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Master of Shadows -- Angela Knight

Wicked Games -- April 2014, Berkley
Mageverse

A prequel novella to the bestselling Mageverse series that gave a sexy twist to the Arthurian legend headlines this collection. This volume also features a special selection of stories, previously published as ebooks, but completely revised and expanded for this anthology.

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excerpt

Readers have been asking for Gwen and Arthur’s story for years, so I decided to oblige with The Once and Future Lover, a novel-length story in WICKED GAMES. Unlike the other nine books in the Mageverse series, this one is a historical set in 500 AD, back when Arthur, Gwen and the knights and ladies of the Round Table gained their immortality and power.

The story also deals with just exactly what did happen between Lancelot and Guinevere, as well as the rebellion led by Mordred, Arthur’s bastard son with Morgana le Fay. Be warned: The Once and Future Lover is much more erotic than the rest of the Mageverse series, featuring elements of bondage and submission.

Here’s a taste:

Gwen dreamed of death, of blood and terror and grief. She jolted awake. In her panic, she almost shot from the bed, but her husband’s brawny arm was wrapped around her waist. She stilled, his breath warming her nape.

Arthur Pendragon slept as he so often did, curled around her, surrounding her in his swordsman’s hard strength.

He’s not dead. It was only a nightmare. Going limp as a soaked rag in her relief, Gwen turned her head to press her cheek against his broad bare chest. His heart thudded in her ear, steady and strong and comforting. Like Arthur himself.

As her dream panic drained away, she heard the deep voices of the guards out on the balustrade murmur something to each other. They sounded unusually tense.

Reality hit Gwen like an armored fist. Today was the day Arthur would fight to the death.

Against Mordred. His son, heir, and enemy.

Her stomach curled into a sour knot. She had to pace, do something, or she was going to start screaming. What if this morning’s dream had been more than a nightmare? What if it had been a vision?

Slowly, carefully, she eased Arthur’s warm, muscled forearm from around her waist, swung her feet to the stone floor, and rose, trying not to wake him. They’d been up late last night, making love out of desperation as much as desire. Arthur needed to sleep every minute he could.

A cooling breeze poured through the open shutters of the chamber’s sole window, which overlooked the courtyard where he and Mordred would do battle in a few hours’ time. A shaft of blue dawn light spilled in, illuminating her husband as he sprawled in tanned, brawny nudity across their bed.

Arthur was not a tall man, though Gwen suspected he was actually more muscular at thirty-seven than the nineteen-year-old she’d married, back when they’d called him the Princeling King. He still drilled with his knights every morning, going full out with sword and shield. Whenever she pointed out the likelihood of being hurt in such practice, he’d snort. “I’ll not grow too soft to sit a horse.”

Her beautiful man. Her handsome king.

Responsibility more than age had salted Arthur’s hair with gray. More pewter threaded the beard that framed his lushly sensual mouth, and sprinkled the soft, dark thatch that covered his powerful chest. Still, the hair on his groin was as dark as ever, a sable ruff surrounding the long cock she’d always adored, the heavy balls she loved to cradle in her palm.

If he dies, I might as well crawl into the grave with him.

Gwen had seen too many battles over seventeen years as Arthur’s queen. She knew what happened when an older man fought a big brute nineteen years younger, and it wasn’t pretty.

The wizard Merlin had promised power to the winner of today’s battle. Arthur wanted that power to better protect his people from the invading Saxons, not to mention a Celtic warlord named Varn who had been a thorn in his side for the past two years. Then there was the collection of former rulers whose kingdoms Arthur had conquered more than a decade before, any one of whom would love to topple the High King.

As for Mordred . . . Well, he just wanted an acceptable excuse to kill his father. Anything more was just gravy on the goose as far he was concerned.

Arthur deserved better than a bastard son who hated him. Unfortunately, Gwen had been unable to give her king that successor—and God knew she’d tried.

Three pregnancies. Three miscarriages.

A familiar bitter sting gathered behind her eyelids, and she clenched her jaw, blinking hard, forcing her twisted features to smooth. You will not cry. You will show only smiling confidence. You will not make Arthur doubt himself.

Doubt can kill a man in a fight like this.

Mordred had enough advantages as it was. Gwen wasn’t going to hand him another arrow for his assassin’s quiver.

Wheeling, she paced naked across the chamber. All too soon, they’d have to walk out into the courtyard below to face the prince’s challenge. Gwen only hoped Mordred didn’t win. Not only would his victory be a catastrophe for her and Arthur, it would be a disaster for Britain.

Her mind flashed back to a night months before, when Mordred had tried to convince Arthur to declare war on the Saxons. The king had refused.

“War always sounds like a good idea to those who’ve never fought,” Arthur said. The knights, ladies, and courtiers seated at the Round Table fell silent over their trenchers, watching the interplay between their liege and his son. “Believe me, the enthusiasm dims when you’re knee-deep in mud, blood, and someone else’s intestines.”

“But isn’t conquest the right of the strong, Father,” Mordred argued, “Proof of God’s favor?”

“Unless you lose, in which case it’s proof God doesn’t favor you as much as you thought.” Arthur cut a slice of venison and fed it to Gwen, giving her one of his wickedly sensual smiles. “Then it’s too damned late, and those you love are getting butchered for your arrogance.”

The prince started to retort, but Arthur cut him off. “I’m not declaring war on Hengrid and his Saxons, Mordred. Their raids may eventually push me into it, but I’d rather wait until our people get in the harvest and survive the winter. This is the longest stretch of peace we’ve had in thirty years. Let the peasants savor it a little longer.”

“Peasants.” The prince speared a bite of mutton on the tip of his dagger and ate it with a wolfish snap. His green eyes glinted with growing temper over the curl of his lip. “What do we care for the opinion of peasants?”

Arthur studied him. Everyone else held their collective breath, Gwen included, wondering if they were about to witness another explosive row. Mordred was a bit too much like his father, right down to the infamous Pendragon temper. Unfortunately, he lacked Arthur’s iron self-control. “Peasants, my son, are the ones who do the worst of the dying in war. Marching armies too often murder peasant children, rape peasant wives, and burn peasant crops, leaving the survivors to starve. Never forget, a good king doesn’t declare war unless he has no choice.”

Mordred dipped his head in grudging acquiescence. “Aye, Father.”

Arthur turned away as Lord Kay said something Gwen didn’t catch. She was immobilized by the sight of rage and malice flashing across Mordred’s face, there and gone so quickly she wasn’t even sure she’d seen it. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe it was naught but too much imagination and too many bad memories. Dear God, let that be all.

Mordred’s rage and impulsiveness had grown throughout his childhood, reaching a bitter pitch in his teens that had made all their lives unbearable. Yet in the past year, that storminess had seemed to abate. Gwen, Arthur and Mordred’s mother, Morgana, had begun to hope the worst was over, that he’d finally learned to control his anger.

But staring at his expressionless profile, she wondered uneasily if he’d just gotten better at hiding his darkness . . .

Now Gwen squeezed her eyes closed. With a queen’s ruthless discipline, she concentrated on making her mind as smooth as a frozen lake, feeling no fear. No doubt. No pain. Feeling nothing.

“You know,” a deep voice purred in her ear, “you do have the most beautiful rump I’ve ever seen.” Arthur’s big hands cupped both her bare cheeks. “I made you queen for this arse.”

But there are better things to feel than nothing. She turned her head to smile up into her husband’s wicked grin. If he was working just a little too hard at it, she’d do them both the favor of refusing to notice. He’s not dead yet. And neither am I. “At the time,” she drawled, “you told me it was my eyes that won you. Or perhaps my mouth.”

“And so they were. You’re a woman of many parts.” He slid his arms around her and leaned down to take her lips in a kiss so passionate, it made a fine distraction. She opened her mouth with a sigh and leaned into his warm strength. His tongue slipped inside her lips, explored sensitive flesh, teased with gentle strokes. Heat gathered between them everywhere they touched, dancing along the surface of her skin, coiling in the tips of her breasts and between her thighs.

Arthur’s arms curled around her, tracing the naked rise of her hip before sliding down to cup her between her thighs. One finger stroked her sex with an exquisitely gentle touch that brought heat rushing to her core.

As delicious as that felt, though, she knew they would be interrupted. “My maid and the servants are due . . .”

“We’ll send them away.”

“. . . and you did order Lancelot to attend you for new orders.”

“He can damned well wait with the servants. None of them will begrudge us whatever moments we can steal.”

She considered arguing, but Arthur’s free hand distracted her as it traced a leisurely path up her torso, his swordsman’s callused palm a little rough. The erotic scrape of his skin along hers made Gwen squirm.

The thought of the duel tried to surface again, but she thrust it down hard. Arthur was right. If this is to be the last time, let’s make a memory to keep me warm through all the lonely winters. Everyone else can wait.

Especially Mordred.