Authors: Rhenna Morgan
Uther released her, albeit far too leisurely for Maxis’ taste, and motioned them forward. “As you requested. We’ll have everything ready for you in the morning. For now the men are on high alert and ready for action.”
“Excellent.” He steered Serena through the soaring entry by the small of her back, the urge to distance her from his strategos a buzzing, nearly palpable force. “Rest tonight. Tomorrow we start fresh.”
“What happens tomorrow?” Serena’s muscles tightened beneath his hand.
Maxis’ boots clipped against marble, reverberating off the gold and ivory walls. He tucked her in the circle of his arm. “Your father keeps everything from you doesn’t he?”
“Mmmm.” She appraised the rounded columns interspersed down the long hallway, her glower making clear just how sensitive she was to the topic without saying a single word.
He stroked the curve of her hip and gave a slight squeeze. “I vow you’ll know my plans. No secrets. But not tonight. Tonight is for something else. Agreed?”
She pursed her lips. “I’ll play along
The tour of the main floor was quick, the library, an overlarge kitchen, a stately golden dining room, and servant’s quarters. Serena soaked in the surroundings, her expression contemplative and focused throughout. He’d bet half his inheritance Serena’s father hadn’t a clue of his daughter’s attention to detail.
A platinum throne sat at the back of Evanora’s receiving chamber, paintings of the many Steysis generations hung along each side in gilded frames.
Serena drifted through the cavernous room, subtly angled toward the embellished chair.
“My grandmother knew what she wanted,” Maxis said. “When the malran turned her away, she built her own kingdom and an alternate route to the seat she believed would be hers.”
Serena’s hand slid across one armrest and a lock of hair spilled across her angelic face.
“You have that vision,” he said. “You merely lack the partner and leverage to make it happen.”
She paused behind the high back, tracing the filigree and smirked. “You’ve been dancing around your topic all day. I think it’s time you get to the point.”
Ah, so the lady suspected his intent. She probably also thought she held the upper hand. Perhaps, in a way, she did. He’d give her due respect and a slice of power, but there would be only one ruler between them.
He stopped in the center of the room. “You want to know what I offer? What opportunities I provide for you and your future?”
Quiet pressed on every side of him. The room’s shadows deepened, building in height and depth. “Come to me and find out.”
“No.” She finished her circuit and stepped down from the wide dais. “I offered myself, but you rebuked me. Only a foolish woman returns for a second bout.”
“I admitted my error, an offering no other being on this earth has ever received.” And it still burned on his tongue. “What I offer isn’t about supplication or amends. It’s about something deeper. Something necessary for what you seek.”
“Step forward and find out.”
Her fingers twitched at her sides. Curious little cat.
“It’s not weakness, Serena. A man needs to know where a woman’s trust lies. A malran needs to know the loyalty of his malress. Where is yours?”
Anticipation hummed in his veins. Each moment ticked and tocked in slow, torturous lifetimes, and the air crackled and hummed with palpable tension.
She stepped forward, and Maxis’ heart kicked. With each slow stride, her hips swayed, a feminine testament to power even as she acquiesced. The sweet scent of vanilla coiled around him as she stopped, close enough to touch, but not enough to kiss.
He could live with that. She’d made her offering, now it was time for his. He lifted her hand and brushed his lips across each knuckle. “Be my mate. Stand beside me and lead those who follow us in our mission. Help me take the throne and raise our race’s power across the realms.”
She smiled, slow and devious. “You’re not following protocol. Males always approach the father of their intended first.”
His cock lengthened, a heavy, eager weight ready for its perfect sheath. He brushed his lips along the pulse at her wrist. “Do you really want your father’s blessing?”
Her tremor vibrated through his touch and her voice dropped to a husky purr. “No. No I don’t.”
Galena shut the door to Brenna’s room, and leaned into it with an exhausted huff. The last few days had been a physical strain, but the morning’s emotional turmoil was enough to make a woman want to hide for a solid week. Lexi’s kidnapping, Ramsay’s odd behavior, and now the weight of what she’d found in Brenna’s memories
It was too much.
And that was with her own turbulent feelings for Reese locked in a mental strong box.
She closed her eyes, and the memory of his kiss rushed to greet her. Never had she felt so desirable. So possessed. From the bold sweeps of his tongue to his palm’s hot press at the small of her back, he’d touched a part of her she’d never imagined existed.
A shiver rustled down her torso and her thighs tightened. Five heartbeats and she’d leapt from fatigue to painful awareness. Her conscience might insist anything between them was wrong, but the slick heat between her legs said the rest of her was very on board.
For a dead man.
She shoved from the door and stomped down the hall. Her senses clocked the sun at early evening and Eryx somewhere near the royal chambers.
Unlike his usual decisiveness, Eryx had put any decisions for Reese on hold until he talked with Ramsay, Ludan, and Lexi, leaving Galena’s thoughts with way too much open range. She’d killed time with a thorough once over of the still-unconscious Brenna. Four hours later she was exhausted, but certain it was the girl’s subconscious holding her in a dreamlike state more than any physical ailment.
Rounding the upper landing in the castle’s guest wing, Galena hurried toward Eryx’s private study off the royal chambers and tapped out a quiet knock. The double doors opened without aid of a hand and the scent of wood smoke whispered past her nose.
“That’s twice today you’ve knocked.” Eryx sat at his desk, head down. The room was dark but for the firelight beside him, the golden-tipped shadows slanting across one side of his face.
It was an imposing image. One she’d have walked away from if his greeting hadn’t intimated old-fashioned brotherly ribbing. “You’re mated now. The way you and Lexi go at it, I’m never sure what I’ll walk in on.” She waved her hand and lit two candles stationed at the corner of his desk with a mental nudge. “You’ll ruin your eyes in that light.”
Eryx grumbled and pushed from the desk. “There’s too much to look at and not enough time. I’ve got two days
before Angus starts pushing for answers. Stalling with rebellion concerns can only last so long.”
“So where’s Lexi?” She settled in one of two crimson wingbacks in front of his desk, and feigned a lightness she didn’t feel. “I thought she was looking too.”
“She’s teamed with Graylin in the library. I’m hitting dad’s personal stuff here.” He lifted his chin toward the still open doors. “How’s Brenna?”
Her stomach roiled. “Still out.”
“Did I miss something?”
Galena shook her head. She’d combed every inch of Brenna’s body and knew full well Eryx had nearly matched her own healing abilities in caring for the girl, which was saying something. “I think her mind’s locked down.”
“Trauma from the injury?”
“Trauma from before.” She’d witnessed the atrocities in full color with crystal clear audio in the girl’s memory. Speaking the details aloud seemed a travesty. “Maxis raped her Eryx. Not once, but over and over. I can’t tell from her memories how old she was when it started, but her life’s been histus. If I were her, I wouldn’t want to wake up either.”
A prominent tic kicked at the back of Eryx’s jaw and his hands fisted on top of his desk. He shook his head and huffed out a sarcastic laugh. “And Reese thinks he can save him. Maxis is a sadistic bastard. He deserves anything but decency.”
There wasn’t much she could add to that. From all she’d seen, Maxis was a vile creature, void of conscience. But he was Reese’s brother, too. A man whose mother had loved him and suffered for leaving him behind to save her other son. Was Reese right? Could the truth change Maxis? Did the worst creatures deserve such a chance after a lifetime of wrongs?
“Have you talked to Ramsay?” She’d been hesitant to broach the subject, too afraid of Eryx’s answer
Not that there seemed to be a decent outcome for Reese.
Eryx strode to a built-in cabinet spanning the rear wall. The candles and firelight gave the mahogany wood more depth than in daylight. “He and Ludan had leads to follow. They’re on their way now.” He poured a hefty dram of strasse, and tossed back more than half in one gulp.
She didn’t know how the men tolerated the stuff. It sported enough kick the fermented Myren berries and wood cask scent carried from fifteen feet away. “So, what are you going to do?”
He stared into the burgundy liquid and his thumb dragged along the tumbler’s crystal edges. “What would you do?”
She blinked, then did it another ten or so times. Eryx might ask her opinion on remedies or healing, but Ramsay was the go-to guy on strategy. Her instincts quavered. It could be an honest question. It could also be well-hidden bait. “I think it’s a good shot at finding Ian.”
Eryx’s thumb stopped moving.
She should leave it at that. Not say another word. “But I don’t want to see him die.”
Eryx tilted his chin in a way that accented his frown. “Why? He’s a traitor. You saw what Maxis did to Brenna, and Reese was his right hand.”
“And you heard the situation. Would you have done anything different in his circumstance? Can you say without a doubt you’d have owned such a relationship? It doesn’t seem right to judge Reese over something he had no control over.” Just like she had no control over how she felt about Reese. She’d have staggered a step or two at the realization had she not already been seated.
“No one’s judging him for his birth.” Eryx took his seat and the leather let out a muffled groan. “They’re judging him for his lies and the choices he made.”
“Choices who made?”
Galena surged upright at the sound of Ramsay’s voice, and found Ludan striding through the door beside him. The two packed a visual punch
Standard-issue silver drast stretched over powerful warrior bodies, black leather pants and boots, and hair long enough to graze the tops of their shoulders.
“Choices Reese made,” Eryx said from behind her.
Ramsay had looked irritated when he’d walked in, but when Eryx answered his expression flipped to lethal.
He halted next to Galena’s chair and volleyed his focus between her and Eryx, ending on her. “What the hell did you do?”
Instinct urged her to shrink away, or apologize, but sibling defiance bubbled up instead. “I checked on my patient. It’s within—”
“You did what? Without guards?”
“I didn’t need guards. He gave me his vow.”
“His vow? And you believed him?”
“Enough.” Eryx’s command cut through the brewing argument.
Ludan’s chuckle rasped right behind it as he ambled to the sofa situated along the side wall. He grinned and sunk into the deep, blood red cushions, spreading his arms along the back, knees wide. “Family.”
“You find this funny?” Ramsay glared at Ludan. “Reese could’ve killed her.”
Ludan craned to see around Ramsay and a chunk of wavy ink-black hair fell across his forehead to accent his ice-blue eyes. He shrugged. “She’s breathin’.” He straightened and the smirk grew. “And hell, yeah, it’s funny. Haven’t seen you and Eryx this worked up since Galena’s first date.”
Neither brother said a word, but both lasered their attention square on her.
Ludan’s mood shifted right behind theirs, his stare just as heavy. He might not have meant the comment the way Eryx and Ramsay had taken it, but all three of them were mentally tiptoeing way too close to the truth.
“Can we focus?” She had enough years of sidestepping her overprotective brothers to know the best offense was a quick redirect. “You’ve got an offer on the table and a chance to find Ian. So are you going to take it?”
Ramsay faced Eryx. “What offer? He either talks or he doesn’t.”
Ha. Worked every time.
Eryx downed his strasse. “Actually, he’s got more.” He sat the tumbler on his desk and reclined into his chair. “He’s willing to tell us all he knows, even lead us there and offer himself as a diversion, in exchange for two things
A chance to share some info he thinks might make Maxis repent, and a night at his mom’s place before he dies. Says he’ll share every memory in his head to confirm his info and give his link so we can kill him if he turns on us.”
“Ballsy son of a bitch.” Ludan pushed from the sofa and headed for the bar.
Eryx held his empty tumbler up for seconds as his somo passed. “No shit.”
Ramsay’s eyebrows shot high. “And you’re actually considering it?”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Crystal tinked as Ludan poured a glass full. “Save us a lot of manpower and gets us a bead on Ian. Once we’ve got him, it’s open season on Maxis no matter which side Reese is on.”
“But Maxis will kill him.” All three men regarded her as though she’d appeared out of nowhere. “He killed Phybe with his link and he’ll do the same to Reese.”
Ludan capped the decanter and handed Eryx his glass. “And he’ll die for treason on this end. Gotta spin your angles where you can.”
That son of a bitch. “Spin it?”
The men went on alert. Call it instinct or male preservation, but every one of them knew they’d struck a nerve. She could see it in their eyes.
“We’re talking about a man who’s admitted to his faults,” she said. “Who’s offering to share what he knows, and is willing to lay his life on the line to make the wrongs in his life right before he dies, and you want to spin it? What the hell happened to decency in this family? Or maybe a little compassion?”
“Compassion?” Ramsay got up in her face. The whites surrounding his soft gray eyes burned a harsh white, a sure sign his formidable powers teetered close to loss of control. “He gave up the right to compassion the day he threw my trust in my face.”