The darkest warrior, p.1
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       The Darkest Warrior, p.1

         Part #14 of Lords of the Underworld series by Gena Showalter  
The Darkest Warrior


  A searing Lords of the Underworld tale by New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter, featuring a beastly prince and the wife he will wage war to keep

  He is ice...

  Puck the Undefeated, host of the demon of Indifference, cannot experience emotion without punishment, so he allows himself to feel nothing. Until her. According to ancient prophecy, she is the key to avenging his past, saving his realm and ruling as king. All he must do? Steal her from the man she loves--and marry her.

  She is fire...

  Gillian Shaw has suffered many tragedies in her too-short life, but nothing could have prepared the fragile human for her transition into immortality. To survive, she must wed a horned monster who both intrigues and frightens her...and become the warrior queen she was born to be.

  Together they burn.

  As a rising sense of possession and obsession overtake Puck, so does insatiable lust. The more he learns about his clever, resourceful wife, the more he craves her. And the more time Gillian spends with her protective husband, the more she aches for him. But the prophecy also predicts an unhappily-ever-after. Can Puck defeat fate itself to keep the woman who brought his deadened heart back to life? Or will they succumb to destiny, losing each other...and everything they've been fighting for?

  Praise for Gena Showalter

  "One of the premier authors of paranormal romance. Gena Showalter delivers an utterly spellbinding story!"

  --Kresley Cole, #1 New York Times bestselling author "Gena Showalter never fails to dazzle."

  --Jeaniene Frost, New York Times bestselling author "Showalter...rocks me every time!"

  --Sylvia Day, #1 New York Times bestselling author "Showalter writes fun, sexy characters you fall in love with!"

  --Lori Foster, New York Times bestselling author "Showalter makes romance sizzle on every page!"

  --Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author "A fascinating premise, a sexy hero and non-stop action, The Darkest Night is Showalter at her finest."

  --Karen Marie Moning, New York Times bestselling author "[A] spellbinding love story that will stop the heart of every reader."

  --Redbook on The Darkest Promise "The Showalter name on a book means guaranteed entertainment."

  --RT Book Reviews

  "Gena Showalter is a romantic genius."

  --San Francisco Book Review

  Also available from Gena Showalter and HQN Books Can't Let Go

  Can't Hardly Breathe The Darkest Promise The Darkest Torment The Harder You Fall The Hotter You Burn The Closer You Come All For You (anthology featuring "The One You Want") The Darkest Touch Burning Dawn

  After Dark (duology featuring "The Darkest Angel") The Darkest Craving Beauty Awakened After Moonrise (duology with P.C. Cast) Wicked Nights

  The Darkest Seduction The Darkest Surrender The Darkest Secret The Darkest Lie The Darkest Passion Into the Dark

  The Darkest Whisper The Darkest Pleasure The Darkest Kiss The Darkest Night The Vampire's Bride The Nymph King Jewel of Atlantis Heart of the Dragon Twice as Hot

  Playing with Fire Catch a Mate

  Animal Instincts The Pleasure Slave The Stone Prince From Harlequin Nonfiction Dating the Undead (with Jill Monroe) From Harlequin TEEN

  Everlife

  Lifeblood

  Firstlife

  A Mad Zombie Party The Queen of Zombie Hearts Through the Zombie Glass Alice in Zombieland Twisted

  Unraveled

  Intertwined

  And look for the first sizzling story in Gena Showalter's all-new Gods of War series

  Shadow and Ice

  coming soon from HQN Books!

  Gena Showalter is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of the spellbinding Lords of the Underworld series, two young adult series--Everlife and the White Rabbit Chronicles--and the highly addictive Original Heartbreakers series. She's hard at work on her next novel, a tale featuring an alpha male with a dark side and the strong woman who brings him to his knees. You can learn more about Gena, her menagerie of rescue dogs and all her upcoming books at genashowalter.com or Facebook.com/genashowalterfans.

  For anyone who has ever suffered abuse at the hands of another. For anyone who has ever heard the words "you aren't good enough" and "you have no value." For anyone who has ever been told "you dream too big" and "you can't succeed." You are the only you and the world needs you. I stand with you. I hurt with you. You are priceless. You can do this.

  Contents

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Epilogue

  Dear Readers

  Glossary of Terms and Players

  Excerpt from Shadow and Ice by Gena Showalter

  Prologue

  Once upon a time in the desert realm of Amaranthia, two immortal princes were born. Pukinn "Puck" Neale Brion Connacht IV and Taliesin "Sin" Anwell Kunsgnos Connacht. Brothers by blood. Friends by choice. Shapeshifters of legend, able to become anyone at any time.

  Puck, the elder, grew into a warrior unlike any other, brute force his specialty. No matter the strength or expertise of his opponent, he remained undefeated, his skill on the battlefield rivaled only by his prowess in the bedroom.

  Sin, the younger, preferred books to battle and romance to war, though his military triumphs were no less renowned. He could scheme and strategize better than anyone.

  The princes loved one another and each vowed to put the other first in all things. But long ago, the Oracles of Amaranthia prophesied one brother would wed a loving queen and slay the other brother, then unite the realm's warring clans at long last.

  The Oracles were never wrong.

  In the end, no matter the princes' hopes and plans, the prophesy would be fulfilled...

  Some fairy tales do not have a happily-ever-after.

  1

  Kill a man, acquire his magic. A tale as old as time.

  With a roar, Puck the Undefeated swung a pair of short swords at his latest opponent, the king of Clan Walsh. One blood-soaked blade hacked through the man's metal breastplate, sending him to his knees; the other sliced into his throat from front to back.

  No match for a Connacht prince. Who is?

  The king gasped with shock and pain, then gurgled as a crimson tide poured from both sides of his mouth. "Wh-why?"

  With only a thought, Puck shapeshifted back to his normal appearance, letting the dying king see the true countenance of the one who'd bested him.

  "My brother sends his regards." Puck twisted the blades and said, "May you rest in pieces."

  The king gaped, wheezing a final breath before going silent, his head lolling forward. Puck yanked the swords free, and the body collapsed on the ground, flinging sand.

  In war, there was only one rule: win, whatever the cost.

  Walsh soldiers retreated in a frenzied rush.

  A dark glittering mist rose from the king's corpse and drifted to Puck. Potent magic adhered to the runes branded in his hands--curling gold symbols that stretched from fingertips to wrist. Pure power. Intoxicating. Nothing better.

  His head buzzed, the blood in his veins heating and fizzing. Because of the magic, aye, but also because he felt triumphant. In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, the newest war in a long string of wars had ended, and the Connachts had won.

  Puck maintained his position in the center of the blood-soaked battlefield. Sand dunes stretched as far as the eye could see, broken up by the occasional oasis with towering trees and crystal clear ponds. The realm's twin suns had long since vanished from the skyline. Night ruled, the heavens the same color as mulberries, creating an endless sea of dark purple-red. No stars glittered tonight.

  His eyes closed as he savored the victory. The odds had been stacked against him, with an enemy army more than twice the size of his own. So, last night, his brother, Sin, suggested Puck sneak into the enemy camp, kill a Walsh commander, ash the body--and take his place. Not easily done, but done all the same.

  In his new guise, Puck had instructed the soldiers to "ambush" the Connachts, and ultimately led the entire army into a trap. From there, reaching the king had been child's play.

  Sin could look at any situation--any man--and somehow discern every hidden weakness.

  Puck sometimes wondered what weaknesses his brother perceived in him. Not that it mattered. Sin only ever sought to protect him, doing anything, everything to ensure he won every battle.

  Together, they would defy the prophecy spoken over them as children. One brother kill the other? Never! Puck and Sin would rule the five clans together, and nothing would come between them.

  A bond as strong as theirs could never be broken.

  As a cold wind spit sand, Puck opened his eyes. Despite the frigid temperature, he radiated heat, adrenaline pumping through his veins. Sweat mixed with the blood of the vanquished splattered on his torso, dripping down every ridge of muscle.

  In the distance, someone shouted, "Victory is ours!"

  Other cries followed.

  "The Walsh magic is ours!"

  "We've won, we've won!"

  Jubilant cheers rose, a familiar chorus. He'd trained with, suffered with, and bled with--and for--these men. To Puck, loyalty was far more precious than gold, diamonds or even magic.

  "Return to camp," he called. "Celebrate."

  In unison, the soldiers surged toward the campsite just beyond the dunes--a sub-realm tucked inside a realm, hidden by Sin's magic.

  Puck sheathed his swords and picked up the king's blade, the perfect trophy. Pride lifted his head as he followed his men from the battlefield. More dead bodies and a surplus of severed limbs littered the path, the air saturated with the copper tang of blood and the stench of emptied bowels.

  Carnage never pleased him. It also never bothered him.

  He refused to shy away from violence. Threaten his people, suffer. The day he showed a foe mercy was the day he condemned his clan to bondage or death.

  Remaining in the shadows, Puck slipped through an invisible doorway only accessible to people who'd been branded with Connacht magic. For anyone else, the doorway remained closed; oftentimes men, women and children walked past without ever knowing a sub-dimension existed a mere arm's length away.

  Suddenly tents, blazing fire pits, soldiers and their females surrounded him. The death-stink evaporated, replaced by the aroma of roasting meat, hard labor and sweet perfume.

  A maid spotted Puck and closed the distance, interest glowing in her eyes. "Hello, Your Highness. If you be in need of a companion this evening--"

  "Let me stop you there. I never go back for seconds." He never forgot a face, either, and he remembered he'd had this woman in the past year.

  Before he'd ever climbed into bed with a female, he'd made sure she understood his one-and-done policy.

  Disappointment shadowed her expression. "But--"

  Done with the conversation, he sidestepped her and made his way to the fringes of camp, where he and Sin had both erected a tent. A cold move on his part, yes, but necessary.

  Puck wasn't like other royals. While most princes kept a "stable," and traveled with their "fillies," even during times of war, Puck refused to bed the same women twice. He could not risk promoting a romantic tie with anyone. A romantic tie would kindle hope to marry. No marriage meant no loving queen. No loving queen meant the prophecy remained unfulfilled.

  Although, truth be told, Puck adored everything about the "feminine softness" he'd been denied most of his life. He loved kissing, touching and the build of anticipation. Sweaty bodies grinding together, creating friction. Moans and groans and breathy sighs in his ears. The bliss of finally sinking deep inside his lover.

  Sometimes, a few hours in a stranger's bed only whetted his appetite...

  Deep down, he had a secret, shameful desire to keep a woman all to himself, to learn every little detail about her past, all her hopes and dreams. He dreamed of spending weeks, months, years pampering her and her alone, branding himself in and on her. Being branded by her.

  He yearned to have a "mine."

  Maybe one day he could--

  No. Never. Sin before women, always. Sin before everything.

  Tonight, the brothers would review the battle's successes and failures. They would drink and laugh, and plan their next move, and all would be right in Puck's world.

  A thorny vine surrounded and protected his tent, no one able to enter or leave without his permission. Unleashing a tendril of magic, he forced the vines to part and stepped inside.

  When his brother came into view, affection punched Puck dead center in the chest. While they shared the same dark skin, darker eyes, and even darker hair, the same aquiline nose and unforgiving lips, Sin's features were set in a softer frame. On numerous occasions, Puck had been told his face looked "carved from stone."

  Sin paced, seemingly oblivious to the world.

  "What troubles you?" Puck's fingers tightened around the sword hilt.

  His brother had never paced...until recently. A month ago, he'd attended peace talks with a neighboring realm and returned...changed. From calm to paranoid, certain to unsure.

  He told Puck he'd woken the final morning to find his army slaughtered. He'd lain among the carnage, the only survivor, with no memory of what had happened. Now he couldn't sleep, startled at sudden movements and noises, and stared at shadows as if someone hid within. He hadn't visited his stable and refused to remove his shirt during training.

  Puck suspected new scars littered his brother's chest. Did he think others would consider him weak if they caught a glimpse?

  If anyone said a single word against him, "anyone" would die.

  Whenever Puck expressed concern, Sin changed the subject.

  Sin paused before the crackling fire pit, his gaze finding Puck before darting away.

  Gradually Sin relaxed, even grinned a familiar grin only Puck had the privilege to see. "You took your sweet time returning to camp. Old age slowing you down?"

  He snorted. "You're only two years younger. Perhaps we should switch places for the next war. I plan, you fight."

  "You forget I know you better than you know yourself. Worry for my safety would drive you straight to my side."

  Sin wasn't wrong.

  His brother could handle himself in a fight, whatever the weapon. He had no equal, except Puck. But if anything were to happen to him...

  I will burn this realm to the ground.

  Puck stalked to the basin of water perched atop his travel armory. After resting the Walsh sword against the side, he washed away the night's filth.

  "When we were children, you worried for me," he said, drying his face with a towel. "What happened?"

  "You learned to use a sword." Sin rubbed his temples, as if he hated the thoughts swirling inside his mind.

  He needed a distraction. "Shall we begin our review of the battle?"

  "Not yet. I come bearing news." Seconds passed, each one crackling with tension.

  Puck stiffened. "Tell me."

  Eyes stark, Sin said, "Father announced your betrothal to Princess Alannah of Daingean."

  Puck's first reaction: I will have a wife. She'll be mine!

  Then he scowled. Must proceed with caution. From a very early age, he'd seen the world around him through a near blinding filter: MY brother, MY clan, MY realm.

  He'd seen Alannah only once, and though he'd liked the look of her, he wouldn't deign to bed her, much less wed her. Temptation could not be indulged, even in the slightest sense.

  However, he comprehended Sin's concern. King rather than primogeniture decided a successor. Unless the king refused to make a selection, of course, then the strongest warrior took the crown. But, with this announcement, King Pukinn III had made his choice.

  "Father spoke in haste," Puck said. "I won't be wedding anyone. You have my word."

  "This is a political move meant to solidify the alliance between our clans, but...the prophecy..." Sin's voice frayed at the edges. "One will become king with a loving queen at his side, and he will slay the other. The Oracles are never wrong."

  "There's a first time for everything." He closed the distance to frame his brother's cheeks with his hands. "Trust me. A wedding will never take place." Neither would wed, and the prophecy would remain unfulfilled. "I choose you, brother. I will always choose you."

  Sin remained as inflexible as steel. "If you refuse her, you'll insult the Daingeans. Another war will break out."

  "Another war is always breaking out." Each clan collected magic from the men they slayed, desperate to possess more than the others.

  Magic was strength, and strength was magic.

  Sin broke away from Puck to worry two fingers against the dark stubble on his jaw. "By wedding Alannah, you will unite the clans, as you've dreamed. Connacht, Daingean, Fiain, Eadrom and Walsh."

  How could he make his brother understand? Yes, he dreamed of uniting the clans. War would end at last. Lives would be saved. Peace would reign. Amaranthia would flourish, the lands no longer ravaged by near-constant battles.

  But concord without Sin meant less than nothing.

  "Nothing matters more than you," he said. Centuries ago, there'd been twelve clans. Now, because of kings and armies greedy for magic, only five remained. If something wasn't done, the entire population would die out. "Not to me."

 
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