Authors: Michelle M. Pillow
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Paranormal, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Demons & Devils, #Science Fiction
“The gods would not send me someone who was not worthy,” he said. “Your home is with me now.”
“That is a nice offer, Alek, but I can’t stay here. I’m sorry.” She gave him a weak smile. Last night had been enjoyable, but she had to get home to her sister.
“It wasn’t an offer so much as a fact. After last night, honor demands that you stay with me.” He glanced at the bed. “What we did—”
“You want to have a long-term relationship after one night of a little messing around?” She tried not to laugh in surprise. Most men she knew ran from commitment—especially after they got what they wanted from a woman. At least, that was the impression she’d always gotten off the men she observed interacting with fellow travelers at the fueling dock.
“You removed my mask,” he said seriously. “Custom dictates that—”
“No, you took off your own mask and tossed it at me.” It was then she realized he’d been looking at the mask on the bed and not the bed itself. Her eyes again darted to his waist before finding the tent wall.
She waited for an answer, but it didn’t come. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Alek turn his back to her. She let loose a captured breath and watched his backside as he moved. It was really hard to concentrate when he was naked.
“Transport off the planet will be difficult.” Alek’s words were low and steady. “We do not allow many visitors in our air space. Even fewer are allowed to land.”
“I understand, but you see I have to figure something out,” she insisted. “I can’t remain here.”
He fingered the wine pitcher before pouring a goblet. “My brother Mirek, Ealdorman of Draig, is the mining ambassador. His
work takes him to space to meet with the visiting dignitaries. He would know who could be trusted to take you off world.”
“Thank you, Alek.” She took an anxious step toward him. “You have done so much for me in this very short time, more than anyone I can remember in my whole life. I will repay the passage. I am—”
“There is a condition.”
“Condition?” She stopped, worried by the sudden businesslike tone of his voice.
“Yes.” He traced the lip of the goblet, concentrating on it more than was necessary. “All know you have spent the night in here with me. I’ll be honest. My family has not had the best of luck when it comes to finding wives. If I go out there and tell them I failed to prove my worth to you as a husband, my family name, my personal honor, will be disgraced.”
“I didn’t mean to cause you problems,” she said. “I never meant to disgrace you. I just can’t marry you.”
“I understand.” He shot her a stern look, cutting her off from saying more. “However, my people will not understand. To us, this marriage is willed by the gods. So here is my proposal. You cannot find passage off this planet for some time. There is nothing to be done about that. We can’t force ships to come to our airspace and meetings were not scheduled this close to the yearly ceremony since it was hoped Mirek would find a bride and would be otherwise occupied with a wife. You also have no method of sustaining yourself in the meantime. You have no place to live. After seeing your fear in the forest last night, I do not recommend you trying to survive on your own. I, in good conscience, could not allow it.”
“You said you have a condition for helping me?”
“Marry me. Finish the ceremony today. Smile.” He paused, again concentrating on the cup’s lip. “Pretend to be happy as I present you before my people. Later today, we will leave the ceremony grounds for my home. I will speak with Mirek about finding you a safe ride off world just as soon as we arrive. I cannot promise it will be fast. I do not know how long it will be until a suitable transport is found, but if you help me with my family’s honor, I will help you.”
His proposal made sense, for both of them. But then why did it leave her feeling cold and empty inside? A business marriage? She knew such things were done. They would both benefit from the arrangement. It should have been a simple answer. However, this was not a simple situation.
“What do I have to do to finish the ceremony?” She traced her hand, digging so hard it hurt. Still she didn’t feel the embedded tracker.
“It’s quite simple, my lady,” Alek said evenly as he lifted the goblet to his lips. He took a drink. “All you have to do is break a stone.”
* * *
Alek would have laughed it he didn’t feel so terrible. There was nothing simple about his proposal. It took all his willpower to get the words out. But what else could he do? She was right. He’d removed his own mask. She had accepted nothing. She hadn’t asked to be his wife. He’d just assumed. When she’d moved against him in the night, whispering his name, climaxing against his body, he’d thought she felt the connection between them.
How could she not feel it?
If he couldn’t keep his destined mate, what good was he? How could he face his people, his brothers, with a failed marriage attempt and a glowing crystal? It would be much better to find an excuse later to explain her absence, after Kendall showed she chose to be with him. Perhaps she would be called to her home world. It wasn’t far from the truth. She did seek to go home. Later, he could go into mourning and let people believe she’d died. It wouldn’t be hard to convince them without saying a word, so technically it wouldn’t be lying. People always accused him of not speaking of his emotions anyway. No one would expect him to talk about it. He was sure the pain of her loss would show on him. Only two of them would know the truth. He would never tell and she would never return.
Alek swallowed down his pain. He eyed his glowing crystal and then the raised platform where the king and queen waited to bless the marriages as they were announced. His tunic shirt smelled of her. It was sweet intoxication at its most torturous. He’d ordered his loosely fitting black pants, dark-blue tunic shirt and a matching gown for his bride years ago when he’d come to his first ceremony. He had nearly forgotten what they looked like.
Like most Draig ceremonies, the crystal breaking would be short. He was glad for it. Alek would not be able to stand before the council of elders and his royal aunt and uncle for too long. He was sure they would sense his pain.
Alek stopped on his way to the platform, frowning at the panicked young voice. Rey lived near the mountain castle and often ran errands for Cenek. Like most boys his age, he was well trained in the mountain routes and could navigate his way to the palace from the mountain fortress without help.
“Easy, boy,” Alek said. “You look as if you have been running all night. What is it?”
“Master Cenek sent me to give you this.” The boy handed the missive over while his eyes strayed to Kendall in curiosity. “The ceffyl colt did not make it.”
Rey’s words repeated what Cenek said inside the missive, only Cenek provided more detail. The mare had given birth to a stillborn baby. It had been quick and unpreventable. The mother lived and was fine, if not a bit despondent after the event. Cenek bid Alek to stay as long as he wished at the palace. What could be done had been done.
“Master Cenek said I was to give it to you straight away.”’ The boy again looked at Kendall. It became evident that Cenek, despite his encouragement, did not think Alek would be too occupied this morning.
“You’ve done well,” Alek said, shoving the missive into the waistband of his pants beneath the long tunic shirt. He would dispose of it later. With the colt dead, there wasn’t anything for him to do at the moment. However, the fact that some of the older generations considered a stillborn animal to be a bad omen was not lost on him. That he’d found out about it seconds before he finalized his marriage was something he refused to think about. There was no turning back now. This was his course. “Find refreshments before you return, and stay out of the palace stables. I do not want another report of the ceffyl tags being rearranged. Whoever did it is lucky they were not caught for the prank.”
Rey grinned and jogged away with the aimless energy only kids possessed. It had been a harmless prank, but one that took some sorting since the tags identified the diets and quirks of the different animals.
“He travels alone?” Kendall asked, watching the boy. “Is that safe? Should he wait and travel with us?”
Alek frowned. “He is fifteen years and knows the mountain terrain as well as any adult.”
Kendall looked unconvinced.
The king and queen sat on their thrones in royal purple. Crowns adorned their heads. As Alek approached, they motioned him to come forward with his bride. Queen Mede was a rare Qurilixian-born woman, but that was not how she came to be married to the king. Their match had been fated just as everyone else’s was.
“Queen Mede, King Llyr, may I present my wife, Lady Kendall Haven,” Alek said.
Kendall smiled and bowed her head exactly like he’d told her to. “Queen Mede, King Llyr, it is a great honor.”
“Proceed,” the queen ordered.
Kendall turned to Alek. Her eyes stared into his, seeming to ask him if he was sure about this course of action. Closing his eyes, he bowed his head forward so she could remove the crystal from his neck. He felt the absence of its light weight. She dropped it on the ground and pressed her foot on top of it. A moment passed and she glanced up at him. Taking his arm, her plastered smile faltered and she seemed to struggle. Alek glanced down, seeing the glow coming from beneath her foot.
“It won’t break,” she whispered almost desperately. Usually, the rocks shattered easily. Her fingers tightened on his arm as she twisted her toes. Alek did the only thing he could think of. He stepped on the top of her foot and pressed down. She flinched. The stone cracked and popped, its light fading. They both stepped back to see the broken stone.
Cheering erupted from the gathered crowd. The queen announced, “Welcome to the family of Draig, Lady Kendall. I hope you will enjoy your new home.”
Kendall gave Alek a relieved smile. For a moment, he could almost believe the look was for him, that the happiness he imagined in her eyes was real. Alek took her arm and led her from the platform back toward the tents.
When they were out of sight of the royals, she let loose a big sigh. “There is something to be said for your quick marital ceremonies—a few words, a few nods and it’s all over. Though, I didn’t think the crystal was going to be that hard to break.”
“Come on,” he said, not liking the easy way she talked about the little show they had just put on. By breaking his crystal, his fate was sealed. Either he made a marriage with Kendall work, or he would be forever alone. There was no second chance for his kind. This was it. Kendall would be his only bride.
Then I will have to convince her to stay
, he told himself.
I must make her choose me.
A plan formed in his head. He had given his word that he’d help her find a transport after they arrived at his home and he spoke to Mirek. What if he took a long route to his home? It was not as if duty called him back. With the news of the lost colt, there would be no work for him to attend to—at least nothing that could not wait. He could travel around the mountain paths and valleys for days, months even. If he timed it right, Mirek would be gone when he arrived. That would give him more time. Kendall could come to see what he already knew. They were willed by the gods to be together. They were destined.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Kendall asked, eyeing him warily. “Did I not perform the ceremony right? I really did try to break the crystal, but it was hard to crack.”
“It’s done. We’re married,” he answered. “That is all that matters right now.”
“I didn’t say anything before, but I am sorry about your loss.”
Alek didn’t look up from where he stroked the ceffyl’s neck. Checking the mount was automatic for him. As the Top Breeder, he had been responsible for the animal’s birth and training. The creatures all remembered him as the first human they’d imprinted to. Ever since he was a boy, he’d had a natural ability with all animals. Even in shifted form, he could get closer than any of his brothers or friends.
“There is not much to be done about it. The crystal needed to be broken for the ceremony.” He looked into the ceffyl’s eyes. The creature hissed, extending her long, thin tongue. It hit his chest affectionately before she retracted it. Alek didn’t want to think about the crystal, or his wife’s desire to leave. He would focus instead on convincing her to stay.
“I meant the colt,” Kendall clarified. “I saw your expression when the boy told you. The news affected you greatly.”
“The animal was my responsibility. Had I been there, it is possible he would be alive. Instead, I had other duties to attend to.”
“The ceremony?” she asked perceptively.
He nodded once, not wanting to discuss it further. Turning his attention to the nearby stableman, he said, “She’s gotten into a patch of solar flowers. Do not let her eat for two days or she’ll be sick. And I don’t care how pitiful she looks. Those flowers need to digest fully.” Then, as he studied the animal, he added as an afterthought, “I would not inform Queen Mede. I imagine there is a missing patch of flowers somewhere in her garden. I would check the grazing pen to make sure they’re not escaping from it somehow.”
The stableman nodded, quirking the smallest of amused smiles. “I’ll take care of it, my lord.” He led the beast toward the back of the royal stables to isolate her from the rest of the stock. Ceffyls loved to eat just about as much as they liked to sleep. The beast would not be happy to go without food for two days, even though she could last months without sustenance.
Alek began to walk the length of the stables, moving from stall to stall to check on the animals. Those working acknowledged him but went about their business. Their eyes strayed to the new lady at his side, though they did not speak to her.
“You’re very important, aren’t you?” Kendall whispered, as if she were divulging some secret. She held herself back from the animals, keeping a wary eye on them as if she expected the beasts to break through their stalls and attack. Her demeanor made a few of the animals uneasy as they sensed her fear of them.