Michael has never been afraid of any challenge. When the tyrannical beast that rules his land demands a mate—a strong, virile man—Michael volunteers. He does so to save his village from the creature’s wrath and prevent the beast from following through with his threat and coming in the night to steal a mate. He goes to the castle certain he knows exactly what he’s in store for, but what he actually finds changes his life forever.
Michael stepped out of the tub and watched the rivulets of water flowing down his body and wetting the ground. He dried himself carefully. The strong sage soap he’d washed in smelled too strong for his own taste, but it was traditional. Beyond the high fence, he could hear people whispering. Small groups had been gathering near his home all day. What were they all thinking? He had volunteered, of course, but he imagined everyone had a different idea as to why.
Turning his gaze toward the castle, he sighed. He knew many probably thought he was heartbroken over his wife’s death, but they had never been in love. It had saddened him to lose the woman who had been his companion for two years, but Daria had only been a friend. She’d been in love with another man, one who had abandoned her. She and Michael had only lain together a dozen or so times. They had cared for each other, but never truly loved each other.
Michael began to dress in the leather breeches and tunic he’d been instructed to put on. He would go to the castle with nothing else. All would be provided there, he’d been told. It had only been a week since the last girl had come back. Two months ago, the tyrannical beast that ruled their land had demanded a mate. He’d sent every single girl away, but this time, the girl had come back to her people with a message.
The beast didn’t want another timid maiden. He wanted a strong, muscular male.
Everyone had been shocked and insisted the girl’s brain was addled. She’d produced a handwritten note, which had been put on display in the square. Michael had ruminated for two days before going to the village elders and volunteering. Then they’d all thought he was the one who was addled. But by the end of the night, they’d agreed, finally understanding that no one else would go willingly. The creature that dwelled in the shadows of the castle would come down at sunset and steal a mate for himself if one was not given to him today. The last time they’d defied the beast, there had been bloodshed. Michael had been too young to understand what had happened, and no one liked talking about it. The creature had also once used his sorcery to block out the sun for three days. Michael had always respected the beast’s power but never feared him.
Michael thought about the beast as he straightened his tunic, which had no laces in front and fit him snugly to show off his chest and abs. He ran his hand down his body and wondered how it would feel to be touched by a clawed hand. The mysterious beast that had ruled over them since before Michael’s birth was taller and more broad shouldered than Michael. He never wore anything more than boots and leather breeches. His body was covered in short black fur, yet he was muscular just like ordinary humans. The strength of those muscles could be seen any time he exerted himself. His face was like a lion’s, his yellow eyes piercing and his hair a dark, wild mane. His rounded, cat-like ears swiveled to take in sound, and people often stayed quiet when he was near, out of fear. He was like something out of a fairy story, as if a man had killed a beast and then clothed himself in the pelt. He had fangs and could roar when provoked. The sound was not as loud or bold as a true beast’s, but it scared everyone nonetheless. One-inch claws tipped his fingers. Some of the girls had come back with faint scratches on their bodies.
Michael turned to see Joshua, one of the elders, looking at him. “It’s time?”
Joshua nodded. “Yes, the carriage is ready.”
Michael felt the people watching him, and even as they whispered their concerns, he knew they were all relieved.
They set off, and Joshua gazed out the window as they wound up the hill to the castle. “It’s a brave thing you’re doing.”
“We can’t fight the beast. It might kill again if we don’t do what it asks. It’s better that I go willingly than that some youth is dragged from his bed tonight. Or a father taken from his family.”
“Yes, it is better.” He sighed and then added, “It harmed none of the girls at least.”
“But it frightened them all half to death. I don’t frighten so easily.”
“You might when that thing tries to mount you.”
Michael took a deep breath and pushed it out slowly. “I’ve lain with men before. I won’t break.”
Joshua finally made eye contact. “If you say so.” He pointed to the castle. “There’ll be no escape. Those gates will close, and you won’t get out again unless the thing opens them for you.”
“I know that.”
Joshua shifted and lowered his voice. “Do you mean to kill it?”
Michael shook his head. “Do you go into the dark cave and lose yourself in its twists and turns to kill the bear?”
Joshua gave a shrug. “Perhaps while it sleeps.”
“And then our kingdom would be vulnerable. The conquering hordes only stay away for fear of the beast’s enchantments and strength.”
The carriage stopped, and Joshua stiffened a moment before getting out and holding the door open. The horses grew restless and tried to back up, and the driver had to jump down to hold them steady. Michael descended and looked at the castle gates.
“Go on, lad, and may the gods have mercy on you.”
“The gods allowed this creature to exist. I’m not sure I want their mercy.” He straightened his back. “I won’t be harmed, Joshua. Perhaps he’ll let me out on a leash when he comes to the village next time.”
Michael laughed without humor. “Who’s joking? I’ll not have my liberty if he likes me.” The gates opened as the driver got into position again.
Joshua scrambled back into the carriage, and the driver turned the horses around and took off. Michael gazed back at them a moment before entering the garden. A kind of orderly chaos greeted him. Flowers and bushes and vines of every kind wound together in great masses, multi-colored blossoms all around him. He followed the winding path to the castle door and waited. There was no knocker of any kind, only the blood-red wood before him. The beast had to know he was here, since the gates had opened and closed for him.
Michael heard footsteps on the stones behind him, and a large shadow fell over him as the door opened. Michael held his head up high and waited, staring into the castle instead of turning to look at the beast.
“Turn around so that I might have a look at you,” the beast said.
The deep voice boomed directly behind Michael, and he turned slowly. The beast was over a foot taller than him and a good bit wider as well, far more imposing than Michael had remembered. Heat poured off the creature, and Michael watched his muscular chest rise and fall.
A rumble came from the beast’s chest. “At least they listened this time. What is your name?”
“Michael.” He looked up into the beast’s eyes. “Am I permitted to know yours?”
Those yellow eyes looked amused, and the beast licked his lips, his fangs showing. “If I tell you my name, you can never leave.”
“Do you think to send me back? If I don’t please you?” Michael clasped his hands behind his back to keep his restless hands still.
The beast pressed closer. “You please me. And I will please you, if you let me.”
“I’m here to save my village and my people. I came here to stay, so you might as well tell me.”
“My name is Kyros.”
Michael shifted his stance as he turned the name over in his mind. “Is that what I’m allowed to call you?”
Kyros nodded. “How did they persuade you? Are you always so brave?”
Kyros stood perfectly still, and then a smile curved his lips. “You came willingly to be my mate? To writhe beneath me as I sate my lust within your body?”
Michael lowered his eyes. “I didn’t think of it that way, but yes.” He lifted his gaze. “I know I’m here to be fucked.”
Kyros gestured to the door. “Then come in. You’ll need a bath.”
“I bathed before I came.”
“Yes, in that horrid sage concoction the villagers believe wards off evil.” The doors closed behind them, the candles in the hallway lighting as they walked. “I’ve had to wash every one of you. Do they not understand how keen my sense of smell is?”
“You could’ve told them not to.”
“No matter. It will give me a chance to touch you before dinner.”
Michael’s steps faltered a bit. “Touch me?”
A laugh rumbled from the beast. “Yes. I shall bathe you myself.” He leaned close. “You shall get to examine me as well. See what you’re in for.”
“You will only touch me?” Michael asked, very aware of how near Kyros was.
“Are you so eager?”
Michael flicked his glance up. “Merely curious.”
“You look at least thirty. You’re no virgin.”
“No. I’ve lain with four women and two men. One was my wife.”
“Daria. She passed away.”
“Did you leave a lover to come to me?” Kyros opened the door to a huge bathing chamber of blue and white marble. “I’m very jealous, you see. I must know.”
“No. Daria has not been dead a year yet. I have no lover.”
Kyros smiled again, his eyes raking up and down Michael. “From this night on you will.” He waved his hand, and steaming water poured from several mounted, silver lion’s heads. A sunken tub lined with blue marble took up half the room. It filled quickly, and Kyros fixed his gaze on Michael.
“Undress. Let me see you.”
Michael obeyed, feeling warm under the scrutiny. He made himself keep his hands at his sides when he was done. Kyros approached and walked around him, not touching yet.
“You look strong. You must work outside.”
“I was a woodcutter. I also worked the farms when I was needed.”
One clawed hand slid gently down his back and then cupped his ass. The claws weren’t sharp, but they were hard, and Michael knew they could cause pain if Kyros wanted to do so.
“Get in the water,” Kyros said, giving Michael a little pat on the ass.