Authors: Jennifer Fallon
He grinned. “You say that like it's a bad thing.”
She frowned at him, not amused. “I'll help you, Declan, but you have to do something for me in return.”
“Leave my husband alone.”
Declan eyed her curiously. “Is he involved in something I
be interested in?”
“Whatever you think my reasons were for marrying Stellan Desean, he's a good man. I don't want you doing anything that might endanger his position with the king.”
Declan's smile faded. “While ever you remain childless, Arkady, he's doing that without any help from me.”
That was a topic she had no intention of discussing with Declan Hawkes, no matter how good a friend he might be. “I mean it, Declan. Promise me you'll leave Stellan alone.”
Without answering, he stepped back from the carriage and signalled the driver. The carriage jerked into motion, carrying Arkady away from the gloom of Lebec Prison's walls and back toward her gilded palace. She leaned out of the window to stare at him but as soon the carriage moved off, he turned his back on her to mount his horse.
Frustrated and more than a little annoyed by his manipulation, Arkady slumped back in her seat. Her thoughts weren't on Declan Hawkes for long, however. As the carriage trundled through the prison gates, Arkady was surprised to find that all she could think of was a pair of vibrant blue eyes and the mystery of a Crasii who addressed a common murderer as suzerain.
She wondered if Warlock even knew what the word meant.
That's what suzerain meant.
Without even understanding why, the Crasii, Warlock, had instinctively addressed Kyle Lakesh, however scathingly, as
Jaxyn Aranville was bored and boredom invariably meant he went looking for trouble. Jaxyn knew this, much as he might have once wished it was otherwise, he couldn't seem to help himself.
It was Stellan's fault he was bored. He'd been called away to the capital on business; something to do with the king. That was the trouble with being a cousin of the king, particularly one far enough down the line to actually feel the need to earn his keep. Stellan was a natural peacemaker, a born diplomat. Whenever there was a problem, King Enteny called on his cousin, Stellan Desean, to fix it.
That meant Stellan was on his way to Herino City and Jaxyn was stuck here in Lebec with nobody but Stellan's niece and his intimidatingly intelligent wife for company.
Fortunately, the intimidatingly intelligent wife was out at present, which left only Kylia to amuse him.
And she did entertain him. For reasons nobody in this household could imagine, Jaxyn took a great deal of interest in the antics of Kylia Debrell.
Kylia had been at the palace for more than a month now, arriving without warning with the announcement that she'd had enough of the ladies' college Stellan had abandoned her to when she was barely twelve. Apparently, now she had reached an age where she was no longer required to obey him slavishly, she intended to have some fun. Arkady had persuaded Stellan to let her stay, not send her packingâwhich was the course of action Jaxyn had counselledâso now they were stuck with her. Jaxyn had resigned himself to her presence, and to her uncle's vast relief, she still hadn't questioned why Jaxynâwho as Kennel Master ranked little better than one of the hired helpâwas living in the palace.
Stellan was easily convinced the girl hadn't noticed what was going on when she'd stumbled over Stellan and Jaxyn sharing an intimate embrace in the library last week, believing it was her provincial upbringing that made her so blind to the reality of her uncle's situation. MaybeâJaxyn had persuaded Stellanâin Kylia's innocent, black-and-white world, there was no room for anything but a man and a woman falling in love and living happily ever after.
Fortunately for all of them, Stellan had been satisfied with Jaxyn's explanation. All that remained now was for Jaxyn to get young Lady Kylia alone. There were a few things he intended to ask Lady Kylia about exactly what was really behind her sudden appearance in Lebec.
He found one of the Crasii in the halls, young Tassie, a canine pup of about seventeen. Loyal, eager to serve and covered with a fine pelt of white fur under her simple white-and-gold shift, she was still being trained, hence the reason she was working the morning shift and not the evening events in the more public areas of the palace. But she was keen to learn and always responded well to a kind word and a bit of encouragement. As usual, as he approached, she instinctively cowered away from him, her tail drooping, a reaction that always amused him.
“Good morning, Tassie,” he said pleasantly as she stopped before him, the teacups on the tray she carried rattling softly as she trembled.
“I'm looking for Lady Kylia.”
“She's in the m-m-morning room, sire.”
He smiled. Nameless fear was a delicious thing to behold. “Is something wrong, Tassie?”
“N-n-no, my lord.”
“Are you afraid of Lady Kylia?”
“N-n-no, my lord.”
“You're not afraid of me, are you?”
The young Crasii hesitated and then, somewhat to his surprise, she nodded. “A little bit, sire.”
He raised a brow at her. “Only a little? I must be slipping.”
“To serve you is the reason I breathe, my lord,” she assured him, bowing her head in submission.
Jaxyn smiled. “Then the world is as it should be. In the morning room, you say?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Jaxyn watched her silently for a moment longer, until the Crasii realised he was waiting for her to step aside, and then he continued down the hall toward the morning room, leaving Tassie staring after him, her tray softly rattling with her fear.
As it turned out, Jaxyn didn't need directions to find his prey. He could simply have followed the sound of Kylia's laughter. Tilly Ponting was with her, the two of them giggling over something laid out on the table. Jaxyn turned on his best smile as he entered the morning room.
“I hope I'm not interrupting anything, ladies?”
“Jaxyn!” Tilly declared. “What a delight! Of course, you're not interrupting! Come join us!”
Jaxyn crossed the elegantly furnished room to the table where Tilly and Kylia were sitting. Sunlight streamed in through the tall bay windows, the morning bright and clear after the storm last night. They had the Tarot cards out again. Kylia seemed quite taken with the idea someone could predict her future.
Stellan's niece smiled coyly as he approached. Her dark hair and dark eyes set off against her caramel skin made her a pretty enough prospect, although not the devastating beauty Arkady was. But she radiated a kind of leashed lust that seemed more than a little out of character in an innocent girl. Maybe it was the idea that underneath that modest posture and coy smile was a virgin vixen straining to be let loose. Kylia could say all that and more with a mere glance in his direction. She certainly hadn't learned such a thing at a respectable ladies' college. It was fortunate her charms didn't seem obvious to other women and that her uncle was quite immune to them, otherwise young Lady Debrell might find herself being asked more questions than she was prepared to answer.
“Kylia, you grow prettier every day you spend here in Lebec,” he declared when he reached the table. He took her hand, kissing it gallantly. “I swear, if you don't stop it, I will have to tell Stellan to place a guard on your room at night to protect you from my uncontrollable lust.”
Kylia snatched her hand away, appearing both mortified and thrilled at the same time. Jaxyn smiled.
Damn, she's convincing.
He turned to Tilly and kissed the old lady's cheek. “Of course, the only thing that keeps me in check is my unrequited love for you, Lady Ponting.”
Tilly pushed him away. “Jaxyn Aranville, you're a scoundrel. Don't listen to him, Kylia. This boy leaves a trail of broken hearts wherever he goes.”
Kylia looked up at him, but still didn't say anything. Apparently his presence tended to strike her dumb unless she had a few wines in her.
“What are you doing?” he asked, as he took a seat opposite. The small table in the morning room was round, meant for intimate breakfasts and informal card games. Sitting opposite Kylia, Jaxyn's leg was touching hers under the table. She might seem too overwhelmed to speak, but she didn't move her leg.
“We're going through Kylia's Tarot again,” Tilly explained. “It's more accurate when you don't have an audience.”
interrupting,” he concluded. He made to rise, adding, “I'm sorry. I shall go and leave you in peace.”
“You can stay, Lord Aranville,” Kylia told him. “Tilly just meant a big audience, like we had here last night.”
Jaxyn resumed his seat. “You honour me with the secrets of your future, Lady Kylia.”
Kylia smiled at him but didn't answer. Tilly rolled her eyes at his words, however, perhaps more aware of how contrived they were. Jaxyn made a mental note to remember that Tilly Ponting wasn't quite as silly as she seemed.
“Take another card, dear,” she instructed the girl.
Kylia did as Tilly ordered, turning over a card that looked like the knave from a more traditional deck of cards.
“The Page of Tides,” Tilly announced, pursing her lips thoughtfully.
“Is that bad?” Kylia asked, looking a little worried.
“This card is bringing you a message of love or perhaps romance.”
“There!” Jaxyn declared. “That's nothing to worry about!”
“But it also comes with a warning,” Tilly added ominously.
“What sort of warning?”
“This love you seek,” the old woman said, pointing to another card that lay face up on the table. “It may end in heartbreak.”
Jaxyn turned his head to study the other card. It was the Lovers again, Cayal and Amaleta. Bordered in gold, the card depicted a manâthe Immortal Prince, he supposedâand a woman, probably Amaleta, his legendary one true love, standing at a crossroads caught in a
“But you said drawing the Lovers means I should trust my instincts,” Kylia reminded the clairvoyant, obviously confused.
Jaxyn smiled, knowing full wellâas Kylia doubtless did, tooâthat the whole wretched Tarot was nonsense.
To look at her, though,
you'd swear she was completely taken in.
“I think you
trust your instincts, Lady Kylia,” Jaxyn agreed. “The Page of Tides might not even apply to you. For all you know, it may mean your uncle's marriage to Arkady might end in heartbreak.”
Kylia frowned as she thought about it. Tilly Ponting, on the other hand, was unimpressed by his interpretation. “Something you've been working on, perhaps, dear?” she enquired with a raised brow.
Jaxyn smiled at her. “Come now, Lady Ponting. You know me.”
“Which is why I pose the question,” Tilly replied evenly.
The old bird was definitely much smarter than she looked, Jaxyn thought. If Tilly took an active dislike to him, his plans for securing his immediate future could be in serious danger.
Kylia was frowning, obviously worried her uncle and his wife might be having marital problems. “You don't think it means that, do you, Lady Ponting?”
“What? That Stellan and Arkady have had a falling out? Don't be absurd. There were never two people more in love.”
“Are you certain?”
“Have you ever seen them fighting?” Tilly asked. “Ever heard them exchange so much as a harsh word?”
“Wellâ¦noâ¦I don't suppose I have, now that you come to mention it.”
“Then what are you worried about?”
“Listen to Lady Ponting,” Jaxyn advised, deciding it might be prudent to show the old hag he was on her side. “She knows about these things. Your uncle is in love and has never been happier. I can vouch for that myself.”
Tilly spared him an odd look, but said nothing to contradict him. She obviously knew the lay of the land; either knew or suspected Jaxyn's real role in this household. But she was too old and too wily to comment on it.
It made Jaxyn wonder, for a moment, how many other people suspected the truth. He was certain the king was ignorant of his cousin's sexual preferences. Stellan and Jaxyn both had Arkady to thank for that. The King of Glaeba's feelings on the matter of men who fancied other men were well known. Stellan would have been banished long ago if Enteny suspected, even for a moment, that one of his most trusted advisorsâhis own cousin, no lessâtook his pleasure on the wrong side of the bed. Jaxyn's own fate would be just as dire, he knew. It was the reason he flirted so flagrantly with women. Everyone knew about his affair with Lady Carver. Even Arkady was convinced he had his sights set on Kylia. Very few people knew, however, that he was Stellan Desean's lover.
Tilly Ponting was clearly among the very few.
“Jaxyn's right, my dear,” Tilly assured the young girl, patting her hand. “Your Uncle Stellan has never been happier.”
very protective of him,” Kylia agreed.
Too damned protective of him,
Jaxyn silently amended.
And not bad at protecting herself, too.
Despite all his attempts to find out the identity of Arkady's lovers, either she was exceptionally good at keeping them hidden or she had none. As Jaxyn couldn't comprehend the latterânot for a woman as beautiful as Arkady Deseanâhe was still searching for evidence of the former.
Jaxyn's original plan for Arkady Desean had been quite clever, he thought, when he conceived of it a few days after he'd first met the Duke of Lebec. Here was a situation just begging to be exploitedâa marriage of convenience between a powerful man and a very desirable woman, to hide a secret that would see a cousin of the king and an heir to the throne destroyed if it became public knowledge. Jaxyn had planned to become the lover of both Stellan
Arkady, which would have seen him well taken care ofâin the manner to which he was accustomedâfor quite some time.
From a distance, it had seemed a brilliant idea. But that was before he'd met Arkady. Before he discovered she despised him, mistrusted him and had probably guessed what he was planning within moments of first meeting him. Stellan was far more trusting, but Arkady was never going to believe a word Jaxyn uttered. He'd spent much of the past year trying to find a way to blackmail her instead, hoping extortion might work where seduction had failed.
Just as he was beginning to completely despair of ever finding anything even remotely embarrassing on his lover's wife, everything changed.
Kylia Debrell had arrived at the palace.
Orphaned since the age of five, Kylia had been raisedâout of sight and out of mindâon her late parents' estate near Venetia by various nannies and servants until being sent to the very exclusive college for young ladies from which she had so recently escaped. Her presence here was a thorn in Jaxyn's side he would give a great deal to be rid of.
“Arkady loves your uncle more than life,” Tilly assured Kylia. “Don't you think so, Jaxyn?”
“Absolutely!” he agreed with a smile. “Have you drawn my card yet?”
“Your card?” Kylia asked with an odd look.
“Jaxyn, the Lord of Temperance. My father's idea of a joke, I think, to name me after the most boring Tide Lord of them all. Or perhaps it was wishful thinking. Doesn't appear to have worked, though,” he chuckled.
“I'll say,” Tilly agreed with feeling. “I'm surprised you even know what temperance means, Jaxyn.”