Since my first Horsemen book, Dream Stallion, in 2003, this fantasy romance series has been one of my favorites to write. I've enjoyed building a world where humans and shapeshifting winged centaurs live side by side. When planning this world, I had to think about why these two species not only lived in harmony, but needed each other. For this reason, the setting is important in this series. Since the books take place in a world similar to medieval Earth, Horsemen are an important source of transportation for humans. They enjoy Horsemen not only for speedy travel and pleasure flights, but for survival. The only cure for the plague rests on uninhabitable islands across seas of flesh-eating plants. Horsemen carry humans over these treacherous waters to harvest Rock Blood that is used to cure the deadly illness. Since so far there are no female Horsemen except in legend, human women mate with the shapeshifters to keep their race alive.
As a longtime fan of historical romance, I enjoyed creating a world heavily influenced by various times in our own history. With its castles and villages, the series has a medieval flavor, but I also used elements of the Viking era and ancient Rome. The series has chieftains, longhouses and gladiators. Parts of the Horsemen world are also based on India and the Far East. With each book and every newly explored part of the Horseman world, I've tried to draw upon our own history and combine it with the fantasy of shapeshifters. I hope readers enjoy the journey as much as I have.
by Kate Hill
Book 8 in the Horsemen Series
From the moment Ivan rescued Bala from the inferno that wiped out her village, he has been in love with her. Knowing the young widow's heart belongs to her husband who died from the Horseman Plague, he struggles to keep his passion for her a secret.
Bala is burdened by guilt over the lustful fantasies she's been having about the handsome Fighting Carrier. When he surprises them both by asking her to marry him, she accepts. With Ivan she enjoys a sexual freedom she has never experienced before. Despite their love for each other, their marriage is threatened by the shadow of her first husband.
Ivan and Bala realize they're meant to be together, but first they have to find their way back to each other.
The following excerpt from Storm Stallion is for readers 18 and over.
Bala opened the door just as Ivan entered the yard. Tendrils of his wavy brown hair had escaped the binding at his nape. His shirt was dirty and damp with sweat. It didn't detract from his appeal, but somehow added to it. Bala had always admired hardworking, athletic men and Ivan was a prime example.
His blue eyes looked particularly brilliant in contrast to the dark goatee he'd grown while he'd been away. Though of average height for a Horseman, he had a strong build that most men would envy. Powerful shoulders and a broad chest tapered to a lean waist. His beast-half was perfectly proportioned and well-muscled from hours of flight as well as frequent gallops. His dark wings were folded against his sides, but when outstretched they had an admirable span. She'd ridden him many times before and never failed to be impressed by his strength and grace in flight. In that way he reminded her so much of Ajay--
A wave of guilt struck her.
She was so happy to see Ivan and glad that he'd be here to share Reena's birthday. If not for Ajay's death, she probably wouldn't have met Ivan and would certainly not have entered into friendship with him.
Ajay should be here, celebrating with his daughter, but fate had other plans.
"Hello!" Ivan smiled and waved.
Bala buried her sadness and forced a smile.
"I'm glad you made it," she said, stepping outside. She noticed he wore his cargo saddle--the one Fighting Carriers used when harvesting Rock Blood, the only substance that cured both the human and Horsemen Plagues. "Were you able to get the--"
"Right here." Ivan paused, reached behind him and into one of the saddle bags. He removed an orange. "The saddle bags are full. I brought a few lemons and limes too."
As she took the fruit from him, their fingers touched. His warm hand lingered over hers for a moment. Bala's heart again skipped a beat and she tilted her gaze to his. Ivan's smile had faded and the expression in his eyes made her feel naked--and hungry, but not for food.
"Why don't you come inside," she said, turning away from him, the orange clenched in her fist. "Are you hungry? There's stew and Reena will be thrilled that you're back."
"I've missed her," he said. "Before I sit down, I'll go wash in the lake. I'm filthy. Didn't pause once during my flight from the tropics."
"In that case you'd better cool down. Leave your gear in the house."
Pausing at the door, she turned back to him and chuckled. "It's not the first time I've had muddy hooves in my house and it won't be the last."
He stepped in and Reena left her toys and ran to him. "Ivan!"
Grinning, Ivan picked her up. "Girl, you've gotten big and I haven't even been gone that long."
"Too long. Jian made another sheep for me," Reena said, referring to her collection of wooden animals. "Do you want to play with him?"
"Later, Reena," Bala said. "Ivan had a long flight. He needs to bathe and eat first."
"Your mother is right," Ivan said. "Otherwise I'll smell like a real sheep. We can't have that, can we?"
Reena wrinkled her nose and shook her head. Chuckling, Ivan put her down and she went back to her toys.
"I'll be back," Ivan said and winked at Bala before leaving the cottage, taking a change of clothes from his saddle pack.
She glanced after him and found herself admiring his sleek hindquarters. Shaking her head, she sat and picked up her sewing. It was best that she focus on something other than his good looks, especially since he was nothing more than her closest friend. It took her a moment to finish patching the cloak then she folded it and placed it in a bag. She periodically collected old clothes from members of the community who were able to spare them. After mending any that were in need of repair, she gave them to Ivan to bring to the Hall of Fighting Carriers where the Horsemen delivered them to the needy.
Bala walked to the door and opened it. Her gaze riveted to Ivan who had waded into the lake. Using a leafy tree branch, he scrubbed his equine-half. It was important for Horsemen to take proper care of their muscles and coat, otherwise they might develop problems that affected shapeshifting. When he finished washing, he stepped out of the water, his human skin and equine coat gleaming. He was so handsome that a woman couldn't help noticing him.
He glanced toward the cottage and she stepped inside, pretending that she hadn't been watching him.
Moments later, he returned in Huform. He wore breeches and a billowy linen shirt. The ties were open, revealing a good portion of his sculpted chest. His dark hair hung slightly below his shoulders in damp waves.
"I have clothes from the villagers." She approached with the bag.
As he took it from her, their hands touched and their gazes met. Bala knew she should pull away, but she seemed frozen. Ivan's hand covered hers ever so gently and his fingers brushed her in the faintest caress.
"Mama, is it time to eat?" Reena asked, drawing their attention back to the supper table.
Ivan stepped away to place the clothes in his saddle pack.
"Yes," Bala replied, turning away and smoothing her dress, momentarily flustered.
She could no longer ignore that after nearly four years of friendship, her relationship with Ivan was changing.
Or perhaps not.
If she acted as if everything was normal, would he do the same?
Yet if friendship was no longer enough for him, did she want to lose him? It was selfish of her to rely on him when he might need more than she could give in return. She cared about Ivan too much to wish him a loveless life, or a half life because she couldn't fully open her heart to him.
Why then did the thought of Ivan finding another woman to settle down with and give him children upset her? He deserved love and while she did love him very much as a friend, her marriage to Ajay--her deep and unending love for him--would always be a shadow over them.
When she turned around, Ivan and Reena were already seated at the table, laughing over something silly he had said.
Ajay and Ivan were alike in so many ways, but also different. Ajay had been a stern man, but tender to his family. Ivan was strong, but he could be almost boyish at times. Both men were warriors, skilled, courageous and willing to risk their lives to help others.
"Bala?" Ivan gazed at her, his smile fading. "Is something wrong?"
"No." She smiled. "Reena's birthday is tomorrow. You're here and our other friends will be coming. Everything is wonderful."
"Glad to know I'm wanted."
She cast him a loving look as she brought a loaf of bread to the table. "Always."
"Always." He held her gaze again in a way that made her stomach flutter. "I like the sound of that."
"Make yourself useful and bring the stew." She chuckled and waved her hand.
"Yes, my lady." He playfully bowed his head before he stood to carry out her order.
They enjoyed a pleasant meal, talking and laughing together. Afterward Ivan played with Reena and told her a story before she went to bed.
Once the child was asleep, Bala and Ivan stepped outside. It was a clear night but with enough of a chill for her to put on a light cloak. Ivan, like all Horsemen, had a high body temperature and preferred cool weather.
"Reena loves your stories." Bala smiled. "She misses you so much when you're not here."
"I miss her too." Ivan gazed at her. "And her mother."
Bala wasn't sure how to respond. Her first impulse was to say she missed him as well, but would that encourage him? Yet he was her friend. Wasn't it natural to miss an absent friend?
He glanced away and a pang of regret shot through Bala. She'd hurt his feelings and it probably wasn't the first time. Why did he stay? Even more perplexing, why did she let him? After Ajay died, she'd had many friends to help her. She hadn't merely clung to Ivan for fear of being alone. She'd wanted him around. From the moment he'd carried her out of the inferno and ordered her onto his back so he could fly her to safety, she'd felt a connection to him--a connection she'd only recently been able to admit.
Ivan confused her--or rather her feelings for him did.
She longed to talk to someone about it, but she didn't want to seem unfaithful to Ajay. At the slave colony where she and her husband had grown up, slaves had little except loyalty to each other. Who was she trying to convince? No one would begrudge a woman another marriage after the death of her husband. Bala herself didn't want to admit that she might like a companion. Not just any companion, but Ivan. He would never replace Ajay, but she cared about him in a different way. Should she admit that it was perhaps time to move beyond friendship?
About Kate Hill
Always a fan of romance and the paranormal, Kate Hill started writing over twenty years ago for pleasure. Her first story, a short erotic vampire tale, was accepted for publication in 1996. Since then she has sold over one hundred short stories, novellas and novels.
When she's not working on her books, Kate enjoys reading, working out and spending time with her family and pets.
Kate also writes under the pen name Saloni Quinby. She enjoys hearing from readers and she can be contacted at email@example.com. You can find Kate online at http://www.kate-hill.com, http://www.twitter.com/katehillromance and https://www.facebook.com/katehillsaloniquinby.