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EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE
The time had come.
I had finally been summoned by King Alarick. Next to my coronation day, this should have been the most exciting moment of my life, but was I jubilant over the occasion? No, I was vexed, oh so very vexed. Why? Because I was forced to share this moment with the most infuriating creature in all existence!
Goddess above, who named this guy? Grimm was the most annoying wolf I had ever come across. Did I mention he was infuriating? First of all, he was a wolf. He smelled like a wolf. Ugh, so gross. It wasn’t bad enough King Alarick assigned me a new bodyguard—one I couldn’t get rid of—but a wolf? Of all the magical creatures in all the realms, why a canine shifter? The very idea had me instinctively drawing my claws out and hissing as I stomped up and down the ornate carpet in front of the king’s throne room. I, Prince Owin of the Ocelot Shifters, regal and pretty, was saddled with an overgrown, hairy dog. This was wrong on so many levels.
I tried to distract myself with my surroundings. It wasn’t every day one was called to the palace. As the king of all shifters, King Alarick’s palace was like its own city, nestled among lush forests on Heart Island in the St. Lawrence River. My palace would fit in his palace. His was grand in design, reminding me of several of the human palaces—all ivory walls and gleaming marble floors, gold accents, and red carpets—with the exception of the decor. Where most human palaces featured the royal family’s human ancestors, the many paintings and statues around King Alarick’s palace featured our shifter history, proudly displaying all manner of shifters, from the most delicate and beautiful to the most terrifying.
No one knew who birthed King Alarick, but we did know the sun was involved, hence the golden suns featured throughout the palace’s decor. It was really quite breathtaking. Spinning on my heels, I smacked into a wall and bounced off. Oh, wait, not a wall. Stupid wolf. Why did they all need to be so darn tall? Not that I envied his stature. Not. At. All. Naturally wolf shifters were bigger than ocelot shifters, and bodyguard wolves were even bigger than regular wolves, so it wasn’t the brute’s fault he took up so much space. I glared at the beast.
“I can’t believe you chose that to wear to see the king,” I hissed, waving my arms at his general person. “Humans invented fashion for a reason. Look at me.” I stood tall and motioned to my tailored blue suit and cute little bow tie, which I could totally pull off because I was fabulous. “Now look at you.”
Grimm shrugged. “This is my uniform. It’s what I always wear. Everything in my wardrobe is exactly the same.”
“That makes no sense. You make no sense.”
I poked him in the chest. “I don’t have to make sense. I’m the prince.”
“You’re something all right,” Grimm muttered.
“What did you say?” I narrowed my eyes at him, sizing him up once again in case by some miracle the guy had shrunk. Over the last six months that I’d been stuck with him, I’m not proud to admit I’d been tempted to smack him on more than one occasion, but that would have required having a chair brought to me, and that sort of indignity was beneath me. I could have shifted and bitten him, but again, not how the Prince of the Ocelot Shifters should comport himself. Or so I’d been told by my advisor. Several times. Whatever. I was the prince! If I couldn’t randomly bite someone who annoyed me, what good was my title? I was a cat, for crying out loud. Might as well tell the birds they shouldn’t chirp or fly.
Grimm pointed to the large painting on the wall beside us. “Isn’t that an interesting piece of art?”
“Don’t try to distract me, you—” I made the mistake of glancing to where he pointed. “Oh, it is, isn’t it? Look, there’s a little rabbit in its burrow!” I loved rabbits. Granted, I mostly enjoyed eating them, but they were fluffy and cute when they weren’t being eaten. They were an ocelot favorite, but then so were most small creatures that we could hunt and catch. Not that I couldn’t catch something bigger than myself if I wanted, but that’s what the royal hunters were for. As if I’d get my fur dirty.
“You’re right,” Grimm replied, sounding amused.
“Of course I am. I’m—”
“The prince,” he said with a smile. “Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten.”
“I loathe you.”
“And I think you’re adorable.”
I hissed at him. Adorable? I was a predator! I was fierce! Fierce, I say! Stature wasn’t everything you know. Grimm was clearly compensating for something with his size and height.
“You’re only strengthening my case, really.”
“And you look like you’re about to go to war.”
He seemed to consider this. “As I’ve been assigned by the king to guard you, that’s a fair observation. And a fact.”
I chose to ignore that. “What’s with the gray camouflage?” Honestly, of all the clothing options available to us. The wolf had no sense of style whatsoever. My image had suffered greatly since his arrival. At least I thought so.
Grimm pointed to his face—“It matches my eyes.”—then his head. “And my hair.”
“I’m sorry, are you telling me you wear an all gray military uniform because it matches your eyes and your hair?” He couldn’t be serious, could he? Then again, he was a canine, and they were… easily distracted. Perhaps I should have done some research on wolves when he’d been assigned to me?
“I’m a gray wolf. See what I did there? Actually, I just like gray. But hey”—he pointed to his chest—“this part’s black.” He wiggled his fingers, drawing my attention to the black fingerless gloves. “See? Also black.”
“And what’s with all the pockets?” I motioned to his pants. “Who needs that many pockets?” No response. Ugh, whatever. “You’re a bodyguard. Shouldn’t you be wearing a suit or something?”
“That’s a little cliché, don’t you think?”
I rolled my eyes and started pacing again. This day was nerve-racking as it was, without adding him into the mix. “I don’t understand why King Alarick would assign you to me. I really don’t.”
“Probably because you ran off every other bodyguard you ever had, and anyone who hasn’t been your bodyguard refuses to be in the same realm as you?”
I rolled my eyes. “Such drama queens.”
“Or,” Grimm said, holding up a finger. “Hear me out now. Or, maybe you being a complete and utter jerk is the reason they wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire. No offense.”
My jaw nearly hit the pristine red carpet. “What?”
“I heard what you said! That’s the problem. Aren’t bodyguards supposed to be silent? Shouldn’t you be standing stoically, brooding while you practice your menacing scowl?”
“Do I look like a cat to you? I’m a wolf. We don’t brood.” He paused in thought. “Okay, maybe some of us do, but generally we’re quite cheerful by nature. Unless you try to take our food. That would be bad. I enjoy conversing, smiling, and wagging my tail. Did you know a lot of humans don’t realize wolves can wag their tails?”
I stared at him. “Oh my Goddess, my bodyguard is an idiot.”
“Why are you smiling?” Who was this guy? All he did was follow me around and smile for no apparent reason.
I was going to explode into sparkly prince confetti at any moment, I just knew it. He was going to make me burst. An earsplitting clatter made me jump and I spun around, claws at the ready. A member of the King’s staff was on the floor picking up pieces of scattered silverware. I hurried over and dropped to my knees.
“Here, let me help you,” I told the young girl. Her scent revealed her to be a fawn shifter. Her big brown eyes widened, and her cheeks flushed.
“Oh! It’s not necessary, my prince.”
“Nonsense.” I waved a hand at her in dismissal. As if it were a hardship. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Ayla, did you know that the kitchen is one of my favorite places? Next to the library and gardens of course,” I rambled on in the hopes she might feel more at ease since she was all but shaking from nervousness. “So much so that Faline—my head chef—has to chase me out more often than not. But can you blame me? It’s always so warm in there and it smells so good.” I picked up the tray that was bigger than her and stood. Turning to Grimm, I handed it at him. “Hold this.” I swiftly helped her gather all the fallen silverware and placed it on the tray. “Where would you like this delivered? I’ll have Grimm carry it for you.”
Ayla smiled sweetly. “Thank you, my prince. I can take it from here. I’d simply tripped earlier. Head in the clouds.”
“Are you sure?” She was a tiny little thing. I was certain the tray weighed more than she did.
She nodded and curtsied before taking the tray from Grimm. “Thank you again, my prince.” With a big smile she walked off, singing a little tune to herself.
I turned to Grimm and arched an eyebrow at him. “You heard her. I’m the prince.”
“Doesn’t make you any less adorable.”
I hissed, ready to give him a princely thrashing when the huge gilded doors opened, and the king’s advisor, Lord Jean Eldrich, appeared. “The king will see you now.”
Grimm smiled wide. “The king will see us now.”
“I heard him!”
With a frustrated growl, I marched into the throne room, ignoring Grimm walking beside me, his long strides making it so he was always at my side no matter how much I quickened my pace.
The throne room was impressive with all its ivory and gold, the only color coming from the vibrant red and gold throne, but then the king who sat upon it was far more impressive. King Alarick was bigger than Grimm, broad shoulders, muscular, strong, with pitch-black hair and amber eyes you could see the cosmos in if you stood close enough. They were a little freaky, to be honest. Not that I would tell him that.
My power came from my people, allowing me to control their shift. Technically, I could control Grimm’s shift, but a prince had to have a really, really good reason to force a shift in another species. Any prince or princess who abused their power would be stripped of it along with their title. They’d be banished from their realm. King Alarick was immortal and drew his power from all the shifter nobility, allowing him to change into any shifter he reigned over. I wondered how a prince could get in on that action. Being immortal, I mean, not action as in sexy times with the king, because ew. He was a father figure to us all, and that was not my kink. Not that I had any. Or maybe I did and didn’t know it? Being a prince sort of limited my dating options, and wow, maybe now was not the time to think about this.
“Welcome, Prince Owin of the Ocelot Shifters, and welcome Grimmwolf of the Grimm Wolves pack.”
I turned to Grimm. “You’re named after your pack?” So lame.
Grimm blinked at me. “Um, no. My pack is named after me.”
Why would a wolf pack name themselves after a bodyguard? I turned a questioning look to the king.
“Wolf shifter hierarchy is a little more complicated than your feline shifter hierarchy due to packs. Each pack has its own alpha, but like all my shifter children, they are all still ruled by one prince or princess. Grimmwolf comes from a long line of nobility,” King Alarick offered with a proud smile. “The Grimm Wolves pack is the monarchy wolf pack. Grimm’s mother is the current alpha of the pack, while Grimm’s father is the Prince of all Wolf Shifters. Grimm is an alpha wolf and the prince’s successor.”
“What?” I glared at Grimm. “You’re an alpha and the next wolf shifter prince and you didn’t tell me?” No wonder he was so damned smug and mouthy. Wait. I spun back to face the king. “Why is the prince’s heir my bodyguard?” I wasn’t fond of the twinkle in the king’s eye.
“I needed someone who could keep up with you, and Prince Grimmshaw saw this as the perfect opportunity for his son to learn about interspecies relations. Appointing him as your bodyguard seemed like a win for both of us.”
Interspecies relations? Unbelievable! Not like I had a choice. I narrowed my eyes at Grimm. “This changes nothing.”
Grimm shrugged; his ridiculous smile plastered on his face. “Sure.”
The king cleared his throat. “Let’s get started, shall we? As you know, Prince Owin, when a new generation of prince is crowned, he must prove he is worthy to rule. Each prince must complete a quest. Should the prince fail in his quest, he will forfeit his crown, his title, and his powers. He will be unworthy of his people. Your quest is to retrieve a priceless artifact from the Cù Sìth.”
Easy-peasy. “Wonderful. How long do I have to get my entourage together?”
The king arched a thick black eyebrow at me. “Honey, you’re not Beyoncé. You don’t get an entourage.”
“You get Grimmwolf.”
“Are you an ocelot or a parrot? Owin, your bodyguard is going with you. He is all you get to take on your quest. Which starts the moment you leave this room, by the way.”
I was horrified. No, beyond horrified. “I’m not sure I understand. I need to prepare. I need food, bedding, and the appropriate Jimmy Choo’s. I—”
“No need to worry.” The king motioned for Lord Eldrich. “Jean, the magic satchel, please.”
Oh good. I was being given a magic satchel. I sighed with relief. At least until Lord Eldrich appeared with a brown leather bag that was somewhat on the large side and a little rustic-looking for my taste. Did it come in different styles? The king moved his gaze to Grimm.
“Grimm, I gift you this satchel. Anything you desire is at hand. You have but to think it and retrieve it from the bag.”
Wait, what? “You’re giving the satchel to him?” What was happening right now?
The king nodded. “Should you need something, merely ask your bodyguard.”
Ask? I squinted at him, confused. What did he mean by… ask? Wait, I was supposed to ask a commoner when I needed something? That was absurd! I didn’t ask for things. I was—
“The prince. I know,” Grimm said with a chuckle.
I gasped. “Can you read my mind? Are you one of those creepy seer wolves?”
“Nope.” He leaned in and tapped my forehead. “I’ve just gotten pretty good at reading your scowls.”
I smacked his hand away. “How dare you touch me!”
Grimm reached into his magical purse—satchel my cute little ocelot tail—and handed me something. “Here.”
“A chocolate bar? I don’t need a chocolate bar! And certainly not from you.” I glared at him for good measure. How dare he! How dare the king! How dare everybody! Ugh, this was a nightmare. I should have stayed in bed, watching humans do stupid things on YouTube.
Grimm waved the chocolate bar at me. “But it has little crunchy bits in it. Your favorite.”
That was true, and it only pissed me off more. “You are so infuriating!” I spun on my heels and stormed toward the door.
“Good luck on your quest,” the king called out after me. “You’ll do great. I’m sure of it. Watch out for squirrels. They’re thieving little bastards!”
“Your Majesty, it was one squirrel. You really need to stop your war on squirrels.”
“But do I, Jean? Do I?”
Heavy sigh. “Yes, you do. We’re talking about a cinnamon bun.”
“A delicious cinnamon bun that I will never get to enjoy!”
“Come. Let’s go to the kitchen. We’ll have Chef make you something equally delicious.”
“Fine. But if a squirrel tries to get into the kitchen, I expect you to annihilate it.”
“I’ll be sure to vanquish the evil beast, Your Majesty.”
“Good. I’m in the mood for cookies.”
I was surrounded by weirdos.