Prince of Shadows

Prince of Shadows
Val Cache Series  —  Book 3
Bantam (August 1996)
ISBN-13: 9780553567779 ♦ ISBN-10: 0553567772

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Scarred by a tragic accident, Alexandra Warrington has come back to the Minnesota woods looking for a refuge and a chance to carry on her passionate study of wolves. But her peace is shattered in a heartbeat when she awakes one morning to find a total stranger in her bed. Magnificently muscled and perfectly naked, he exudes a wildness that frightens her and a haunting fear that touches her. Yet when Alex responds to his pain, she doesn’t realize that this handsome savage is a creature out of myth, a wolf transformed into a man. And soon, as the town condemns him for a terrible crime, all Alex knows is that she is dangerously close to loving him, and perilously committed to saving him, no matter what the cost.

Read an Excerpt

Prince of Shadows

Alexandra stretched her legs and tested her snowshoes one final time. Her gear was packed and the fire banked in the stove, awaiting her return. She knew how to get to Howie’s farm cross-country; she could make it there and back in a few hours if she moved quickly. Waiting until tomorrow wasn’t an option.

There wasn’t even time to write an entry in her journal. Alex hitched her pack over her shoulders and started away from the cabin at a brisk pace.

She had just passed the driveway when she saw the wolf tracks. She stopped and crouched in the snow. One glance confirmed that they were the same ones she’d found before, closer to her cabin than they’d ever been; the huge prints of the black wolf she’d briefly glimpsed several times over the past two weeks.

This wolf was alone; there were no other tracks to indicate a pack anywhere near, though she’d heard them howling.

“I’ve seen the black wolf,” one of the farmers had said. “He’s big. . . .”

Alex looked up, squinting through the bare branches of a nearby stand of aspens. The tracks were fresh. The likelihood of observing the wolf was small, but at least she had an opportunity to see where it was going, what its patterns of movement were. If this was the same wolf the farmers had been talking about, she’d just been given the chance she was hoping for.

I’ve got to find him first. . . .

She let herself experience the excitement and the challenge, savoring the brisk air and the rush of blood beneath her skin. The tracks were easy to follow. Alex kept her pace steady and rhythmic, listening to the sigh of wind in bare branches and the cautious rustles and peeps of birds. She loved this world, as she had loved it as a child.

How those men in town would mock her if they knew her most secret dream, her only fantasy: to run with a wild wolf pack, to become one of them, to know what it was to live in a world free of human cruelty.

Alex blew out a long trail of condensed breath and watched it drift skyward. She was as close now as she’d ever come to that dream. Even closer than she’d been during her undergrad work in Idaho and Yellowstone as part of the wolf reintroduction programs there.

And very late at night, when she lay in her bed on the edge of sleep, she imagined a bond with the wolves that let her see them as no one else could. She also imagined that they could see her . . .

She skidded to a halt as a great dark shape emerged from nowhere to block her path. Immense, black as night, yellow-eyed, the wolf regarded her with an utter lack of fear.

Alex met the slanted gaze and memory flooded back, washing away every other thought.

“Shadow,” she whispered.

She shocked herself with the name; even the wolf twitched its ears, as if to confirm her own absurdity.

She knew this wolf wasn’t Shadow. Her childhood companion would have died years ago. But this wolf was what the long-lost Shadow might have been, if she had seen him grown to adulthood. He even wore the same splash of white on his chest.

Perhaps he was Shadow’s descendant. If some part of Shadow had lived on . .

No time for fairy tales now. This wolf was bigger than Shadow had been, surely bigger than any wolf ever sighted in Minnesota. One hundred and fifty pounds at least. Probably more. Wolves near this size were occasionally seen in Alaska, or the far north of Canada. Never here.

And he stared at her with an aggressive, almost human intelligence.

Alex moistened her dry mouth. Healthy wolves never attack human beings, she reminded herself. No wolf had ever attacked her. But this wolf should be running, long gone by now. Minnesota wolves knew too much about human treachery. This wolf looked as if it might be exactly what the farmers had said he was.

Prince of Shadows

Fearless, reckless, a beast that had lost its natural distrust of human beings. A lone wolf with the weight of a fully-grown man. A creature of which she should have the good sense to be afraid.

But she wasn’t. The wolf’s beauty set her heart to thumping in a hard, ragged rhythm. She wanted to reach out and bury her fingers in his heavy black coat, test its depth and richness against her hands. She wanted to go on looking into his eyes for eternity. She wanted to be one with him, as once a child had been a soul mate with a black wolf pup.

The wolf started toward her with a lurching step and collapsed into the snow at her feet.

Alex cast off her strange paralysis and crouched just out of reach of the wolf’s massive jaws. The animal’s breathing was labored, and his legs twitched spasmodically. A whine vibrated deep in his throat. The golden eyes closed. There were no visible signs of injury, but the other symptoms were devastatingly clear.

“Damn them,” she swore, her voice catching on the curse. “Damn them.”

She’d been too late. Howie or one of the other men must have put out poisoned meat even before she’d confronted them in the store. The poison they would have used was invariably fatal. Yet the wolf must have traveled some distance from Howie’s land and he was still, miraculously, alive.

He had come to her as if he knew she wanted to save him.

Sickness rose in her, and she reached out to stroke the wolf’s coat, offering the only comfort she could. The animal accepted her touch without so much as a shiver of fear.

“I’m sorry,” Alex whispered. “I’m sorry.”

His eyes opened and fixed on hers. He whined again, flattened his ears, and raked his great paws in the snow. With supreme courage, he heaved himself onto his hindquarters.

As if in a dream, Alex moved to help him. She didn’t stop to question why she should risk her life for a dying, desperate animal that might turn on her at any moment. She didn’t wonder at the wolf’s incomprehensible purpose. His urgency worked its way through her, compelled her to lend her strength to his.

She could hardly lift his great weight, but the wolf somehow found his feet and began to walk, half-supported against her. Staggering, lurching, he retraced the trail Alex had broken through the snow.

Toward her home, toward the cabin and its clearing that he had marked with his massive paws.

Alex had heard tales of dying wolves that found their way to human habitation in their final hours, as if in that darkest moment they recognized a distant kinship man had rejected.

But Alex hadn’t forgotten. “Yes. Come with me,” she murmured. “I’ll take care of you. You won’t be alone.”

#

He let her guide him, lead him, his heart nearly bursting with his battle for each step. Snow sucked at his paws, and he stumbled, muzzle plunging into icy cold. He licked the moisture from his nose and lurched forward again, urged on by her hands and voice.

And her words. Words his other self remembered. “I’ll help you. Don’t go, don’t be afraid.” So she had said once. And now: “You won’t be alone.”

Even as his vision dimmed they reached the open place that surrounded her den, pausing just behind the last strand of trees. His instincts screamed to send him away on legs that no longer supported him, to leave this man-place behind and find some quiet refuge to die. But his other self had claimed too much of him now, as she had.

And there was a command within him — not her, not his other self. Come back, it told him. You must always come back.

Prince of Shadows

He began to drag himself forward again. Her gentle touch propelled him up to the entrance of her den. His muzzle touched the dead wood as it opened before him.

Human scent — her scent — poured over him, enveloping him utterly. His other self knew that scent as welcome. He tried to lift his head and failed.

“Shadow,” she said. “Only a little farther.” When she set her body against his, he found a last measure of strength to help her, tottered into the sun-warmth of her den. He had no will left to fear the fire to which she led him. The ground was warm against the fur of his aching belly. He lay down, closing his eyes, giving himself to the soothing caress of her hand on his fur and the soft repetition of his name. “Shadow. Shadow. Shadow . . .”

The pain began to fade. Somewhere his other self waited, rested, gained strength. He would sleep, and when the time came . . .

Come back. Remember.

#

Alex shifted the pile of wood in her arms and awkwardly grabbed the doorknob, wedging the door open with her foot. Behind her the night woods were still and silent; on the other side of the door was another kind of silence. She dreaded facing its inevitability.

The wolf might be dead by now, or in a coma. She hadn’t wanted to leave him for even a moment, but her stove was burning low, and it was very late. Once she’d been outside in the peaceful darkness, she’d almost been afraid to return.

But it had to be faced. She’d begun this, and she’d finish it. She closed her eyes and stepped through the door.

The wolf was sitting up in front of the stove, staring directly at her. For a moment she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

He was alive. Incredibly, he’d managed to overcome an almost certainly fatal dose of poison. And he was more than merely alive. He seemed to be in perfect health, ears pricked and tongue lolling. His slanted yellow eyes were clear and fixed on hers with focused intensity, as if he wanted something of her. Just like yesterday.

But now he was no longer helpless. She had no fear of wolves, knew they almost never attacked people, but wolves were also wild animals and by nature unpredictable. Particularly one who might feel trapped.

The wolf made a low sound, and Alex realized she’d been staring into his eyes — challenging him and declaring herself his equal in the only language he could speak. She looked away, quickly, down at the wood in her arms. The door was still half-open behind her; with another kick she could have it open all the way, leaving the wolf a clear path of escape.

And then the reality of the situation hit her. She hadn’t expected the wolf to survive. He was almost certainly the animal who’d been raiding livestock. If she let him go free, nothing would be changed. He’d go back and raid again.

What other choice is there? Dart him and turn him over to the ADC after he’s fought so hard to survive?

But that was exactly what she should do. Exactly what professionalism demanded.

She heard the click of the wolf’s claws on the hardwood floor as he moved to the water bowl she’d left beside the stove. He moved stiffly and slowly — not completely recovered, then. Not capable of surviving on his own. Still in need of her help.

He needed her. The wolves were the only creatures who did.

“Shadow,” she said.

He looked up, water drops suspended from his chin. Answering to the name as if it were his. Dangerous, dangerous to personalize the animal, become attached to him when there would only be another loss waiting at the end of it.

But she hadn’t been able to hold onto the detachment yesterday, and she couldn’t now.

She crouched cautiously to set down the wood, alert to the wolf’s reactions. He watched her for a moment longer and eased himself to the braided rug before the stove, laying his head on his paws. Unafraid. Trusting her. Ancient history repeating itself.

No. That past was gone. Alex rose again and walked into the kitchen with slow, deliberate steps. The wolf never moved. She took a chunk of venison from the freezer, setting it out to thaw. She had no idea how well the wolf would be able to eat, or if he would accept food from her. Everything would have to be played by ear.

Her journal was on the kitchen table where she’d left it last night. She sat in the chair facing the door and opened the book to a new page.

He survived, Mother. And now I wonder if I made the right decision. Nothing like this ever happened in Idaho or Montana. I was so sure that my best work would be done in Minnesota, and already I’m being tested. A scientist isn’t supposed to lose her objectivity, but after only two weeks here–

Prince of Shadows

She couldn’t complete the sentence. After a moment she slammed the cover shut and went back into the living room where Shadow waited.

He was on his feet again, standing by the door. She forgot her resolve not to stare. Magnificent was the only word for him, even as shaky as he was. He lifted one paw and scraped it against the door, turning to look at her in a way that couldn’t be misunderstood.

He wanted out. Alex felt a sudden, inexplicable panic. He wasn’t ready. Only moments before, she’d been debating what to do with him, and now her decision was being forced.

Once she opened the door he’d be gone, obeying instincts older and more powerful than the ephemeral trust he’d given her on the edge of death. In his weakened state, once back in the woods, he’d search out the easiest prey he could find.

Livestock. Man’s possessions, lethally guarded by guns and poison.

Alex backed away, toward the hall closet where she kept her seldom-used dart gun. In Canada she and her fellow researchers had used guns like it to capture wolves for collaring and transfer to new homes in the northern United States. She hadn’t expected to need it here.

Now she didn’t have any choice. Shadow leaned against the wall patiently as she retrieved the gun and loaded it out of his sight. She tucked it in the loose waistband of her jeans, at the small of her back, and started toward the door.

Shadow wagged his tail. Only once, and slowly, but the simple gesture cut her to the heart. It was as if he saw her as another wolf. As if he recognized what she’d tried to do for him. She edged to the opposite side of the door and opened it.

Biting air swirled into the warmth of the cabin. Shadow stepped out, lifting his muzzle to the sky, breathing in a thousand subtle scents Alex couldn’t begin to imagine.

She followed him and sat at the edge of the porch as he walked stiffly into the clearing. “What are you?” she murmured. “Were you captive once? Were you cut off from your own kind?”

He heard her, pausing in his business and pricking his ears. Golden eyes held answers she couldn’t interpret with mere human senses.

“I know what you aren’t, Shadow. You aren’t meant to be anyone’s pet. Or something to be kept in a cage and stared at. I wish to God I could let you go.”

The wolf whuffed softly. He looked toward the forest, and Alex stiffened, reaching for the dart gun. But he turned back and came to her again, lifted his paw and set it very deliberately on her knee.

Needing her. Trusting her. Accepting. His huge paw felt warm and familiar, like a friend’s touch.

Once she’d loved being touched. By her mother, by her grandparents — by Peter, She’d fought so hard to get over that need, that weakness.

Alex raised her hand and felt it tremble. She let her fingers brush the wolf’s thick ruff, stroke down along his massive shoulder. Shadow sighed and closed his eyes to slits of contentment.

Oh, God. In a minute she’d be flinging her arms around his great shaggy neck. Wrong, wrong. He was a wolf, not a pet dog. She withdrew her hands and clasped them in her lap.

He nudged her hand. His eyes, amber and intelligent, regarded her without deception. Like no human eyes in the world.

“I won’t let them kill you, Shadow,” she said hoarsely. “No matter what you are, or what happens. I’ll help you, I promise.” She closed her eyes. “I’ve made promises I wasn’t able to keep, but not this time. Not this time.”

Promises. One to a strange, lost boy weeping over the bodies of two murdered wolves. A boy who, like the first Shadow, she’d never found again.

And another promise to her mother, who had died to save her.

The ghost of one had returned to her at last.

The wolf whined and patted her knee, his claws snagging on her jeans. A gentle snow began to fall, thick wet flakes that kissed Alex’s cheeks with the sweetness of a lover. She turned her face up to the sky’s caress. Shadow leaned against her heavily, his black pelt dusted with snowflakes.

If only I could go back, she thought. Back to the time when happiness had been such a simple thing, when a wolf could be a friend and fairy tales were real. She sank her fingers deeper into Shadow’s fur.

If only — you were human. A man as loyal, as protective, as fundamentally honest as a wolf with its own. A man who could never exist in the real world. A fairy-tale hero, a prince ensorcelled.

Prince of Shadows

She allowed herself a bitter smile. The exact opposite of Peter, in fact.

And you think you’d deserve such a man, if he did exist?

She killed that line of thought before it could take hold, forcing her fingers to unclench from Shadow’s fur. “What am I going to do, Shadow?” she said.

The wolf set his forepaws on the porch and heaved his body up, struggling to lift himself to the low platform. Alex watched his efforts with a last grasp at objectivity.

Now. Dart him now, and there will still be time to contact the ADC. She clawed at the dart gun and pulled it from her waistband.

But Shadow looked up at her in that precise moment, and she was lost. “I can’t,” she whispered. She let her arm go slack. The dart gun fell from her nerveless fingers, landing in the snow. She stared at it blindly.

Teeth that could rend and tear so efficiently closed with utmost gentleness around her empty hand. Shadow tugged until she had no choice but to look at him again.

She knew what he wanted. She hesitated only a moment before opening the door. Shadow padded into the cabin and found the place she had made for him by the stove, stretching out full length on the old braided rug, chin on jaws.

“You’ve made it easy for me, haven’t you?” she asked him, closing the door behind her. “You’re trapped and I can keep you here until . . . until I can figure out what to do with you.”

The wolf gazed at her so steadily that she was almost certain that he’d known exactly what she was doing. She wanted to go to him and huddle close, feel the warmth of his great body and the sumptuous texture of his fur. But she had risked too much already. In the morning she’d have to reach a decision about him, and she knew how this would end — how it must end — sooner or later.

Shadow would be gone, and she’d be alone.

Feeling decades older than her twenty-seven years, Alex took her journal from the kitchen and retreated into the darkness of her bedroom. She paused at the door, her hand on the knob, and closed it with firm and deliberate pressure.

She stripped off her clothes and hung them neatly in the tiny closet, retrieving a clean pair of long underwear. The journal lay open on the old wooden bed table, waiting for the night’s final entry.

It’s ironic, Mother. I thought I’d become strong. Objective. I can’t even succeed in this.

Her flannel bedsheets were cold; she drew the blankets up high around her chin, an old childhood habit she’d never shaken. Once it had made her feel safe, as if her mother’s own hands had tucked her in. Now it only made her remember how false a comfort it truly was.

#

It was a long time before she slept. The sun was streaming through the curtains when she woke again. She lay very still, cherishing the ephemeral happiness that came to her at the very edge of waking.

She wasn’t alone. There was warmth behind her on the bed, a familiar weight at her back that pulled down the mattress. The pressure of another body, masculine and solid.

Peter. She kept her eyes closed. It wasn’t often that Peter slept the night through and was still beside her when she woke. And when he was . . .

His hand brushed her hip, hot through the knit fabric of her long underwear. When Peter was with her in the morning, it was because he wanted to make love. She gasped silently as his palm moved down to the upper edge of her thigh and then back up again, drawing the hem of her top up and up until he found skin.

Alex shuddered. It had been so long. Her belly tightened in anticipation. Peter wanted her. He wanted her. His fingers stroked along her ribs with delicate tenderness. They brushed the lower edge of her breast. Her nipples hardened almost painfully.

The arousal was a release, running hot in her blood. In a moment she would roll over and into his arms. In a moment she’d give herself up to the sex, to the searing intensity of physical closeness, seizing it for as long as it lasted.

But for now Peter was caressing her gently, without his usual impatience — taking time to make her ready, to feed her excitement — and she savored it. She wouldn’t ruin the moment with words. Peter wasn’t usually so silent. He liked talking before and after making love. About his plans, his ambitions. Their future.

All she could hear of him now was his breathing, sonorous and steady. His palm rested at the curve of her waist, the fingers making circles on her skin.

His fingers. Callused fingers. She could feel their slight roughness. Blunt at the tips, not tapered. Big hands.

Prince of Shadows

Wrongness washed through her in a wave of adrenaline. She snapped open her eyes and stared at the cracked face of the old-fashioned alarm clock beside the bed. Granddad’s alarm clock. And beyond, the wood plank walls of the cabin.

Not the apartment. Her cabin. Not the king-size bed but her slightly sprung double.

The hand at her waist stilled.

Alex jerked her legs and found them trapped under an implacable weight. A guttural, groaning sigh sounded in her ear.

Very slowly she turned her head.

A man lay beside her, sprawled across the bed with one leg pinning the blankets over her. A perfectly naked, magnificently muscled stranger. His body was curled toward her, head resting on one arm. His other hand was on her skin. Straight, thick black hair shadowed his face.

Alex did no more than tense her body, but that was enough. The man moved; the muscles of his torso and flat belly rippled as he stretched and lifted his head. Yellow eyes met her gaze through the veil of his hair.

Yellow eyes. Clear as sunlight, fathomless as ancient amber. Eyes that almost stopped her heart.

For an instant — one wayward, crazy instant — Alex knew him. And then that bizarre sensation passed to be replaced with far more pragmatic instincts. She twisted and bucked to free her legs and shoved him violently, knocking his hand from her body. His eyes widened as he rocked backward on the narrow bed, clawed at the sheets and rolled over the far edge.

Alex tore the covers away and leaped from the bed, remembering belatedly that she’d left the dart gun outside, and Granddad’s old rifle was firmly locked away in the hall closet. She spun for the door just as the man scrambled to his feet, tossing the hair from his eyes. Her hand had barely touched the doorknob when he lunged across the bed and grabbed her wrist in an iron grip.

Treacherous terror surged in her. She lashed out, and he caught her other hand. She stared at the man with his strange, piercing eyes and remembered she was not truly alone.

A wolf slept just beyond her door. A wolf that had trusted and accepted her as if she were a member of his pack. A wolf that seemed to recognize the name she had given him.

“Shadow,” she cried. It came out as a whisper. “Shadow!”

The man twitched. The muscles of his strong jaw stood out in sharp relief beneath tanned skin, and his fingers loosened around her wrists for one vital instant.

Alex didn’t think. She ripped her arms free of his grasp, clasped her hands into a single fist and struck him with all her strength.

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Read the Reviews

“When an author can make her readers look beyond disbelief and not just feel for, but be able to touch a character on a page, then she has given her readers a gift. With PRINCE OF SHADOWS, Susan Krinard has carefully wrapped a wonderfully rare gift. Incorporating her love for wolves with a formidable talent for romantic fantasy, she has brought a myth to life in the pained but magnificent Kieran Holt, and given him an equally vulnerable love interest in Alexandra Warrington, a physically and emotionally scarred wolf researcher. . . . Striking details and a captivating plot that takes on an unexpected world round a rich, romantic story populated with stunning characters. There’s even a visit from an old friend that leaves the door open for more of these extraordinary tales, that I, for one, hope Ms. Krinard finds time to write.”

— SB, Rendezvous

“Rising superstar Susan Krinard dishes up yet another mind-blowing reading experience in this explosive spin-off to her already classic PRINCE OF WOLVES. . . . A daring innovator and extraordinary storyteller, Susan Krinard creates another towering landmark in imaginative fiction.”

— Melinda Helfer, Romantic Times

“Without being preachy, Susan Krinard has written a poignant story of love, guilt, hate, prejudice, and self-righteousness. By using both Alex’s and Kieran’s points of view, she gives the reader insight into Kieran’s character as he struggles to regain his memory. The reader feels his terror, as a wolf and as a human. . . . Secondary characters are fully fleshed out . . . The book is magnificently sensuous, not only in its love scenes . . . but throughout the story. The reader will hear, see, and smell the forests and the towns. Hard to put down, PRINCE OF SHADOWS evokes sympathy and compassion, and fully involves the reader’s emotions and senses. After reading PRINCE OF SHADOWS, readers will surely seek out earlier Krinard works.”

— Rebecca Hicks, Gothic Journal

“Highly Recommended. Susan Krinard has crafted a gorgeous novel of relationships, both between men and women and between humans and animals. Alexandra, Kieran, and the wolves all are vulnerable yet strong, trying to make their way in the world and hoping for just a bit of love and acceptance. Supporting characters, both “good” and “bad” are drawn unerringly; setting and mood complete the requirements for an unforgettable read. PRINCE OF SHADOWS grabs the reader by the heart from the very start and never lets go.”

— Kimberly Borrowdale, A Little Romance

“PRINCE OF SHADOWS is not only a story for fantasy lovers. This book will touch the hearts and tickle the funny bone of any reader. Susan Krinard has an amazing ability to make a believer out of anyone.”

— Hilary Flynn, The Time Machine

“Five Stars. A most fitting sequel to PRINCE OF WOLVES.”

— JM, Heartland Critiques