A Princess who sacrifices love for duty… a King planning to seize his mate…
Bear Princess Miahela Sahakian is thrust into the role of Heir when her brother abdicates the throne to be with his human mate. Disaster. She’d planned on quietly retiring from royal life in order to be with her secret mate, the commoner she met when she was just sixteen…
Only the ‘commoner’ Dami is hiding a secret from the female he loves, and has kept at arm’s length for so many years, sacrificing his desires for the sake of his country, recovering from war.
But it is time to take what belongs to him, before the Princess is forced to wed an alpha male other than him because of an ancient law forbidding a future Queen remain unmated. Not every Bear is happy when he claims his Princess, and a danger close to home threatens them both.
The Queen’s rage perfumed the room. Mia suppressed the natural flare of her nostrils, allowing herself shallow breaths. Her knees ached from kneeling in silence so long, head lowered.
It was her mother’s way of punishing her for her failure. Hannah fled the country, luring the Crown Prince with her, his Heir in her womb. As the only child left in Queen Izobelle’s clutches, the brunt of her anger blanketed the slender, elegant shoulders of Princess Miahela.
“Explain again,” Her Majesty said, each word precise, “how you could not control one human sow?”
Miahela was too well trained to wince. She was well aware the term sow was unflattering in the human world- and so was the Queen. Hannah was curvy, beautiful and graceful. In fact, when Mother first introduced Andrei’s human mate, her relief lifted the boulder of dread over grooming an anonymous street performer into a mate fit for Casakrainian royalty.
Of course, it was Fiora who’d termed Hannah a street dancer. Ironic, since the Queen’s personal passion revolved around the Arts, especially dance. But the mind of the Assembly was that though humans were good enough to perform for the royal family’s entertainment, they were not good enough to mate into the royal family. Her heart rebelled against the notion that a commoner wasn’t good enough for a Prince. If Andrei could not wed his love, what hope for Mia?
Mia gave her mother credit. The Queen had tried, showing concern when the pregnancy was revealed. Had exerted an… effort to make the human feel welcome. Maintained solidarity with her Heir even under the scrutiny of the Assembly and their entrenched prejudices. They were too old and far too defined by bloodline to accept a Crown Prince marrying a human nobody.
“I understand Princess Hannah was homesick,” Mia replied, voice soft. Even. Not a hint of challenge.
“What could she possibly be homesick for? There are nothing but cornfields where she is from.”
Which her mother knew because she’d had the female thoroughly investigated. Good news that Hannah’s background was as squeaky clean as one might hope- bad news was she was so provincial the media was having a field day. But at least Hannah was graceful.
The best reply was silence. Years of navigating her mother’s temper trained her to not respond unless questioned.
“You are going to fix this,” Izobelle said.
Of course. Mia, eldest and only daughter of the Queen, occupied a peculiar role. Their culture was no longer matriarchal, but their ancestral roots leaned in that direction. So though Andrei was higher ranked than she, Mia still held a great deal of influence as the Queen’s direct female descendant.
“What would you like me to do, Majesty?”
Izobelle’s elegant fingers clutched the armrest of her chair. Mia hoped the female didn’t break it. The custom made seats were expensive and she was tired of navigating the personality issues of the artisan responsible for their creation.
“Do whatever you must- but bring them back!”
Miahela sighed. Of course.
* * *
“Andrei, you have to come home,” Mia said.
Her brother’s face filled the screen of her tablet, inscrutable. But no- his eyes flickered away from the webcam for just a moment. She saw the slightest softening around his eyes and mouth. He was a Prince; no one else would have seen a break in the cold, regal facade. But he was also her older brother, and she knew him well.
“Give my greetings to Hannah. How is the pregnancy coming along?”
The ballerina appeared on screen, dark hair loose around her shoulders. Her tropical brown skin glowed, a feminine roundness to her face that matched the full… squirming… belly. Mia stared, eyes widening.
“The cub is… settled?”
Andrei’s brow rose; he grinned. It was so rare to see her brother smile other than a practiced flash of teeth for cameras.
“The cub is giving her mother hell,” Andrei said, pride in the swell of his chest.
Hannah snorted. “Hello, Mia.” She paused, sighed. “I guess I should feel guilty for leaving the way I did. I’m sorry.”
Mia inclined her head. “I understand. I wish you would return. The cub is an Heir to the throne and should be born on our soil.”
Hannah bit her lip. “I know. Andrei-” she hesitated, slanting a glance at her mate. “Andrei thinks it isn’t safe.”
Andrei was correct. Unless Mia could coax a binding oath from her mother, as soon as the wayward couple set foot back onto Casakrainian soil, they would be indefinitely detained. Her mother would not relax her guard a second time. Well, third, if one counted Andrei’s first escape. Mia’s hand massaged her temple.
“I will speak with mother,” she told her brother. “If I can get her to swear you’ll be allowed to leave the country at will, will you come?”
“Make her swear in writing, with an official seal and the Assembly as witness.”
Mia suppressed her wince. The Queen would not be happy.
* * *
“So you failed.” Izobelle turned from the tall window, pinning Mia with a glare.
“Not… precisely.” Training. Discipline. Serenity. “His terms-”
“My son dares give me terms? What would you call success then?”
Her temper broke. “I would call success raising an Heir with a spine,” Mia snapped. “Or did you want our line to fall with the King you whelped?”
The Queen smiled, lids lowering over dark eyes. “Ah, but I have two Heirs.”
Miahela did not move. What did that mean? “Mother?”
Izobelle swept across the room towards the door. “You will have your signed, sealed, witnessed statement within the hour.” She paused before pushing open the heavy doors. “And then, Highness, there will be no more excuses.”
A page delivered the statement within the hour as her mother had promised. Mia scanned the document and sent it to her brother. Her cell pinged five minutes later, his face in the tiny screen.
“Prepare for our arrival Sunday.”
Mia bowed, a tricky maneuver to execute while holding a cell. But her training held.
“My Prince, all will be ready for your welcome.”
And she would talk him into accepting his duties. Because maybe then she would be free to follow her heart.
* * *
“I don’t understand,” Mia said, staring at her sister-in-law. “You couldn’t have been serious. Mother has refused to even discuss it.”
Andrei had spoken in anger of abdication, especially when the godscursed Assembly voted to recognize Hannah as a legal consort instead of a wife. Were they just absolute buffoons? Didn’t they understand how any male, any mate, would react to that? Especially a Sahakian? Mia hadn’t thought he would go through with it. He couldn’t- it would ruin everything.
Hannah sat, hand on her belly. She would give birth soon and was visibly uncomfortable. Andrei stood at her back, hand on her shoulder.
“Mother’s denial makes my declaration no less valid.” He tapped the sheaf of documents on the side table next to him. “Signed and sealed.”
Oh, God. She wanted to clutch her middle, sink to the floor in a horrified puddle of nothingness. “Does mother know you went behind her back to the Assembly?”
He smiled. “She should know any-”
A roar echoed through the wide, high ceilinged halls.
Mia’s chest seized, eyes widening. “You can’t do this! You’re Heir. Who will-”
She stopped. Andrei held her eyes, steady. “It isn’t proper for a male to rule, Mia,” he said, gently. “The country would do better with a Queen, than with a King. This is Casakraine. Females rule, males defend.”
No. Oh no. “Other shifter nations have Kings. The Khai-”
“Are savages, and don’t leave their tiny, mountainous, backwards region. We don’t even know what their King looks like- they still use a decoy.” His mouth pursed in annoyance. “Please. Don’t compare us to them.”
“Andrei! You can’t do this. Mother will-”
The floor shook, heavy thuds approaching with the swiftness of a fully grown and enraged sow.
“Hannah,” Andrei said. “Go through that door, please. It will be better if mother can’t see you.”
“She can still scent her,” Mia said. Numb. She shook her head. “Mother isn’t going to harm her grandchild- no matter how exotic its blood.”
Andrei shot her an annoyed look. “Stop saying exotic. It makes you sound like a bigot.”
“I’m not running away,” Hannah said, taking Andrei’s hand. “I’ll face her with you.”
He bent over, brushed lips against the top of his mate’s head. Doors crashed open. The Queen rose on her hind legs, ten feet tall and gleaming ebony, fearsome snarl on her face.
“I won’t speak with you when you’re like this,” Andrei said, unmoving. “Shift back.”
Izobelle roared, then fell forward onto her front arms. Hannah clutched her belly. The Queen’s body rippled, fur receding, head shrinking and altering its shape. Soon the tall, nude Queen stood clothed only in her long hair, jaw clenched.
“Majesty-” an aide scurried through the doors, closing them behind her.
The aide carried a set of clothing draped over her arm, along with a satiny midnight blue robe which she first draped around the Queen’s shoulders. Izobelle turned on her heels and strode to the far corner of the room where a privacy screen stood for just such an occasion. Most rooms in the palace contained one, to make shifts between human and Bear more convenient. When she emerged, dressed except for her loose hair, Andrei addressed his mother.
“Did that display make you feel better?” he inquired.
Izobelle snarled. “You will redact that document.”
Andrei faced her, shoulders squared. “I will not.” He studied his mother. “Mother, I won’t do it. Hannah and I have already made our choice. We will both accept diplomatic positions in the government, but I abdicate the throne in favor of my younger sister.” His expression hardened. “That is the consequence of an Assembly that votes to make my mate a consort and not a wife.”
The Queen gave her son one long look, then smiled. A nasty smile, and turned on her heels, striding out of the room.
The former Heir sighed. “That’s the look of war, sweet,” he said to his mate, voice wry. “Be prepared. Mia, I hand the baton to you. May you have joy of it.”
“I don’t want this,” Mia whispered. Nearly whimpered, feeling the weight of duty close in on her, sucking away her dream for the life she’d meticulously daydreamed. The life she’d thought she might be free to pursue once her brother mated and produced a cub. Bear stirred, waking at the thought of cubs, and Mia’s distress. Ready to defend if need be- except the only enemies here were duty, and her brother’s flagrant disregard of responsibility in his quest to coddle his young mate.
He looked at her, something akin to pity softening his steely dark eyes. “I know, Mia. But I have a mate and child to think of now. And Hannah isn’t made for politics.”
That stiffened Mia’s spine. “Hannah chose to mate into a royal house. She no longer has the luxury of choosing what she is, or is not, made of.”
Andrei opened his mouth. Hannah touched the back of his hand. “She’s right, Andrew. It isn’t fair. You’re being easy on me.” Hannah met her eyes, somber. “I’ll resume the lessons. But… right now I need to focus on the baby.”
Mia’s shoulders relaxed. Hope. Maybe the situation could be salvaged- and Andrei had planted a seed. Perhaps if the Assembly could be persuaded… she exhaled. “Of course. No one will think it odd you choose to live in seclusion for now. Impending motherhood warrants some lenience.”
“Tell that to mother,” Andrei muttered. He leveled a glare on his sister. “But you will have to learn the duties of the Crown Heir. I am adamant, Miahela. I don’t want the throne. It’s yours.”
She read the implacable resolve in his eyes, the stubborn set of his mouth. And knew better than to argue. For now. Time would tell whether the weight of obligation would sway him to resume his crown. Or whether Mia was stuck with the burden for good.