INTO THE RAPTURE
Into the Dream
Into the Ashes
Into the Rapture
INTO THE RAPTURE
As Commanders of the Guards of Sand City, Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron Mazer have earned the loyalty and respect of those they lead. They take their responsibilities seriously, especially guarding the royal family, but their secret obsession with Princess Liandra could end up costing them everything. She is the one female they can never have, yet that doesn’t stop them from wanting to claim the sweet, gentle beauty as their mate.
However, sometimes love is all it takes to change fate…
Princess Liandra Dracor has loved the Mazer brothers for as long as she can remember. They have been her protectors and confidants, though she longs to call them more. Duty demands she find mates with royal blood, but her heart already belongs to Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron. Now, she just has to find the courage to defy tradition and claim them as her own.
INTO THE RAPTURE
Cover design by Black Butterfly Designs Copyright © 2019 by Laurie Roma
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission, except for the case of brief quotations in reviews and articles. Criminal copyright infringement is investigated by the FBI, and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental. It is fiction, so facts and events may not be accurate except to the current world the book takes place in.
For everyone who has asked for Liandra’s story.
This one is for you.
Princess Liandra Dracor raced down the empty hallway on silent feet. She didn’t have much time to make her escape, and she was determined to get away from the palace before she was caught. All she; wanted was a few stolen moments of freedom. She didn’t think that was too much to ask for, but others would certainly disagree.
It was early morning, a time of day when she was rarely up and about. Since she usually rose after the rest of her family, she wouldn’t be missed until much later. She was supposed to make an appearance at the evening meal with her family and their guests, but even that was something she would try to avoid if possible.
Her brothers Zarek, Solan, and Cian typically spent each rising with the other warriors out in the training area on the other side of the palace, so she wouldn’t have to take extra precautions to avoid them. Otherwise, they would be following her around and annoying her until she wanted to scream. That was what they usually did whenever visitors were at the palace. As if she needed more protection when she already had three guards who followed her wherever she went.
Her mother and fathers were probably still asleep at this hour. If, by some miracle, they were awake, they would be busy entertaining the guests that had arrived for the week-long festival. The entire week of festivities was in honor of the day of Liandra’s birth, but the big celebration wouldn’t be happening until tomorrow evening.
Fewer females were born in comparison to the vast number of male trios produced on Arcadia. Females of royal blood were even more rare, which meant each was celebrated simply for existing. Tomorrow was an important day since she would finally be coming of age and would be old enough to take mates. That reality was both thrilling and a little daunting, and she was beginning to feel suffocated by the pressure of it all.
She had been excited about her birthday festival until she realized her mother and fathers had used it as an opportunity to invite all of the unmated kings and princes from neighboring regions. Their insistence that she select mates from the pool of visiting males made her feel like she was nothing more than a vessel created to breed more heirs with royal blood.
She knew that was unfair. Her mother and fathers loved her and only wanted the best for her, but that didn’t mean they were always right. Even if it was tradition, there was no way she would allow them to push her into bonding with anyone for the sake of an alliance. There were some aspects of her life that her family shouldn’t try to decide for her, and who she was going to spend the rest of her life with was at the top of that list.
When she chose her mates, it would be for love.
Before she had left her bedchamber, Liandra had changed into the clothing she had hidden away in her closet. The black leather tunic and pants were similar to what the males wore, but they looked completely different on her. The tunic fit tight around her neck and arms and was snug against her full breasts, while the pants molded to her long, slim legs like a second skin. The leather gave her more protection than any dress, but she had to admit that the outfit was a little more provocative than she’d originally planned.
When she’d glanced in the mirror, she had barely recognized herself. As far as disguises went, it wasn’t great. However, very few people ever saw her when she wasn’t surrounded by guards, so she counted on remaining unrecognizable. She was no warrior, but the clothing made her feel courageous, and she needed a little daring to face what was to come.
One needed to be brave to change their fate, after all.
She’d braided her long, black hair, then tied a bag of coins to her belt. After pulling on a pair of black boots, she’d swept on her red cloak with a black dragon stitched onto the back to complete her ensemble. When she’d opened the doors to her suite, relief surged through her when her guards weren’t in the hallway waiting for her.
The warriors standing guard at the bottom of the staircase that led up to the family’s residences greeted her with curious expressions on their faces. Nodding politely, she hurried past them. If she stopped to speak to them, they were bound to ask questions she didn’t want to answer.
Once she was sure that she was out of their sight, she unfastened her cloak and flipped it around, displaying the red dragon stitched onto the black material. The colors were what the warriors and those who worked in the palace wore, declaring that they were under Dracor protection instead of the one she usually displayed to signify she was a member of the royal house. She had created the reversible cloak in secret, hoping it would give her a semblance of anonymity, but this was the first time she would be wearing it outside the palace gates.
When she made it to the side entrance that led out into the garden without being stopped, she paused for a moment. She’d gotten this far, but she still had to make it beyond the wall surrounding the palace. The sky was a beautiful pale-pink, and the puffy clouds brought temporary relief from the strong, white sunlight. There was a chill in the air that came with the changing season, and she pulled up her hood to cover her head before she quickly made her way across the courtyard.
She prayed the guards wouldn’t stop her, and she continued to hold her breath until she was outside the opened gate. She fought back the urge to throw her arms wide and spin in happy circles as she felt a little of the weight she had been carrying on her shoulders slip away. Instead, she strolled away from the gate, trying to act as if venturing out into the city was a regular occurrence. Months ago, she would have never considered walking into such a crowded area by herself, but things had changed in the Sands.
Ever since her eldest brothers, Tynan, Cael, and Ryder, had found their mate, Allie, the Sands had become one of the safest places on the planet. Word had spread far and wide that all females were safe in the Sands, and no males were allowed to touch them without their express permission. To touch one against their will would bring down the wrath of the Dracors, including the four dragons shifters that now resided inside the palace.
All females were protected, but if any harm should come to her, Liandra knew her brothers would rain down hellfire on whoever caused it. And that was before they turned the offenders into bloody dust. She knew since she had seen them do it.
Magic truly was a glorious thing…and slightly terrifying.
Her eyes went wide as she glanced around at the city. Bold red banners with the insignia of the royal house were strung between buildings, and decorations covered every available space. New booths were set up for merchants from other cities who had been invited for the week, making the marketplace twice its normal size. She had been told that visitors from all over had decided to attend the festivities being held in the city, but she had never imagined how many people would actually come.
A flash of color caught her attention, and she turned with a gasp as she saw a wall of flowers and other tokens along the outside of the wall surrounding the palace. Tears stung her eyes as she realized they were for her, left there by her people. A surge of guilt made her heart ache.
What had she done to deserve such love?
Most of the people in the city had never even seen her, yet they’d left such beautiful tributes in honor of her birthday. She might complain about being kept isolated within the palace, but she should have been trying to do more to help her people rather than just accepting the role others wanted her to settle for.
That was something she would have to change.
As she walked toward the marketplace, she marveled at how crowded it was, even at such an early hour. She breathed in the scent of sweets and freshly baked bread, and it made her stomach rumble with hunger. Since there was so much to choose from, she didn’t know where to begin. She wanted to see it all, sample everything, but her freedom was limited, so she would have to use her time wisely.
She thought it would be difficult to keep from being jostled since it was so busy, but the males were careful not to touch her as she passed by them. She did get quite a few glances sent her way, but she tried to keep her head down to avoid making eye contact with anyone. It wasn’t hard to do since all of the males were so much bigger. Ignoring the crowd, she focused her attention on the booths and stalls filled with food and trinkets.
Sheer willfulness had set her on her current path. The festival had been going on for three days, but she hadn’t been allowed to attend. Tynan, Cael, Ryder, and Allie had offered to take her, but they had been called away to help with an issue at the Iron Palace the previous day. When she had tried to speak to her mother and fathers about going, they had insisted that she spend time with their guests instead.
Zarek, Solan, and Cian had said they would take her, but they had been saying that for the last few days without following through. Besides, she disliked going anywhere with them. They had no patience and would have rushed her through the streets without allowing her to enjoy anything. Sometimes, she thought they were even bossier than her eldest brothers, but the truth was they were all insanely protective.
All the males in her life would be much happier if she remained locked away.
It irritated her that she had to wait for someone to agree to take her to the festival since the whole bloody thing was for her anyway. It might be foolish, but she couldn’t wait any longer. Normally, if she left the palace without her brothers, her guards would be tripled. The big warriors huddled around her so close she could barely see around them. She wanted a taste of the freedom other females in the city spoke of, and she wanted to do it without being surrounded.
To be fair, the trio responsible for guarding her now were newly assigned to her and didn’t yet know how devious she could be. Actually, she had gone through several sets of male guards during this last cycle. She wasn’t sure why, but she thought the males had been driven crazy by the way she always tried to give them the slip. Then again, her life was usually so boring they had probably begged for a different assignment.
A table in front of a shop caught her eye, and she hurried over to examine the blades that had been laid out on a large cloth. They would have been fine for a male, but the knives would be too big for her to wield comfortably. A few months ago, she had worked up the courage to venture out to the palace forge, a place she had never gone before. Once inside, she had asked for a dagger. The males working there had looked at her as if she had asked them to commit murder, and she had been turned away empty-handed.
Her brothers had laughed when she had told them what she wanted, saying she would cause herself harm if she ever picked up a weapon. She didn’t like the way they had all dismissed her, though she hadn’t fought them on the matter. If they had acted like that when she’d requested a blade, they would lose their minds if she asked them to teach her how to fight.
A shopkeeper came to stand in front of her on the other side of the table. “Can I help you…?” His words trailed off, and his glowing eyes widened as she looked up at him. “Pr-pr—”
Damn it, he had recognized her.
“This is very fine work. The craftsmanship is excellent.” She had no idea if that were actually true, but she tried to sound like she did. “Do you do all the work yourself?”
“Aye, me and my brothers,” he wheezed. “Thank you, Prin—”
“Do you have anything smaller? Perhaps a blade more suited to my size?”
His blinked. “I—”
“Now, why would a little female like you need a blade?”
Liandra stiffened as a male moved beside her, and she knew from one glance that he was not from Sand City. He was wearing dark blue leather, and his hair was a beautiful pale blond that was rare amongst Arcadians. Males and females with lighter hair colors were highly sought after as mates, but the male did not appeal to her in the least.
He flashed a cocky grin and crowded closer, sending a shiver of alarm racing down her spine. His glowing blue eyes would have been mesmerizing if she weren’t so afraid. The shopkeeper let out a low warning growl, but the blond male ignored him. Another male moved in from the side, and she tried to step away from them.
“The males in this city must be inept if they do not know how to protect a treasure such as you.”
She gasped as she bumped into a large body that had crowed in behind her. Her hood was pulled down, and strong hands gripped her shoulders, holding her in place. Suddenly, the contact was gone. She turned just in time to see a male sailing through the air. Before he hit the ground, she was jerked back, and a massive body dressed in black moved to stand in front of her.
“Touch her again, and it will be the last thing you do.”
She instantly recognized his deep voice, and this time, she shivered for a whole different reason. His low, deadly snarl didn’t scare her. In fact, it made her want to wrap her arms around his waist and press herself against his back. Despite the chill in the air, he wore his standard black leather vest that left his muscular arms in full view, along with a pair of black pants and boots. Jasyn was larger than the other males, and his broad back completely shielded her from view so she had to peek around him.
“You were warned not to touch any females before you entered the city,” Jasyn growled. “I do not care who you are. Do it again, and you will pay in blood.”
The male he had tossed jumped to his feet and glared. “We did not—she bumped into me!”
“Do you know who we are?” one of his brothers spat out.
“I know exactly who you are, and I do not care. Say one more word, and I will beat some manners into you,” Jasyn snarled so harshly it made the other males flinch.
Glancing around, Liandra realized the confrontation had caught the attention of other males in the marketplace. She relaxed a little when she saw that all of the onlookers were glaring at the trio dressed in blue as they hurried away, properly chastened.
Jasyn spun around so fast the ends of his long, dark-brown hair brushed against her cheek. That whisper of a touch made her heart beat faster. His face was male perfection, with sharp cheekbones and a hard, chiseled jaw. She knew he had dimples when he smiled, and the very sight of them could make her weak in the knees.
But he wasn’t smiling now.
He had a fierce scowl on his face, and all of that anger was directed right at her.
Jasyn glared down at her, his glowing silver eyes bright with anger. He had a couple of blades strapped to his chest in specially made loops built into his vest, and his long sword hung from his black belt, making him look exactly like the mighty warrior she knew he was.
She’d never seen him look so angry before, but she didn’t fear him. She had never been afraid of Jasyn or his two brothers. Their size alone should have been intimidating, but she had come to depend on their strength. It secretly delighted her how gentle the powerful males could be with her when the rest of the world feared them.
She had been in love with Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron Mazer since before she was old enough to understand what love truly was. She had tried to stop, to hold back, but the depth of her feelings for them continued to grow stronger with each passing day. Their voices haunted her dreams, making her hunger for things she hadn’t been ready for…until now.
They had been her guards since she was a youngling, tasked with keeping her safe and out of trouble. Their duty had been to ensure her protection, but they had also given her a sense of independence. They had never gotten upset when she had caused mischief and had dried her tears when she’d been sad. She had told them her secrets and shared her dreams with them. They were her greatest allies and truest friends, but all of that had changed when they had been made commanders of the guard.
Now, they had more important duties than seeing to her safety. She saw them often, but they were usually too busy to speak to her for more than a few minutes in passing. They were the closest friends of her eldest brothers, and their advancement meant they were highly trusted by the kings and queen. Although she was proud of all they had accomplished, she missed spending her days with them by her side.
Selfishly, she couldn’t help feeling like they had abandoned her. She could never admit that to them, and she had to swallow down the anger that made her want to lash out at times. They had been hers, and she resented having to share them.
“Come,” Jasyn ordered, then gestured toward the shop they were standing by.
Liandra noticed that the shopkeeper was holding one of the blades from the table. He dropped it and smiled weakly as she hurried past him. The small shop was empty, but well-lit with several blue light crystals. A male came out of the back as they entered and smiled in greeting.
“We need a moment alone.”
The male bowed his head before quickly disappearing into the back.
Before Jasyn could speak again, she threw herself at him and hugged him around his waist. It was a tactic used to sway his anger, but she had to admit that it was also a shameless excuse to touch him.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
He let out a loud sigh, then his muscular arms wrapped around her, holding her in a gentle embrace that made her heart sigh with love. It had been so long since she had felt so safe. When she was a youngling, he had hugged her often, but he stopped as she had gotten older. She missed the affectionate gestures that had once been so freely given.
Closing her eyes, she breathed in his scent. It felt so right being in his arms, and she wished she could remain pressed against his hard body for the rest of the day. “Please do not be mad at me.”
“Little one, how can I not be mad when you sneak out of the palace unguarded?”
“You followed me.”
Jasyn released her and quickly stepped back so he could look down at her. Had she known he had been watching? He hadn’t thought so when he had observed her dashing from the side entrance of the palace. He’d waved the guards off who had seen her leave. If he hadn’t followed her, they would have. She had been careful, though there was little that escaped his notice when it came to her.
There was rarely a time when he or his brothers didn’t have an eye on her. It didn’t matter that they were no longer in charge of her protection, they would always be close in case she needed them. They had tried to stay away, but they couldn’t stop watching her.
It was like a compulsion in their blood.
Touching Liandra had been a mistake. It made him desperately crave things that he couldn’t have. She was a princess, which meant she could never be his. Yet, in their hearts, she would always belong to him and his brothers. She had been theirs since the day they’d been tasked with watching over her.
When she was a youngling, they had felt great affection for the little female. She had been so filled with life, though a part of her had been afraid to truly experience it. Part of that was due to her being the only Dracor princess. He knew she felt weighed down by the expectations placed on her delicate shoulders, and they had tried to lessen that burden however they could.
Over the last few cycles, their feelings for her had begun to change. She had always been pretty, but she had grown into a true beauty. Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron’s protective instincts had shifted into a possessive hunger they could barely contain. But they couldn’t have her, and knowing that had slowly been driving them insane. It had gotten so bad that he wasn’t sure how they would handle it when she chose a set of kings or princes to mate with.
Actually, he knew exactly what would happen.
The proof of that was how he had reacted when he had seen the prince from the Palace in the Clouds touching her. Rage the likes of which he’d never felt before had filled him. He’d wanted to tear the male to pieces with his claws, and he’d considered beating the other two into bloody pulp for causing that look of fear on her face when they had trapped her between them.
He wanted to kill anyone who dared to touch what belonged to him.
That dangerous thought made him take another step away from her. His hands flexed as he fought the desire to pull her back into his arms since he feared he would never let her go if he did. Trying to sound stern, he said, “You know you should not be outside the palace walls without your guards.”
“I saw other females walking around without escorts.”
“It may look as though they are, but they are still being looked after,” he corrected. Despite the changes going on in the Sands, the warriors would never leave the females unprotected.
“Oh.” She sighed, and her shoulders slumped. “I just wanted to see the festival. They are celebrating my day of birth, and yet, I have not been able to see it! My mother and fathers want me to remain locked inside the palace, and my brothers just kept putting it off.”
“You could have asked us.”
“When would I have done that? I have only seen you and Aeron for a minute or two over the last few days, and I have seen even less of Braden over the last few months.”
He was surprised by the bitterness in her tone, and couldn’t help but hope she had missed seeing them.
“That is because your fathers have been keeping us busy with all their damn guests,” he bit out, irritated that his duties had taken up so much of his time lately. When her lips twitched as if she were fighting a smile, he relaxed again. “You may not have seen us, but we have been close by. We are always around if you need us. How else would I have known you were sneaking out this rising?”
Lust shot through his system when the pink tip of her tongue peeked out as she licked her lower lip. By the gods, she was trying to kill him.
“You were watching me?”
“We will always keep you safe,” he said, avoiding her question.
“I am very glad you were here. I do not know what I did to make those males approach me that way.”
His jaw clenched as anger surged through him again. “It was not your fault. It was mine. I should have never let those damn princes get so close to you.”
Her eyes went wide. “Princes?
“They are the youngest Princes of the Palace in the Clouds.”
“I did not realize we had even invited them. I thought they never leave the mountains.”
“They have not in a very long time. As far as I know, they only interact with the Sun Palace in the Northern Jungle. Both of those royal houses are known to be secretive, and they prefer to keep to themselves. The kings did not come, but their younger brothers, the princes, arrived with a small group of warriors a few hours ago. We assumed they were curious about your brothers and Princess Allie. They should not have come if they are not willing to follow the rules of our city. Stay away from those males,” he warned. “They are still young and do not have the discipline to be around you if they cannot keep their hands to themselves.”
She nodded. “I shall keep my distance if that is how you feel.”
Her quick agreement eased some of his tension. He had only just met the visitors from the Palace in the Clouds, and he didn’t trust them. After their actions, Jasyn wouldn’t risk having Liandra anywhere near them. He wouldn’t apologize for tossing that little shit on his ass either. He didn’t feel any remorse for his actions and would do it again in a heartbeat.
In fact, he wished the kings had also come so he could punish them for not teaching their younger brothers better manners.
Aeron reached out through their bond and said, “Calm yourself, brother. Word is already spreading about the incident in the marketplace. I do not think they will return to the palace after what happened. They were warned about how they should behave while they were here, and they did not listen. If they do return, we will be ready for them. You need to stay away. You are still too angry to be anywhere near them. If they seek out our kings and bring a charge against you, we need you calm.”
“One of those fuckers touched her.”
“We were connected when it happened,” Aeron growled with the same anger he had felt. “I am surprised you let that fool keep his hands. It is a good thing Braden was not in the market with you when it happened, or he would have ripped their heads off.”
Braden, the biggest badass of their trio, definitely had impulse-control issues when it came to protecting Liandra.
“You know, we could change places. You could return to the palace to wait for the princes while I escort our little princess around.”
His brother’s cheerful suggestion grated on Jasyn’s nerves, so he broke their connection. He knew they should leave the shop, but he didn’t want to end this quiet moment with Liandra just yet. He cleared his throat and reached into the hidden pocket on the inside of his vest.
“While we are here, I might as well give you your gift.”
“You got me something?” Her glowing gold eyes shone bright with happiness. “But my day of birth is not until tomorrow.”
“Perhaps I should not give it to you then.”
She laughed and held out her hands, fingers wiggling. “Now totally works for me.”
He sighed at her use of Princess Allie’s human vernacular. It was becoming more common to hear around the city, but he still wasn’t used to it. Pulling out the bracelet he’d made for her, he held it out. The bracelet looked small in his large palm, but her wrist was slim.
The cuff was slightly smaller than the width of his finger with rounded sides so it wouldn’t cause harm to her delicate skin. He had twisted thin strips of gold, bronze, and silver metal together, then he had hammered it flat and polished it until it gleamed in the soft light inside the shop.
He had embedded several small firestones into the metal. The precious jewels were only found deep in the mountains where the molten lava and intense heat infused the rare gems with their red color. Her gasp of delight made him smile as he fit the cuff around her left wrist.
It fit perfectly just like he knew it would.
Liandra stared down at the bracelet and felt her heart melt. The metal was still warm from the heat of his body, and she felt it seep into her own skin. They usually gave her a gift together, so she didn’t know what to make of this break in tradition. Perhaps they had all worked on it, but it felt like it was something personal from Jasyn alone.
“Oh, Jasyn. It is beautiful.”
“I wish you many blessings on your day of birth, Princess.”
Tears stung her eyes, and she had to stop herself from professing her love for him right then and there. Instead, she wrapped her arms around him again, pressing her face against his chest. “Thank you. I will never take it off.”
He chuckled as he stroked his hands over her back. “I am pleased you like it. As much as I would like to stay here with you, we should give them back their shop.”
Jasyn wanted to curse when her shoulders slumped. He hated seeing her happy luminosity fade, and her glowing gold eyes dim with sadness. He used a finger to lift her chin. “What is it, little one?”
“I do not wish to go back to the palace yet.”
“We are not going back. I will be escorting you through the festival.”
“Aye, really.” Her brilliant smile made him feel like he had conquered a dozen rogues with his bare hands. When her stomach gave an unladylike grumble, he chuckled and gently gripped her arm. “Come, little one. Let us go find you something to eat.”
“I want to try everything.”
He tried not to smile as he said, “I knew you were going to say that.”
Aeron Mazer leaned against the stone wall as he anxiously waited for Jasyn to escort Liandra back to the palace. He could admit he was jealous of the time his brother had gotten to spend with their little princess, though he couldn’t fault Jasyn for delaying their return for as long as possible.
It had been enough for his brother to share pieces of the day with him through their bond, but he would have loved to experience her pleasure firsthand. Jasyn had patiently guided her through the festival, letting her stop and speak to as many people as she wished. The citizens of Sand City loved her, and a simple smile or word of praise from her had brightened people’s day. They had been starved of her attention, and Aeron wished her fathers and brothers could recognize how important it was for her to have more opportunities to connect with their people.
He knew how they felt since he desperately missed her smiles when he wasn’t around her. The sound of her voice had the power to soothe the ache in his soul, and her touch could ignite the flames of lust within him until he felt as if he would go mad. Still, the discomfort of his unending hunger for her beat the agony he felt whenever he couldn’t see her. They’d had to settle for watching her from a distance since they had been promoted to commanders of the guard, and the separation was slowly killing him and his brothers.
Last night, he had been the one to predict that she would try to sneak out. He understood how much she had wanted to attend the festival since he had witnessed her growing irritation at being confined inside. He had seen the sadness dim her glowing gold eyes when her brothers had once again failed to follow through on their promise to take her beyond the palace walls. Aeron knew that they worried for her safety, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to reprimand them for hurting her tender feelings.
She deserved to have whatever she desired, and he couldn’t help but wish that he were by her side on whatever adventure she craved. The truth was he wanted to be with her always, but that was something he couldn’t have no matter how much he and his brothers loved her. Being born without a drop of royal blood meant they could never claim her as their mate. They would never be considered worthy of her. Then again, no male could ever be worthy of her in his eyes.
Still, she would always be his mate in his heart.
Many cycles ago, he and his brothers had tried to mate another female, though something hadn’t felt right. She had been willing to bond with them, but they had held back for some reason. The rejection had caused her to become cruel, or perhaps she had always been so. They just hadn’t realized it until she showed her true nature.
When she had left them for another trio set, all they had felt was relief. They hadn’t even cared when she had spread word that they had failed to please her. Having a female to care for was an honor, but they had known in their hearts that they should have waited for the right one.
Then they had been tasked with the duty of protecting young Liandra.
Meeting her had changed everything. As she grew older, their feelings for her had developed, evolving from mere affection to deep, abiding love. She was the light of their lives, and she owned them, body, heart, and soul. There would never be another for them, which was something they had already accepted. If they were destined to never find happiness, then they would endure…as long as they could remain close to her.
He pushed off the wall as Liandra and Jasyn came through the open gate with her three guards trailing behind them. The Vortox brothers had been angry when they had realized she had slipped away from the palace without their knowledge. They had quickly followed after her and Jasyn when Aeron informed them of her location. They would have to learn to be more vigilant, but he couldn’t blame them.
She was far more cunning than others gave her credit for.
Liandra practically skipped her way into the courtyard next to Jasyn, and Aeron couldn’t stop from grinning as he started over to meet them. Her joy was infectious, and he realized that all the warriors nearby were affected by her. Even those keeping watch on top of the wall were smiling down at her. There had been a time when Aeron would have been angry at all of the male attention she attracted, but he understood the importance of the guards seeing the treasure they were protecting.
She was a rare beauty amongst their people, though it went beyond her perfect face and form. She had a natural radiance about her, an inner glow that had the ability to bring peace to those fortunate enough to be around her. Her kind and gentle nature called to the protective instincts ingrained in every warrior, and her beautiful smile could warm even the coldest of hearts.
As soon as she noticed that he was heading toward them, she gave him that special smile that seemed reserved for him alone. It always left him feeling weak in the knees. He was a warrior and could not afford to fall on his face in front of a crowd of people, yet he would worship at her feet if she let him. He laughed when Liandra ran toward him. She came to a stop in front of him and bounce on her toes as if she could barely contain her happiness.
“It looks like someone had a good time.”
“Aeron! You should have come with us to the festival. It was so much fun!”
“I wish I could have, princess.” By the gods, he also wished he could touch her. “Your mother sent me to escort you upstairs. She would like for you to join her for a private meal up in her chambers.” He dismissed the Vortox brothers, who bowed before they took their leave.
“Is the Queen angry?” Jasyn asked through their bond. “Our little princess is worried.”
At the warning, Aeron turned back and saw Liandra’s tense expression. Wanting to put her at ease, he hurried to say, “Your mother was very pleased you were enjoying yourself today.”
“She was not angry I left the palace?”
“Nay, princess. She only wished she could have joined you. Jasyn, I thought you would like to know the Princes of the Palace in the Clouds have left the city. Since they got to walk away still breathing, they should consider themselves lucky. I got the impression they did not feel safe here after their escorts told them who they had tried to accost in the marketplace.”
“Jasyn,” Liandra chided.
He simply shrugged.
“At least they did not have a chance to complain to the kings before they left,” Aeron added. “A physical attack on a royal in another city could be a declaration of war.”
She sucked in a breath. “Jasyn, you did not tell me that!”
Jasyn glared at his brother. “Why would you worry her?”
“Because she needs to know if they try to cause problems, she could bring a claim against them as well,” Aeron explained. “They should have never touched you, princess.”
“It does not matter if they are gone.” When both males growled at her statement, she said, “I do not want to spend any more time thinking of them.”
Jasyn huffed out a breath, then gave in with a smile. “You are right. We have far more pleasant things to think about, like how much you enjoyed the festival.”
“And how much you disliked being there.” She laughed. “Admit it. You hated being surrounded by all of those people.”
“They did not have to get so close in order to speak to you.”
“Oh, aye. I suppose I could have shouted at them from on top of the wall.” When he just grunted in response, she laughed. “Thank you for accompanying me. I wish we had more time at the festival. There are so many people I did not get to meet.”
“That will have to wait for another day. Now you can speak to me while I escort you upstairs,” Aeron announced as he took her arm. “Run along, Jasyn. Your time with her is over for now.”
Jasyn growled and grumbled as Aeron led her away.
Laughing again, Liandra whispered, “That was mean.”
“Aye, it was,” he agreed cheerfully.
They made their way into the palace, then Aeron led her up the stairs. Most of their guests were staying in chambers located on the second floor on the other side of the palace, but they still had guards standing watch at the base of the stairway that led up to the next level where the family’s residences were located. Aeron nodded to the guards, then all but dragged her up to the next level. Liandra had to run down the corridor to keep up with him, but her breathless laughter assured him that she wasn’t bothered by the quick pace.
“What is your hurry, Aeron? Mother will understand if I am a few minutes late.”
“It is not that.” He glanced down the hallway, then opened the door to a private lounge and pulled her inside.
Liandra watched as he slammed the door shut. He leaned back against it as if trying to keep a dozen invaders on the other side. His behavior baffled her, but she would never complain about having a few moments alone with him. Spending time with Jasyn had been a joy, yet they had been surrounded by people the entire time. Even though she had a wonderful time at the festival, she would have rather spent the day alone with Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron. It had been a long time since she’d had the three of them to herself, and she missed the days when they had followed her everywhere.
Instead of wearing his long, dark-brown hair flowing free as Jasyn had, Aeron had fashioned two warrior’s braids at his temples. When she was a youngling, he had let her braid his hair more times than she could count, and she longed to run her fingers through his silky locks again.
“I see Jasyn gave you his gift.”
She glanced down at the bracelet on her wrist and smiled as she stroked her fingers over the metal. “Aye. I love it.”
Pushing away from the door, he stalked forward slowly. “I thought I would steal this time to give you my gift. I cannot be outdone by my own brother, can I?”
“You…” She cleared her throat and tried again. “The three of you usually give me something together, so I did not know…”
“Nay, little princess. This birthday is an important one, so each of us decided to gift you with something we made.”
“Oh,” she breathed out, touched by their thoughtfulness. She smiled shyly at him. “What did you make for me, Aeron?”
His silver eyes glowed bright with amusement. “You are very impatient.”
“You cannot tease me by telling me you made me something, then not give it to me.”
“Princess, I would never dream of teasing you,” he said softly. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled something out but kept it hidden in his hand. “Close your eyes.”
She did as he asked without hesitation, trusting him completely. She was surprised when he lifted the arm that she wore the bracelet on, but she relaxed as he placed her palm on his chest. The desire to feel his skin against hers was too great to deny, so she shifted her hand to the side and slipped the pads of her fingertip into the opening of his vest. She let out a purring sound she had never made before as she felt the warmth of his skin. Startled, she almost gave in to the temptation to open her eyes.
“Keep those pretty eyes closed, princess. Do not open them until I tell you.”
Nodding to let him know that she would obey, she took a deep breath and said, “I do not know what that sound was. I do not think I have ever made it before.”
“Sure you have.”
When he didn’t explain, she was too embarrassed to ask him about it. She was distracted when she felt him slip something on her three middle fingers. Curiosity was killing her, but she kept her eyes closed. She felt him touching the bracelet on her wrist, and for a moment she thought he would remove the cuff, then he pulled his hands away. She felt a whisper of movement as if he had brushed his fingers against her cheek. She wanted to lean into his touch, but it was gone before she got the chance.
“Open your eyes, Liandra.”
Aeron watched as her thick lashes fluttered, then her glowing gold gaze met his. He was immensely pleased that she had looked to him before glancing down at the rings he had placed on her fingers. He had crafted three rings for her, one made of gold, one of bronze, and one of silver, with delicate chains attaching each ring to the bracelet on her wrist. The silver ring on her middle finger was larger than the other two and held a large firestone in the center.
He had carefully engraved designs on each of the rings. The intricate work had taken weeks to complete, though no one but his brothers would ever know the words he had hidden in each design.
We on the bronze
Love on the silver.
You on the gold.
He gave her a nod, and her gaze moved lower. She let out a loud gasp as she lifted her hand away from him to hold it closer to her face. He felt the loss of her touch, but pride filled him when he saw how much she liked her gift. When her gaze met his again, tears filled her eyes.
He wasn’t sure if she truly understood the significance of the gift he’d given her. Rings held no meaning beyond mere decoration on Arcadia, but on Earth where the new princess was from, they meant a claiming. It was a symbol of ownership, of belonging, and if it was the only claim they could make on her, then it would have to be enough.
“Do you like them?”
“Nay, I do not like them. I love them. Of all the things you could have given me, nothing could possibly be more perfect. They are beyond beautiful, and I—” Her words cut off as she choked on a sob.
She flung herself at him, and he welcomed her with open arms. He let her cry, feeling his heart break a little even though he knew they were happy tears. He stroked a hand down her thick braid. He hated seeing her glossy black hair pulled back, and wished it was flowing loose as she preferred. Before he realized what he was doing, he had pulled the tie from the end and had begun unraveling the braid. She laughed a little and pulled back to look down at her hand again.
“Thank you so much, Aeron. I will treasure your gift until the end of my days.”
“I am very glad you like them. See, if you clench your fist, the metal chains will flex with your movement. You do not need to worry about breaking them.”
She blinked in surprise. “How—?”
“The metal has been treated with magic. Cael helped with our request,” he said, mentioning one of her eldest brothers.
“Did he know what you were making for me?”
“Nay. If we told him, we ran the risk of him stopping us before we finished our projects.”
“I am sure he would have been pleased you made me something so beautiful.” Liandra rested her head on his chest again and wrapped her arms around his waist. “I forgot. I never did use the gift you gave me for my last birthday.”
That was a lie. She had never forgotten about their gift. They had given her an open-ended favor of her choosing, and she had been waiting for the right moment to use it. It was a rare boon for any warrior to offer, and she hadn’t wanted to waste it. His laughter rumbled in his chest, and the deep sound made her smile.
“One gift is not enough for you?”
“I am feeling very greedy today.”
He laughed again, then rubbed his hands over her back. “Alright. Tell me what the favor is you ask of me.”
Here goes nothing, she thought. Gathering her courage, she whispered, “I would like for you to give me my first kiss.”
His hands stilled on her back, and she felt his body stiffen. The beat of his heart increased, but she wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. She released her hold on him and took a step back. Pulling at the ties of her cloak, she let the material fall to the floor. He let out a vicious snarl, and his silver eyes glowed bright with anger.
“What in hellfire are you wearing?”
“I thought it would protect me while I was outside of the palace. I am far more covered in this than a dress.”
“Well, you thought wrong. Did anybody see without your cloak on?”
“Nay, they did not.” She had expected him to be amused by her new look, not angry. “You do not like it?”
“I did not say that.”
“So, you do like it?” she asked, pushing him.
“I do, but I do not like thinking about anyone else seeing you.”
“Except for Jasyn and Braden,” she corrected softly.
His jaw clenched, and as the silence continued, her resolve began to falter. How foolish she must seem to him dressing like a warrior and begging him to kiss her. Asking him to fulfill a favor he owed her meant he couldn’t refuse, and she had been fine with that before she had actually spoken the words.
Did she really want to force him to kiss her?
“I apologize. It was wrong of me to ask—”
“I would risk death to kiss you.” The words were harsh, as if the admission was torn from his throat.
Fear filled her at the mention of death. “I would never do anything to cause you harm. Forget I mentioned it.”
“Nay, princess.” He shook his head. “I cannot forget. There is no going back now. I need to be sure you understand what you are asking of me.”
Her pulse quickened as he wrapped his hand around her neck, slowly drawing her closer to him. He tilted her face up with his thumb, then stroked his fingers along her jaw, making her entire body tingle. “Aeron…”
“When you say my name like that, I always think about kissing you,” he growled.
“Aye, I do…every fucking time. My little princess, I would give you anything you want. A kiss? I would give you a million if I could, but I dare only take one. The one you have asked for.”
Before she could fully prepare herself, he pressed his mouth against hers. The gentle touch was a shock to her system. His lips were softer than she ever imagined, yet they had the power to shift everything into focus for her. Fire raced through her bloodstream, and energy sizzled along her skin. This was so much more than just a kiss. It was a claiming. She had been waiting her entire life for this moment, for confirmation that what she felt in her heart was true, was right.
She silently rejoiced when he picked her up and wrapped his arms around her in a possessive hold, and she threw her arms around his neck. Instinct made her want to bite down on his lower lip to take his blood inside of her. She wanted a blood bond with him so bad she could taste it, but it would be far too dangerous for both of them if she gave in to her desire. Without a full mating, any blood bond between them would fade over time, though they still couldn’t risk it.
Pushing that dream aside for now, she let herself sink into the kiss. She wrapped her legs around his waist and held on tight as he turned and pressed her back against the wall. He let out a low growl as he took the kiss deeper. She opened for him, gladly welcoming his tongue inside her mouth when he shoved it deep. Unsure what to do, she followed his lead and stroked her own tongue against his.
Loving the taste of him, she moaned in pleasure. The sound changed to that strange purring that rumbled deep in her chest. He pressed closer as she writhed against him. She cursed the layers of clothing that separated them when she felt his hard shaft against her heated core. She wanted to feel his skin against hers and cover herself in his scent, but she settled for rubbing against him to try to ease the ache building inside of her.
He tore his mouth away and let out a vicious curse. She expected him to let her go, but he just leaned his forehead against hers and panted for breath instead. His deep voice sounded like he had swallowed jagged metal shards when he said, “We cannot do this. It cannot be, no matter how much we wish it.”
She lifted her hands to stroke his cheeks and closed her eyes. “We will find a way to make it so,” she vowed as a single tear slid down her cheek. “We have to.”
“Daughter, you look wonderful!”
Liandra came to a stop halfway across her mother’s private sitting room. She glanced down and realized she hadn’t changed her clothing as she had planned. However, the queen’s warm smile of welcome made her relax as she continued out onto the open balcony where her mother waited.
Queen Kyriani’s words were surprising, and they warmed her heart in a way she hadn’t expected. Her already rioting emotions made her want to cry, and she barely fought the urge back. She didn’t want to scare her mother, and she certainly didn’t want to call attention to her chaotic thoughts.
Aeron had distanced himself from her after he’d abruptly ended their kiss. It hurt, though she understood why he did it. They had both stayed silent as he had escorted her to the top level of the palace where her mother and fathers resided. Truthfully, she needed a little distance from him as well.
She had asked for the kiss, but there was nothing simple about their passionate encounter. And now that she’d tasted him, all she wanted to do was hold on and never let go. The intense look he had given her before she had left him told her that he felt the same way. That would have to be enough to keep her going until they found a way to be together.
Liandra kissed both of her mother’s cheeks in greeting, then pulled back to simply look at her. Time had been extremely generous to Kyriani, making her seem more like her sister than her mother. They had the same features and were of similar height, though the queen had a grace and refinement that came from wearing the mantel of leadership over many cycles.
“Forgive me, mother. I should have changed before joining you.”
“Nonsense. I love seeing you looking so formidable,” Kyriani said, her glowing gold eyes bright with amusement. “Your fathers and brothers would growl themselves into a frenzy if they saw you.”
Their eyes met, then they both burst out into peals of laughter.
“It would almost be worth it to see their expressions,” Liandra snickered. “Though, I would not enjoy the lecture that would be sure to follow. You look lovely as always, mother.”
While she had once worn dresses made of transparent cloth as most females did in the Sands, the queen now only wore gowns made from a special fabric that was made by the cilla worms found in the Western Forest. Her beautiful, red gown shimmered with a gold sheen, and the thicker material shielded her assets even though it fit her like a second skin. The gold torque around her neck with three large firestones set into the metal was the only jewelry she wore, and gold sandals graced her feet and wrapped halfway up her calves.
“Thank you, little one. Come, let us sit. We are just waiting for Allie and Raven. I have arranged this private birthday celebration for us and have declared there are to be no males allowed this evening.”
“Bliss,” Liandra said with an exaggerated sigh. Now it made sense why there had been three guards loitering by the entrance at the base of the steps that led up to the queen and kings quarters. Even if the males weren’t allowed, they had ensured that the females would remain safe.
Kyriani laughed again as she led the way to the sitting area. Once they were seated, Liandra smiled when she saw that all of her favorite foods were laid out on the large table. The palace cooks had outdone themselves, and she felt guilty that such a feast had been prepared for such a small party. Then again, Allie and Raven were pregnant and always seemed to be hungry.
“I commandeered a bottle of the ajuka wine we brought back the last time we visited the Isle of Mist. Your fathers will pout about it, especially when they discover that the visiting kings gifted you a case in honor of your birthday since they remembered it was your favorite,” Kyriani mentioned as she poured them both a goblet.
Liandra stared down at the glowing white liquid before lifting it to taste the sweet wine. “It was kind of them to bring it to me.”
“I sense trouble in your heart, beloved. Will you share your burden with me?”
Liandra surprised them both by bursting into tears. As her mother stood up, she held her hand up to stop her from coming any closer. “I cannot. And please do not look into my mind. If fathers find out what I am thinking, they will be furious.”
Ignoring the warning, Kyriani moved over to sit next to her on the chaise. “There is something that I have never told you, but I see that the time has come to share. On the day of your birth and that of your brothers, your fathers and I visited the Crystal Temple to thank the Goddess of the Moons for gifting us our younglings. We asked that she watch over you to ensure your health and happiness, and wished that you would all find your true mates.”
“You have told us. It is customary to ask that of the Goddess.” Liandra said, wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand. “But that is all it is…wishing.”
“Some of our people believe that true mates are nothing more than a myth, though I know it is real since I found mine. Others have not been as fortunate. We know from history that mates can be born during different times or on different worlds.”
“Are we to wait a lifetime for something that may not ever happen?”
“Nay, sweetling. But sometimes the Goddess does grant our wishes.” Kyriani reached for her other hand, clasping it between her own. “I was blessed with each of my babies, and yet there was a special joy in my heart when I had you. What I did not tell you is that on the day of your birth, I brought you back to the temple and sought a private audience with the Goddess without my mates. I admit it was selfish of me, but I felt driven to go to that place and plead for one more thing. I wanted to be able to keep your confidences, even if it meant keeping secrets from my own mates.”
“I know, it is unheard of for bonded mates to be able to keep secrets from one another. At least, it was before Allie and Raven were brought here from Earth. I admit I sometimes envy their ability to shield their minds when they choose. Long before their arrival to our planet, I wished for that same kind of privacy. I do not know how to explain it, but I knew that one day you would need to share things you do not want your fathers to know. If I have to defy my mates to ensure your happiness, then it is a price I am willing to pay. Thankfully, the Goddess granted my wish, so your secrets are safe with me.”
“I…I am so afraid fathers will force me to mate with a trio of princes or kings. They are so fixated on forming an alliance with one of the other royal houses that I—”
“You will not be forced into a mating.” Kyriani’s voice went hard as stone. “This is a vow I make here and now. I would not have allowed a breaching ceremony to happen if you did not wish it either. No one is touching my baby without her permission.” Her voice softened again, and she smiled. Lifting a hand, she placed it over Liandra’s heart. “But someone has already touched you here. I can sense it. I also know love-kissed lips when I see them.”
Embarrassment flooded her cheeks, but she knew the time for honesty had come. “I am in love.” The words burst out like sunbeams from behind a drifting cloud. Finally being able to admit it out loud felt liberating. “I have loved them for so long that I do not know if I can survive without them anymore, but they are not of royal blood.”
“I assume Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron feel the same way?”
Liandra blinked. “You…you knew?”
Delighted laughter burst out of Kyriani. “Sweetling, I have watched them watching you for many cycles. And though the males in this palace are oblivious, I can see your feelings clearly every time you look at them.”
“But you never said anything,” she sputtered.
“It was foolish, but I was waiting for you to come to me to discuss it. I should have realized you would not for fear that I would tell your fathers. I also did not bring it up because I convinced myself that you were still too young for such feelings. You are my baby, after all. Your fathers may have invited other males here to test if you develop feelings for any of them, but they are not ready for you to leave home either.”
“The Mazer brothers have pledged their loyalty to our house. If fathers do not give their consent to us being together, it will not change how I feel. But I fear that Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron will honor their vow to follow orders.”
“Then we will just have to convince them. Your fathers are my true mates, so I know their flaws better than anyone. I know it is wrong to hide something from them, but they are stuck in the old ways. I love them more than my own life, but I will not let them stand in the way of you being with your loves. You will understand when you have your own youngling to care for.”
“I love you so much, mother. I did not realize how much it hurt keeping this secret from you until now.” Liandra sighed as she rested her head on her mother’s shoulder.
“We should make a pact. No secrets between us. We females need to stick together.”
She laughed. “Aye, we do.”
“I admire you for having the courage to determine your own fate. Perhaps you will help me find my own. I do not look forward to explaining what I did and why, but I know I will have to do so soon. I will not apologize for asking the Goddess for aid. The very reason I felt like I needed to hide something from them is evidence that things are…unbalanced. That is my own fault for letting it go on for so long, but I did not know how to change it.”
“What will you do now?”
“Stand by your side and be honest with them. I find that I am getting better at showing my displeasure. Who knew I had such a temper? I look forward to the challenge of making sure you have your choice of mates. We will also have your brothers to deal with. Zarek, Solan, and Cian will be happy you are not mated to someone who will take you away from the palace, but Tynan, Cael, and Ryder will not be pleased their friends kept their desire for you a secret for so long.”
Liandra let out a pained groan. “Why does this have to be so difficult?”
“The best things always are. You must not back down, even if your fathers and brothers are angry. You have been a dutiful daughter, and conditioned responses are hard to break. However, this is something that is far too important to let someone else decide for you.”
“You are right. However, all of this worry might be for nothing. I am confident that Jasyn and Aeron want me, but I am unsure if Braden feels the same. He has done his best to avoid me for months now. Perhaps he does not feel the way his brothers do.”
“I highly doubt that. Brothers have no choice but to love the same female. It is the way of our people. Besides, you are wearing proof of your males’ devotion right there on your hand. The Mazer brothers are very clever,” Kyriani added as she admired the bracelet and rings.
“Arcadians do not care what rings mean on the human world.”
“But your males obviously do. It was bold of them to stake a claim in plain sight. Do not worry. Other males pay no attention to jewelry unless it is a mating torque.”
“Jasyn made the bracelet for me, while Aeron made the rings. They did not come from Braden,” Liandra said, unsure why she felt the need to clarify the distinction.
“Then you need to speak to him before you make your stand. This will only work if you are united.” Kyriani sent her a reassuring smile. “I do not think you have anything to worry about, though. You have chosen good, honorable males who love you, so my wish for your happiness has come true.”
“Not yet, but I hope it will.” The faint sounds of footsteps and voices interrupted their conversation. “That should be Allie and Raven.”
The queen patted her hand. “We will speak more of this later. Until then, the only advice I can give you is that love is worth fighting for.”
Liandra nodded, knowing that her mother was right. She would risk everything to be with Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron…no matter the cost.
“I’m so sorry we’re late!” Princess Allison Dracor exclaimed as she hurried into the room, followed closely by Raven Akira, the Queen of the Iron Palace.
Kyriani beckoned them forward. “You are right on time. Come join us.”
“Oh, look at all the food! I’m starving.” Allie was a petite female, with white-blonde hair and glowing blue eyes. She wore a red gown that was loose enough to accommodate her very pregnant body, and the long skirt swirled around her legs as she rushed across the room. Her beautiful face was lit up with a bright smile, and one of her hands rested on her large belly as she leaned down to kiss Kyriani and Liandra’s cheeks in greeting.
Raven had long black hair that was similar to many Arcadians, but her glowing green eyes and stunning features made her stand out in any crowd. She was also pregnant, though she wasn’t as far along as Allie was. Back on Earth, the two females had been the best of friends, and Liandra had gotten to know the new queen since she visited the Sands often with her mates.
“I’m hungry all the time,” Allie announced a little anxiously as she sat down. She shoved a piece of sweet bread into her mouth, then mumbled, “I can’t seem to help it. I swear I should be the size of a planet by now. Well, I guess I do look like I swallowed a planet since I don’t seem to be gaining weight anywhere except for my belly.”
Raven took a seat next to her on the chaise across from Kyriani and Liandra. She picked up a thick piece of meat and rolled it up before taking a bite. She shrugged as she chewed. “I’ve always eaten a lot, so this is nothing new to me. Thank you for inviting me today, Queen Kyriani.”
“There is no need to be so formal,” Kyriani corrected as they all began eating. “You are family now, Raven. As such, you are always welcome here.”
Raven wasn’t sure if Kyriani knew just how much those words meant to her. While Allie had inherited a large family upon her arrival on Arcadia, Raven’s mates had been alone before she had interrupted their lives. Savitar, Tristan, and Kadan gave her all the love she could ever need, but it was nice to have her best friend close by. Because of their friendship, the two kingdoms were now closer than ever.
“Happy early birthday, Liandra,” Allie said between bites. “Wow, you look amazing. You look like a total badass in leather.”
“You really do,” Raven agreed.
“I really like what you are wearing,” Liandra gushed as she admired her friend’s dark silver tunic and flowing pants.
“I still haven’t gotten used to wearing dresses yet. If you like it, I can make some pants for you since I’ve gotten good at creating clothes using magic. Consider it part of your birthday present. We can start a new trend and piss off the males,” Raven said with a wink, then she rolled her eyes. “Speaking of…”
“Allie, I told you to wait for me by the stairs! You could have fallen and hurt yourself,” Tynan growled as he stalked into the room carrying a large, rectangular box. His frown changed to a look of bafflement as he watched Allie shove another piece of bread into her mouth. “We just fed you less than an hour ago, mate.”
“That was a snack. This is a meal.”
“But you cannot possibly be hungry already!”
Allie’s eyes glowed bright like twin blue flames as she growled, “You are not the one incubating two magical beings inside of you, buddy. And speaking of, I’m a magical dragon shifter, same as you. I haven’t suddenly become incapable of walking up a flight of stairs just because I’m pregnant!”
He had the sense to look contrite. “I did not mean that as it sounded. I just worry. And, of course, you should eat if you are hungry again.”
“Like I need your permission to eat,” Allie muttered.
Tynan frowned. “You seem…perhaps you should lie down and rest for a while, mate.”
“I don’t need a damn nap!”
“By the gods. Stop, brother,” Liandra pleaded. “You are just making it worse.”
“Pregnancy hormones are a bitch. Run while you still can, Tynan,” Raven warned. “Seriously, go.”
His jaw clenched as he set the box he was carrying down on an empty side table. Turning toward his sister, his frown deepened to a scowl. “What in hellfire are you wearing?”
Liandra sighed. “Go away.”
“And what is this I hear you went to the festival without us?”
“Time for you to leave, son,” Kyriani commanded cheerfully. “You are not invited to join our meal. I think a little female company is just what your mate needs.”
“Go away, Tynan.”
The tone of her voice made him give in. Glancing back at his mate, he said, “I will be close by if you need me. I love you, little one.”
“I love you too, Tynan. Even when you annoy me.” He chuckled as he left the room. When he was gone, Allie groaned. “He is just going to pace the hallway downstairs until we are done.”
Raven smiled. “Then he can keep Savitar company. I tried to convince him to go down to the great hall with the others, but he insisted on staying to guard the doors to the chamber. He claims it’s to ensure our privacy, but he just can’t help himself.”
“The hallway must be quite crowded.” Kyriani laughed. “There were already three guards on the doors, though I am sure Tynan will dismiss them if he is staying.”
Allie’s shoulders slumped. “Something is wrong with me. I can’t seem to stop eating or snapping at my mates. I’ve been acting like a crazy person. My emotions are all over the place, and I feel like a bomb ready to explode.” Rubbing her belly, she corrected herself. “I am a bomb ready to explode. A big baby bomb.”
“My appetite increased during each of my pregnancies, and so did my temper. Nothing is wrong with you. Your birthing time is just drawing closer,” Kyriani soothed. “Soon, you will hold your babes in your arms, and it will all be worth it.”
“The Goddess of the Moons says I still have time,” Allie grumbled. “How much time, she wouldn’t say, which is even more frustrating.”
“It is still hard to believe you have actually met the Goddess.” Liandra leaned forward, her eyes wide. “Does she really appear every time you wish to speak to her?”
“No, not every time. And she’s been pretty cryptic whenever I ask questions lately.”
“She’s still more direct than Silas is,” Raven complained, mentioning the God of the Sun. “I think he likes to mess with us for fun when he’s bored.”
Kyriani shivered. “He sounds very intimidating.”
“That’s one way to describe him.” Allie laughed. “And Raven, that’s what you get when you have a god for an uncle. I haven’t seen him since I shifted for the first time.”
“Consider yourself lucky,” Raven muttered dryly. “He scared the crap out of me when he popped onto my balcony for a visit last week. At least he did tell us the babies won’t be able to shift for several years, so that is one less thing we have to worry about.”
“God, that’s a relief. I didn’t even think to ask about that.” Allie blew out a breath. “I really wish the babies would just come already. I can’t wait to hold them in my arms. Tynan, Cael, and Ryder must be so tired of dealing with me, but they’ve been acting crazy, too. They should know not to growl at a pregnant lady who is ready to pop. At least Arcadian pregnancies are shorter than human terms. But the year is shorter here, and the days are longer, so maybe it all evens out.”
Raven groaned. “It hurts my head trying to figure that out. I think the babies might be influencing us. I’m usually not picky about food, but lately, all I want is meat and sweets. Sometimes wrapped together, which is just gross. I’ve also noticed a change in my mood over the last few days.”
“What do you mean?” Allie sat up straighter. “You didn’t say anything about this to me. If you’re turning into a crazy person, too, I want to know. I would feel a whole lot better if you are. Isn’t that what friends are for? We suffer together.”
Raven shook her head and laughed. “I think you are being crazy enough for the both of us. My mates arranged a picnic for us the other day at our favorite place, and it made me happy. Like, really happy.”
“Which means you probably would have ended up pregnant after your outing if you were not already.” Kyriani smiled slyly before sipping her wine.
“That’s not—okay, that’s probably true. What I meant was that my happiness felt like it was being amplified. It was different than sensing what my mates are feelings. And when I got mad at them yesterday, my anger was way more intense than it should have been. I don’t think my little ones like it when my mates order me around. Like they can sense when I’m upset, and it makes them angry, too.”
“This is amazing,” Kyriani exclaimed. “I could sense my babes when I carried them, but they were not able to connect with me and influence my feelings. Perhaps it is the magical connection you have with them.”
Allie considered it as she continued to eat. “I’ve been talking to the babies. They don’t talk back or anything, but I think I can sense what they’re feeling. I thought I was imagining it, but it would make sense if I’m connected to them. I’ve also been having weird dreams.” She closed her eyes and was silent for a moment. “Oh my god! I can feel them!” She burst into tears. “How could I have missed this?”
Raven wrapped her arms around her. “Magic doesn’t exactly come with a user’s manual. Calm down, hon. Everything will be okay.”
“Can your mates sense the babes?” Liandra asked, fascinated by the subject.
“Savitar says he can,” Raven revealed. “It only started a few days ago, but I think he’s right. Maybe your mates should try connecting with the babies more, Allie. That might help calm all of you down.”
Allie winced as she wiped her cheeks. “I’ve actually been blocking them.”
Raven groaned. “Oh, man. No wonder you’re acting crazy.”
“Allie! Your mates are supposed to be helping you through this time. They cannot do that if you are blocking them,” Kyriani admonished gently.
“I know! I don’t do it all the time. I just thought it would be better if they didn’t know how emotional I was,” Allie wailed.
“Savitar, Tristan, and Kadan take turns staying connected to me throughout the day. They said it helps them know I am okay, which makes them feel calm. I spent so much time blocking them at the beginning of our relationship that we try to be open to one another all the time now.”
“You’re right. Damn it, now I’m going to have to apologize to them,” Allie complained, then she winced. “It’s so weird. I’m not afraid of giving birth. Since I’m a doctor, I know what to expect. It’s all this magical stuff I still don’t have a handle on. I mean, who knew that my babies could influence my moods, or that I didn’t have to run to the bathroom every ten minutes. With magic, I can just poof—” She snapped her fingers. “Problem solved.”
“That is just unfair,” Kyriani complained.
Allie laughed. “It is, and it was a hell of a surprise when I figured it out while I was running to the bathroom. I almost didn’t make it and then…well, I was certainly surprised.” She sobered again. “I will apologize to Tynan, Cael, and Ryder tonight, and stop being such a horrible mate to them.”
“You are not horrible,” Kyriani contradicted. “This is all new, and all of you are learning together. You are allowed to make mistakes. Give yourself time to discover your gifts. It cannot happen overnight.”
“Thank you for understanding. I just hope they take it as well.” Allie sighed. “At least I soundproofed the room so they can’t listen in on our conversation. Otherwise, Tynan would already be in here yelling at me.”
Liandra blinked in surprise. “You can do that?”
“Yes, we soundproofed our quarters since we can be…never mind.” Allie blushed.
“I wish you could soundproof my suite,” Liandra said wistfully. “There are times I want to go out onto my balcony and scream. Like when my brothers annoy me…which is almost every day. If I did give in to the urge to scream, I would have a dozen guards breaking down my doors.”
“I’ll soundproof your chambers later and be sure to include the balcony,” Allie promised with a laugh. “Only calls for help will get out. It took a few tries to narrow that down. Don’t ask.”
“Magic truly is a wonderful gift,” Kyriani said in awe.
“Speaking of gifts…” Allie reached for the box Tynan had carried in and held it out to Liandra. “We lied to you. Your brothers and I didn’t go to the Iron Palace yesterday. We were working on your gift on the other side of the palace with Raven and her mates. Sorry that we didn’t go with you to the festival, but I think you are going to forgive us when you open that.”
Liandra took the box, then cleared the space in front of her on the table before setting it down. The box looked like it was covered in shimmering gold dragon scales, with a black claw hook keeping the box closed. She unlatched the box, then stared down at the contents in puzzlement. Dozens of small light and dark brown objects were set into individual gold compartments lined in rows. Each of the pieces was shaped differently, ranging from shells to blobs that reminded her of something rather unpleasant.
“It’s chocolate!” Allie exclaimed. “Try one. Go on. It’s safe, I promise. The guys tried all of them to make sure, and now I think they are a little addicted.”
“A little?” Raven laughed. “I swear they almost didn’t hand over the box.”
Unconvinced, Liandra chose a small, light brown piece shaped like a star from inside the box. She hesitantly lifted it to her mouth and took a small, cautious bite. At first, she didn’t know what to think. Then the delicious, sugary taste exploded on her tongue. Her eyes widened with delight as she chewed, and she instantly missed the creamy texture once it was gone. She popped the rest of it into her mouth and grinned.
“Creating them with magic was a little trickier than I expected since it was all about recreating the flavor from memory. Raven and our mates helped with that. There were a lot of misses, but we finally got it. The lighter ones are made of milk chocolate, while the other ones are dark chocolate. All of them are different. There are a few plain ones, but the others have fruit, nuts, caramel, little crispy things, and a few other goodies inside them. The one you tried is a milk chocolate truffle. It’s one of my favorites,” Allie explained.
“Mother, you must try one.”
Kyriani chose a dark piece and moaned in pleasure as she chewed. “It is magical.”
“It’s one of the only things we miss from Earth,” Raven said with a laugh. “We came up with a pretty cool idea for the box. We had to make sure the chocolate wouldn’t melt and…close it and open it again. You’ll see.”
After Liandra did what she said, she gasped when the empty spaces had magically refilled. “This is truly a magnificent gift. Thank you.”
“We’re just glad you like it.” Allie smiled as she leaned back and rubbed her hands over her pregnant belly. “I think I’m finally full. I guess I should go apologize to my mates now.”
Raven shook her head. “Not yet. Once you do, we won’t see you again until the celebration tomorrow night. We have some clothing to make and soundproofing to do before you disappear for the evening.”
“Actually, there is something else I wanted to speak to you about before you leave.” When Liandra saw that she had everyone’s attention, she explained, “I wish to create a dating site here in the city.”
Allie and Raven exchanged a look.
“Umm…I don’t think that means what I think you think it means,” Raven said gently.
“Is it not a place to go to have dates?”
Allie snorted. “She’s got you there. Tell us what you were thinking, Liandra.”
“It is something I have been considering since Raven told us about inviting the unmated females to her mating celebration. I would like to create a place here in the city where males and females can gather with the sole purpose of finding a mate. They can eat and drink while getting to know one another in a controlled setting that is well guarded.”
“We have started doing that at each of the havens,” Kyriani reminded.
“Aye, but it does not make them feel safe to allow so many males inside the doors of the havens. Some of the females feel it is an invasion into their home. They did not tell me directly, but I did hear some of them speaking about it. The dating site would be in another building, and it will be completely voluntary to visit.”
“I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it myself,” Raven admitted with a healthy dose of self-recrimination. “We invite the females from the havens in the Citadel and the Iron City to the palace for celebrations, but you are talking about having someplace that is available every day, right?”
Liandra nodded. “If we had a centralized location where males and females could mingle freely, there might be a greater chance of people finding their mates. This way, they can take their time getting to know one another in a neutral setting.”
“I think it’s a great idea.” Allie’s eyes started leaking again. “I just realized that I’ve been so caught up with my own drama that I haven’t been focusing on doing what the gods brought me here to do. I haven’t been helping bring more changes to this world. They must be so disappointed.”
Kyriani shook her head. “Those are your pregnancy emotions again, sweetling.”
“I did not mean to make you sad,” Liandra said softly.
Allie waved a hand in the air. “You didn’t. I’m being silly. Actually, I’m really proud of you for coming up with this idea. This is going to be so much fun!”
“Tell me what I can do to help,” Raven offered. “And after you have your dating site up and running, we would love to expand your idea to the Citadel and Iron City.”
“Oh, since this was originally your idea maybe you should—”
“Nope.” Raven shook her head. “I might have gotten it started, but you made it bigger and better. This is your project, sweetie.”
“I fully support this idea,” Kyriani stated proudly. “Bringing our people together this way will benefit not only our city but the entire world. I am very proud of you as well, daughter.”
Liandra could barely contain her joy. “You will speak to fathers about this?”
“Aye. I will be telling them that we are doing it.”
Allie beamed at her. “Go, mom!”
“I think we should continue this discussion downstairs while you do whatever magical workings need to be done.” Kyriani grinned as she stood up. “Liandra, make sure you bring the chocolates with you. We might need those while we are about our work. Now, tell me…what exactly is dating, and how do we go about teaching it to people?”
Liandra woke up gasping for breath. Her heart was pounding, and a thin sheen of sweat covered her skin despite the cool breeze drifting in through the open balcony. She wasn’t sure what had woken her, but she wanted to curse at the sudden disruption of what had been a very erotic dream.
She had been fantasizing about kissing Aeron again, only this time Jasyn had been pressing against her back. His large hands had been holding her steady while his brother took her mouth in a savage kiss. She had thoroughly enjoyed being held between their hard, hot bodies, but she’d wanted to be closer. She’d longed to feel their bare skin beneath her seeking hands. Wanted to sink her fangs into them, to taste their blood and bond with them, but the dream shifted before she could.
She’d suddenly found herself naked on her bed with the three Mazer brothers staring down at her. She had begged them to strip their clothes off, and suddenly their bronzed bodies were bare to her hungry gaze. Braden had been the first to move onto the bed, lifting one of her legs to press kisses along her ankle down to her knee. Aeron had lain by her side, and she’d moaned as his large hand cupped her breast. She’d gasped as Jasyn pinched her other nipple between his fingers, then he’d tilted her head toward him, claiming her lips in another heated kiss.
“Open for them,” Aeron commanded softly. “Open for my brothers.”
She’d felt their hands pulling her thighs open, and she willingly complied, spreading her legs for Braden’s large body. When he moved closer, she took his hard, hot length into her hand, stroking him from base to tip. His low growl of pleasure made her shiver. Before she felt the weight of his body on hers, they were gone.
Being ripped from the dream was like being doused with cold water, abrupt and soul-shattering. Her fingers dug into the bedding, the cool sheets beside her further proof that none of it had been real. Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron hadn’t been with her. Raw grief made her want to cry. She had felt so safe between them, so loved, but it had all just been a fantasy. Lifting her hand, she rubbed the pads of her fingertips over her bottom lip.
Liandra swore she could still taste them.
She was covered with a thin sheet, but sometime during her slumber, she had kicked off the heavier blankets. Letting out a sigh, she curled onto her side and stared out at the open balcony. Thick red curtains fluttered in the breeze, intermittently obstructing her view. Before she had gone to sleep, she had forgotten to pull them closed to block out the light, as was her usual routine. She could see the two purple moons were still high in the dark crimson sky, telling her that she hadn’t been asleep for long.
Closing her eyes again, she attempted to get back to the dream world, but, like trying to catch wisps of smoke with her bare hands, sleep eluded her.
She should have been exhausted after spending hours with Allie, Raven, and her mother. When they were done soundproofing her entire suite and adding to her wardrobe, they’d also made several other changes. She had let them play around with whatever they wanted without protest. If carving images of dragons, stars, and flowers into the pale sandstone walls and altering her furniture made them happy, she wasn’t going to stand in their way.
Since she’d never really had female friends before, it had been nice spending time with them. Still, she had gotten a little worried when they had made their way into the smaller bedchambers located inside her suite. Since the rooms were meant to belong to her future mates, they should have remained empty or at least undecorated, as was custom. Instead, she had set up each room with the Mazer brothers’ preferences in mind.
It was presumptuous, wishful thinking on her part, but she couldn’t help herself. She had been grateful when Allie and Raven hadn’t asked any questions since she hadn’t been sure how she would have answered them.
She had stayed in her suite after her companions had left, then had replayed the details of the day in her mind while she had soaked in the pink pool of water in her private bathing chamber. Spending time with Jasyn and Aeron had been wonderful, though it had just made her greedy for more. She resented not being able to show them affection while in public, but that would change soon.
Their gifts to her had given her hope that they wanted her as much as she wanted to be with them, then the kiss she had shared with Aeron had destroyed all of her doubts. Although Braden was still an unknown factor, his feelings for her had to be similar to his brothers. A trio’s bond wouldn’t allow anything else. That didn’t mean he would be happy about it, though it gave her something to work with.
It was challenging for her to smother her own insecurities, but she hadn’t exactly been open and honest with them about how she felt either. That was also something that had to change. Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron had a lot to lose if they actively pursued her, yet she had been acting like a silly youngling waiting for them to make their intentions clear before she declared herself. She didn’t know much about courting, or what humans called dating, but she assumed the rules were different when it came to royalty.
Her mother’s support warmed her heart, but ultimately it would be her fathers she had to convince. They were the kings, and their word was law. Still, it was up to her to make it clear that she wanted the Mazer brothers as her mates, or she would spend the rest of her days miserably alone. There would be no changing her mind. The only thing that would do that was if Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron rejected her.
If that happened, she didn’t know what she would do.
When they had been in charge of her protection, the Mazer brothers had lived in a small suite on the floor below her. As a youngling, she had often gone to them if she had a bad dream or couldn’t sleep. She could have woken her brothers or her mother and fathers, but she had sought the comfort and companionship of Braden, Jasyn, and Aeron. A few cycles ago, they had put a stop to her visits. She’d understood that it was inappropriate to visit them in the quarters, but she had missed sitting and talking to them with the moons as their only companions.
After they had been promoted, they were given larger quarters on the other side of the palace. The physical separation between them had hurt her almost as much as the emotional distance she felt from them. Several months ago, she had broken the rules and had snuck into their new quarters. It had been in the early hours of the morning, and she had been hoping to catch them before they had left to start their duties for the day. Jasyn and Aeron had already been gone, but Braden must have just returned from night patrol.
He had strolled out of his bedchamber without a stitch of clothing on while she had hidden in the shadows by the entrance. She’d watched with wide eyes as he’d stroked his hand over his thick cock, tugging at the hard length in a casual gesture that made it obvious he had done so many times. She had stayed where she was after he had disappeared into their bathing chamber, then she had quietly made her exit. She had run all the way back to her own suite, uncaring that several guards had stopped to watch her.
She had caught glimpses of other nude warriors throughout the years since modesty wasn’t something they concerned themselves with. Still, seeing Braden had been different, and the memory of seeing his naked body had taken over her fantasies. She’d touched herself in the dark countless times while thinking about him and his brothers, but lately, seeking her own pleasure left her feeling more frustrated than satisfied. Feeling restless and edgy, she considered trying to ease the ache the dream had caused but didn’t bother.
Giving up on sleep for the moment, she got out of bed. Since she slept naked, she put on a thin robe before making her way out onto the balcony. She secured the three ties in the front, and the long, flowing material swirled around her legs as she walked outside.
Leaning her arms on the railing, she drew the cool air deep into her lungs as she looked out over the dark water. Her suite was built directly into the side of the mountain in the most secure section of the palace, and the view from each of her balconies consisted of nothing but sky and sea. When she was younger, the isolation had made her feel lonely, separate from the rest of her family, though she had come to appreciate the privacy.
“You should be sleeping.”
Letting out a loud gasp, she spun around at the sound of the deep voice behind her. Silver eyes glowed from the dark corner of the balcony where a male dressed all in black sat hidden in the shadows. She instantly recognized Braden Mazer even though she couldn’t see all of him.
He sat forward and rested his forearms on his knees. Seeing his harsh beauty highlighted in the soft lavender moonlight made her breath catch. He was the epitome of male perfection. His long, dark-brown hair was wrapped up in a messy bun at the back of his head. Her eldest brothers were always removing elastic bands from Allie’s hair, leaving them scattered throughout the palace. Braden had started using the bands to keep his hair out of his way, and she found the unfamiliar style strangely sexy.
Who was she kidding?
She thought everything about him was highly arousing.
Braden was silent as he took in the sight of the goddess standing before him. Her face was bathed in moonlight, and the silhouette of her perfect form was visible through the thin material of her red robe. Her sleep-tousled black hair hung loose to her waist, and her glowing gold eyes were bright with surprise.
By the gods, she was so beautiful it almost hurt to look at her.
She seemed happy to see him, though she tried to hide it. Perfect pink lips were parted as she gasped softly. He knew how those lips tasted, and he wanted to feel them pressed against his own again. When he had entered her suite and saw her nude body splayed out on the bed, his heart had nearly stopped. He had done the honorable thing by covering her with the sheet. It was cool out, and he hadn’t wanted her to catch a chill.
The very thought of her discomfort made him uneasy.
Covering her was all he had intended to do, then she had moaned his name. He hadn’t been able to stop himself. He had stolen a kiss, brushing his lips against hers. The light touch had set his body on fire. When she had tried to take the kiss deeper, he’d desperately wanted to strip his clothes off and join her on the bed. Instead, he’d forced himself to retreat to the balcony a safe distance away.
He’d spent countless nights hidden in the corner of her balcony, a silent sentry keeping watch to protect her when she was most vulnerable. Hellfire, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a full night’s rest, but it was damn well worth it. He liked standing guard over her while she was sleeping. Even his own brothers thought he was crazy at times. It was a compulsion in his blood, a need he had to fulfill for his own peace of mind.
That didn’t mean Jasyn and Aeron didn’t take their own turns guarding her while she slept, though it was mostly Braden who found himself returning to her balcony night after night. It was torture watching her sleep in that massive bed and not being able to join her, but he wanted every moment he could have with her.
Even if he had to steal that time.
Whenever he snuck into her room, he usually limited himself to brushing his lips against her forehead before taking his seat. Tonight had been different. It all felt different, as if the air itself was charged with an electrical current. He hadn’t meant to reveal himself to her tonight, and he wouldn’t have if she hadn’t woken up.
He’d tried to stay away from her. She was far too tempting, and he feared that his control would break. If it did, he would end up doing something unforgivable. But he was coming precariously close to losing the battle. He felt as if she were slipping through his fingers like the sands of time, and each second that passed brought him closer to his doom. Once she was mated, there would be very few private moments spent in her presence.
The very thought filled him with rage, making him clench his fists.
“What are you doing here? The guards—”
“Did not see me. Why are you having trouble sleeping, little Lia?” he asked instead of answering her question. The nickname he called her usually made her smile, but this time she just frowned at him and huffed out a breath. The little show of irritation amused him but exposing that would be a mistake. As she stepped closer, his own annoyance spiked. He didn’t like the signs of fatigue he saw on her beautiful face. It made him want to carry her to the bed and order her back to sleep.
“Why the sudden concern with my sleeping habits?” she fired back.
“There is nothing sudden about it.”
She looked back at the sea, but he had seen something flash in her gold eyes before she turned away from him. He had hurt her. Self-preservation may have made him try to keep his distance from her, but the one thing he couldn’t stand against was her pain.
He got to his feet and slowly walked toward her. She stubbornly refused to look at him, and he had to fight the urge to grab hold of her and never let go. Wanting to shift her mood and see her smile, he drew the knife that he had tucked into his belt. He’d wrapped it in a soft cloth and had planned to leave it by her bed before he left her suite, but those plans had changed.
He’d felt an acute sense of satisfaction when he saw that she’d worn the bracelet and rings his brothers had given her to bed. Braden knew there was a chance he would never get to give her the mating torque he had created for her, but he’d made it with hope in his heart that one day she would wear it. Because he couldn’t give her the torque, he had also made her a knife since he knew she’d been hunting for one for a while now.
It was almost half the size of a warrior’s blade and was the perfect size to fit in her small hand. The blade was made of black metal, and pink metal liasha flowers decorated the leather handle. Liandra was a rare beauty just like the liasha flower, and that was one of the reasons he had started calling her Lia when she was younger.
The liasha flowers were only found in the harsh desert climate, and no one knew where or when one would bloom out of the sand. They were a favorite among their people since each stem bore three beautiful glowing pink flowers. Many trios searched for one to give to their chosen mates, and with care and cultivation, the flowers could continue to rebloom for many cycles. Since he couldn’t give her the actual flowers, he’d put them on the gift he’d made for her so that she could carry them with her.
“I brought you something.” He held up the wrapped blade. “I wanted to be the first to wish you blessings on your day of birth, little Lia.”
“You broke into my bedchamber to give me a gift?”
He smirked. “I came in through the secret entrance.”
“There is a secret entrance into my suite?” She gasped. “Why did you not tell me?”
“Because you would have used it if you knew about it,” he said with a laugh. “We were tasked with keeping you safe, so we needed another exit to sneak you out of the palace in case something happened. It took us a long time to create the pathway from your suite into the mountain since only my brothers and I know it exists. We are able to access the hidden tunnel from our old quarters. It is why we insisted that area be used for storage after we were forced to move to the other side of the palace.”
Liandra shook her head in amazement. They were far too clever for their own good. She should have realized they wouldn’t let a little thing like a mountain get in the way of keeping her safe. Of course, she would have used a secret entrance if she had known about it. Obviously, they had been right not to tell her. Thinking about how easily she could have snuck into their quarters and slipped into bed with them made her pulse race.
Her cheeks flushed with heat as she remembered she’d been sleeping naked when he must have entered her room. Clearing her throat, she reached for whatever Braden was holding, but he pulled it out of reach. She raised a brow at the playful gesture, then he grinned and placed the object into her waiting hand. Tearing her gaze away from him, she looked down and pulled the cloth away.
She gasped as she saw the beautiful knife secured in a black leather sheath. The sight of the liasha flowers warmed her heart. The metal flowers secured to the black leather handle were smooth to the touch and made it easier to grip. She slid the dagger free from its sheath and admired the silver, gold, and bronze design that had been worked into the bottom half of the black blade.
“It is beautiful. Thank you so much, Braden. It is truly a work of art.”
He shifted on his feet, looking uncomfortable with the praise. “It might look nice, but it is still a weapon. I will have to teach you the proper way to use it before I will be comfortable with you carrying it.”
His gruff announcement made her smile with gratitude. “I would like that.”
“Now, tell me why.”
She battled with herself, trying to figure out what to say, then went with honesty. “I have not felt safe since you left me.” When she saw him flinch, she wanted to take the words back. Perhaps that was a little too honest. “I did not mean—”
“You did.” His fingers brushed the hair back from her face, then gripped her chin to hold her in place when she tried to look away from him. “Explain why you need a weapon.”
“I wish to learn how to protect myself.”
“Have Zavier, Calix, and Makari done something to make you distrust them?” His voice lowered to a menacing growl that made her shiver.
“Nay, I barely know the Vortox brothers.” She slid the blade back into its sheath with barely a hiss of sound. “I have realized how foolish it is to leave my peace of mind to others. I know they are my guards, but…” Her shoulders slumped as she said, “They are not you.”
“Sweet little Lia, you have no need to fear. We will always keep you safe,” he murmured softly. “You may feel like we have abandoned you, but we have not. We never will.”
Her spine stiffened as her temper ignited. “I never even see you anymore!”
He stepped closer and wrapped his hand around her neck, and she shivered at his touch. The move should have scared her, but his hold was gentle. She knew he would never hurt her. At least, not physically. The heat of his large palm felt good against her cool skin, and she wished she could wrap her arms around him and share his warmth.
“You do not see me because I am here every fucking night,” he snarled.
His bold admission made her breath catch. Had he really just said that? Her heart started pounding so hard she was sure he could feel it through his palm. “Wh–what?”
“You have never been without us. Jasyn and Aeron share duties during the daylight hours, trading off so they can remain close by in case you need them. But that is not enough for me. I do not have as much control as my brothers.”
“I need this.” He gripped her shoulders, almost desperately. “Do you understand? I sit on this balcony watching you sleep because I cannot stay away from you. Once you are mated to a trio of kings—”
She shook her head. “I will not be mating any kings.”
“You do not have a choice. That is why your fathers invited all of these damn kings and princes for your birthday celebration.”
His expression was fierce, but his glowing silver eyes were dim with sadness. She reached up and gently stroked her fingertips over his beloved face from his forehead down to his jawline. He grabbed her wrist, though he didn’t pull her hand away.
“You know who I want as my mates.”
He leaned down and rested his forehead against hers. “You should not say such things to me. We cannot always have what we want, no matter how much we wish it were so.”
She wanted to beg him to love her enough to fight for her, for them. Hearing the desperate longing in his voice gave her the courage she needed to finally confess what was in her heart. “I will only mate with males I love…no others. It is you, Jasyn, and Aeron. It has always been you, Braden.” She swallowed hard before whispering, “I have loved you my whole life, and will continue until I take my last breath. There will never be anyone else for me. If you want me, I am yours.”
“You are already mine, Lia. You always have been,” he growled as his control snapped and he jerked her into his arms. Wrapping her long hair around his fist, he pulled her head back and took her mouth in a brutal, claiming kiss.
Braden captured her moan of pleasure as his tongue shoved past the seam of her lips. Kissing her was a revelation. It was the fulfillment of every wish and dream he’d ever had, but the reality of tasting her was so much better than he ever could have imagined.
As soon as his lips touched hers, he’d become lust-drunk. Passion clouded his head until it was impossible to think straight. He knew he had taken advantage of the situation, crossed the line. Hellfire, he hadn’t just crossed it.
He had fucking obliterated the line until it no longer existed.
What he’d said to her was true…she belonged to him. Back when they’d first met her, Aeron and Jasyn had instantly felt a connection to their little charge, but Braden had been wary. Somehow, he had sensed that she would become too important to them, and he’d been right. Even as a youngling, she’d had them wrapped around her little finger, and that power over them had only grown stronger.
Now, she owned them completely.
He knew he should proceed with caution. Actually, he should stop what he was doing and leave before he did something even worse. Touching her was akin to a death sentence. If he were caught in her bedchamber, he would not only damn himself but his brothers as well.
But she was worth it.
That was something all three of them were in complete agreement about.
His tongue stroked against hers, coaxing her to respond in kind. Feeling her pressed against him made his cock harden to stone, and his thick length strained uncomfortably within the confines of his leath