not wanting to close a door between them yet, she looked back. “Do you think you’ll ever try to shift?”
He gave an almost negligent shrug, though she got the impression that he cared about this a thousand times more than he wanted to let on. “The bonds with loved ones that I would need to tether me to my humanity died with my parents the same day you lost your father.”
Airk had been there. A child witnessing Pytheios’s coup by murder. Part of her wanted to ask him for those memories. A part she didn’t indulge.
Angelika just nodded. “I guess you’d better make friends faster, then.”
Airk ducked his head, but not before she caught a hint of a smile that fairly knocked the breath from her lungs. The man was attractive in a harsh sort of way, but when he smiled… Oh. My.
“Perhaps I have made one tonight.”
Angelika stilled. Well, knock me over with a feather.
Given the course of their conversation, she’d been under the impression that he would rather get rid of her than consider her a friend.
“I would like that.” She swallowed because the truth of those words struck her harder than expected. “But I suggest you start with dragon shifter friends.” Because, for all he knew, she was a wolf shifter.
Gaze trained on her face, he gave a sharp nod. “Allies.”
“Friends,” she corrected. “Particularly the kings mated to the phoenixes.”
That sounded odd to say, since those phoenixes were her sisters and those kings her brothers-by-blood. But no one else was supposed to know that.
“I will consider your suggestion.” He clasped his hands behind his back, as though he had to contain himself, then pivoted on his heel and walked away without another word.
“I hope you’ll try it eventually,” she called after his retreating form. “Shifting, I mean. A dragon in captivity is a true shame.”
Airk paused and glanced over his shoulder. “Perhaps one day. Though not even your sister can see what lies ahead for me.”
As he disappeared around the corner, Angelika gasped, the meaning of his words sinking in. Kasia had inherited their mother’s ability to see the future. And he’d called Kasia her sister.
He knows who I am.
That realization triggered a landslide of another one. One that might let her contribute to this war.
If there was anyone who wanted Pytheios dead as much as she did—but was semi-powerless to do anything about that—it was Airk. Maybe combining forces was an idea worth looking at closer. Her sisters had mated for political leverage or protection. Why couldn’t she?
Together, a phoenix and the rightful heir to the throne of the White Clan could be very…strategic.
The fact she’d recently been thinking about him in a very nonstrategic manner wasn’t important.
She almost ran after Airk to toss the offer around but forced herself to wait. Better to think this through and work the pros and cons before she pitched it. Mating wasn’t something to go into lightly. And who even knew if it’d work with a dormant phoenix and a dragon shifter who might go feral at any second?
“Where have you been?”
Jedd’s rasping, rumbling voice made her jump. She spun around to find him standing in the doorway of the room next to hers.
The wolf shifter glowered. “No more going nowhere without me.”
Angelika offered him a conciliatory smile but made no promises…not when she couldn’t keep them. She hated that she couldn’t give him that. “Night, Jedd.”
As she closed the door of her room behind her, she couldn’t resist one last peek down the hall.
Airk was long gone.
Would he even want to mate her?