Hey, sweeties. I have the final teaser from the Men of Valor series, for now.
This one is from His Princess, book 3 of the series, which has a few twists you won't see coming.
Enjoy the full chapter one teaser.
Southeast Nigeria, pre-colonization
“You stupid girl!” Princess Nonye’s loud, irate voice rang out in the sitting chamber of the prince’s quarters.
Ezinne gritted her teeth and bit back the rising annoyance of her own clumsiness. With haste, she withdrew the cotton napkin she kept attached to her waist beads for accidents such as this. She dabbed the water pooled on the wooden dining table, her movements controlled.
Any moment now, she expected the hot, stinging slap from her belligerent mistress whose hand was quick to connect with the face of any offending servant following similar outbursts. Stiffening her back, Ezinne kept her line of sight lowered as she should have done in the first place.
“Can you not even complete a simple task without messing it up? What would be next? The platter of food on the floor? What kind of servants do we have in this palace? None of them ever get things done correctly,” her mistress ranted, raising a hand midair in a haughty manner. Then she rose from her hand-carved ornate lounging chair next to the prince’s, and walked toward the dinner table.
Ezinne drew her lips tight in a grimace. She wasn’t in the habit of making mistakes. With a mistress such as Princess Nonye, she couldn’t afford to get into trouble.
This time though, she had no one else to blame but herself for getting distracted. Since the royal couple’s wedding, it was Ezinne’s duty to serve their evening meal. They always ate together in the main chamber, a room filled with opulent grandeur and decorated with bronze sculptures and leopard fur.
Ezinne was to set the intimate table with her gaze lowered as was customary for common servants. It was smaller than the grand ornate elephant table in the King’s receiving chamber. So she should have completed the task in a speedy fashion as she always did. However, the table was carved out of iroko wood; the image of a black panther formed its base.
She’d remembered one of the palace servant’s whispered words earlier. “The table contains the spirit of the beast Prince Emeka slayed in his coming of age hunting ritual.”
Fixated by the intricacy of the beast’s features, she stared at it as she attended to her tasks before curiosity made her raise her gaze in the direction of her new master and future king of Umunri.
His aura was unlike any other she’d encountered in a man of his position.
She usually avoided men and paid little attention to them. Since her arrival in the palace, she had taken to catching glimpses of Prince Emeka when she thought no one was looking, masking her gaze with the veil of her long lashes.
Today, her bedeviled eyes didn’t stay lowered for long. Prompted by her ever-probing spirit, she had raised her stare, spying Prince Emeka as he discussed some matter with Princess Nonye.
As always he looked regal in his bejeweled crown of elaborate gems and beads, his attire of richly woven gold and black threads.
It wasn’t his clothes that drew her gaze.
It was his face: the raised angular cheekbones, curved bushy brows, strong square jaw, wide sensual lips, and most of all, the piercing midnight eyes because they caught her attention, keeping her transfixed.
In a brief period of insanity, she had wondered what it would feel like to have those captivating eyes really notice her or to feel the firmness of his lips against her skin.
It was pure madness to have such a fantasy in her mind. She had never dreamed of a man in such a manner before.
Until Prince Emeka had turned, his onyx gaze pinning her to the spot, the sound of her heartbeat rivaling the hooves of a racing antelope pounding into the hard earth. She should have taken the hint, her instincts warning her of danger.
In the moment of connection, she had forgotten where she was and her place in it. His stare raked her ample frame, spreading tingling warmth along its path on her skin. It was as if he had actually seen her; the real her—a woman worthy of desire—not the lowly servant.
A new and unintelligible longing awakened within her. It was something so outside of her grasp that she dismissed it immediately.
She had told herself the warmth in his eyes had been her imagination. Princes didn’t notice servants. Men in his position only trampled those beneath them.
From the way his eyes had sparkled briefly with amusement, she could have sworn he had read her errant thoughts. With her mouth feeling parched, her face flushed in mortification. Chiding herself, she had quickly lowered her gaze only to discover the water she had been pouring into the bronze chalices had overflowed onto the table, eliciting the twisted expression and tirade from the princess.
From the corners of her eyesight, Ezinne saw Princess Nonye lift her hand to strike. Steeling her body, she closed her eyes momentarily. However, the expected blow never connected with her face.
“No.” It was the gritty, sonorous voice of the prince.
Ezinne opened her eyes to find him providing a barrier between her and Princess Nonye. Prince Emeka stood adjacent. Tall and strong, he radiated authority and heat. The temperature of the air rose, swirling his masculine scent around her body. His near presence overwhelmed her mind, pulling her into a dizzy spell.
Shaking her head to clear the fuzziness, she took a quick glance at the prince. His hand held onto the princess’s raised arm. Stunned, a frown creased Ezinne’s face. Still, she resisted the temptation to look up at him.
Prince Emeka had come to her rescue.
It made no sense to her. She was a mere servant and of no importance. Yet the prince’s next words confirmed his baffling actions.
“Leave her be. She has cleaned it up, and there is no harm done. Come and sit. Let’s eat.” His voice remained calm though it had an edge of steel as he reprimanded his wife, steering her bodily to her chair.
At the unexpected but delightful reprieve, Ezinne moved back- ward to the corner of the room. Relief washed over her as she almost blended into the darkness. Though she would have withstood the slap, she didn’t want to have to suffer the humiliation in front of the prince.
Does it really matter? Have you forgotten your position in his household, in the palace?
Pushing back the quiet voice in her head, she straightened, ignoring its cautious note. Instead, her eyes scanned the large chamber. The only light in the room was from the wicker lamp flickering on the dinner table, throwing the rest of the space into early evening shadows.
Ezinne liked the semidarkness. She felt comfortable in it. It seemed the darkness was the only time she could let her imagination loose. It also seemed the prince preferred the darkness. It was his idea to blow out the flames from the wall sconces leaving just the table lamp. Ezinne thought it gave the room a rather cozy, intimate setting.
She stood in the shadows without moving or making a noise. If she was required she would be available to attend to their needs without delay.
Watching the royal couple, her gaze stayed mainly on the prince who appeared unruffled, though she could feel the malicious glare coming from the princess.
Gooseflesh rose on Ezinne’s skin. Her stomach tightened as if she’d eaten food that had soured.
No person seeing the princess’s expression would believe they had once been playmates, friends even, albeit for a short while. It amazed her to think how things changed in a short period of time.
In truth, the princess had grown into a person Ezinne hardly recognized. There was no longer any trace of the child she played with years ago. The little, pleasant girl had turned into a pampered, vindictive woman.
“My prince, you spoil these servants too much. Little wonder they all make mistakes,” Princess Nonye said in a sweet voice. Batting her eyelashes, she spooned some of the food onto Prince Emeka’s plate.
The feeling of revulsion in Ezinne’s stomach increased. She gritted her teeth to stop herself from throwing up, her earlier anger rising, this time directed at the princess.
Who was she to talk about mistakes?
“Nonye, everyone makes blunders. It is no reason to raise your hands to the servants.” His tone was sober. However, she detected a note of grief in its depth.
Squinting, her frown deepened as questions disturbed her mind. She wanted to understand the prince – this man – who would come to her rescue when others would have added to her suffering.
What is his purpose? Does he expect favors in return for defending me from the princess?
Her past encounters with men in positions of power had taught her not to let her guard down. No favor was ever given freely. Shrugging, she dismissed the prince’s rueful words as the princess’s shrill voice jarred her back to the reality.
“How else am I suppose to make them learn from their errors? In my father’s palace in Umulari, any slaves or servants who misbehaved were whipped as an example to others. They all soon learned to behave properly.”
Prince Emeka’s lips twisted and he shook his head in a slow motion. Could it be he was disappointed by Nonye’s words? He certainly appeared unhappy, a crease appearing on his usually relaxed forehead.
More astonishment speared through Ezinne’s body causing her heart to jolt in her chest.
“Here in Umunri, we do things differently,” he replied. “Whipping is only reserved for those who actually commit a crime after being judged guilty. Every member of our community is a free person as we do not have slaves.”
He paused, chewing on a piece of roasted goat meat. Nonye turned and glared in Ezinne’s direction. It was as if she was telling Ezinne with her eyes not to get any ideas about becoming a free person.
Now that the prince had said it, it made sense to Ezinne. She had wondered why the servants in this palace appeared happier than the ones in Umulari.
In the short time she’d been here—only two cycles of the moon she’d not witnessed anyone being whipped in the palace. The only time there was any physical punishment was when the princess reprimanded her handmaidens. She gathered that Prince Emeka was a firm but fair master.
For the first time in years, Ezinne felt she was treated as a human and not as a piece of property.
“All servants are compensated for their service. As such, those in my household and in the palace are treated with the same respect we expect as masters. My father has never raised his hands to anyone.
Neither have I. I expect you to be as equitable as the princess and future queen,” he concluded before returning to his meal.
“Freed slaves? Paying servants for their service? That’s the height of decadence. Why would you want to waste the palace resources on paying servants? They should feel privileged for serving the royal family—a household provided to govern them by the gods. Don’t say I did not warn you if they all get out of control. I’ll certainly not take the blame,” the princess grumbled, shooting Ezinne one final glare before turning back to her meal.
Prince Emeka remained stoic, patting his wife’s hand on the table. “Do not worry. If the servants in my house should revolt, then the responsibility will be mine to bear.”
Glancing in Ezinne’s direction, the lamp flame caught the sparkle in the prince’s eyes, and his lips lifted at the corners in what she could only guess was a smile.
“You may leave us now.”
Distracted by his reassuring smile, it took Ezinne a few moments before she realized he had dismissed her. Stunned, she remained immobile. She had never been dismissed during their dinner service before.
“My prince, what if I need her?” Princess Nonye’s mouth thinned in a straight line, showing her renewed annoyance.
The prince’s wide muscular shoulders lifted in a dismissive shrug.
“Let the poor girl go and have her own meal. If nothing else, let her sit down. She stands at attention all day.”
“She can relax when she’s asleep. Her place is by my side serving me.”
“In that case, she can sit down with us at the table. She will be closer at hand when you need her.”
A loud, outraged gasp escaped the princess’s lips, and her eyes narrowed as she pinned her gaze on Ezinne. “You are dismissed but don’t go too far. This table will need to be cleared soon.” She lifted her hand in a dismissive gesture.
Without further delay, Ezinne retreated toward the door. She wasn’t allowed to turn her back to the royal couple so she had to walk through the door facing them. Before she stepped through it, she stole one more surreptitious glance at the prince.
His gaze caught hers. His lips trembled with suppressed amusement, laughter lines wrinkling his eyes. It was as if he’d just shared a silent joke with her.
And he winked at her.
Then she understood. He had turned the table on the princess by threatening to invite Ezinne to sit down with them when he knew the princess would never allow it. He’d known she’d have to relent and dismiss Ezinne.
Suppressing the smile that tugged at her lips, she reversed out of the room. With her heart thumping against her chest, she walked to the servants’ quarters, still baffled though.
Why would a man like Prince Emeka help me?
She still couldn’t understand it. No one in his position was that nice. Not in her experience. He’d noticed her. She wasn’t so sure it was a good thing. A part of her wanted to go back to the anonymity of being just another servant. Despite its downside, there was some comfort in blending into the darkness and being faceless.
Now it seemed she couldn’t merge with the shadows any longer.
Like everything else in life, there had to be a price to pay. Would she be willing to pay it?
Finally sitting down on her pallet in the quarters she shared with the other handmaidens, the fluttering sensation returned to her stomach. This time it was a mixture of apprehension and anticipation.
Several things seemed certain in her mind. She wanted a life away from service. She wanted a life as a free person. She could attain it here in Umunri.
And Prince Emeka held the key to her freedom.
If you enjoyed the excerpt, you can read His Princess in paperback or eBook in the Men of Valor box set.
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