Born of Silence
By Kenyon, Sherrilyn
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2012 Kenyon, Sherrilyn
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780446573313
“You have got to be the biggest manwhore in the entire universe. What are you trying to do? Tie Caillen for the record on how many people you can sleep with in a single month? And just so you know, his is twenty-two.”
Maris Sulle, Darling’s oldest and dearest friend, laughed at his dry tone. “You’re only jealous you didn’t get the waiter’s digies.”
Leaning back in his ornately padded chair, Darling snorted in response. He swirled the wine in his crystal glass while they finished eating lunch in one of the most exclusive restaurants in Perona—the capital city of the southern part of the Caronese Empire where Darling’s family had ruthlessly ruled for more than three thousand years.
After the brutal suck-ass morning he’d already had, he really wanted something much stronger than this weak shit to drink, but his public persona kept him from ordering the hard liquor he craved.
He could only drink that whenever he was alone. Even then, he had to be careful no one found out lest they discover who and what he really was.
“I thought you were still involved with…” Darling paused as he mentally sorted through the lengthy roll of men his best friend had been with over the last year. “I can’t even remember his name now.”
Darling shook his head as he finally recalled the last boyfriend’s name, and it wasn’t Gregor. He’d fear senility had already set in, but it was more he had a lot of other things on his mind. Besides, no one could keep up with Maris’s ever revolving list of boy toys. “I’m behind apparently. The last one I remember was named Destin.”
“Drustan,” Maris corrected. “And yes, you are. You really should try to keep up. That was a good two months ago, and I’ve had three since then.” He looked down at the number on his mobile and smiled as he stored it. “Soon to be four.”
“Does Gregor know he’s being replaced?”
“Oh don’t get me started on that repulsive ape. I caught him in flagrante delicto with his personal secretary. His secretary… really? If you’re going to be such a slut, the least you could do is not be a common, clichéd one. Right?”
Darling laughed, then took a deep drink of wine before he spoke again. “I’ll keep that in mind for future reference. The last thing I’d ever want to be accused of is being a clichéd slut.”
“Oh please. You’re such a monk. I’m not even sure you’ve lost your virginity.” With a deep, horrified expression, Maris looked up from his mobile and slapped his hand over his mouth as he realized what he’d said and the land mine of pain he’d unintentionally exploded all over Darling. “I’m so incredibly sorry, Dar. That was so insensitive of me. I didn’t mean it. Gah, I can’t believe I said that to you, of all people. I wasn’t thinking, sweetie. You know I would never, ever hurt you. Not for anything… You can punch me if it’ll make you feel better.” He clenched his eyes shut and tensed, waiting to be hit.
It took Darling several more seconds before he could club the monster from his past back into the closet, slam the door on it, and then speak over the surge of barbed emotions that gutted him.
“It’s all right, Mari,” he said finally, his voice deceptively calm as he stroked the crystal decanter on the table. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it.”
Still, that didn’t stop it from cutting all the way to the marrow of his bones.
Darling set the glass on the table and wished he could rip some of his memories straight out of his brain. Most pathetic part? As horrifying as that had been, it wasn’t at the top of the list of things he’d kill to forget.
Opening his eyes, Maris reached out and covered Darling’s hand with his own. “You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known. You know that, right?”
Strange, he didn’t feel that way. Most days he felt even more battered inside than he was outside. And here lately those feelings of rage and resentment, of unrelenting hatred and vengeance, were forcing him into a place of darkness he wasn’t sure he could come back from.
Before Darling could stop himself, he pulled away from Maris’s touch and brushed his hand over the latest bruise on his cheek. Luckily the long hair he wore covering the left side of his face concealed it and the deep, rancid scar no amount of plastic surgery could get rid of.
Another pugnacious memory he could do without, and a perpetual reminder that he really was in this world alone. Friends were friends, but at the end of the day, they all went home. Not even Maris could be with him 24/7. And though he might have tiny slices of freedom for a while, sooner or later, Arturo got nervous and had him hauled back to hell.
His mobile alarm chimed.
That’s what you get for thinking about the bastard. Nothing like summoning the dybbuk up from his stygian hole.
Maris scowled. “What’s that for?”
Darling cut the alarm off, then slid his mobile back into his pocket. “My uncle’s activated my chip.” A lovely nano tracking device that was so microscopic it couldn’t be located, removed, or jammed. But the one thing Arturo hadn’t counted on was Darling’s ingenuity in writing a program that would intercept his uncle’s access to the chip. “I set the alarm to notify me whenever he sends his goons out to drag me home.” A constant in his life that always firebombed his temper.
How the hell could he still be deemed a minor when he was twenty-eight years old?
Only by something as backward as Caronese law…
A law originally designed to protect his people from the reign of an immature monarch. Instead, it’d proven to be a prison sentence that had hung around his neck like a perpetual noose.
And honestly, he was getting really sick of all this shit. Kere, his Sentella alter ego, wanted blood. Any day now, he expected that darkest part of himself to take over, forget all consequences, and lash out against the world. May the gods help whoever was in the line of fire when that happened.
In the past, he’d been able to quell his outrage with cold rationale, but every day his fury was getting harder and harder to harness. No amount of logic soothed him anymore. If anything, the attempts to rationalize his situation and the injustice of his life only provoked him more.
He felt like he was starting to go insane from it all.
Daintily, Maris wiped his mouth with his linen napkin. “We should get going, then. I don’t want you in trouble.”
It didn’t matter. The fact he breathed got him in to trouble.
I can’t take this much longer…
But he had to. It wasn’t just his life on the line. It was his mother’s, brother’s, and sister’s. And unlike his older brother Ryn, he wasn’t about to turn his back on his family. Ever. Even if he hated his mother more than he loved her, he couldn’t sacrifice her to his uncle.
He would never spit on his father’s memory that way.
But he was getting really tired of holding that line. Sixteen years of utter bullshit had taken its toll on him. Not just physically, but mentally.
C’mon, Dar. Just eighteen more months. You can do it.
Then he’d inherit his father’s empire and finally be in control of his own destiny.
You don’t really think that’ll happen, do you?
He had to. Even though his gut told him that he’d most likely be murdered between then and now, it was all that kept him sane these days. That and the one person he couldn’t talk about to anyone.
Not even Maris.
That secret was currently the only lifeline he had.
Darling lifted his hand to signal the waiter that they were ready for the check. If his uncle’s men followed their usual routine, he only had about fifteen minutes before he was dragged out of here by royal guards.
That was the last degredation he needed, especially after this morning’s round of Humiliate Darling in Front of the Ruling Gerents.
Don’t think about it. He would be governor soon and then they’d all learn just how not weak he was.
He pulled his card out and laid it on the table. He didn’t need to look at their bill. It didn’t matter to him if it was right or wrong. Time meant more to him than money.
The waiter came by, flashed a dimpled smile at Maris, and took the check and card.
He was back in record time… with a small container of the cake Maris had started to order, then changed his mind about. There was something to be said for Maris’s outrageous flirting. They always received the best service in the United Systems.
Darling pressed his thumb against the scanner, then signed his name on the electronic ledger. As soon as the payment was accepted, he got up and followed Maris toward the entrance.
“Where are you heading after this?” Maris asked as he held the door open for him.
What Maris really meant was where would Darling try to hide to keep from being dragged home like a felon, and beaten because he’d dared to have an afternoon of peace out of his uncle’s sight.
“I’ll grab my fighter and head over to Caillen’s for a while. I haven’t had a chance to see his daughter since she started walking. What about you?”
Maris glanced back into the restaurant. “I want to grab something, all right. But it’s not a fighter… Or maybe he is. With that tight body, it is possible.”
In spite of his disgust at having to leave so abruptly, Darling smiled. It was what he loved most about Maris. No matter how bad he felt, Maris could always amuse him. “Seriously, you want to come with?”
“Sure. I can always stare at Caillen. That man…” Maris bit his knuckle with lustful glee.
Darling laughed as they joined the huge crowd on the street and had to push their way through the sea of shuffling bodies. “Better be careful, his wife might get jealous.”
“True. And I’m not dumb enough to upset a woman who knows how to use a blaster and a blade. I like my body parts attached.”
Darling didn’t respond. Damn, the crowd was always thick this time of day, but this was ridiculous. He could barely move.
Then again, he should be grateful. It would slow down his uncle’s men and help conceal him from them.
His alarm buzzed again.
“Bastard,” he snarled under his breath before he looked down and reached to silence it.
“Dar! Forward front! Point one!”
With reflexes honed by the best assassins in the business who’d taught him to protect his vital areas, Darling turned at Maris’s military command that warned him of an imminent attack. The instant he moved, he felt the sting of a knife sliding into his flesh, just below his shoulder blade.
A knife that had been aimed at his heart.
Cursing, he reached around to catch the assassin’s wrist. For several seconds, Darling’s blue eyes glared into those deadly gray ones that were too stupid to realize their owner had just made a fatal mistake.
The assassin yanked at the knife.
Grinding his teeth against the pain that rushed through him, Darling let the assassin pull it free of his flesh. But the moment the blade was out, he tightened his grip on the man’s wrist and head-butted him. Wrenching the assassin’s arm, he heard the bone snap before the knife fell from his broken hand. The assassin came at him with another knife he’d pulled from a sheath on his leg.
Darling jumped back, out of his reach. Stomping his left heel on the pavement, Darling ejected the blade in the toe of his boot and used its sharp point to catapult the fallen knife on the street up so that he could catch it with his hand.
The people surrounding them realized what was going on and began to scatter, screaming in fear of being accidentally injured or killed in the fight.
His attacker charged again.
That cold, repressed demonic part of Darling salivated for retaliatory blood. He gave the assassin an insidious smile as he twirled out of the assassin’s reach. He rolled around the man’s back, then turned and stabbed him in the shoulder.
His attacker screamed out and whirled to lunge at Darling. Smiling, Darling motioned at him with both hands, daring him to come closer. The assassin scowled at the knife Darling had cradled in his palm—the way he held it let the bastard know that he was as proficient with a blade as the assassin was.
Probably more so. Had Darling made a bill-kill attack, his victim would have already been dead and not fighting him.
For the first time, fear darkened the assassin’s gray eyes as he finally realized he was in over his head. He dropped his knife and reached for his blaster.
Not wanting to chance an innocent getting shot and killed by a moron’s incompetence, Darling grabbed the assassin’s arm and twisted until he was at the assassin’s back. Before the assassin could recover, Darling grabbed his chin, lifted it up, and made one hard slash across his throat.
Darling shoved him forward.
Choking, the assassin fell to his knees on the sidewalk. He clutched at the gaping wound, trying to block the blood that flowed between his fingers.
His anger boiling, Darling stood back to watch. The decent part of him wanted to finish the assassin off and end his suffering. But the part of him that was slowly devouring his conscience, enjoyed seeing the paid assassin’s struggle to live.
Let him die in utter agony. It was what he deserved.
Better him than me.
Darling quickly glanced around to make sure there was no other threat coming for him. His gaze met Maris’s and he saw the horror in his friend’s eyes. He thought it was over what he’d done, until Maris stepped forward.
“You’re bleeding really badly on your back. Are you okay?”
Only then did Darling feel the pain again. “Yeah. It hurts like hell, but I’ll live.” He’d had far worse wounds than this. And those given to him by people who supposedly loved him.
The assassin continued to writhe on the ground, begging for mercy in a black jacket that held over three dozen hash marks on its sleeve—a sick accounting that bragged about how many people he’d murdered. And the killer had intended to add another for Darling’s life.
But the marks that truly enraged him were the seven that had dots over them.
Darling curled his lip at the repugnant bastard as his blind fury took him over.
His handful of friends who ran the Sentella with him had dubbed him “Kere” as a joke. The Caronese god of death and caliginosity who ruled in their version of hell, Kere was said to pull all of his sustenance from the blood of his enemies. The darkest of gods lived to fight and drew vim from those who begged him for clemency. Since Darling was normally even keeled and easygoing, his Sentella partner Hauk had thought it funny to label him that.
There was no pity or compassion as he stared at the killer who was dying from the vicious wound Darling had given him. In fact, he only felt one thing…
Would you die already, and shut the fuck up while you do it?
Before he even realized what he was doing, Darling grabbed the man’s blaster from his holster and shot him with it.
A single shot through the back of his head.
Darling stood there on the street with the blaster smoking and his hand as steady as it could be. Worst of all, he felt nothing about his actions. No regret. No remorse.
He wasn’t sure when it’d happened, but he’d become as callous and numb as any assassin he’d ever known. His emotions were now strangers to him.
There was only one person who could still reach past it and make him feel something other than his own bitter pain and rage.
Please God, help me…
This time, he knew the horror in Maris’s dark eyes was definitely over his actions.
“You’re really beginning to scare me, Dar.”
Yeah… I’m beginning to scare me, too.
There’s an intruder here…
Zarya Starska froze in her living room as she felt the subtle shift in the air around her. Most would ignore it, but after she’d spent her entire life on alert for those out to attack or kill her, she instinctively knew whenever someone had invaded her home without an invitation.
Flinging her hand down, she felt the throwing knife she hid in a spring-loaded sheath inside her sleeve slide into her palm. Whoever was in her house was about to learn an important lesson in manners.
Bring it, punk.
Prepared to tear the intruder apart, she tilted her head down and listened carefully.
It was barely a whisper of fabric. But it was enough for her to locate the interloper. With the skills honed from a thousand battles, she lunged at the shadow in the corner.
The moment she did, he sidestepped her and disarmed her so fast, it left her breathless. The knife hit the floor with a sickening thud.
Her intruder pulled her against his chest and held her fast against a body that was rock hard and toned.
A body she knew as well as she knew her own.
“Sh, Zarya,” he whispered in her ear. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
She let out a relieved breath as she recognized the electronically distorted voice that kept anyone from identifying him. His entire head was covered by a black crash helmet that gave no indication of his race or species. Not that it mattered. She didn’t care what he looked like.
She only cared about his heart.
And that was the part of him she craved most.
Smiling, she reached up to lay her hand on the side of his slick helmet. “Kere. What are you doing here? I thought I wouldn’t see you for at least two weeks.”
His arm and hand brushed over her breast making her even more breathless as he released her. “I had to see you before I left.”
She felt the same way about him. Every minute they were apart was agonizing.
And speaking of, he was gone again from the room.
Zarya searched the shadows for some trace of her illusive phantom. “I swear I’m going to tie a bell to you.” There was absolutely no sound of any kind to betray his movements or current location in her home. Never had she known anyone stealthier.
Not even an assassin.
The lights went out, bathing the room in utter darkness. She didn’t know how he did it, but he could override any system or computer. Sadly, her own security, as high tech as it was, posed no challenge to him whatsoever. She took comfort in knowing that he’d breeched far better systems than hers with even less effort.
Her mysterious shadow was amazing.
Unable to see anything at all, Zarya smiled at his usual precaution to maintain his anonymity. This time, she heard him drop his helmet on the floor by the wall switch. “You know, my sister thinks I’m insane.”
“Sisters usually do.” Oh yeah, there was the sound she coveted above all others… That deep, rich baritone of his true voice that never failed to bring a smile to her lips.
He was right behind her now.
How had he gotten there so fast?
Kere turned her around and captured her lips with his. Zarya groaned at the way he kissed her. Like he wanted total possession of her entire being and she was more than willing to give it to him. No one had ever kissed her the way he did.
Like she was the air he breathed, the nourishment he needed to feed his starving soul. Like he would die if he wasn’t touching her.
He nipped her lips, then pulled back. “You were telling me about Sorche.”
It took her a minute to catch up to him after a kiss that hot. Her whole being was already on fire and she couldn’t think past wanting to lick every inch of his lush body.
“Wha… oh, yeah. She thinks I’m crazy for having a relationship with a man when I don’t even know what his hair color is.”
He buried his lips at the base of her throat where his breath scorched her skin. “So what did you say to her?”
She cradled his head and slid her fingers through his straight shoulder-length hair. She always imagined it black, but to be honest, she had no way of really knowing since she’d never seen any part of his body in the light. He just seemed like he’d have black hair for some reason. It would match his ruthless battle skills and his near suicidal antics.
“When you’ve seen someone’s soul, you don’t need to know his hair color.”
He nuzzled her skin, raising chills all over her, before he pulled back. “You’ve known a lot more of me than that.”
It was true. While she had no clue as to his race or physical looks, she had licked every part of him enough to know he was at least humanoid, ripped, and that he tasted divine…
He opened the front of her battlesuit and slid it slowly down her body, pausing only to nip at her hipbone—an action that made her crazy with lust.
Kneeling in front of her, he helped her step out of her clothes and weapons. She could feel his hot breath against her thigh. Something that made her wet as her heart raced even more at the prospect of what he’d be doing to her shortly.
Suddenly, his hand brushed against the center of her body, causing her to throb terribly as he removed her panties.
Then he rose slowly, dragging his hand up the inside of her calf before he brushed his fingers through the hair at the juncture of her thighs. “Have you eaten?” He cupped her between her legs.
“I… I… um…” She forgot the question as he deftly fingered her with a rhythm so perfect it left her weak and trembling.
He paused his play to whisper in her ear. “Food, Zarya. Have you eaten?”
She smiled. He always worried about her. “On the way home. I stopped by Ture’s restaurant.”
Kere returned to his sweet torture, his rhythm faster this time while he stroked her with his thumb and buried two fingers deep inside her body. “Good.”
And before she could translate that one word, she cried out as she came for him.
Kere caught her against his chest as he continued to wring even more pleasure out of her, until she was shuddering so hard she would have fallen but for his hold on her. She never understood how he could do that to her so fast. It was like he knew exactly where and how to touch her to set her senses reeling.
He swung her up in his arms and carried her to the bedroom so that he could lay her down on her bed.
She laughed as he pulled back to undress. “The bed? How extremely atypical of you.”
“I told you I could be civilized.”
Only his lilting, accented speech was refined—and even that, only sometimes. The rest of him…
He was always feral. Terrifying.
And she loved him that way. Being with him was like lying down with a wild animal you knew could rip you to shreds if it wanted, and yet it purred only for your touch. That knowledge made being with him all the more alluring.
All the hotter.
She tried to find him in the darkness, but there was no trace. She knew he could see her though. He never had any trouble seeing in the darkest places. She’d asked him once if he was Ritadarion or Trisani—two races known for their abilities to see in the dark without light. But he’d refused to answer.
Then again, he wouldn’t tell anyone anything about himself that could be used to identify him. As an outlaw herself, it was a precaution she well understood. His wasn’t the only life on the line. If he were ever identified, every member of his family and all his Sentella allies and friends would be executed, too.
Not that she would ever do anything to threaten or harm him.
He meant too much to her for that.
Wanting to please him as much as he’d pleasured her, she spread her legs and bent her knees in silent invitation. “You know, I was only teasing you when I sent that text.”
“You want me to leave then?” he asked in that wonderful baritone that had a way of sending chills over her. Gods, how she lived for the sound of his true voice…
Most of all, she loved to hear him laugh. It was the most infectious sound that seemed to come from some place deep within him.
“No,” she said quickly. “But you didn’t have to come here tonight. I wasn’t trying to be clingy. I just wanted you to know that.”
“I’m already away from you more than I like.”
It was true. They only saw each other maybe two or three times a month, if they were lucky. The rest of the time, they were relegated to texting and scrying… at least she scried so that he could see her while they talked. He, on the other hand, was only a deep, sexy voice with no face. But she cherished every piece of contact she had with him.
Even when it was at a cloaked distance.
Reaching down, she opened herself up even more so that he could have all the access to her body that he wanted.
He sucked his breath in sharply. “Woman, you know what it does to me when you do that.” The bed dipped under his weight as he crawled up from between her feet. “Now what have we here?”
She hissed as he took her into his mouth so that he could tongue her into oblivion. Biting her lip, she buried her hand in his soft hair and lifted her hips for him.
Never in her life had she been so open with or reliant on anyone, and she’d done things with him that she’d have never thought herself capable of. Things that should have shamed her to the core of her soul, but she’d learned to trust him implicitly. And it wasn’t just the sex. She held a faith in him that defied explanation. For the first time, she understood what it meant to share herself with someone. To need a man by her side.
As far back as Zarya could remember, she’d always held a piece of herself away from other people. She’d only been a child when her father had been branded a traitor and her mother and sister brutally murdered. In that one instant, she’d been forced to grow up and had learned to trust no one. Ever. Not with her safety. Not with her secrets. And definitely not with her heart.
But from the moment she’d met Kere, it’d been different.
Unlike the other men in her life, he’d never once hurt or betrayed her. Never walked out on her at a critical moment. If she needed anything, he was there without fail, or complaint, or hesitation. No matter the time, day or night.
Even if it was nothing more than appearing in her home after a simple text that had said her heart would break if she had to wait two weeks to see him again.
In spite of the fact that he was one of the most wanted outlaws in the United Systems, he was the most attentive lover she’d ever known. He seemed to take as much pleasure from watching her climax as he did from experiencing his own.
And she couldn’t bear the thought of living a life where he wasn’t a major part of it. “Kere?”
She gasped as he slid his tongue deep inside her body, sending a shiver over her. It was hard to think whenever he touched her, but this she couldn’t forget about. “I heard the League was stepping up their efforts to go after Sentella members, especially the High Command”—Kere was one of their five leaders—“and that the Caronese Grand Counsel has tripled the reward he’s offering for your capture in particular, and quadrupled the one for your death. He’s ruthlessly determined to end our Resistance and assassinate all of us in leadership roles. You are being extra careful, aren’t you?”
Good, because she knew she couldn’t live without him. The thought of his being hurt…
She choked on a sob.
“Hey,” he breathed, sliding up her body to cup her cheek. “Shh… no tears, Zarya.” He brushed his lips against her cheek to kiss away the tear that had fallen. “They’re not going to get me. I swear it to you. I’m not afraid of the Grand Counsel or anyone else.”
“I know. I’m being stupid. I’m so sorry.” The last thing she wanted was to taint or spoil what little time she had with him.
“Never apologize for loving me.”
She nodded as she struggled to stop her tears. But it was so hard. It seemed like everyone she’d ever loved had been violently ripped out of her life. Most of them right in front of her. “I’ve buried too many people I care about to lose you, too.” She’d worn their blood on her clothes and had watched as the life drained out of their bodies…
Her own brother had died in her arms…
“You won’t bury me, Z.”
Yeah, because his enemies, who were too numerous to count, would probably blow him into so many pieces there wouldn’t be enough left for a ceremony.
At times, she wished she could have fallen in love with some businessman or cook or anyone who didn’t live in their violent world.
But fate hadn’t been that kind to her.
She loved one of the three most wanted men in all the universe. The other two being his closest friends.
If one of them went down, it would most likely take all three. Don’t think about it. But it was so hard when all she could see was Kere lying dead on the ground.
“The League raised the bounty on your head, too.”
“It’s okay, Z. I knew the minute they posted it. They’re not going to get me, either. I promise.”
That was what her father had told her, over and over again. And where was he?
In his grave. Ruthlessly murdered by his own best friend.
Kere rolled over onto his back and pulled her on top of him. She savored the feel of his hard body under hers as he teased her lips with his. He was nothing but a solid wall of scarred muscle. Scars that reminded her that no matter how strong he seemed, he wasn’t invulnerable or invincible.
Terrified of losing him, Zarya breathed in his warm masculine scent. He always smelled delectable and that went a long way in soothing her fears and terror.
She dragged her fingers down his whiskered jaw. “You need a shave.”
“I thought you liked it when I let my whiskers grow.”
That was because he did things to her with those whiskers that always set her on fire.
Her smile died as she touched his back and found…
Was it a bandage?
“You’re wounded?” Pulling him to his side, she ran her hand over the coarse material and found where it was wet with fresh blood. The smell and feel of it was unmistakable and undeniable.
“It’s not bad. Just a flesh wound.”
Was he serious? It was an awfully large bandage for a mere flesh wound. “Shot?”
“Oh my God!” She scrambled off his hips and forced him to roll over so that she could gently probe his wound with her fingers. “I wish I could see it.”
“Nothing but sutures to see.”
She gentled her probing so that she wouldn’t hurt him, but it bothered her that she had no real idea how big or deep it was. “Was it an assassin?”
“My back. Obviously.”
She rolled her eyes at his sarcasm. He could be so damned impossible at times. “No, goofball. Where were you when he struck?”
“Coming out of a restaurant. The crowd was thick and I know better than to get distracted. It was stupid and it won’t happen again.”
But it’d already happened. A few more inches and it would have punctured his lung and killed him. The mere thought of it made her light-headed and shaky. “Where’s the assassin now?”
“Hell’s gates most likely, though I guess there’s a slim chance he might be in paradise.”
She flicked her fingernail at his bandage. “You’re not funny.”
“Zarya, it’s all right.” He rolled back over and pulled her into his arms. “It’s why I wanted to see you. Why I’m here with you tonight when I’m supposed to be halfway across the universe. It made me start rethinking some things.”
But she wasn’t ready to listen to him yet. “Where was the rest of the Sentella when you were attacked?”
“No idea. We don’t live together. And they’re not exactly my keepers.”
“They should be… Are you laughing at me?” She had the distinct impression that he was.
“No, love. Never. I’m just amused by your outrage. No woman has ever given a single shit when I’ve been hurt.” This time, she heard the thick emotion in his voice as he brushed her hair back from her face, then laid a very tender kiss on her cheek.
She savored that touch so much. Her worst fear was having to live in a world where she felt it no more. “Don’t die on me, Kere. Please.”
“I don’t intend to. In fact…” His voice trailed off.
She had no idea what he intended until he slid something cold onto her finger.
Her heart stopped as she covered it with her hand and felt the contours of it.
No, it couldn’t be.
No matter how she tried to rationalize it, there was no mistaking the huge stone that was set in the middle of two smaller ones. “Is this—”
“I want you to marry me, Zarya,” he said, interrupting her. “I need you in my life. Every day. By my side. I know it sounds strange, but when I’m with you, I’m the man I always wanted to be. The one I feel I was born to be. And when I’m not, it’s like I’m lost to someone else… and I don’t like him anymore—not that I ever really did. But since I’ve known you, I’ve learned to detest that part of me with a passion. And I can’t keep living the lie that was forced on me.”
He was silent for several seconds before he answered. “My whole life is a lie. From beginning to end. I have to be so careful with everything I say and do. I can’t drop my guard for even a heartbeat, and I don’t dare let anyone see the real me. Ever… except for you. You are my only truth. The only one who knows who I really am and what I really think. And I have to have you with me before I really do go insane. I can’t stand being without you anymore. Please say yes.”
Her heart soared until she remembered one small fact.
He refused to let her see his face or body.
“I’m going to look really strange blindfolded at my wedding.”
He laughed. “You won’t be blindfolded.”
“You’ll look strange, standing there in your full battle gear.”
Kere kissed her lips and this time, she felt his smile. “I won’t be in battle gear.”
Her breath caught at what he was implying… Could it be? “You’re going to let me finally see you?” She reached for her lamp switch.
He caught her hand before she could turn the light on. “Not yet. I have a few things I have to put in order first. But I promise you, the next time we meet, you will see me for who and what I am. All of me.”
“I know who and what you are.”
His grip on her hand tightened ever so slightly. “No, you’ve only seen my soul, never my face, and I need a promise from you before you do.”
He hesitated again as if he was afraid, something that mystified her. She’d seen him stand toe-to-toe with the baddest asses the League and Caronese government could throw at him.
Never had he flinched or faltered.
But tonight, something was bothering him in a way his enemies never had.
“When you see me, I want you to remember not to judge me by my looks.”
How could he be afraid of something so incredibly trivial? “I told you that I only judge people by their hearts.” And he had the most beautiful one she’d ever known.
“But I’m not just anyone, Zarya.”
“I know. You’re the man I love.”
He cupped her face in the palms of his hands… hands that held roughened calluses—testament, along with the scars all over his body, to how hard a life he’d lived. Her Kere was anything but a spoiled rich aristo who lived off the backs of people like her and her family and those she tried to protect from the aptly named Cruels who preyed on them all.
Though he rarely spoke of his life outside of his role in her beloved Resistance and the Sentella, she felt the road map of tragedies all over him. His past had been one marred by untold brutality and battles. All she wanted was to soothe and comfort him the way he comforted her.
“I don’t ever want you to forget that, Z. Promise me?”
“Of course.” She laid her hand over his damaged cheek. She knew he was extremely self-conscious about the scar that bisected the left half of his face, and the ones on the rest of his body. When they’d first started sleeping together, he’d kept his hair over his face and had pulled back from her touch anytime she went near that particular scar.
Then one night, when he’d been so exhausted that he’d fallen asleep on her, she had brushed his hair back from his face and found what bothered him most. That scar was so deep, she could feel where the wound had left a deep groove in the bone underneath it. So deep that she wondered if he might not be blind in his left eye from whatever had caused that injury.
No, he couldn’t be. His aim was too perfect in battle. If he only had sight in one eye, his depth perception would be off and he’d be at a serious disadvantage. Still, there was no denying the savage ferocity of the injury that had caused a scar like that.
Her heart aching for the pain it must have caused him, she’d pressed her lips to the scar he’d always hidden from her. That kiss had awakened him instantly.
He’d turned his face and pulled away. “Don’t. I’m disgusting.”
“You’re not disgusting.” She’d felt his pain in the darkness and it had broken her heart. “We all have scars, Kere. Inside and out. Wounds that go so deep, they leave a permanent mark on us. But that doesn’t make them ugly or revolting. They were hard lessons learned and for better or worse, they changed us. No matter how hard you try to hide them, they will always be there. And I think your scars are beautiful because they are what have made you the man I care about.”
After that, he’d allowed her complete access to his body. But only under the protection of full darkness.
He still wouldn’t let her see any part of him in the light.
Could he, who stood fearless before the scariest of enemies, be afraid of her rejecting him for his looks?
Was that even possible?
“Your features don’t matter to me, Kere. I’d love you even if you had three heads and a split nose.”
“You say that because you don’t know who and what I really am.”
“And again, it doesn’t matter. I will stand by you forever. How could you doubt me?”
He laughed bitterly. “Almost everyone you’ve ever loved has died on you. Almost everyone I’ve ever loved has put me in harm’s way. Not one of them ever failed to throw me to the wolves to protect their own ass. Whenever it was a choice between them and me, I was the one who paid for it. Once I show you my face, Z, I can’t go back. You will have the power to completely destroy me and everyone I hold dear. All of our lives will be in your hands.”
She stared at what she hoped was his eyes so that he could see her heart. “I would never hurt you.”
“You’re the only one I’ve ever trusted this much with my real thoughts and beliefs. You know me better than any creature alive.”
“And I am forever yours. You can trust me, Kere. I swear I will never betray you. Not ever.”
“I believe you,” he whispered in her ear before he captured her lips again. Then he slid himself deep inside her.
Zarya groaned at how good he felt there. She cradled him with her body as he thrust himself slow and easy against her hips. “I love you, Kere,” she breathed.
“I love you, too. I always will.”
She smiled and tightened her hold on him. It was the first time he’d ever said that back to her. In the past, he’d always remained silent or said that he was glad that she did.
There was no longer any doubt whatsoever that she was more to him than an easy lay whenever he was horny. For the first time in their two-year relationship, he finally confirmed that he loved her and that he intended to stay.
Running her hands over his scarred back, she delighted in the way his muscles played against her palms as he pleasured her. If she could, she’d stay right here, like this, forever.
She lifted her hips, bringing him even deeper inside until her entire body was rife with ecstasy. “Tell me again that you love me,” she breathed.
“I love you, Zarya. And I have never said that to another woman.”
Most of all, he never said anything he didn’t mean.
Her heart singing, she threw her head back and screamed as she came again. Still he kept that steady, deep pace until she was completely sated and begging him for mercy. Only then did he join her in that one perfect moment of intense pleasure. She held him close against her entire body as he shook in her arms. Unlike her, he was always quiet whenever they made love. He would suck his breath in sharply from time to time whenever she did something unexpected, but overall, he seldom made any sound whatsoever.
Yet another strange quirk of his. One that made her wonder if he, like many assassins she knew, was keeping his guard up in expectation of an ambush. Did he, even now, fear she’d stab him in the dark?
I hope you know me better than that.
His breathing ragged, he lowered himself to cover her and to nibble her neck and ear. “What time do you have to be up in the morning?”
He brushed his whiskers against her breast, tickling her in a way that should be illegal. “Good. I have plenty of time to play with you and still let you get a good night’s sleep.”
She smiled at those words and at the fact that by his hunger, she knew he didn’t cheat with other women. Whenever they were together, he was a powerhouse of testosterone—like he stored it all up just waiting for a chance to be alone with her.
And as the night went by, he made good on his promise.
Hours later, Zarya tried to stay awake, knowing that he’d be gone whenever she woke up. But all too soon her exhaustion overcame her and she drifted off while lying on top of an eight-pack of rock-hard abs.
Something loud buzzed, rudely pulling her out of her happy dreams. Groaning, Zarya rolled over and slapped at her alarm. Gah, she hated that thing.
“Ow!” she groused as something caught in her hair and pulled out several strands.
She opened her eyes to see the huge griata stone in her engagement ring.
The thing was worth a fortune.
She’d known Kere was loaded. As one of the five Sentella leaders, he made a killing, pardon the pun, by taking out military targets.
Whoa. It caught the light and glittered in a spectrum of rainbow colors. There were two blood-red smaller stones on each side that only made the rich, dark color more intense.
A classic-style Caronese engagement ring, the stones stood for the past, the present, and the future. The red for passion and the center stone for fidelity.
His promise to her. She couldn’t wait to call her sister and tell her what had happened. Sorche wouldn’t believe it. As far back as Zarya could remember, they’d spent countless hours talking about what kind of man they’d fall in love with. Who they dreamed of marrying one day.
Never had she imagined hers would be the most lethal outlaw in the universe.
One whose face she’d never seen…
Her gaze fell to the notecard he’d left on her nightstand by her clock. How very old-fashioned and sweet, and it was so vintage Kere that it made her smile. But even more endearing, on top of the note was one perfect white rose and a small round electronic something she’d never seen before. Curious, she pulled the note and black circle device toward her.
Leaving your bed was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But in four days, I will be back for you. Look for the man dressed in black, wearing your mother’s ring around his neck.
You know me, Zarya, better than any person ever has. My greatest prayer is that my face doesn’t offend you so much that you forget your promise to me. I could never bear to be rejected by the only woman who has ever held my heart.
Four days of absence, then a lifetime of happiness. I promise you, you will never regret loving me.
P.S. I designed the tricom just for you and you alone. If anyone fires a blaster at you, either in kill or stun mode, it’ll deflect the shot and then emit a pulse that will render them and anyone near them, paralyzed. For a few hours, they’ll be conscious, but won’t be able to do more than blink.
Don’t take it off. It’ll protect you in my absence.
The hair on the back of her neck rose as déjà vu tortured her. Her eyes filling with tears, she touched his flowing script. The last time a man had left her a note like this, it’d been her father.
Soon, we’ll be free of Caron. Then you’ll never have to fear again. Two days, my precious and I’ll return. Have your sister packed and ready.
Her father had died on his way back for them.
She winced in pain as a bitter lump tightened her stomach. Please, please don’t let history repeat itself.
“Are you out of your mind? I would slap sense into you, but you’d most likely punch me back and that would… really hurt. ’Cause the gods know, you pack one nasty left hook that you always lead with. Might even kill me. At the very least, it would wrinkle, and stain my clothes with blood, which is worse than death, if you ask me. Still, are you out of your mind?”
Darling sighed at Maris’s angry tirade as they stood in the governor’s office of the Winter Palace—the main political seat Darling’s family had used to rule their empire for the least two hundred years. This room was one of the few electronic dead spots of the palace where they couldn’t be overheard or monitored in any way.
Richly appointed and decorated with dark blues, golds, and maroons, the study was intended to overwhelm and impress visitors with the ostentatious wealth of the Cruel family—to make others feel inferior and small in comparison.
It worked on all but the stoutest egos.
His uncle also used this room to plot the deaths and downfalls of his enemies, as well as his own allies and friends.
And it was in this very room, where there was no surveillance whatsoever, that Darling’s uncle had murdered his own brother…
Something Darling couldn’t prove so he didn’t dare breathe a word of it to anyone, not even Maris. But he knew the truth from his uncle’s own lips. It’d come out as a drunken boast one night eleven years ago when his uncle had been particularly brutal with him after he’d escaped and run away from the mental institution his uncle had confined him in. The royal guards had found him in hiding and brought him back to this very room—beating him almost every step of the journey home.
His face stinging from his uncle’s fists, Darling had shoved Arturo away from him. “You’re not my father, you worthless bastard. And you’re not a governor in full right, Lord Grand Counsel.” He’d sneered the title he knew his uncle despised as it reminded Arturo of his lesser rank and position. “You’ll never be one. But I will be governor one day, and I don’t have to listen to you.”
His uncle had slammed his head into the desk that stood on their right and used his hair to pin him to it before he’d leaned over Darling to snarl in Darling’s ear with his drunken breath. “You better wise up, you little smart-mouthed faggot. I own you and I can make your life, and your family’s lives, utter hell. If you don’t do what I say, when I say it, I’ll kill you just like I did your spineless father. You should have seen the shock on the pathetic bastard’s face when I cut his throat.”
It was a night his uncle didn’t remember.
A night Darling couldn’t forget.
And since the moment of that slip, Darling had been plotting his uncle’s downfall in this very room where the walls bled from past treacheries.
Unfortunately, it’d taken a lot longer to put an overthrow into place than he’d wanted. But then it wasn’t easy to topple a government, especially when the handful of people you loved would be executed along with you should you fail.
Dragging his thoughts away from the past, Darling met Maris’s irritated gaze—Maris would be the first to die if he screwed this up. And that was something he could neither allow nor contemplate. Honestly, he could barely remember a time in his life when Maris hadn’t been a major part of it.
Though they were only a few weeks apart in age, Maris looked a lot younger. He’d recently cut his black hair short and wore it in spiked waves that went in all directions. For once, Maris was dressed conservatively in a light green jacket and tan pants. Something that was a stark contrast to Darling’s normal jet-black attire.
But then they were ever opposites in most things. While Maris had pale skin, Darling’s was deep olive. Maris had dark eyes. His were light blue. And only Darling’s sister shared his dark red hair.
Maris was lean with smooth, unblemished skin, and Darling was ripped with more scars than any aristo he knew, and that included the Andarion prince, Nykyrian Quiakides, who was a former League assassin and a close friend of Darling’s.
But their most polar opposite trait was their personalities. Maris lived out loud with a flamboyant, carefree style that tended to offend a lot of people. Meanwhile Darling was quiet, understated, and reserved. A demeanor of necessity he’d developed not long after his father had died. If he wasn’t noticed, he wasn’t attacked.
As often, anyway.
He much preferred flying below the radar while Maris preferred flying in the face of anyone who annoyed him.
And even though he knew better, Darling was still an eternal optimist who tried to see only the best in people, and who hoped everything would get better. Meanwhile, Maris only anticipated treachery from every person he met, and expected things to worsen, no matter how good they were.
Darling was the sole living being Maris trusted. Not that Darling blamed him, given his past. Trust didn’t come easy to Darling either, but he tried not to let his experience with assholes defeat his innate belief that people were good at heart.
All except his uncle.
That bastard had been born chromosomally damaged.
For the whole of his life, Darling had fought to protect, and run interference for others. Whether it was his mother, his siblings, or Maris…
He’d bled for all of them.
But never happily, and not always without complaint. While he didn’t mind it so much for Maris and his siblings, he resented the hell out of his mother’s inability to put his life and well-being above her own selfish needs.
She couldn’t even look at him anymore. Whether it was from disgust that he wasn’t her willing slave or from her own guilt over sacrificing him, he didn’t know. They rarely spoke to each other, and he couldn’t remember the last time she’d wished him well.
That was all right. He’d long ago accepted the fact that for all intents and purposes, he was an orphan.
Now, after all these years of battling for them, he finally wanted something for himself. And no one, not even Maris, was going to talk him out of this.
He had to have Zarya. She was the only one who could save him from the madness that was quickly pulling him under. He knew it with every part of himself. Without her, Kere would consume him, and he didn’t want to be the same cold-blooded, unfeeling monster his uncle and mother were.
I’d rather be dead.
Zarya was the only good thing he had, and he intended to hold on to her with both hands. Consequences be damned.
Darling met Maris’s gaze, wanting his friend’s blessing for what he was about to do. “If anyone should understand this, it’s you, Mari.”
Maris scoffed. “Yes, but I fall in love every five minutes and within twenty I’ve moved on to the next. You cannot marry a woman. You know that. Just imagine the scandal that’ll cause.”
“Don’t Mari me… in more ways than one. Do you remember what you said when I was about to walk down the aisle and make the biggest mistake of my life?”
“Your pants were too tight?”
Maris rolled his eyes. “After that.”
“That you were sweating so badly you needed another shower or else you’d drown your bride?”
Maris actually growled at him this time. “I’m being serious, Darling. Damn it! Stop being impossible.”
Darling’s eyes widened at the unexpected profanity. “Wow… Damn it. Really? I didn’t know you knew how to cuss. I’m impressed.”
“What can I say?” He crossed his arms in irritation. “You’ve ruined me. And—”
“I hear everything you’re saying.” Darling cut him off before he repeated the same argument he’d been making for the last thirty minutes. “I do. But my uncle has already tried to kill me. You were there. Remember?” Not wanting to completely alienate his best friend, he tempered the sarcasm. “In eighteen months, I’ll be old enough to legally dethrone him and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He knows that, and it’s now open season on my ass. If I don’t do something fast, you’ll be visiting me in the family vault, beside my father.” Darling swallowed as that pain washed over him. He’d give anything to have his father back.
But that desire changed nothing. His father was dead and he didn’t really want to join him there.
Not today, anyway.
“We both know Arturo’s not about to go blithely into retirement. Not while I have a younger brother who can inherit the throne after me. He kills me and then he moves his guardianship to Drakari for the next six years. Or worse, the bastard locks me up in another institution and has both me and Drake permanently declared insane so that he can rule in our names without being contested.”
Darling didn’t even want to think about what had happened to him the last time he’d been locked away. The pain and degradation. The never-ending meds that had left him so sick, weak, and disoriented, he could barely move. It’d taken months to detox and get that shit out of his system.
Another confinement would make him crazy. He had no doubt whatsoever. He couldn’t stand being strapped down and helpless, locked in a single room where he was put on display and sold like some freak of nature for the amusement of others. It didn’t pay to be a high-ranking aristo in that situation. Ever.
And he couldn’t even bear to think about the other things they’d done to him. Things he’d never mentioned to anyone, hoping that if he kept it to himself, then the memories would go away and leave him alone. But it didn’t work that way.
Those scars ran all the way to his battered soul. And those waking nightmares were never far away. Anytime he let his guard down, they returned to torture him all over again.
The last thing he wanted was for his brother to be put in the same situation. While Drakari was strong, he’d never been tested like that, and Darling didn’t want him to be. For the most part, Drake was untouched by the ruthless violence that had been Darling’s life since the day they’d buried their father. And that, too, had cost Darling dearly. He’d made sure that both Drake and Annalise had been raised in foreign boarding schools.
His greatest accomplishment was that they were both relatively unscathed by their uncle’s hatred.
But if Darling was gone…
“Who will protect my family if I’m not here? Have you forgotten what happened to my mother the last time I was locked up?”
Maris looked away, but not before Darling saw the involuntary wince over it. “I’ve not forgotten. How could I?”
In a vicious show of power and intimidation, his uncle had ordered his mother brutally beaten by so-called intruders within hours of Darling being admitted into a mental ward. Her assault had been his uncle’s way of letting him know what happened to his family when he didn’t fall in line with his uncle’s wishes.
And it was one seared into his heart and mind. While he might not like his mother, he didn’t want her harmed in any way. He refused to have his family hurt because of something he did.
More than that, Arturo had made it abundantly clear that next time, Annalise might be the one an intruder broke in on.
I’ll kill him if he goes after her. Since the day she’d been born, his sister had held a special place in his heart. Even though she annoyed him to extreme distraction, he adored her.
But killing anyone who dared touch Lise wouldn’t undo the mental damage such an attack would cause his headstrong sister. Darling knew that better than anyone.
“Are you sure your uncle hired the assassin?”
Darling gave his friend a wry stare. “No, I’m not sure. I have no idea how to track information like that down. Pure bloody speculation on my part.”
“Cut the sarcasm, Lord Smart-ass. I’m just worried about you, okay? I am allowed, after all. You are the only family I have in this world.”
Darling checked his temper as he saw the hurt in Maris’s eyes. “I know, Mari. I’m sorry.” The two of them had been through so much in their lives. Best friends since they’d started preschool together twenty-three years ago.
Through thick and thin, brothers to the bitter end. That had been their childhood pledge to each other. Little had they known then how many times that bond would be tested.
Never once had they disappointed each other.
He placed his hand on Maris’s shoulder to reassure him. “I already have everything arranged. Arturo thinks my mother and brother retreated to the Summer Palace after Drake’s last exam yesterday. Tomorrow, I want you to head to Caillen’s by midday. Then I’ll pick Lise up from school and get her to Nykyrian’s where my mother and Drake are waiting.”
“And then you’re going out alone to commit suicide. How vintage Darling of you.”
He ignored Maris’s dire prediction and sarcasm. “The CDS”—the Caronese Delegate Symposium that served as the secondary governing body of their empire—“meets tomorrow evening. Once I have all of you secured, I can issue my challenge to Arturo. With that many witnesses, he’ll have to agree to it.”
“I thought you had to be twenty-nine for a challenge.”
“Normally yes, but I found a loophole last night in the Unification Laws. Since Arturo isn’t a fully blooded governor, and he attempted to kill the full-blooded prince and heir, I can petition the CDS on those grounds and he’ll have to meet me, or be arrested. Stupid bastard. I now own his ass.” But then Arturo had no idea the kinds of skills or resources that Darling had access to.
Arturo’s mistake was about to cost him his life.
Maris held his hand to his temple as if his head was throbbing from their discussion. “Okay, alien life-form here. I still don’t understand the nuances of how all this works.” His face was a mask of frustration. “Everyone thinks you’re gayer than I am. Won’t they ask how you’re supposed to produce an heir when you’re ostensibly homosexual?”
Darling shrugged. “If I win, it won’t matter to the CDS. As a fully blooded governor, I can name Drake my heir until I produce a legal one. Even if I don’t ever have a son, it’s not important. I don’t care about inheriting. I only care about keeping all of you safe.”
And avenging my father.
That was an account that was long past due.
When Arturo had paid for and sent that assassin after him, Arturo had made the biggest mistake of his life. By coming that close to succeeding, Arturo had rammed home to Darling that if he didn’t do something, now, today, his uncle would see him dead. It was no longer a possibility, but a harsh, concrete fact. And where there was one failed aassassin, there were always a dozen more willing to take over the bill-kill target and collect the credits.
Not going to happen, old man.
Darling hadn’t come this far and survived so much to die at the finish line. It just didn’t work that way. And after finding the contract Arturo had placed on his life, Darling wanted to bathe in Arturo’s blood until he was drunk from it.
A tic worked in Maris’s jaw. “And if you fail to defeat him, you’re dead.”
“I’m dead anyway.” Or worse, his uncle would lock him up in a place that made him wish he were dead.
No one could deny that. Arturo hated him with every part of his being. But for his survival skills and strength, Darling would have been dead a long time ago. “It’s just a matter of time before Arturo finds a way to assassinate or permanently imprison me.”
Maris grimaced. “You should have let one of us kill him years ago.”
If only it were that simple.
“Believe me, I wish.” Darling clenched his teeth. “Our laws are so fucked up and backward.”
Unfortunately by Caronese law, if his uncle was assassinated by anyone from any empire, all Cruels, except Arturo’s male blood children, were to be executed… that included his uncle’s current wife and their three legitimate daughters. That had been the first law written and passed by his uncle when he’d taken the throne. One Arturo had created to keep Darling and Drake from killing him or having him killed.
Since Darling couldn’t repeal the law until he was the governor in full right, it had forced him to protect the one man he’d wanted to kill more than anything. Had any of his friends, or anyone else for that matter, assassinated Arturo, one of the other territorial princes could have seized the opportunity made by that law to block Darling’s inheritance and put his family down, then replace them with his own.
Caronese policies and laws were complicated. Darling knew that better than anyone. As Hauk would say, whenever you loved someone, you allowed your enemies to hold you by the balls. And Arturo had held Darling’s in a vise since the day his father had been stupid enough to believe his own brother wouldn’t kill him.
Growling low in his throat, Maris finally relented. “I hate that you’re doing this. But what do you need from me?”
“In case I lose, I need you to tell Zarya what happened to me and who I really was. She deserves the truth. And make sure my Sentella assets are split between you and her so that you’ll both have money to live on after I’m gone.”
Anger flashed in those dark eyes as Maris glared at him. “How will I find this Zarya?”
“She’ll contact the Sentella looking for Kere. Syn can help you back trace her.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier for you to give me her information?”
Yeah right. “Easier, but not safer. I don’t want to do anything to endanger any of you. The less all of you know about each other, the safer you are. I know you’ll be able to find her. I trust you.”
Maris feigned delirious joy. “Oh great. Just the job I wanted most. A job I’ve dreamed about having since the hour I was born. Telling the woman you’re not supposed to love that you’re dead, but really sorry you died. And here, hon, here’s some blood money to make you feel better about it all…” Spuriously, he slapped his hand hard over his chest. “Thank you so much for thinking of me, Darling. Whatever would I do without you?” Maris sobered and narrowed his eyes on him. “For the record, you better not die on me, you worthless beast. I will not forgive you for it.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I’ll be pretty pissed off at myself, too.”
“It doesn’t.” Maris pulled him into his arms and held him in an iron-tight hug. “You know I love you more than my life, right?”
Darling hugged him back with everything he had. Maris was the only person who’d never failed him. He was closer to him than any brother or friend could ever be. “I know, buddy. Brothers to the bitter end. I feel the same way about you.”
The door slid open an instant before Arturo cursed them. “Uh… you repulsive faggots!”
Darling saw red at his uncle’s snarling voice. He started to attack, but Maris tightened his hold around him, keeping him pinned in his arms.
Damn, Maris was a lot stronger than he looked. Because Mari hated conflict of any kind and profaned physical force, it was easy to forget that he was a trained soldier. And while Maris no longer had the overdeveloped build of his military days, he was still stronger than most.
“One more day,” Maris whispered in Darling’s ear in Phrixian—Maris’s native language that Arturo couldn’t understand. “You can hold on for one more day, my brother.”
Kissing Darling on his scarred cheek, Maris released him and cupped his chin until Darling met his gaze. He passed a warning look to remind Darling how imperative it was that he leash his temper one more day.
Nodding, Darling fell into the role he’d been playing for so long that until Zarya he’d almost forgotten he really was heterosexual. Not that he’d ever been attracted to men. Far from it. But until Zarya, he’d been the celibate monk that Maris always called him.
His façade was the same lie Maris had been forced to live when he’d pretended to be heterosexual to keep from “dishonoring” or “embarrassing” his royal family.
For years, Maris had played the dutiful son, dating women and hating every minute of it. In those days, only Darling had known the truth of Maris’s preferences.
And only Maris knew his.
Since the night of Darling’s fifteenth birthday, no one, absolutely no one, had been trusted enough with the truth. It was a lie they’d both despised and unlike Maris, it was one Darling couldn’t let go of.
Not so long as his uncle lived.
God, it was so easy to speak a lie in the heat of a moment. And so hard to abide by it, especially for the rest of your life.
Even now, he could see that one long ago night so clearly.
His father’s former adviser, Carus, had been sneaking out the back garden when the moron had tripped an alarm. Arturo’s guards had seized him and hauled him inside for questioning.
It’d been obvious from the fresh hickeys on his neck and his recently showered condition, and disheveled appearance that he’d had sex with someone. Since Annalise and Drakari were still small children, and Darling barely fifteen, the most likely culprit had been their mother.
When Arturo had ordered her taken into custody, Darling knew the next step would be her execution. As the mother to the heir and widow of the last governor, his mother was to keep herself pristine and chaste in memory of his dead father for the rest of her life. For another man to touch her was viewed as an act of high treason on both their parts.
The guards had seized her and she’d been screaming, protesting her innocence and begging for mercy. His brother and sister had been holding on to her waist, crying and pleading for their mother’s life.
Darling had been frozen by terror. His father had only been dead three years and all he could hear was the promise he’d made to him the last time they’d spoken. “If anything should ever happen to me, Darling, swear to me that you’ll make sure your mother and siblings are taken care of. They’re not as strong as you. You’ll make a great governor one day. I know it. It’s why I trust you to do right by the three of them.”
Still, they’d all screamed and cried until Darling was deaf from it. More guards had come forward to pull his brother and sister away and to handcuff his mother for her execution while Carus had stood there, silent. No word to deny or defend the woman he’d slept with. The woman who’d risked her life and endangered her children for him.
He was useless as a protector.
And his mother would die if Darling didn’t do something.
So he’d seized on Maris’s personal secret to save her life. Biting his lips to make them swell, and pinching and clawing his neck to turn it red, he’d run forward to stop his mother’s arrest.
“He’s my boyfriend. I’m the one who slept with him.” The words had flown out of Darling’s mouth before he could stop himself.
Or think through the consequences.
But then, he’d stupidly assumed his mother would cut off the affair after seeing what a feckless, uncaring prick Carus was. Instead, she’d been grateful to Darling that he’d provided her with a cover story.
Little did he know then that he’d just sold his soul to his mother so that she could be happy. After that night, she’d carelessly chosen lovers and then guilted him into pretending they were his.
Lies he’d paid for with his flesh and blood.
Over the years, it’d been ironic really. To make their parents happy, Darling had pretended to be gay while Maris had pretended to be straight. It was one of many reasons why they were so close. Each had coached the other on how to carry out his ruse. What to say. How to act and dress. They’d invented code phrases to let each other know when they’d stepped out of their role. “I’m yanking your membership card” was the primary one. As soon as it was heard, they knew to pull back from whatever it was they were saying or doing before they exposed their true natures.
But Maris had had the luxury of coming out in his early twenties. Darling’s only way out was to find a legal way to kill his uncle and then pardon his mother for her stupidity.
Arturo made a gagging sound at them.
His hatred riding him with spurs, Darling curled his lip at the smug bastard who glared at them.
In an act of utter defiance Darling knew he was about to pay for, he kissed then licked Maris’s palm while staring at his uncle with a half smile.
Snarling furiously, Arturo stormed across the room and backhanded him so hard, his neck snapped and blood instantly invaded his mouth. “What have I told you, you stupid cock-licking rimmer?”
Testing his teeth with his tongue to make sure they were all still in place, Darling forced himself to play docile and not give in to the need to strike back.
Daintily—to further piss his uncle off—he wiped the blood from his lips with his forefinger.
I could snap you in two, you bastard…
It was so unfair to have the ability to rip his uncle’s heart out and not be able to do it. So long as his family meant more to him than he did, he was like a toothless lion and he hated that feeling most of all.
“We’re just friends.”
“Sure you are.” Arturo grimaced at Maris who prissed and preened, knowing it got under Arturo’s skin in the worst way. The only thing that kept Arturo from striking Maris was the fact that Maris’s blood was even bluer than theirs. And while Maris had been disowned by his family for his homosexuality, he was still protected by League laws. Not to mention the small fact that Maris was the Andarion ambassador to Caron. As such, he fell under the protection of their crowned prince, Nykyrian—a former League assassin who would give his eyeteeth to have one shot at Arturo’s jugular.
Unless Darling committed an act of treason, or Nykyrian’s grandmother declared war on the Caronese, Maris couldn’t be touched without severe consequences.
Arturo sneered at them. “Get out of my sight. You repulse me.”
Maris hooked his arm through Darling’s. “Come on, sweetie. The air in here is suddenly chilly.”
Arturo caught Darling by the hair and snatched him back. “I didn’t say you, cock jockey.”
Darling locked down on his primal instincts that begged him to hand Arturo his testicles.
Maris gave him a panicked stare.
“Leave,” Darling said in Phrixian.
He saw the reluctance before Maris inclined his head and did what he asked. It would only go worse for Darling if Maris defied Arturo, too.
As soon as Maris was gone, Arturo shoved Darling away, but not before he’d wrenched his hair again. “I want that other shirtlifter out of my house.”
“He’s the Andarion ambassador. He can’t leave without a replacement.” A replacement Nykyrian would make sure didn’t happen. Maris’s real role here was to stay and watch Darling’s back. Whenever Arturo went too far, Maris would notify Nykyrian who would then do his best to pull Darling out until his uncle had time to cool down.
Arturo cursed in frustration. “I better not catch you in another display like that. You hear me?”
“I hear you.”
Arturo slapped him again. “That’s to remind you of your place, cockboy. You’re not governor yet. I am.”
“Yes, my Lord Counselor.” He couldn’t resist using the title he knew his uncle despised as it reminded Arturo of his lesser place in their world and the fact that he could never have full governorship—only a secondary regeant position.
Arturo raked him with a condemning glare. “You look just like your pathetic father. Get out!”
Darling gave a sarcastic and effeminate military salute before he obeyed.
In the hallway outside, he licked the blood away from the corner of his mouth as he imagined kicking the door in and gutting his uncle on the floor.
One more day.
Yeah, this was going to be the longest thirty-six hours of his life.
But after tomorrow…
Zarya would be his. His uncle would be dead. And he’d finally be free of the utter hell he’d been living in for more than half his life. No more torture. No more bruises, broken bones, or scars.
No more lies.
And yet, in the pit of his stomach was a bad feeling he couldn’t shake. Something was going to go wrong.
He could feel it.
You’re just paranoid. Arturo would never check the location of his mother or brother. He didn’t care enough to do so.
Annalise was safely ensconced in her dorm room and currently guarded.
What could go wrong?
Still, he heard Hauk’s voice in his head. Never underestimate fate’s ability to screw any plan to the wall.
But fate owed him this. All he wanted was one single chance to be happy, just once in his miserable life. It really wasn’t asking too much, especially given his past.
He slowed as he entered the hallway that led to his bedroom. As always, his uncle’s guards were waiting there for him. Yet another degrading routine his uncle insisted on whenever Darling was home, and it was one Darling would die before he told anyone about.
If only I hadn’t had to come home tonight to complete my plans…
Rage clouded his sight. I hate this shit.
As bad as it would be just in principal, the guards lived to make it as demeaning for him as possible. They loved having power over an aristo. Of being able to use Darling as their personal scapegoat. Even now, he could hear their laughter as they mocked him.
Damn them for it.
One more day…
Yeah, what was another night compared to all the ones he’d already survived?
Still his stomach churned on bitterness as he met the guards’ smirking and gloating gazes, then headed into the bathroom across the hall from his room. He turned the water on to brush his teeth. Needing something to comfort him, he pulled Zarya’s ring out of his pocket so that he could kiss it and think of the only person whose smile made his life worth living.
How he wished he was with her now…
He slid the ring onto his pinkie and remembered the way she’d opened herself up for him last night. In her arms, he felt like he could fly. He didn’t know how she did it, but whenever he was with her, he didn’t hear the voices of his past or the ones in his head that constantly derided him. She expelled every demon inside him and made him forget the past. With her, he only saw the future.
Zarya was his haven even in this miserable hell.
Staring at himself in the mirror, he despised what he saw there. He always had. All of Arturo’s insults rang in his ears. But the ones that hurt most were from his own mother’s lips.
“You will never be what your father was. You’re just a pititful shadow of him. May the gods help us if you ever inherit.”
He flinched, then pushed those ghosts out of his memory.
Please let tomorrow work out the way it’s supposed to.
Don’t worry, Dar. You’ve been on missions before that went bad and yet turned out fine. Whatever happens, you will adapt and you will survive.
For Zarya, he would walk through the fires of hell just to make her smile. And if everything went through tomorrow, he’d make sure she never cried again.
Look on the bright side. Either you’ll succeed tomorrow or you’ll die.
One way or another, he’d finally be free.
Darling lay on his “bed” alone, going over all the plans for tomorrow. He mentally checked and rechecked every single second of the day. There were so many details. So many things that could get royally screwed.
He didn’t believe that for a minute, which was why he was making himself insane going over every variable, planning for the unexpected. No matter how ludicrous the thought, he prepared for it.
Even the highly unlikely possibility of a mechanical failure on his fighter.
The link he’d smuggled into his room past his guards vibrated under his hand. He glanced down, then smiled as he saw Zarya’s photo. Now that was enough to reverse even the worst mood. Turning the video output off, he clicked the channel open to see her looking tired, but nonetheless breathtaking. “Hi, beautiful.”
“Hey, sexy. I wasn’t sure you’d be able to pick up.”
Yeah, he didn’t want to think about what Arturo or his guards would do if they found out he had the link with him. The least would be he’d have to postpone his try for freedom by a few days as his body healed. “Only for you.”
She laughed. “I’m so glad you’re not taking fire and that your voice sounds relaxed. What are you doing?”
“Relaxed” was not the word he’d use for himself right now. He was wound tighter than a cat in a dog kennel.
“Wishing I was with you.” Probably not the manliest admission. But then, he’d been pretending to be effeminate for so long that sometimes those lines got blurred. Although to hear Maris berate him, he was never effeminate enough.
“I swear, Darling, you’re way too masculine for your own good. I don’t know how anyone buys the fact that you’re gay. They’d have to be blind or stupid. Both actually.”
But no one had ever guessed the truth.
Except for possibly his friend Caillen’s wife, Desideria. While Desideria hadn’t questioned him about it, he’d caught her looking at him strangely a few times when other women were around, as if she suspected the fact he was straight.
But she was the only one.
And Desideria wasn’t the woman he wanted to think about right now.
That was reserved for an amber-eyed goddess who made his blood catch fire. He traced the line of her cheek on the screen, wishing he could feel her skin under his hand. “Did you eat anything?”
“Why do you always ask me that?”
“Because I know you. You get so wrapped up in other things that you forget all the time. It’s not good for you, you know.”
Her eyes were filled with love. “You’re the only one who’s ever noticed that.”
Only because she lived so deep under his skin that he noticed everything about her and her habits.
Like now. He saw the dark shadow in her eyes and it worried him. “What’s wrong?”
“I just have a bad feeling that I can’t shake.”
“About the Resistance?”
“No. We’re making good strides there. Two of our patrols were able to turn back Caronese troops from the colonists on Arhan III, and save their homes from being burned. Clarion has something planned for tomorrow. He hasn’t told me what, but he swears it’ll strike right at the heart of Counselor Cruel.”
“The counselor doesn’t have a heart. Trust me.”
“Yeah, I know. It was my mother and sister he gutted in the throne room when they went to beg for clemency for my father.”
Darling winced at the pain in her voice, wishing he could take it away. It was the same agony he carried whenever he thought about his uncle killing his father—in a room he’d been forced to walk past almost every day of his life.
The worst part… Zarya’s father had been not only a personal friend to his own father, but one of the royal advisers back in the day. First under his father, and then under Arturo. For that matter, one of her ancestors had been instrumental in placing his family in power back during the early days of their empire. Because of that, the Starskas and the Cruels had been allies for centuries.
But when Zalan had protested Arturo’s laws that would allow his uncle to seize the assets of anyone he deemed a threat to his rule, with or without proof, Arturo had declared him a traitor.
In one single heartbeat, Zarya’s family had lost everything. Their money, their titles, and ultimately, their lives. Because her mother had known Darling’s father and Arturo for so many years, she’d stupidly thought she could bargain with Arturo for her husband’s life.
But there was no bargaining with the devil.
Zalan had escaped as soon as he heard what had become of his wife and oldest child. He’d taken Zarya and her other two sisters and brother into hiding, and there he, along with several of his friends who’d also been targeted by Arturo, had set up the Resistance that had been plaguing Arturo ever since.
Thrown into a life of crime against his will, Zalan had been instrumental in helping to limit Arturo’s power through well-placed counterassaults. And he’d trained Zarya to lead and take his place should anything happen to him.
But after years of fighting Arturo and his own allies who argued inside the Resistance, and the death of his only son and another daughter, Zalan had lost his fire. He’d decided to leave politics behind and to take his two remaining daughters far away from the horror he’d raised them in. To get them to a better place where they could finally be children and not soldiers for what appeared to be a never-ending cause.
Six years ago when Zalan had been on his way to their safe house to pick up Zarya and her sister, his best friend had murdered him.
It’d been Zarya’s eighteenth birthday and Zalan had planned for their new life to be his present to her.
To this day, she couldn’t stand celebrating the day of birth. Something Darling had discovered the hard way last year when he’d thrown her a “surprise” party for the two of them. The surprise had been on him more than her. Instead of being happy, she’d almost taken his head off over it.
He’d felt like a total ass when she explained to him why she hated the date so much, and why the last thing she wanted to do was celebrate it.
In the end, after her tears for her family had been spent, they’d decided to move her birthday to the day they’d first met as adults. He could still see the fire in her amber eyes as she looked up at him like he was a hero for thinking of it. “I love that idea. I never had a life worth living without you, anyway.”
Tomorrow, he was going to make damn sure that she never had a reason to regret her decision to marry him.
Zarya set her link in the stand on her desk, then smiled. “Clarion wanted me to ask if you’d be back in time to help us liberate the prisoners on Baltael V, on the first.”
Another example of Arturo’s cruelty. Those prisoners were innocent business owners whose companies had been deemed government property and their assets and revenue seized.
Darling clenched his teeth in anger, but he didn’t want her to hear it in his voice since it wasn’t directed at her. “If what I’m doing tomorrow works, you won’t have to worry about that. They’ll already be free.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t tell you, Z. It’s Sentella business.”
The worry in her eyes increased. “And that’s what I have a bad feeling about. I can’t shake it no matter what.”
“I’m going to be fine, baby. I’m not your father.”
“I know. I just… I need you to be all right. You know?” Tears glistened in her eyes, but she blinked them back. He had to give her credit, she rarely gave into them so he knew whenever he saw her tears just how deeply she felt. “I love you too much to lose you now. I couldn’t stand to bury you.”
God, her words never failed to weaken him. “Same here. It’s why I have to do this tomorrow. Not just for the cause, but for you. I want to make sure no one ever threatens you again. You’re wearing the tricom I left for you, right?”
Leaning back, she lifted her shirt to show that she had it clipped to her waist. “Thank you for this, by the way. I’m not sure how it works, and I haven’t tested it, but I have faith in your abilities. No one makes better tech toys than you do. What caused you to think of it?”
Darling’s throat went absolutely dry at the sight of her exposed skin.
She scowled. “Kere? Are you there?”
“Um, yeah. Sorry. I was momentarily distracted by the flash of your breast you just inadvertently gave me. All the blood has now left my brain and I really can’t think. What did you ask again?”
Laughing, she tsked at him. “You’re so bad.”
“Can’t help it. Have you looked in a mirror? Damn, woman, the things you do to me.”
She wrinkled her nose at him before she playfully started unbuttoning her shirt.
“Ah, now that’s just wrong.”
“What?” Her tone was one of complete innocence as she stopped at the last button that held her shirt closed right between her breasts. “Guess I need to go then… Last thing I want to do is torture you.”
“Nuh-uh. You can’t leave me now. That would be cruel.”
She flicked her finger back and forth over the final button, tormenting him with expectation. “You told me it was wrong.”
“Wrong is what you’re doing to me right now.”
“Boy, you need to make up your mind. You don’t want me to show you anything. Then you do… I just can’t figure you out. After all, I’m not in your head.”
No, she was some place much worse.
“You know what I want, baby.”
Biting her lip, she popped the last button and opened her shirt.
Darling’s entire body erupted with fire at the sight of her bare breasts. If that wasn’t bad enough, she lifted her legs and propped them up on the desk. Oh yeah, he was so hard now, he could barely think straight.
She ran one hand over the top of her breast, circling the nipple, which puckered instantly. “You still alive, baby?”
“No. You’ve killed me.”
She laughed. “Have I told you today how much I love you?”
“I love you, too. And I can’t wait to see you again.” Darling heard his uncle’s muffled voice on the other side of his door as he interrogated Darling’s guards. “I have to go.”
Her features sobered instantly as she leaned forward. “Please be safe.”
She blew him a kiss before she disconnected.
Darling had barely hidden the link he wasn’t supposed to have under his cover before his door crashed open.
Arturo glared at him.
Biting back a curse, Darling forced himself to appear nonchalant. “What did I do now?”
“First, you know better than to cut the feed to your room. How many times have I told you to keep it live?”
Yeah, Arturo couldn’t stand it if he couldn’t spy on him. Pervert. But for obvious reasons—like plotting Arturo’s death—Darling had pulled the feed hours ago. “Sorry if, unlike you, I prefer to masturbate in private.”
Growling in fury, his uncle closed the distance between them to shove an electronic ledger in his face. “What’s this?”
Arturo slapped him with it.
Darling clenched his fist, but stopped himself before he struck back.
“Were you feeding that other butt monkey with my money?”
His rage snapped into place and it took everything he had not to crush Arturo’s throat… one hit and he could end all his problems.
Don’t do it. You won’t die alone…
So he struck back with words. “Last I checked, it was my father’s money, not yours.”
That got him a vicious punch to the jaw. Pain exploded through his head.
Damn, that hurt. Good thing he was used to it.
Arturo kicked at him. “Do you know what your father would think of you if he could see what you are? He’d be even more repulsed by you than I am. If he were still alive, you’d have been thrown out on the street years ago. Something I should have done the first time I caught one of your butt nuts coming out of your room.”
But they both knew why Arturo couldn’t really throw him out. Only a full-blooded, legitimate governor could disinherit a full-blooded heir. That had been one nuisance law his uncle had been unable to overturn. No matter the threat or violence, the CDS refused to budge on the original thirty-five Unification Laws that had been drafted and ratified when the Caronese Empire was first founded 3,408 years ago. Those laws were the bedrock of all others and deemed to be sacred and above contestation or revocation.
Thank the gods for that.
Not to mention, if Darling was thrown out, his uncle couldn’t monitor him.
Or kill him under mysterious circumstances.
Even if Arturo did manage to toss him out, once Darling turned thirty, as a full-blooded heir, he could return and overthrow the bastard.
And all because his uncle was the by-blow of a prostitute Darling’s grandfather had elevated to royal mistress status. Arturo could only rule so long as Darling and Drakari lived, and were deemed by law to be minors or incompetent.
Should both of them die as things currently stood, Arturo would lose all power, and the ruling family would be chosen by the CDS (probably after much bloodshed) from one of their primary full-blooded male cousins.
The only other way Arturo could hold his current power was if they were dead, and he could produce a son with his blue-blooded wife, but only if the CDS ratified that son’s inheritance.
That being said, Arturo’s rule would end the moment his son turned thirty.
It was why Darling’s father had made the mistake of trusting his much older half brother. Since Arturo couldn’t rule for the whole of his lifetime, his father had never conceived of the treachery it would take for Arturo to kill him and then seize control of his sons.
That had been his father’s greatest act of blind stupidity.
Arturo grabbed Darling by the neck and pressed him against the floor.
Darling locked his hands around his uncle’s wrist as he glared up at him. He could break his uncle’s arm so easily.
A single punch to his throat or nose and he could kill him…
It would take so little pressure, and Darling had killed enough men that way to know exactly how easy it would be.
One punch. He wouldn’t even feel guilty about it.
You can wait one more day.
Keep your temper.
Think of Maris, Lise, and Drake.
Hating himself for loving them, he loosened his grip and wheezed, forcing himself to stay limp while Arturo choked him.
“I should do your mother a favor and kill you. Then she wouldn’t have to cringe every time your name is mentioned by others.”
Little did Arturo know his mother didn’t cringe. She was so grateful he was a protective idiot that she was more than willing to live with the shame of a gay son than to be dead from her numerous affairs.
“Really, Darling, how dare you complain. Am I not entitled to one single moment of pleasure in this horrible life I was shoved into? I was only a child when I was forced to marry your father and only twenty-seven when I was widowed. And after all I’ve done for you, is it too much to ask that you do this one thing for me? I don’t understand why, since you’re gay anyway, you get so upset about claiming my lovers as yours. I can’t believe I raised such a selfish, thoughtless brat. Your father would be as disappointed in you as I am.”
His sight dulled as his ears buzzed. If he died right now, the only thing his mother would miss was having him cover for her.
Yeah, that would seriously fuck up her day since everyone knew Drake was straight.
Arturo finally released him.
Darling coughed as he finally drew an unrestricted breath through his bruised throat.
Arturo raked a sneer over his naked body. “I’m pulling a hundred thousand credits out of your trust to pay for this and as punishment. You charge something like that to me again, and I swear…” His uncle kicked him hard in the groin.
Cursing, Darling cupped himself as pain exploded through his entire body. Bile rose in his throat. He felt like he was about to vomit.
With one smug smile, Arturo left him to his misery.
You fucking bastard…
He couldn’t wait to kill him tomorrow night. I’m going to bathe in your blood and drink my fill of it.
The wolf was coming home to den, and it was going to claim sixteen years of long overdue vengeance.
Darling opened the door to his sister’s dorm room and smiled as he saw her sitting on her bed with pink earphones set deep into her ears while she studied for her finals. He could hear the bass from her music even at his distance. Unaware of his presence and completely lost to her blissful youth, she bobbed her head and kept time to the raucous beat with her stylus. She didn’t appear to have a worry in the universe—a state of existence he’d fought hard to give her.
Thank the gods she was still untouched and happy. That alone was worth every degradation and beating he’d ever suffered.
With her long red hair in pigtails that fell to her waist, Lise was beautiful—an exact duplicate of their mother, except for the hazel green eyes she’d inherited from their father. She was extremely tall for a woman. Barely an inch shorter than he was, she towered over their petite mother and most other women.
Sitting on the frilly pink bed in a blue tank top and shorts, surrounded by primitive print textbooks and her e-reader and note ledger, she was all skinny arms and legs.
How he wished he’d been able to study for his exams in such peace and security.
Unlike his brother and sister, Darling had been brought home from school the moment his father had died—two days before his brother and sister had even been notified of the murder. A lovely task his mother and uncle had delegated to him. There were some things a twelve-year-old shouldn’t have to do and telling your little brother and sister they wouldn’t see their father again was one of them.
After the funeral, Arturo had demanded he stay at the palace to be tutored, supposedly for his own protection. But Darling knew the truth. It was another way for his uncle to keep him under control and make sure Darling didn’t try to find another relative to pose as Grand Counsel until his majority.
From that day forward, he’d scarcely had a moment of freedom from his uncle’s overbearing presence or fists—not unless he’d somehow managed to run away for it. But that had changed when he was seventeen, and his uncle had made the unfortunate mistake of hiring Nykyrian to guard Darling for public functions. Thinking the fierce Andarion would intimidate him into behaving, his uncle had never dreamed they would become close friends.
His uncle’s second biggest mistake.
Because of his own battered past, Nykyrian had welcomed Darling in like a brother. Rather than ride herd on him as his uncle wanted, Nykyrian had given him a cover story so that Darling could finally live like he was almost normal, and have days of freedom at a stretch.
At least until his uncle got nervous about his whereabouts and sicced his dogs on him. Then Darling was dragged back to his cell and kept there until something else distracted Arturo.
When Nykyrian had founded the Sentella to protect innocent victims from the League and her allies, Darling had gladly signed on as their youngest member, and one of the five leaders.
To this day, his uncle had no idea about the other life Darling had been living for years.
But he was about to meet Kere. And there would be no mercy for him.
First though, Darling had to make sure his family was safe.
Annalise and her roommate, who was on the bed next to hers, finally looked up from their work to see him in the doorway.
Lise smiled brightly as she turned her music off. “Sashi? What are you doing here?” Her smile turned into a look of sheer astonishment as she skimmed Darling’s body from the high collar of the black battlesuit he wore, all the way to the shining tips of his flight boots. She arched her brow. “And dressed like that, no less. Wow. You almost look straight, shilo.”
Darling didn’t respond to her term of endearment that meant “adored brother.”
“I need you to come with me.”
All the blood left her beautiful face as her jaw went slack. “Momair?”
He felt like a total ass as he realized what he’d done to her. The last time he’d spoken to her in a tone like that had been the night he’d told her their father was dead. “She’s fine. Drake’s fine. I’m fine. I just need you to come with me.”
Fury darkened her hazel green eyes. “You dick! Don’t you dare scare me like that. You know better. I can’t believe you’d do that to me. Asshole!” Letting out an irritated breath, she gestured to the electronics and books around her. “And I can’t just leave. I have exams tomorrow.”
“They can wait.”
Her roommate snorted. “He hasn’t met your instructors, has he?”
Darling ignored her. “Lise. Move it. Now.”
This time she arched both brows at his military-issued orders. “What has gotten into you? You been drinking testosterone from Drake’s cup? No offense, but I want my sweet, gay brother back. Please go find him and take this one away. I don’t like him at all.”
Darling cursed in Phrixian under his breath. He hated whenever Lise dug her heels in over something. Spoiled by everyone around her, even her own guards, she’d always been the most impossible creature in the universe. Second only to their mother, anyway. “Do I have to stun you and carry you out?”
Her eyes dared him to try it. “You do and I’ll tell Momair on you.”
Scoffing at her threat, he’d pay money to see his mother take him to task. Ladling him with guilt, though, was another matter entirely…
“Oh wait,” he said in a fearful tone, “that would mean she’d actually have to speak to me.” He made a sound of utter shock. “Maybe even acknowledge my existence. Gods forbid! Kere’s fire throne would freeze over from the shock of it.”
Honestly, he couldn’t remember the last time his mother had said anything to him at all. Even a single syllable. Must have been at least three or four years ago. Maybe more. Whenever she found herself in his presence, she’d quickly walk out the closest door. In the beginning, he’d taken it personally. Now he strangely considered it amusing.
“Forget it, sis. It’ll never happen.” He tapped his watch. “You have five minutes to get dressed in something a little more appropriate before I stun you and carry you out of here. Naked if I have to.”
She jerked her earphones out in a royal huff. “Gah, I swear you’ve been hanging out with that barbarian Syn too long. You’re starting to sound like him.” She finally got up and began cramming her materials into a pink tote. “Where are we going and how long will I be gone?”
“A few days.”
“Does Momair know?”
“I’m taking you to her and Drake.”
Lise straightened up with a frown. “Do I need to pack clothes?”
“No. I don’t want you to take anything too personal. I want it to look like you’ll be back any second.”
She glanced at her roommate before she looked back at him. “Now you are starting to scare me.”
He didn’t respond to that as he met her roommate’s gaze. “Can you tell her instructors that we had a family emergency?”
As soon as Lise had pulled on a pair of acceptable pants over her shorts, and a large shirt and shoes, he took her arm to guide her from her room, and down the hallway of her dorm.
She looked around with a frown. “Where are my guards?”
“Out of commission for a while.” Making sure they couldn’t see him, he’d stunned them unconscious and stashed them in a back room down the hallway.
She slowed her pace. “Sashi, you have to tell me what’s going on. Are we running from Arturo?”
Only Lise called him sashi. It was the Caronese word for “beloved.” An epithet she’d given him when she was four years old and he’d taught her to catch glow flies in their back garden.
Even though she was twenty now, he still saw her as that adorable toddler who would run to him, laughing the whole way.
Because he’d been forced to grow up so young while his siblings had been able to have a fairly normal childhood, he had a hard time thinking of them as adults. Something that seriously pissed them both off.
But he couldn’t help it. He was too used to taking fire for them. Besides, he felt more like their father than their brother.
Darling eased his grip on her arm. “Yes, we’re running from Arturo.”
“Why didn’t you say something in my room?”
“I didn’t want your roommate to know. I have to make sure all of you are safe for a few days.”
She scowled at him. “You’re really scaring me. I know something’s wrong. What is it?”
“I’m going to get us out from under his fist.”
She stopped so abruptly that he lost his grip on her. “What are you going to do? Is it dangerous? It better not be dangerous… Is it dangerous?”
He had to clamp down on the urge to strangle her for holding them up. While Arturo didn’t care about Drake or their mother, he did check up on Annalise from time to time—a virgin princess was worth a lot more on the marriage market than a used one. And the guards he’d knocked out would wake up soon and find her gone.
They had to be off planet before that happened or they’d never make it.
“Lise, I don’t have time to explain, okay? I need you to trust me and cooperate.”
“All right.” She lifted her hand to touch the scarred side of his face. “But please don’t get hurt, sashi. Not for me or for anything. You’re the only father I’ve ever known, and you’re the only person in this entire universe I know I can call if I need something. I can’t lose you, you know? You’re all I have.”
Touched by her heartfelt words, Darling kissed her on the forehead. “It’ll be fine. Now we need to get moving.”
She nodded before she finally picked up the pace.
He led her through campus and out toward the landing bay where he’d left his unmarked fighter.
They were almost home free.
Just a few minutes more.
If they could make it to launch, no one would be able to stop them. He’d have her safely tucked away with Nykyrian, and everything would change for the better.
Tomorrow, they would be free to live the lives they should have been living all along.
C’mon, fate, don’t screw me in this.
Inside the hangar, Darling glanced over at a small group of six men dressed as college engineers, but he paid them no heed as he led his sister toward his ship on the left.
Not until he overheard one of them speaking to the others in Caronese—a language that wasn’t common here in the Garvon sector. Fearing assassins were after him, he listened to their conversation intently. “Hey, isn’t that the princess we’re after?”
Those words registered at the same time he saw the group rushing toward them, reaching for weapons.
What the hell? They weren’t Caronese soldiers or guards his uncle might have sent. They were dressed as civs.
But their weapons were military grade…
Shit. It was an attack.
When their leader ducked out from the corner in front of them, Darling’s blood ran cold.
It was Clarion Lubomir. Zarya’s right hand… and his ally.
No, not Darling’s ally.
Double shit. Clarion would never believe that Kere was also the Caronese heir they fought against and hated. None of them would. All they saw was a royal-blooded enemy who stood for everything that had ever repressed them. Every failure in their lives. Every disappointment from not having a better job to being saddled with a spouse who nagged them to distraction.
It was all his family’s fault.
Not one of those men knew how many shots he’d taken to protect their backs. How many times he’d fought by their side against his uncle’s soldiers.
How many times he’d carried them to safety when they were wounded or under fire. And right now, even if they did, they most likely wouldn’t care anyway. You wear the uniform, you’re judged by the banner on the sleeve—the same banner we’ll wrap around your body for your burial.
They opened fire.
Darling moved to cover his sister. “Run, Lise! Get to my ship.”
Without questioning him, she dropped her tote, and for once, obeyed. Running backward, Darling tried to protect her as best he could.
He mentally reviewed the weapons he had on him. They were all designed to kill. If he used even a single one, it’d tear his allies apart. That was the last thing he wanted. They were good men with families he knew in some cases on an intimate level. They didn’t deserve to die over a stupid mistake.
Think, Darling, think. The last thing he’d anticipated was his own allies assaulting him.
Damn it! Why hadn’t he even considered it?
’Cause the bastards were supposed to be in Caronese territory, not Garvon.
Oh yeah, there was that…
Not to mention, they’d never gone after his family before. Arturo, his wife and daughters, yes. But Darling’s immediate family had always been off limits.
He growled in frustration. He’d only had the two stun blasts he’d used on Lise’s guards. Why hadn’t he brought more?
’Cause who would have thought of this?
Darling kept himself between Lise and their fire as he went with her, toward the ship. Blasts of color ricocheted everywhere. Thank the gods they weren’t better shots. Over the past years, he’d often laughed at Clarion for his lousy aim and had even tried to teach him how to shoot better.
Thank the gods Clarion was a slow learner.
One blast came within millimeters of Lise. Had she not put her head down a second earlier to run faster, she’d have lost it.
His blood boiled. So this was Clarion’s great plan? To kidnap his sister and what? Hold her for ransom? Was he out of his idiotarian mind? Arturo wouldn’t pay to get her back. He’d assume her raped and then she would be useless to him. The only value she had to their uncle was as a virgin bride. Shit, shit, shit…
Lise made it to the ship, then hesitated as she glanced at Darling and the men on their heels. If she went up the ladder, she’d be an easy target even with their limited abilities.
Turning around, Darling pulled out his blaster and opened cover fire, trying to buy her enough time to get into the cockpit. He had no intention of wounding them. All he aimed for was the space between Clarion and the man on his left.
But it didn’t work that way.
The moment he pulled the trigger, his blast was absorbed as if the Resistance fighters were protected by a force field. An instant later, pulses of energy shot out in all directions.
It was a distinctive pattern he knew all too well, since it was one he’d designed and created.
One of the blasts struck him hard in the chest, knocking him off his feet forcefully enough to skid him across the concrete floor. Had he not been wearing his armor, it would have killed him. But worse than his wound, the pulses split into a whole round of volleys that bounced through the hangar—just like he’d built them to do.
He watched in horror as one of the pulses went straight into his little sister’s back. “Sashi! Help me!” she screamed before she was paralyzed by the blast. It knocked her away from the ladder to land beside his ship.
Her cry for him tore him apart. But not as much as the fact that he couldn’t get to the little sister he’d sworn over and over again to protect from all harm.
Terrified, he stared at her as a pool of red spread across the concrete, bleeding out from under her body.
There was so much blood. It soaked her clothes and covered her outstretched hand. Darling wanted to go to her and protect her. But he couldn’t move at all.
And he knew exactly why. The tricom—the weapon he’d built solely for Zarya to protect her from enemies. Instead, it’d been used against him and Lise.
I killed my baby sister…
Tears filled his eyes as the truth kicked his teeth in and struck him harder than the blast that had paralyzed him. Grief and agony shredded his conscience.
By trying to save Lise, he’d caused her death. How could he have been so stupid? How could fate have done this to him?
The Resistance members came forward with cocky strides, laughing at their success. Two went over to Lise while the rest surrounded Darling.
One of them kicked his shoulder with the toe of his boot. “Look at that. The bastard can’t move at all.”
Another one clapped hands with Clarion. “I can’t believe it worked! Man, we need to send Kere flowers or a woman or something to say thank you for this.”
Clarion smiled as he pulled the tricom off his belt and kissed it. “I can’t wait to tell Zarya how well this worked. She’s not going to believe it.”
The rebel who’d bent over his sister stood up. “I got bad news, guys. The bitch here is dead.”
Darling felt a single tear sliding from the corner of his eye as the rebel confirmed his worst fear.
His precious baby sister was dead.
Because of me.
Because of something he’d invented…
Over and over, he saw images of Lise reaching for him to hold or protect her. Saw the smile in her eyes and heard her laughter as she hugged him tight, and told him how much she loved her big brother. He’d been eight when she was born, and from the moment he’d first seen her bald head and those huge hazel green eyes staring at him, and she’d wrapped her tiny, baby fingers around his pinkie before gumming it, she’d owned his heart.
No matter their fights. No matter their differences. She had meant everything to him.
How could she be gone?
How could I have killed her?
The soldier closest to him cursed. “Are you sure?”
“See for yourself. The blast left a huge hole in her. What a waste, too. We could have definitely had fun with her while we waited for payment.”
Unmitigated fury, agony, and grief tore through Darling’s blackened soul.
How could he ever face his mother and brother after this?
How could he ever face himself?
Why couldn’t it have killed me, too?
One of the soldiers kicked him in the ribs. “Stupid son of a whore! Damn you, for screwing this up.” Aiming his blaster at Darling’s head, he looked over to Clarion. “You want me to kill this one, too?”
Snarling in anger, Clarion approached Darling. With the toe of his boot, he lifted Darling’s face so that he could see his features. The moment he did, a wide smile curved his lips. “Oh no, Davon. This… this is much better than even the princess.”
Clarion laughed again as he kicked Darling’s head. “What we have here, gentlemen, is the lovely cock-sucking royal fag himself. Darling Cruel. Caronese heir to the throne and future governor of our worthless empire. We just hit the mother lode of good fortune.” He clapped hands with Davon. “Get him on board before someone else sees him. He’ll be worth ten times what the princess was.”
His heart broken by what he’d inadvertently set into motion, Darling had no choice except to lay there as they grabbed him and ruthlessly dragged him onto their ship.
It would take at least four hours before the stun would wear off and he could move again, and tell them who he really was.
If not longer. Until then, he was as helpless as an infant. Worse, he could hear, feel, and see everything they did to him. But he couldn’t make a sound.
Or make a single move to protect himself.
It was just like being in the mental institutions all over again. One of the crueler regimens they’d used on him had been the paralytics that had kept him immobile and fully aware with elevated sensory drugs to heighten his senses while they “treated” him using various aversion therapies.
Nausea swelled inside him as he remembered the weeks where the doctors had tortured him for his uncle, trying to make him docile and weak.
Trying to break him.
I can’t do this again.
Raw, unmitigated panic tore him apart. Another confinement like that would make him insane. It would.
Determined to the core of his soul, he strained to move. To fight back. To do anything other than lay here as their victim.
It was useless.
He was completely at their “mercy.” Goddamn me for being so fucking stupid…
They dumped him in the cargo hold. Clarion and one of the others went to launch the small ship while the rest stayed in the back with him.
Three more joined their group.
A rebel on his right jerked his chin toward Darling. “Hey, Timmon, how much you think those boots are worth?”
“About a year’s pay from the looks of them.” Timmon moved forward to snatch one off. “Oh yeah, that ain’t silver on them. It’s pladin and they’re custom made. Anyone wear his size?” When he went to snatch the other one off, he hit the blade release in the heel and sliced open his hand.
Cursing, he kicked Darling repeatedly in the ribs and face. “Bastard! What are you doing with an assassin’s trick?”
If Darling could move, he’d show him a lot more tricks than that. Including the one Nykyrian had taught him of snatching a human heart out of his target’s chest before his target died.
Another rebel came forward from the front of the ship to investigate him. He pulled his helmet off and Darling wished he could curse.
It was Pip. A man whose life he’d saved just a few months back. Pip had been pinned down by Caronese troops after they’d made a medical drop to the free clinics his uncle had wanted closed because they’d refused to pay the exorbitant taxes he’d imposed on them.
Darling still had the red mark on his side where he’d been shot while protecting Pip.
Pip leaned down to jerk at the neck of his clothes. “Man, look at this. A fortune for his battlesuit, too.” He backhanded Darling. “You rotten faggot. How many people starved to buy you that, huh?”
None. He’d bought the battlesuit with the money he’d made through the Sentella. An organization dedicated to protecting the very people who were now attacking him for no reason other than a birthright he couldn’t help. A birthright that had been filled with lessons from his father about protecting his people.
“Remember, son, you are a servant of the Caronese. Your job isn’t to rule them so much as it is to protect and provide for their well-being. The strength of your reign will be judged by the strength of our people. Their happiness is your happiness. Love flows both ways. Never abuse your power or your people. There is no glory in cruelty. Only shame.” His father’s words haunted him now.
That sense of noblesse oblige was why he’d joined and funded the Resistance as Kere.
Unlike his father, Arturo saw the people as tools to be used and destroyed when they no longer served his needs.
Pip kicked him again. “Get his cards and anything else he has of value. We can sell it.”
“Yeah,” Timmon laughed. “I have many needs.”
Shocked and horrified by their ruthless animal behavior, Darling lay helpless as they stripped him completely bare. While they pilfered his belongings, they found Zarya’s ring on his pinkie where he’d placed it last night so that he could keep that small part of her with him.
Don’t steal it.
It was all she had left of her dead mother… Her only inheritance.
His throat tightened as he remembered her giving it to him six months ago. “I can’t take this, Zarya. I know what it means to you.”
“Please take it. My father used to say that it would protect me from harm. See…”—she’d pointed to the side of the stone—“ it has the face of Tearsa on it.” Tearsa was the goddess of healing and protection. “I’ve never been wounded while wearing it. And I want her to protect you, too. Please, Kere. You’re everything to me. I have to know that you’re safe at all times.”
He’d allowed Zarya to put it on his pinkie and had sworn to her that he’d protect it with his life.
It was a vow he intended to keep.
Even though Darling was paralyzed, he focused the mental powers he had as hard as he could. They weren’t going to take her ring without a fight. Touching the part of his mind that functioned on a higher level, he managed to clench his fist shut to keep them from removing the ring.
They tightened their grip on his hand as they attempted to pry it open.
Darling used everything he had to keep his fist tight and to protect that ring like he’d promised.
Pip cursed him for it, then pulled out a knife and sliced his finger off.
Pain ripped through him as tears dulled his sight and his head swam. He felt so sick.
Jeering in triumph, Pip danced his severed finger in front of Darling’s eyes as he slid the ring off it. “Bonus round. Now we have proof to send to the governor that we have him.” He tossed the bloody ring into the air and caught it. “And I have something I can use to buy my wife a new dress and pay some bills. Thanks, Highness. Tim, stop the bleeding. We don’t want His Royal Faggotry dying on us like his bitch sister did.”
Appalled, disgusted, and heartbroken, Darling let the agony and horror of everything that had happened in the last few minutes wash over him. But worse than that was the fear of what would happen to his mother and Drake after they killed him.
And they would.
There was no way in hell his uncle would ever spend a single cred to get him back. Not after Arturo had already sent an assassin to kill him. And he knew that for a fact. He had given the contract that Arturo had signed listing him as the target to Hauk for safekeeping until tonight when Darling had planned to use it to call Arturo out at the CDS. Continues...
Excerpted from Born of Silence by Kenyon, Sherrilyn Copyright © 2012 by Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Excerpted by permission.
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