Five Gates. Five Sisters. Five Very Different Men.
Once there were two worlds connected by five magical gates. Then the Gate Keepers closed the gates and disappeared. The Gate Keepers have returned. Nadia de Quinones was exiled when her nephew, the crown-prince was abducted on her watch. She’ll let nothing stand in the way of her redemption, not even discovering her heartbonded and a connection to an ancient magical gate.
Lord Gregor Cyrene is sworn to protect his country's royal heirs. After the youngest prince’s life is threatened, Gregor sets out to discover who is responsible and suspects the answer lies with Nadia. When fate forces their competing goals to align, neither are prepared for the irresistible attraction between them.
Can they see beyond their pasts and a millennia old hate between their people? Or will they continue to distrust, allowing those plotting against them to win?
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Nadia focused on the rough path in front of her pounding feet, while holding the symbol for air in her mind's eye. Keeping her breathing even, she ignored her burning calves and dodged a tree root barely visible in the first rays of the dawning day. She cursed as the symbol wavered, and she nearly lost control of the weak stream of air whirling around her body. She focused on her a'mi, and the symbol solidified, returning the cooling embrace of air on damp skin. Of the five elements at her command, this one had always given her the most trouble. She reached a familiar turn in the path and picked up her pace. Pell groaned beside her, but matched her stride.
Satisfied with the mental exercise, she released her a'mi and the symbol faded like smoke. The smell of the early morning forest filled her lungs with each breath. She loved their morning runs, the twitter of birds, the whistle of the wind past her ears, the burn of muscle reminding her that she was alive and well. Only when she trained like this did her mind empty of all her worries and responsibilities, of the burning fact that she ran among the paths of a country that, though beautiful, wasn't her home, of the heart wrenching knowledge that she still lived in exile. She clenched her jaw and shoved the troubling thoughts aside, focusing on the pounding of her and Pell's feet along the dirt path.
They turned the last corner to see a row of shacks appear from among the trees of the forest which surrounded Volos, the capitol city of Thuno. She slowed to a jog, then a walk, a trickle of sweat dripping from her temple. Pell stopped and bent to rest his hands on his knees, sweat dripping from his nose, his head hanging between his arms.
"Keep moving," she said in a sing-song voice.
Pell raised his head and glared at her. Nadia lifted an eyebrow.
"I hate you."
She shrugged as she walked up the path to the hollow tree where they'd stashed their water skins and their larger weapons. "Yet here you are." She smirked and tossed him his water skin.
A smile pulled up the corners of his mouth. "I supposed I did bring it on myself." He smiled. "I should've just let you think I was another untrustworthy Sa'i bent on befriending you to gain your father's favor."
She scowled at him. "Can you blame me? My father tends to attract people as evil as himself."
Pell nodded. Friends since childhood, he knew exactly what her father was like and hadn't been surprised when her father turned his back on her after her exile.
Nadia lifted her water skin in salute then moved it to her lips for a drink. She closed her eyes as cool water rushed down her throat, replacing the stone's weight of sweat she'd lost on her run. Each droplet of water sang to her a'mi as it was absorbed into her body. Lowering the skin, she opened her eyes to find Pell staring at her, blue eyes dark with lust, fists clenched at his sides.
She met his heated stare, aware that he'd been interested in more than friendship since she'd developed breasts at twelve. More interested in weapons training than boys, she'd told him not to ruin their friendship by turning into an idiot male. She'd considered allowing him into her bed shortly after her exile began, but despite being lonely and homesick, she'd decided not to muddy things with sex. He'd agreed at the time, but the look in his eyes, the same he'd had many times over the last few weeks, told her he'd changed his mind.
Pell stepped forward and brushed a sweaty strand of hair off her forehead. "We'd be so good together, you and I. We have trust, friendship, and history. Why not take the next step?"
Nadia considered his proposal. What he said was true. They were great friends, though he sometimes annoyed her beyond reason. She trusted him as much as she'd ever trust any male. A memory forced its way out of the tightly locked box in her mind. She'd been nine when she'd heard a distressed cry come from her father's study and walked in.
Her father, bent over a crying woman, had looked up and met Nadia's shocked gaze, a cold smile on his lips. "Lieutenant Sando wishes to become a captain despite his low birth. To prove his loyalty, he offered me the use of his pretty wife. Wasn't that nice?"
Nadia hid her clenched fists behind her back. "You're hurting her, Father."
"She likes what I'm doing to her," he said, fisting her hair and pulling her head back so he could look into her face. "Don't you, my dear." The woman nodded vigorously, even as another tear trailed down her cheek. Nadia's father patted the woman's head and looked back at Nadia. "You'll find that there isn't much people won't do in the name of greed. Remember that, daughter. Everyone has a price."
She shook her head. Her father had taught her many lessons. What was Pell's price? The memory of her ex-betrothed's betrayal, the most painful of all, attempted to push into her mind. She shoved it back in its box. She'd never let another man that close, no, but perhaps she could enjoy Pell's offer. Hadn't she been feeling restless the last few days? Maybe she'd gone too long without a man.
Pell smoothed his hands down her sides to her hips and pulled her around until his erection pressed into the junction of her thighs and her breasts molded to his chest. The sensations weren't unpleasant, though they also didn't spark any real excitement in her.
He moved his hand under her shirt and up to the bands binding her breasts. She didn't bring her hands up to participate, but she didn't stop him either. His fingers loosened the knot on her bindings and slid up to cup her heavy breasts. She shivered when cool air whispered across her sweat dampened skin, feeling her nipples tighten as she let her eyes slide closed.
Taking that as encouragement, Pell pulled her shirt and loose bindings over her head. Her mind wandered to the list of items on her day's agenda. He pinched one of her sensitive nipples, yanking her attention back to the moment, and she grimaced. Was she really thinking about her day instead of enjoying Pell's attentions? She lifted her hands to caress Pell's chest, but she felt nothing. This is wrong. She wouldn't be her father. She wanted to feel a connection, to find the one spoken of in the old stories her mother had told her. She wanted a true heartbond like Geeta, even if such a thing most likely didn't exist for her.
She sighed. "Stop."
Pell, who'd just sucked her bottom lip into his mouth, one hand on her bare breast, pulled her close. "Please, Nadia. You want this as much as I do."
He covered her mouth with his, licking the closed seam of her lips. She pushed against his shoulders. She opened her mouth to protest further when he thrust his tongue into her mouth, gagging her. She called on her a'mi, focusing on the symbols for the five elements, but she'd used up what little ability she'd managed to build up. Ignoring the sorrow at the loss, she hooked a leg around his knee and shoved as hard as she could, pulling his knee out from under him. He sprawled on the ground at her feet, a surprised look on his face.
She wiped her arm across her mouth and glared down at him. "I said stop." She grabbed her shirt from the ground and pulled it over her head. "We're friends. To be anything else is a complication I prefer to avoid."
His eyes flashed. "You were enjoying it, at first. I thought you were just playing coy."
"Next time don't think. Check to be sure. If sex is all you're after, go visit Adrial and her nightingales. I have a mission I need to prepare for."
"Fine," he said, his face smoothing into an expressionless mask as he straightened into his usual stiff posture. "I apologize. I won't bother you again with any inappropriate advances."
"You're forgiven. I think it'd be best if we simply remain friends, indefinitely." She squeezed his arm. "Sex muddies things and I wouldn't see so many years of friendship ruined."
He clenched his jaw and nodded as he reached into the hollow tree for his sword and tied it around his waist. "I need to get back to the Emerald Mermaid."
Apparently, their training was over for the day.
Desperate to return to their usual camaraderie, she changed the subject. "Great, I'll walk with you until we reach the healer's hut. Geeta's helping me with my disguise for tomorrow's festival mission." She pulled the strap of her water skin over her head and returned her own sword to her hip. "Did you get the drawing of the necklace you're to retrieve?"
Pell stiffly turned to follow her into Volos. "It should be waiting on me when I get back."
"Perfect." Silence descended. Pell walked beside her, careful not to let their arms brush. Nadia was only too happy to see Sarna, third in command after Pell, waiting in front of the healer's hut.
The only Thunoan trusted with the truth that Nadia was the faceless guild leader known as the Shark, Sarna was a woman of few words. Standing at only five feet four inches, the guild-woman's petite build and doll-like features belied her lethal skill with a sword and her sharp intelligence.
Sarna nodded a greeting at Nadia, barely acknowledging Pell. Though she never spoke a word against him, Nadia knew the other woman didn't care for her second.
"I'll see you later," he said, words clipped.
Nadia nodded. He paused as if waiting on Sarna to say something. When the other woman just gave him her usual bored look, he huffed and turned to continue alone to the Emerald Mermaid.
"What'd you do, kill his favorite puppy?" she asked in a dry voice.
Nadia shrugged. "Rejection is a bitch."
Understanding lit the other woman's gaze. "He finally found the balls to do more than look?"
"Unfortunately." Nadia climbed the stairs to the healer's front door. "Hopefully the awkwardness doesn't last too long."
She entered Geeta's home, knowing she'd made the right decision. She only hoped Pell let it go without any lingering hard feelings.
A hard knock on Gregor's sitting room door pulled his attention from the book in his lap. The door swung open and Prince Stefan stalked into Gregor's sitting room, a frown on his face, his usually neat hair stuck up in all directions. Picking up a broken quill pen, Gregor closed it in the book, marking his page, and then set the book aside. He wasn't surprised his servants hadn't announced the prince. Stefan spent most of his free time here with Gregor away from the two-faced courtiers and their politics at the palace. Nodding curtly to Gregor, Stefan crossed to the side board and poured a drink.
Gregor lifted a brow. "You usually come back from your fishing trips in better spirits. Did your father suffer another headache?" Stefan shook his head, grabbed the bottle and his glass, and sank into the chair across from Gregor.
Stefan drained his glass and poured another. "My brother fell into the sea."
Both of Gregor's brows rose. "Is all well?"
"Reis is a ..." Stefan swallowed, his ruddy face deepening into a darker red. "He changed into ..." The prince lifted his glass and drained it again.
Gregor's gut clenched as he waited for Stefan to spit out whatever was wrong with the boy he treated like his own younger brother. Stefan met Gregor's gaze with bloodshot eyes. "While under the water Reis had a fish's tail and greenish gray skin." Gregor leaned forward. "He had gods- forsaken gills on the side of his neck."
"Are you sure?" Gregor asked, his heart a rapid staccato in his chest.
"I said it, didn't I?" Stefan growled, jumping back to his feet and beginning to pace, his finger jabbing into the air as he made his point. "Pulled him out of the water myself. Saw the webbing between his fingers and I'll be damned if he didn't change back human before my eyes."
Gregor's mind raced. "He's Mer." He glanced up at Stefan. "How is this possible?"
"Apparently, Father didn't learn enough about Jasna before making her his mistress."
And that oversight wouldn't be changed now either. Reis' mother had disappeared when her son was three. Dieuroi Mavros had given up looking for her long ago.
"But it doesn't change the fact that it shouldn't be possible," Gregor insisted, his mind going over all the implications.
Stefan halted and turned to glare at Gregor. "Explain."
Gregor stood and crossed over to the door of his study. He pulled a key from around his neck and unlocked the door, Stefan on his heels. After lighting a lantern, he searched the wall-to-wall shelves stuffed with glass- tube encased scrolls, leather-bound books, and small, cedar wood boxes which held those books too delicate to be crammed in with the rest. Crossing to the shelf which held everything he'd been able to collect on the Mer, he pulled a scroll from its tube on the top shelf and spread it on the long table standing in the middle of the room. Stefan, muttering to himself about scholars and their excitement over things that made normal men crazy, poured himself another drink.
Gregor pointed at the section he'd remembered. "According to this, he shouldn't be able to live without the presence of A'mi. Before the gates closed, all non-humans on the Saimond side of the gate had to live in or near the gate cities. When the Gate Keepers decided to close the gates, all A'mi were forced back onto the Mondami side of the gate. Those who managed to evade them and stay on this side slowly wasted away and died."
Stefan dropped the decanter of whiskey onto the table with a heavy thud. "Died? How long did this take?"
"It doesn't say."
Stefan growled, his fingers tugging at his hair. "First, my father and now this." He paced from one side of the room to the other. "Father worsens daily. I fear I'll lose him soon." He scowled. "I won't lose my brother, too. Especially to my father's mad rambling."
Stefan's shoulders drooped. "He suffered a massive episode after what happened to Reis." The prince turned toward Gregor, his faced lined with worry. "This one worse than any so far." His brows lowered again. "He started ranting about Ashra punishing him. A bunch of Order hogwash, no doubt. Those damn priests and their nonsense are the first thing to go when I become king. Mark my words."
The prince frowned. "He heard. Kept him away from Father and made sure my father went straight to his bed when we arrived back at the palace. Reis is keeping to his rooms today, my own guards at his door."
"You really think your father would turn against a son he's loved for the past thirteen years?"
Stefan pinched the bridge of his nose. "Before the headaches, absolutely not. But they've messed with his mind to such an extent that I'm just not sure anymore. He believes the drivel fed him by the Order. I'm worried he'll tell them what happened, and they'll turn the country against my brother."
Gregor rolled the scroll back up and replaced it in its tube before returning it to its shelf. Picking up the whiskey bottle, Stefan stalked back into the sitting room. Gregor extinguished the lantern and then followed the prince out, locking the room behind him.
He went to the cabinet and poured himself a drink, then returned to his seat across from Stefan. The prince sat, eyes closed, his head resting against the chair's cushioned back, deep lines grooved between his brows and bracketing his mouth.
"The representatives from Diomere arrived today with what I can only assume is good news," Gregor said.
Stefan sighed. "Yes, a messenger waited for us when we arrived. Apparently, I'm now betrothed."
"I've heard Princess Madelena is very beautiful."
"Very beautiful and very cold. I got the impression she wasn't happy with marrying a foreigner and leaving her home," Stefan said with a shrug.
Gregor grinned. "Doubting your ability to thaw her out? Mayhap you need more practice?"
Stefan swung his hand up and gave Gregor the two fingered salute. "Says the man who hasn't bedded a woman in months," he replied with a smirk.
Gregor shrugged. "I haven't seen anything that appeals to me." He studied his best friend. "I'm surprised you've agreed to marry someone you've not really had a chance to know. The connection with the shipping mecca would be nice, but we don't need it."
Stefan shook his head. "I insisted that she be allowed to visit for six months so we could get to know each other. If we're both in favor after that, we'll plan a wedding. If not, then she'll return to Diomere, and I'll look elsewhere for a wife with no ill will between our countries."
"Your father agreed?"
"Not at first, but he eventually acceded to my wishes so long as we could announce the engagement at a ball he's planned for two nights from now. He seems to think that I'll give in to the people's expectations and marry her regardless of how we get along." He scowled. "I want what he had with my mother. True friendship, affection, love."
Excerpted from "Diomere's Exile"
Copyright © 2017 Sabrina A. Fish.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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