Splintered Mirror

A Sordid Fairy Tale

Julian, valet and occasional bodyguard to a literal fairy tale prince, wants nothing more than to keep her job. However, that entails keeping anyone from finding out that she’s female. A pity the Prince already does.

Ordered by his father the King, Prince Alberic and Julian take off for Lyoness and a Unicorn hunt to win a princess bride. However, not only are there two princesses instead of one–Rose Red and Snow White–there really is a Unicorn, and that unicorn intends to claim both princesses for his own.

Category: M/F
WARNING: Explicit!

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A Sordid Fairy Tale

Once upon a time in the enchanted land of Nod, there lived an amazingly beautiful prince named Alberic. The prince had long golden hair, emerald green eyes, and a face women swooned over. Unfortunately, this very same prince was also sarcastic, sadistic, and demonically temperamental. Supposedly, he wasn’t actually a demon, but I had my doubts — as did anyone else who happened to cross his path.

My name is Julian, I was his valet. I am also a woman.

Excerpts

Praise for Splintered Mirror

5 Stars — A wickedly delicious fairy tale

“Morgan Hawke is a champ at writing sexy, ruthless doms and the subs who will fight them every step of the way (until it’s time to stop fighting and give in). A wonderfully naughty fairy tale!”

5 Stars — Wonderful

“Morgan Hawke is great as usual. If you are looking for quirky spunky ladies, unusual fresh perspectives, interesting and sexy alpha males, and hot chemistry, this book delivers!”

4 Stars – Remarkably Good

“Very original and fun story, of a young woman who takes her brothers’ place as the sadistic prince’s valet, then remains as the valet after the gruesome death of her family. Prince Alberic and the court Physician Theo are the only people remaining who know her gender, and some interesting situations arise as they get older together. I enjoyed this book; it was well written and paced.”
— A Borghese —

Ch-0

Once upon a time…

“Fetch, peon.” With a sweet smile that made him look angelic and years younger than thirteen, Prince Alberic, the only heir to the Kingdom of Nod’s throne, tossed yet another tin soldier over the cracked rim of the disused fountain.

The toy disappeared into the fountain’s murky water with a soft ker-plunk.

Royal heir or not, I glared at the thirteen-year-old brat from my superior position of fourteen years old, and two and a half inches taller. “Aren’t you a little old to be playing this game?”

Just then, an autumn breeze chose that moment to whisk through the trees, sweeping red-gold leaves from their nearly naked limbs, then across me.

Despite my best efforts, I shivered hard. Even though my blue frock coat and matching knee breeches were fairly heavy wool, and the knee-length black waistcoat was too, I was freezing. This was due to the fact thatI standing waist-deep in the fountain’s icy water. I was pathetically grateful that the fountain itself wasn’t actually spouting water like it was supposed to, or I would have been completely soaked. “And it’s not summer, in case you haven’t noticed?”

“So?” The prince thumbed back a long golden lock escaping the black velvet bow that bound the rest of his incredibly long hair to the back of his neck. The green-eyed, blond, royal pain in my ass was exquisitely dressed in a green velvet frock coat heavily embroidered with silver. A fortune in lace was around his throat held by an emerald brooch worth an entire small kingdom.

We were in one of the palace’s overgrown and lesser-used gardens. One of the few places we could play without the near-constant stares of the maids, or footmen. Not that the prince cared. He was used to it. It was me that couldn’t handle being watched so closely, or rather, their looks of pity. After all, I was there for a reason; to keep the royal brat from playing with them.

Alberic pointed at the water, his angelic smile fading into his more customary demonic smirk. “Fetch!”

Soaked and annoyed beyond all endurance, I dug around in the water until I found the soldier, then threw it at his head. I missed, of course, which annoyed me even more, so I shouted at the top of my lungs, “I quit! Go find another playmate to torture!”

The Prince stared at me wide-eyed, his petal-pink lips slightly parted. “Quit?” He leapt to his feet and pointed at me with a scowl on his cherubic face. “You can’t quit! I bought you!”

I dragged myself out of the fountain and wrung out my long black ponytail. “I can too quit!” I flipped my wet ponytail to my back and sneered in his face. “You may have paid my parents for me, but I’m not a contracted apprentice. Anything else is slavery, and slavery is still illegal in this kingdom.”

Alberic scowled. “Damn it, I should have never let you sit in on my kingdom law classes…”

“Well, it’s too late now.” I smiled with pure malice and wrung out the hem of my coat next to his highly polished shoes, making a nice little puddle. Shoes I had spent hours polishing, so no, I was not about to soak them in rancid water. “In fact…” I set my fisted hands on my wet hips. “I’m going home right now!” I turned on my heel and squelched toward the garden gate that opened into the woods.

Alberic chased after me. “No! I’m the prince, and I say you can’t quit!”

I took off running. “I quit! I quit! I quit!

He charged after me. “You’re not! You’re not! You’re not!”

“Am too! Am too! Am too!

The gate was locked, of course, but the maple tree right next to it overhung the wall. However, since I was taller, I could reach the lowest branch where it wasn’t quite low enough for my prince to grab, and he knew it. Even better, he wasn’t anywhere near as good at climbing trees as I was.

“You…! Get your butt back here, peon!”

“Make me!” I jumped to grab onto the maple’s branch, and swung myself up. Constantly carrying things around for the prince hither, thither, and yon had put some serious strength in my arms. I moved across the branches to the other side of the wall, then dropped out of the tree to land on my hands and knees by the gate.

Alberic grabbed onto the cast iron bars and screamed at me, “I will have you dragged back and whipped for this!”

I stuck my tongue out. “Gotta catch me first!” I bolted into the woods. It briefly occurred to me that my prince probably would have the palace guard drag me back, and he did like using that riding crop of his, but right then I just didn’t care. I was making a point.

The walk home through the woods got dark fast. Being autumn, night came early. However, the moon was very full and bright, and most of the leaves had already fallen from the trees, so I had no trouble seeing at all. My hands chilled, as did my wet feet, but I had pockets to tuck my hands into, and my wool frock coat was more than enough to keep most of the rest of me warm. Wool stays warm even wet. However, my wool breeches only went to the knee, so my shins tried to go numb on me, but the brisk walk and the heat of my anger helped.

By the time I got to my parent’s thatch-roofed farmhouse, I was bone tired and seriously questioning the wisdom of a trek home rather than simply escaping to the castle’s maze of attics. It was easily possible to hide there for a few days, and best of all, the prince had never been able to find me there. Far too late to do anything about my rash decision and shaking with exhaustion, I lifted the wooden latch to the back door and opened it.

Strangely, it was dark inside, and no one was there.

Just to make things even odder, the big heavy oak table had been shoved to the far left side, almost against the water pump’s sink. Dishes and spoons were scattered across the table, along with spilled stew. Mom’s prized glass oil lamp sat right on the edge. Other than the hearth fire, it was the only light in the room. None of the mirrored wall candles were lit. The four chairs were scattered around the room, and one of them was shattered almost to splinters.

Had my parents gotten into one of their fights? Frowning, I headed straight for the river stone fireplace to warm my hands by the fire. I didn’t hear any shouting, so hopefully, the fight was over. “Mom? Dad? Julian?”

Julian was my twin, younger by only two hours. Standing side by side, we appeared to be identical. The only real difference was that one of us was a boy, and the other was not. Our names were practically identical too, Julian and Julianna. To make things even more confusing, we both answered to the name Julian.

Not a sound answered me. The house was dead quiet, except for the crackling fire.

Where was everybody? Had my parents gone out to the barn for their shouting match? They would if the fight was about money, or Dad’s occasional gambling. But then, where was my twin? He hated fights, so he wouldn’t have followed them to the barn…?

Something splattered under my shoe.

I looked down and discovered that I had stepped into a puddle, a thick red puddle. A thick red puddle that was seeping from pieces of…something heaped in the deep shadow at the side of the fireplace. It looked like someone had butchered a hog right there in the kitchen. That was seriously odd, because Dad butchered the hogs out in the shed, and it was in so many pieces…

I squinted at it, wondering why it looked so messy. That’s when I realized that it hadn’t been butchered, it had been ripped apart. A bit of white caught my eye, white that was slowly turning red. It looked like a…sleeve.

I jerked back sharply. That wasn’t a hog. Hogs didn’t wear clothes.

I stared, frozen in total shock, my mind completely unable to accept what I was seeing. Icy panic began to spill into my veins, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. My throat closed so tight, my voice came out in barely a whisper. “Mom? Dad? Julian?”

Something large and heavy moved behind me.

I whirled to look.

Something huge was coming down the ladder from the loft, something big and…furry. Rounded ears lifted at the top of its round furry head, and it pointed its short muzzle at me. It looked like…a bear.

Only bears didn’t normally wear clothing, although what it wore was torn almost to pieces. Bears didn’t have hands either, but this one did, tipped with long black claws that curved. The way it stepped down the stairs was definitely not bear-like. Its eyes suddenly glowed green. The mouth opened, showing long jagged teeth, and a bass growl rolled from its massive chest.

That definitely wasn’t a man, but it definitely wasn’t a bear either. It was a monster.

My mouth opened, but I didn’t scream. I couldn’t scream. My throat had closed far too tightly.

Suddenly the latch to the door lifted and the door flew open, slamming against the wall. Prince Alberic, still in his green and silver suit, but also wearing a dark cloak that was much too big for him, marched into my parent’s house and bellowed out, “Turn over Julian at once!”

I turned to stare at my prince wide-eyed.

Spotting me by the hearth, my prince scowled ferociously at me. “You are in so much trouble, peon.”

I was in trouble? I almost laughed.

The thing on the stairs roared and came crashing down into the main room, aiming straight for my prince.

I bolted across the room, not thinking, only reacting. There was no time for thought, only the desperate need to act. I plowed into Alberic, knocking him bodily to the floor and away from those reaching claws.

Alberic grunted under me and winced. “Ow…”

“Joo lee aaahn…” The voice was deep and rumbled so loud the floor actually vibrated. It was also very, very close.

I looked over my shoulder.

The monster stood over us, its clawed hands dripping red. It also reeked hideously. Worst of all, it stood between us and the door. There was absolutely no way past it.

Eyes wide and panting harshly with fear, I flipped over onto my butt and scrabbled frantically backwards, shoving Alberic back against the wall.

Alberic sat behind me and stared with his eyes just as wide as mine. He leaned forward to breathe nervously in my ear. “What is that?”

My throat was still too tight to speak, but I got a whisper out. “Monster.”

The monster took in a deep growling breath, and then let out with that deep thundering voice. “Jooo lee ahn…”

I blinked. Was it saying my name?

“What?” Alberic growled. “Oh, hell no,” he muttered, then abruptly stood up and pointed his finger at the monster. “My peon! Back off!”

For a moment, I thought he’d actually snapped.

Suddenly, blue-white light burst around him and engulfed us both in blinding brilliance. The light seared my eyes. I threw up an arm to cover them.

The monster howled and thundered off.

The light suddenly went out.

I dropped my arm from my eyes in time to have Alberic collapse on top of me, out cold. His weight knocked the breath out of me, and I sat there stunned and gasping for what felt like an eternity, but couldn’t have been more than a few heartbeats. When I finally caught my breath, I realized two things.

The monster had fled to the far side of the room, its face covered by both hairy arms.

The doorway was clear.

In a near-blind panic, I grabbed my unconscious prince under the arms and dragged him toward the door as fast as I could do it. In my haste, I slammed my side into the kitchen table, knocking Mother’s glass oil lamp off it to shatter on the floor. Oil spilled across the floor and ignited.

I didn’t stop to look. I was too busy dragging Alberic out the door.

I made it to Mother’s herb garden, where I was forced to stop for breath and to get a better grip on my prince. He weighed a freaking ton. However, the only real thought going through my mind was that we needed help. That…thing was fast, and it would definitely catch us once it got out that door.

The road.

I needed to get to the road, and hopefully someone would be on it…preferably someone with a fast horse.

Ducking down, I heaved Alberic over my shoulder and stood up, lifting him up like a sack of flour, a very heavy sack of flour. Hunched under him with my legs shaking from the strain, I scrambled around the house to the open gate at the road.

A deafening roar of blazing heat hit my side, knocking me over. It spilled us both on the packed dirt of the road, right into the path of several horsemen in black cloaks.

Dimly, I realized it was a troop of palace guards led by Reinhardt, captain of the palace guards. The captain’s black horse danced back snorting. Captain Reinhardt reined his horse back and leaned over the saddle. “Julian? Prince!”

I pointed at the house and suddenly my voice came back loud and clear. “Monster!” That was when I realized that the thatch-roofed cottage I had been born in had become a raging inferno.

The captain frowned. “What?”

Inside the house, the monster roared. It crashed through the front door howling and streaming flames right in front of the palace guards.

All of the horses screamed in fright and went mad, bucking and rearing. The men shouted. I was deafened by the explosion of too many muskets going off, far too close.

I threw myself on top of Alberic.

The monster roared thunderously and ran off into the fields.

The captain pointed at two of his men and shouted. “You two, get these two back to the palace!” He drew his saber and waved it toward the monster. “The rest of you, after it! Don’t let it get away!” He slammed his heels into his horse’s sides and charged into the fields after the monster.

His men followed in a wave of shouting and pounding hooves.

I vaguely felt someone lift me from the ground, but I refused to let go of Alberic’s coat. The world receded into gray fog.

* * * * * *

I awoke to find myself slumped against the wall in the prince’s bedchamber. Directly across the room from me, the prince, in his ruffled nightshirt, lay tucked under the silk coverlet of his velvet-draped bed. He lay very, very still.

On the opposite side of the bed, Theo the royal alchemist and physician had his palm on the prince’s brow.

I rose to my feet on shaking legs. Dully, I noticed that my coat was muddy and that there were suspicious looking red stains on my knees and stockings. My shoes were gone. Worst of all, I stank of smoke and something else, something foul. I almost retched.

It wasn’t a dream. It had all happened. The monster, the dead…somebody in my house, the fire… Somehow, we had gotten away. Somehow, we had both survived. The relief was so profound I was attacked by a wave of dizziness and almost fell to the floor. I put a hand on the wall to steady myself.

I focused on my prince and Theo. My teeth chattered so strongly I could barely speak. “Will he live?”

Theo snorted. “He’s merely asleep.” He rose from the chair by the prince’s bed and towered over me. “Now, as for you…”

I shook my head. “I’m not hurt.” Despite the fact that I couldn’t stop shaking, and the bruises I could feel starting to introduce themselves, I wasn’t actually injured.

Theo took hold of my arm and hauled me away from my prince’s side. “I’ll be the judge of that.” Before I could think to protest, the royal alchemist had pulled the clothes from my body and uncovered my deepest secret, the one shared by only my prince and I.

I stared at him, completely nude and utterly unconcerned by that fact. I should have cared, but my exposure was nothing compared to what I had seen in my parent’s house, and what it meant. Half-mad with the terror beginning to freeze my blood, I grabbed his sleeve. “My family…?”

Theo looked at me, and his stern expression melted. He closed his eyes and shook his head, solemnly.

I refused to acknowledge what I saw in his face. “My family? My parents, my brother…?”

Theo sighed and opened his eyes to look at me. “They’re…gone.”

Gone? My throat tightened my voice to a whisper. “Wh–where?” Despite what I had seen, I wanted to believe that they had all just run away and hadn’t been found yet.

Theo heaved another sigh. “The beast…” He shook his head sharply. “They’ve all gone to a better place, Julian.”

Better place meant… I just stared, my heart beginning to freeze solid in my chest. “A-all of them? My brother too?”

Theo held my gaze. “I’m sorry, Julian.”

I didn’t cry. I couldn’t cry. This was much, much too big for tears. Instead, I could feel the ice around my heart closing in to crush it. I suddenly heard the wind howling in my ears. Theo’s face started to go very far away.

A sharp shake brought me back. “Julian!”

I blinked up at Theo, completely and utterly numb. “Yes?”

“Prince Alberic will want you when he awakens.” Theo shoved some of the prince’s old clothes into my arms, then pushed me into my prince’s bathing chamber. The wall candles were lit and the huge marble bath was full and steaming. “Hurry up and bathe.” He left, closing the bath chamber’s door behind him.

I bathed, and bathed, scrubbing every inch of myself with soap and a cloth until I was red and raw. I had to get the dirt off. I had to get the stains off. I had to get the smell off. When the water had gone too cold to stand it anymore, I drained the tub and scrubbed it too, leaving no trace of my bath behind. Only then did I dress.

When I came out of the bath chamber, Theo was gone and so were my ruined clothes.

I sat on the chair by the window beside my sleeping prince. He was hurt because of me, and my family. I couldn’t accept that they were gone. That everyone I loved… That everyone that loved me… That I was alone. I just…couldn’t.

I never noticed when I fell asleep, but I suddenly woke with my head pillowed on my prince’s coverlet. I sat up to find my prince staring at me while gripping my hand hard enough to bruise my fingers. That was when I remembered the strange blue-white light that had come from him. I blinked at him in awe. “You saved me.”

He blinked, then scowled. “Don’t be stupid.”

I clenched my fingers around his. “You did. That light you made drove the m-monster off.”

His scowl deepened and he looked away, his cheeks turning pink. “Like I’m going to let a stupid peasant kill my peon?”

I licked my dry lips. “It was a m-monster.”

He shook his head hard. “Whatever.” He glanced at me. “Don’t mention it.” He abruptly turned a hard glare on me. “I mean it, that’s an order! Don’t ever mention that I did…that.”

I nodded sharply. “Okay! I won’t mention it!” However, I wasn’t quite sure if he meant the light he’d made, or the fact that he’d saved my life. I decided not to mention either, just to be safe.

He looked away briefly, then turned back to me and shouted, “Don’t you ever put yourself in danger like that again! Do you hear me? You don’t get to die until I say you can die! Got it?” He squeezed my hand even harder, glaring at me with narrowed eyes. “And you’re not quitting.”

I stared at his blushing face, then down at my fingers, gone numb from his grip on my hand. At that moment, I suddenly realized that there really was a human heart within my beautiful but vicious prince, and that someone still alive cared for me, even if it was only a little. That’s when the tears came…in torrents. “Okay, I w-won’t qu-quit.”

He nodded. “Good.” He rolled his eyes. “And stop crying, idiot.”

* * * * * *

I snapped awake in my narrow bed, gasping for breath with tears running down my face. I hadn’t had that dream in years.

My family had died that night, all of them. Captain Reinhardt wouldn’t tell me exactly what had happened to them, only that yes, the monster had killed them.

I could pretty much guess anyway.

He did reassure me that they had found the monster that killed my family and destroyed it. He also told me that there had been attacks on several farms that night by the same kind of monster. Half a dozen families had been murdered in addition to mine, but nobody had any idea why.

I wasn’t allowed to go to my family’s funeral.

The prince and I were kept practically locked in the castle for two whole months. When Captain Reinhardt finally let us go outside, it was only on the castle grounds and under close guard. That was when the daily weapons and fighting instruction started; guns, knives, swords, hand to hand… Captain Reinhardt showed no mercy. It was like he took it personally.

I sat up and scrubbed at my cheeks, looking around my room while my breathing went back to normal. The small, rounded door by the fireplace opened to the hallway, but the one on my right side across from the bed opened directly into Alberic’s room. My room had once been a closet for my prince’s clothes. Even so, it was far bigger than the attic space I’d shared with my brother. The small glassed-in arrow-slit window right next to my bed showed signs of gray dawn.

It was time to begin my day.

I shoved my way out from under my covers and pulled off my nightshirt to begin the process of binding my breasts, then dressing in male attire. I was my prince’s valet, and I had much to do before he awoke.

~ * ~

Ch-1

~ One ~

While standing in his extravagant white and gold bedchamber, my prince spoke in a voice that was dangerously low, almost a growl. “So, have you taken a lover yet, Julian?”

Standing toe to toe in the midst of tying my prince’s lace-trimmed neck cloth into a florid bow, I froze.”What?” I steadied my hands to finish the bow. Once upon a time, I had been a full two and a half inches taller. Sadly, that time had long since passed. I risked an upward glance to gauge his expression. What the hell is he going on about?

The morning sunlight falling from the row of tall dormer windows directly behind him gave his hip-length blond hair a lovely metallic gold sheen, but his emerald green eyes were narrowed under lowered golden brows. A small smile played at the corner of his perfectly sculpted lips.

I couldn’t quite repress my shiver. My fairy tale prince was obviously in one of his more dangerously playful moods.

“A lover.” My prince waved one hand in a lazy circle. “Someone you have sex with. Have you taken one yet?”

I blew out a sigh and rolled my eyes. “No, of course not!” I was, after all, under my prince’s orders not to reveal my…secret.

Alberic snorted. “Oh, come on, Julian!” He folded his arms across his rather broad chest. You wouldn’t think a man as slender in build as he was would have such a broad chest, but my prince was a lot more athletic than he liked to let on. He was almost solid whip-cord muscle; a fact he liked to hide under frivolous clothes. The toe of his spit-polished black riding boot tapped. “You’re how old now, and you’re telling me that you’re still a virgin?”

“I’m nineteen, and yes, I am.” I turned away and walked over to the ornately carved mirrored vanity, wracking my brain for what he could possibly be trying to get at. “Is there something wrong with that?”

He snorted. “I lost my virginity at sixteen.”

With my back to him, I curled my lips in disgust. “I know. I was there under the bed where you told me to hide when it happened.” It was the most embarrassing moment of my life too. Who knew that a woman could be so loud?

I collected his knee-length gold brocaded waistcoat from the back of the chair then turned to face him. “I can’t do that, remember? Not without revealing the truth about what I am.” I lifted the waistcoat so he could put his arms into the long vest.

Alberic turned his back to me and shrugged into the offered waistcoat. “Actually, you could… As long as you didn’t get undressed all the way. Say, merely dropping your pants?”

“That wouldn’t work.” I obligingly straightened his voluminous shirt sleeves, lifted his heavy blond mane from inside the back of his vest, and straightened the black velvet bow that held back his obscenely long golden hair. “Certain things would still be plainly visible.”

Alberic turned back around to face me, one brow lifted. “One doesn’t need to drop one’s pants that far down for anal sex.” He lifted his gloved hand and casually thumbed an errant strand of my long black hair behind my ear.

I held his gaze steadily. “I have no interest in…that.

“Is that so?” He turned away. “Theo says you’ve gathered quite a bit of interest among the courtiers–the male courtiers, and more than a few of their valets.”

Interest? I hadn’t thought anyone had noticed me beyond the fact that I was the drab valet to the temperamental heir to the crown. Theo, on the other hand, or rather Magister Alistair Theodoric, court alchemist and royal physician, was the only other living person that knew about my…unusual situation. Could he have said something to someone?

Doubtful. Highly doubtful. He favored the prince far too much.

My prince turned back to me with narrowed eyes. “Are you sure your…situation hasn’t been compromised?”

I reached up to fasten the prince’s gold waistcoat buttons from top to bottom, carefully avoiding his sharp gaze. “I sincerely doubt Theo has said anything to anyone.”

He leaned close, his breath ghosting across the top of my hair. “I’m sure he hasn’t, which is why I’m asking if you’ve taken a lover.”

My fingers shook, but I continued with my prince’s buttons. “I already told you, no, I have not taken any lovers.”

Very casually, Alberic lifted his hands into my line of sight and tugged on his black calfskin gloves, stretching his fingers out very like a cat flexing its claws. “If you want sex, I’d be happy to fuck you, Julian, or should I say, Julianna?”

I swallowed hard. “No thank you.” He had more than enough paramours already. I had no intention of being yet another notch on his proverbial bed post.

“I think you missed my point.” His voice was light and his smile sweet, but his green eyes were narrowed to slits. That was bad. It meant he was planning something, or worse, he’d already set a plan into motion.

Even as a shiver slithered down my spine, I felt a spark of annoyance. “Then what, exactly is your point?”

A smirk curved his lips. “You’re a female, and females have needs.”

I felt the blood leave my face. Yes, I was a female, and yes, I occasionally had…needs, but I also had a hand that I was perfectly happy to use. “I am fully in control of my needs, thank you very much.”

Alberic moved toward the windows and stopped at the side of his blue-velvet-draped canopied bed. “I’m not so sure about that.” He lifted a discarded neck cloth from the leopard skin draped across the coverlet of his bed and looked over at me. “Your bedroom is only one thin door away from mine, you know.”

I winced. In other words, he’d heard me dealing with my…needs. Apparently keeping my face in the pillow hadn’t been quite enough. “Are you sure I wasn’t just using the chamber pot?” Which was a painfully embarrassing thought in its own right.

Alberic snorted. “You never use your chamber pot. You use the pull-chain toilet in my bath, and I have never heard you moan like that in there.”

My face burning, I looked away.

Alberic snorted. “Julian, do you honestly think I don’t know what a woman sounds like when she’s being pleasured?”

I barely contained my flinch. Of course he knew. Despite the fact that most people were utterly terrified of the painfully beautiful and gleefully brutal prince, and with good reason, Alberic was also known for being…creative in bed.

I lifted his long black dressing gown from the end of his bed with the intent to hang it in the huge wardrobe that occupied the entire back wall, just to give my shaking hands something to do. “What I do in my own bedchamber at night has nothing to do with you.”

“Oh, but I think it does.”

“What?” I practically threw his dressing gown into the wardrobe and turned to stare at him. “In what way?” I waved my hand at nothing in particular. “It’s my body! I can do with it what I like!”

Whose body?” He twisted the silk neck cloth around both hands, pulling it taut between them, and then he smiled. “Did you forget that I own you?”

I stiffened. I hadn’t forgotten. There was no way in hell I would ever forget how he’d bought me from my parents. Sheer bravado had me straighten my shoulders and lift my chin. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

He pursed his lips and let the neck cloth slide through his fingers. “It means that it’s time we added a few new games to our…arrangement.”

“Games?” That was bad. That was really bad. His games were always painful–for me. “What kind of games?”

Alberic rolled his eyes dramatically. “Don’t be dense. I’m a male; you’re a female. What games do you think I’m referring to?”

My jaw went slack with horror. “You don’t mean s-s-s-…” I couldn’t even say it.

Alberic’s smile broadened to show his teeth. All things considered, one would expect they’d be serrated. Nope. They were perfectly even and snowy white. “Yes, sex.”

~ * ~

Ch-2

~ Two ~

Of all the nightmare scenarios I thought might come about upon being the prince’s valet, being seen as a bed-partner had not been one of them. I shook my head, thoroughly confused. “But I’m not your type!” The prince’s taste ran toward women who were, and I quote, ‘full in the bosom, narrow in the waist, delicate of demeanor, and pretty in the face.’

I wasn’t any of those things. “I don’t even look female!” Well, my black, wavy hair was long enough to brush my waist, but that was only because my prince refused to let me cut it.

Alberic snorted. “So you don’t have breasts…”

“I do so–!” I slapped both hands over my mouth and turned away from him. God, sometimes I was a real idiot! He did not need to know that I had a full complement of female curves hiding under my tight waistcoat and very full-skirted frock coat. I turned back around and threw out both my hands. “Look, I don’t have any feminine graces at all. I don’t sing, or dance, or wear fancy dresses. I have no clue how to use cosmetics…” I struggled for something more to add. “There is not a damned thing delicate about me at all!”

Alberic snorted, but there was a smile playing at the corner of his lips. “You do take punishment rather well.”

What?” Anger sparked and burned in the back of my skull. “Forget it! No way in hell! I have no intention of being one of your…paramours! Unlike you, I am not a deviant, thank you very much!” I already had more than my share of bondage, domination, and humiliation just catering to his whims on a daily basis.

“Julian, don’t get above yourself.” Alberic tossed the neck cloth he’d been toying with on the bed, and set his hands on his hips. “My paramours are of noble birth. You are a lowly peon. You don’t deserve my more specialized forms of play. No whips for you.”

I curled my lip in a sour smile. “Thank you. I think.”

A spectacular smile graced his lips, and his green eyes practically gleamed. “You are, after all, still a tender virgin.”

My blood turned to ice water. Oh shit… Damn, maybe I should have claimed at least one lover?

Alberic raked his fingers through the tail of his long golden mane. “Very well, then…” He lifted a finger. “Our first order of business is contraception.”

I tilted my head in mystification. “Contra-what?”

“Contraception. I can’t have you getting pregnant. That would ruin everything.” Alberic strode past me, heading for the door. “Come along, Julian, you have an appointment with Theo.” He opened the bedchamber door and stepped through into the hallway beyond.

I was rooted to the spot. Pregnant…? He was actually serious about doing…that with me? I looked over at the window. Perhaps I could sneak out and hide in another kingdom?

Alberic ducked back into the chamber and grabbed the bow of my neck cloth. “Now, Julian.” Hauling me after him by my neck cloth, he towed me through the doorway and down the hall.

I grabbed onto my prince’s wrist with both hands and dug my boot heels into the carpet, trying to slow him down. “Why this? Why me?”

Alberic kept walking, dragging me along behind him. “Because I want to. Why else do I ever do anything?”

He had a point. I tugged harder, not that it did a damned bit of good. Alberic was unnaturally strong. I could have just punched him–I’d actually paid attention to our Oriental hand-to-hand fighting instructor–but I wasn’t sure I wanted to take that chance. As I said before, my prince was creative…even more so when it came to revenge. “But I’m not feminine in any way!”

Alberic stopped at the end of the hall before the palace elevator. He slammed open the wrought iron folding gate. “But you are female.”

“So what?” I threw myself back, using all of my weight in hopes of breaking his grip on the bow of my neck cloth. “Like that’s ever mattered to you before?”

He grunted, but kept a firm hold on my neck cloth and lifted an elegant brow. “True, I have been remiss. My apologies.” He shoved me bodily into the elevator car.

I slammed against the back wall, my butt impacting with the iron bars of the back gate. “Ow!” That was going to leave a nice bruise. I hissed in pain and rubbed my butt. “Damn it…”

My prince rolled the elevator gate closed and grabbed the brass lever on the left wall. “Oh, quit whining.” He shoved the lever up. “I’ve done worse to you.”

An electrical buzz sounded and the car began to rise.

I suppose one could consider being rolled down the three-story master staircase in a rug worse, or being shoved off a horse when riding pillion, or stabbed during sword and knife practice, or even kicked just for the hell of it. Then there was the time he hung me sideways from a tree to make a swing… I straightened against the back gate and eased away from him. “Can’t you find someone else to…play with? There are plenty of females a lot more attractive than me.”

Alberic turned to face me. His brow lifted and the corner of his mouth tilted down. “I assure you that I only play with extremely attractive females.”

“Huh?” It almost sounded as though he’d given me some sort of back-handed compliment.

Alberic turned and stalked toward me. “Would you like to know your most attractive feature?” He smiled, and it was heart-stopping in its cruelty.

I cowered back in the corner. “Um, not really.”

He reached out and cupped my jaw in his black gloved hand. “What I find most attractive about you…” He tilted my chin up, forcibly raising my face to meet his heated green gaze. “Beyond your ocean blue eyes and blue-black hair, is that you are utterly and completely mine.”

Ocean blue eyes and blue-black hair…? Was he complimenting me again? Then the rest of what he’d said sunk in. I glared at him. “Yours…?”

Alberic nodded smugly and released my chin. “As my personal body servant, it’s your job to cater to my whims.”

My mouth fell open. Okay so he had a point. It was my job to cater to him, but bed-warming was taking things a bit too far, even for me. “Fine then, I quit! Get someone else to be your…body servant.”

Alberic blinked and gave a small tight laugh. “You can quit if you like, Julian, but if you leave I’ll only drag you back.”

I scowled at him. “What the hell for?”

His lips curved into that gorgeously cruel smile. “Because what’s mine stays mine.”

A bell rang, and the elevator stopped.

Quick as an adder, Alberic grabbed hold of my neck cloth bow. “Time to become my love-slave.” He shoved open the gate and dragged me out into the mortared stone hallway of the castle’s tallest tower. The alchemist hated the smell of the smoke from the gas-lamps that lit the rest of the castle, so the windowless hallway was lit with small glowing baubles connected by a cloth-covered wire. Theo called them electric lights.The shadows cast by the small yellow-white lights made my prince look positively demonic.

I grabbed onto his wrist with both hands again and dug my heels in once more. It still didn’t do a damned bit of good. “But I don’t want to be your love-slave!”

Alberic chuckled while dragging me down the hall. “Well then, don’t you think you should have escaped from my clutches long before now?”

“I didn’t have a reason to escape your clutches!”

He stopped dead.

I froze in surprise. What the hell had I said this time?

Alberic turned slowly to look at me with narrowed green eyes and a puzzled frown. “You can’t tell me that you honestly like being my personal punching bag?”

“Sparring partner.” It was an old argument. “You may be better with a gun, but I’m your equal at sword and dagger, and better at hand-to-hand. I might have been your personal target, but I was never your punching bag.”

It was true, actually. He’d never punched me. I can’t say he never swatted me upside the head for no apparent reason whatsoever; he did, all the time, although lately he’d been smacking me with his gloves rather than his hand. I’d also worn the occasional bruise on my shins, and my butt from random kicks, but never a black eye. Not from him anyway, and he stopped kicking me when I finally got pissed off enough to kick him back.

My prince waved his hand. “Semantics.” He leveled a hard glare at me. “And what about all the crazy games I made you play and the work I make you do, caring for my clothes, dressing me, picking up after me, caring for my horse, delivering dirty sonnets to my lovers, paying my informants…?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m your personal servant. I’m supposed to play your games. As for the other stuff, all valets take care of their masters the same way.”

His frown deepened. “They do not.”

“They do so.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I asked.”

His gaze narrowed. “Asked who…?”

I lifted a brow. “Considering the sheer number of nobles living in this castle, not including all the visiting outer kingdom dignitaries, do you have any idea just how many valets are running around in the castle?”

“Um…” His gaze slid off to the side then looked at me and smiled. “No clue.”

I sighed. “Why am I not surprised?” I waved a hand. “Never mind… Suffice it to say that when I first started acting as your valet, I asked several of the other valets exactly what I should be doing for you. What I didn’t know, I had someone teach me.” Learning how to wash and iron silk had been a total pain in the ass.

His eyes widened and his jaw slackened. “Why would you do that?”

I glared at him, and the shout came leaping out of my mouth. “Because somebody had to care for you!” The stone hallway amplified my voice rather nicely.

He actually flinched.

It might have been from the sheer volume of my shout, but it also could have been because I hit a sore point. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, went anywhere near Prince Alberic if they could avoid it — except me. The servants were all scared to death of him. I brought him his meals, cared for his clothes, kept his chambers tidy, carried his bed linens and curtains down to the laundry, and collected them afterwards… In short, if it had anything at all to do with the prince, I was the one who did it.

I sighed and dropped my voice to a softer decibel. “I owe you my life. Looking after you was the least I could do to return the favor.”

His golden brows lifted. “In that case, you shouldn’t mind looking after my physical needs too.” With that, he turned and started hauling me down the hallway again.

“What?” I continued with my struggles. “How the hell did you come to that conclusion? You have plenty of bed-partners!” He did, dozens, in fact.

“None that I can trust.” His voice was so soft that I almost didn’t hear him. He raised his voice a little louder. “Sneaking all the way into town at night to get laid, and then sneaking all the way back before dawn is tiresome. Why go through all that when I can just do you?”

It was such a typical answer from him that I merely rolled my eyes. “You have lovers in the castle too.”

He sniffed. “I’m bored with them.”

I groaned, still dragging my feet. “You’ll get bored with me too!”

He glanced over his shoulder at me. “I doubt you’ll ever be that lucky.”

I frowned at him. That almost sounded like another back-handed compliment, except that I knew for a fact that it was a bald-faced lie. He never kept a paramour longer than a week.

We reached the end of the windowless hall and Alberic kicked open the door to alchemist’s private lab. “Theo! It’s time!” He dragged my struggling body through the doorway and slammed the door closed behind us.

~ * ~

Ch-3

~ Three ~

Magister Alistair Theodoric, court alchemist and royal physician, sat up behind the broad oak desk where he’d apparently been perusing some monstrous book. He swept his long elegant fingers through his long sleek mane of silver hair and his brows rose over his coin gold eyes. He looked from the grinning Alberic to my heated and furious face and rose from his red leather chair. “Alberic, have Julian take off that coat and roll up a sleeve. I need to do a blood test to make sure I have the right one.”

I frowned, suddenly confused. Had I missed something? “The right one…what?”

Theo smiled warmly and tugged on his lapels to straighten his black velvet robes. “The right contraceptive for you.”

I stared at him slack-jawed. “You’re in on this?”

Theo snorted and his smile tightened. “This is merely to keep you from getting pregnant, should an assault occur.”

“Pregnant…from an assault?” I was suddenly more confused than ever. I understood that there were those who’d attack me simply because they couldn’t touch the prince without lethal repercussions, but that kind of an assault…? “You’re kidding, right? Who would want to…assault me?”

Alberic grabbed my arm, turning me to face him, then tugged my red sash from its bow at my hip. “You’ve been drawing entirely too much attention to yourself lately.” He started unbuttoning my sable brown frock coat at an ungodly speed. “And everyone knows that you have no head for liquor whatsoever.”

“Of course I draw attention. I’m your valet! And what does liquor have to do with anything?”

Theo chuckled. “When was the last time you looked in a mirror, Julian?”

I looked over at Theo, still thoroughly confused. “When I brushed my hair this morning?”

My prince groaned loudly and rolled his eyes. “Thick as a brick.” He jerked off my coat, dropping it and my sash on the flagstone floor. He pulled on my neck cloth, jerking me against him, chest to chest. “I have no intention of losing you to some lowly peon that knocked you up simply because he got you drunk enough to find out what was really under your clothes.”

I winced. Unfortunately, one of the laws of the kingdom stated that any unmarried man that impregnated an unmarried woman had to marry her and care for his offspring, whether either wanted to be married or not. Suddenly, contraception sounded like a really good idea.

His lips brushed against my ear. “If you get pregnant, it’ll be because I want you pregnant. Understood?” He reached down with his free hand, cupped my ass cheek, and squeezed.

My temper exploded. Son of a bitch…! Screw the penalties for hitting my prince! I slammed the heels of both hands against the center of his chest, hard.

Alberic tripped back, gasping for breath, the wind knocked from his lungs.

I curled my lip baring my teeth in anger, while rolling up my sleeve. “If I get pregnant, it’ll because I want tobe pregnant. Not because someone wants to breed a half-royal bastard on me.” I turned to stomp toward the archway leading into the far room.

Okay, so I could have just slapped him, but that was a female thing to do. I hadn’t been female in any way other than anatomically since the day my mother started dressing me in my brother’s clothes to help with the farm chores. Punching him was right out. It would have left a far too visible mark.

Standing by a small table that held a few oddly shaped bottles bubbling over small flames, the alchemist pulled on a pair of black stretchy gloves and presented me with a small silver lance. “Hold out your middle finger.”

I did so, curious in spite of myself.

He stabbed my finger with the lance. A small bead of scarlet welled up. He collected the bead with a small eyedropper and released it into a flat-bottomed round beaker half filled with a yellow solution. The solution turned pale green. He nodded. “It’s a match.” He set down the eyedropper. “Roll your sleeve up to the shoulder, and follow me to the chair.” He strode through the archway into the next room.

I followed him into a room that was brilliantly lit with large blue baubles suspended from the ceiling. Along the far left wall was a large oblong metal counter and sink. In the very middle was a leather and steel contraption that only vaguely looked like a chair. It looked far more like what one would strap a criminal into for extremely painful interrogations. Leather straps hung from the chair’s arms and legs.

Theo waved his hand toward the chair. “Sit here.”

With extreme suspicion, I climbed up and sat in it.

Theo wheeled over a small decorative cart covered by a linen cloth that held a delicate scalpel, an ornate syringe filled with a clear liquid, and five tiny slivers of…something. With a cotton ball, he daubed rubbing alcohol all over the bend of my elbow.

My prince tromped over to my side while rubbing the center of his chest. “Hitting your prince is a crime in this kingdom.”

Yes, it was, but I was too damned pissed to care. I shot a glare at him. “So is human slavery.”

Theo took that moment to stab me in the arm with his syringe.

I winced.

Theo smiled. “This is to numb your arm.”

I rolled my eyes. “Great, you cause me pain to remove my pain?”

Theo snorted. “Would you rather I cut you open without it?”

I stared at him. “Cut me open…?”

The alchemist lifted the scalpel and pointed at the five tiny slivers. “To prevent pregnancy for the next five years, these need to be inserted in your arm.”

I frowned at the small slivers. “What are those?”

Theo shrugged. “It’s from the noir plant. Something I collected from the neighboring world.”

I looked up at him in awe. Our land of Nod was ruled by magic, but right next door was the extremely dangerous world ruled by science. It wasn’t a place anyone wanted to live, but the clever alchemist had been known pilfer a marvel or two, such as the bulbs in his quarters that lit up like candles without using live flame, the plans for the cable-lift elevator, and the indoor plumbing system. He also set up the huge ice box in the castle kitchens that didn’t need ice blocks to keep the food cold, and in fact made small chunks of ice all year around. Theo was a very brave man. “How often do you cross over?”

Theo lifted one of the slivers, examining it closely. “I cross a few times a year. It’s where I get my extremely rare pain-numbing anesthetics novo-cane and ether, as well as other rare medicines such as perry-ox-hide and penny-sullen, both of which prevent infections. The noir plant was a special request.” He nodded toward Alberic.

My prince looked away. “I didn’t want to use an enchantment on you. They work fine on men, but they tend to have nasty side effects when used on females.”

My hands clenched on the padded arms of the chair. “Side effects…?”

Theo shrugged and set the sliver back down. “Magic tends to take the shortest route to achieve its goal. When one uses magic for female contraception, there are far too many options a spell could take to ensure results.”

Alberic curled his lip. “Such as extreme ugliness.”

Theo smiled. “Or changing their gender.”

I shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind changing genders.” I was already masquerading as a male, why not go all the way?

“Julian…” My prince lifted one brow and a particularly cruel smile curved his lips. “Are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t mind taking it up the ass?”

I flinched back from him. “What…?! I thought you didn’t like…doing men?”

Alberic leaned over me, his smile widening to include teeth. “For you, I would most definitely make an exception.”

I stared at him in horror. I so did not need to know that, especially since my twin brother should have been his companion rather than I.

Theo poked at the inner side of my upper arm. “Is your arm getting numb yet?”

I stared down at my arm. I had only known that he poked me because I had seen him do it. I hadn’t actually felt anything. “Wow… That’s some potent stuff.”

The alchemist nodded and raised his scalpel. “Hold your arm flat and do not move.”

I held my arm as requested and watched in fascination.

Theo made a very tiny incision on the inside of my upper right arm. It bled only a small amount. He set down his knife and then pushed the slivers into the small cut, one by one until all five rested just under my skin in a fan pattern.

I didn’t feel a thing.

Theo then held two fingers above the cut and chanted out a small line of words. The cut knitted closed. Magic was occasionally practical. Occasionally…

Alberic leaned over my chair to catch the alchemist’s eye. “When will it take effect?”

Theo turned away to pull off his stretchy black gloves and wipe his hands with a cloth that stank of rubbing alcohol. “Two weeks.”

Alberic nodded. “Excellent.”

I jerked my sleeve back down and shoved my prince out of my way, practically flying from the chair. I left the inner lab and grabbed my coat and sash from the floor, heading for the door. I was in dire need of a nice quiet corner in one of the attics where I could tear apart a few old feather pillows and scream my head off in complete privacy.

Alberic was leaning against the door with his arms folded across his chest.

I jerked to a halt. Crap… I kept forgetting how fast he could be when he set his mind to it. Clearly, someone among his antecedents was a witch. There was no way in hell he could move that fast without magic.

My prince’s smile radiated feline satisfaction, the kind where the cat has already digested the canary. “Going somewhere without me, Julian?”

I shrugged into my sable frock coat while dredging my brain for a good excuse to gain some privacy, then I remembered. “Breakfast!”

His golden brows lifted. “Hm?”

“I haven’t brought up your breakfast. I need to go get it.” I was so proud of myself I even smiled. Unfortunately, my hand was too numb to work my coat buttons.

Alberic sighed and reached out to jerk me toward him by the lapels. His fingers practically flew up my buttons. “You realize I’m doing this for your own good?” His green gaze caught mine. “And I don’t mean your coat buttons.”

I knew damned good and well what he was referring to. “Oh, really?” I narrowed my eyes at him. “How is being your bed-warmer good for me?”

He blinked then the most god-awful smile graced my prince’s lips. “Surely you know that denying yourself sexual release is unhealthy?”

I turned my gaze away. “I can take care of myself.” As I said before, I had a hand and I knew how to use it.

His voice dropped to a husky whisper. “Oh? Do you think of me when you touch yourself?”

I stared at him in shock. “What? No!” My face heated and I looked away. “I don’t think of you in that way.” I was lying of course. He was the only man I’d ever fantasized about. Seriously, there wasn’t anyone as beautiful, or as terrifying, as my prince.

My prince wrapped my sash around my waist, leaning close to tie it in a simple bow at my hip. The heat from his body pressed against me, making my heart beat faster. His breath burned against my cheek. “Lying will get you punished, Julian, you know that.”

I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, and my voice. “Can we go now?”

Alberic chuckled and turned, waving a hand at the door. “By all means.” That was my cue to open it for him.

I did so.

My prince swept past me and practically danced down the hallway toward the elevator, looking entirely too smug for anyone’s comfort.

I followed him with my teeth clenched and my heels thumping hard on the carpets. I was furious, though not quite sure what to do about it. I had only two weeks to come to terms with being my prince’s bed-warmer, or find a way out of the kingdom. Maybe I could take a ship…?

At the elevator gate, he stopped and held up one hand. “Oh, wait!” He turned to face me with narrowed green eyes and smiled, sweeter than sugar. “I almost forgot.”

A shiver ran up my spine. I knew that smile all too well. He was up to something. I narrowed my eyes at him in deep suspicion and took a half-step back. “Forgot…what?”

Alberic lunged at me lightning fast.

I threw up both arms to guard against a punch. Truthfully, I’d been expecting some sort of retaliation for hitting him earlier.

“Relax. I’m not going to hit you.”

I lowered my hands a little and peeked past them. “You’re not?”

He grabbed me by the upper arms and shoved me up against the wall. “No.” His gaze focused below my nose and his voice rumbled low and deep like a purr. “I want a kiss.” His head lowered, clearly aiming for my lips.

A…what? I turned my head sharply to avoid him. “What for?”

Alberic’s lips brushed right under my ear. “Because I want one. Do I need any other reason than that?” His hot, wet, skin-tingling tongue swept under my jaw.

I’d never felt anything like it, so I was completely unprepared when the strength drained right out of my body and my neck arched back all by itself as though someone else inhabited my skin. “But I d-don’t…k-kiss.” I’m ashamed to say that my voice actually wavered with breathlessness.

“Hmm…?” He lifted his head from my neck and his brow lifted. “You do know how to kiss, don’t you?”

I winced. “Uh…” Actually, no, I didn’t. I’d never kissed anyone. I’d never wanted to kiss anyone. I looked away, avoiding his sharp green gaze. “I don’t want to play this game.”

Alberic’s eyes widened. “You’ve never been kissed?”

I shot him a glare and curled my lip in a scowl. “Hello? Hiding my gender! Kissing would give it away, yes?”

He frowned. “You could have kissed a girl.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not attracted to girls.”

He lifted his brow and smiled. “Then why didn’t you just kiss a guy?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was interested in men!”

Alberic snorted and rolled his eyes. “Well, there’s no avoiding that. The entire court thinks that I’ve been giving it to you up the ass since we were kids. Theo is the only one that knows that you’re untouched.”

The entire court thought...what? Ice filled the pit of my stomach and the breath literally escaped my lungs. Suddenly the sly looks and comments I’d heard from certain visiting dignitaries began to make an awful kind of sense. Not to mention the pitying looks the chambermaids had been giving me all along. “Oh my God…”

Alberic rolled his eyes. “Julian, pay attention when your prince is speaking.”

“What…?” I stared up into his hooded cat-green eyes, suddenly reminded that I was trapped in my prince’s embrace. My heart slammed up into my throat, almost choking me. I stiffened. “Eh…”

“Kiss me.” His perfect lips curved into a smile that stole my breath. “Because I’m not letting you go until you do.”

I hissed in an angry breath. “You’re a complete bastard, you know that?”

His tongue darted out to flicker against my bottom lip. “So?” His lips captured my bottom lip, then his teeth. He tugged ever so gently.

Tingles of shock and feminine alarm raised the small hairs all over me, and I’m ashamed to say that a small whimper escaped. I would like to say that it was from fear, but I would have been lying. I had been longing for a kiss from his lips for almost as long as I’d known him. He was that damned beautiful. I licked my lower lip in reaction and brushed against his tongue.

He responded with a soft sound of pleasure then tilted his head to cover my mouth entirely with his lips, his chest pressing up against me.

Startled by the pressure of his body against mine, I gasped.

His tongue surged past my parted lips to engage my tongue with an aggressive sliding caress.

In pure self-defense, I parried his tongue with mine. I couldn’t help but notice that he tasted of fresh clean water and something else, something musky and interesting.

His moan of pleasure was loud. His tongue redoubled its efforts while his hands slid up my arms, and into my hair. Holding my head firmly in place, his lips captured my tongue and suckled on it.

Shivers erupted all over me and my thoughts began to shred. A warm melting sensation began to pool low in my belly and moisture dampened my drawers. My knees weakened. I grabbed onto his coat sleeves to keep from collapsing.

While his tongue worked to conquer mine, his knee slid between my legs, his thigh pressing up against my crotch. He rubbed intimately against me.

Something deep in my belly tightened deliciously, triggering a strange, powerful urgency that pulsed deep inside me. A moan erupted from my throat.

Abruptly, Alberic pulled back, releasing me.

I slid down the wall to sit on the floor utterly dazed, yet at the same time wound tight as a spring. An urgent ache throbbed in my core. I’d gotten mildly excited in my prince’s presence before when I’d dressed him, or bathed him, but nothing like this. I had to clench my hands at my sides to keep from diving into my own pants to find relief.

He leaned down and smirked directly in my face. “I think you rather enjoyed that.”

My temper flared enough to glare at him, but it didn’t help the frustrated hunger boiling in me. In fact, it actually aggravated it. I pushed against the wall and rose to my feet with as much dignity as my wobbly knees would allow. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say to him. He was right. I had enjoyed it, but I had no intention of admitting it.

Alberic snorted, then turned away to open the elevator gate.

I followed him into the elevator and rode it to our floor without looking at him. I didn’t need to look at him to know that he was more than pleased with himself. By the time we arrived on our floor and headed up the hallway toward my prince’s suite, I had my…problem under control, more or less.

Just in time for yet another complication to appear. At the door of my prince’s chamber door was a young page dressed in a bright yellow over-tunic sporting a white crown.

Both of us stopped dead staring at the small boy in the oversized tunic. We traded fleeting glances. Apparently, the king wanted to see Alberic.

That was never good news, for either of us.

I dashed into my prince’s rooms to collect his formal coat from his wardrobe and dashed back out just in time to see my prince whispering to the nodding page.

I frowned at them.

My prince straightened and held out his arm, waiting for me to help him into his coat.

I did my best, but unfortunately, my hand was still too numb to button it, or tie the burgundy sash. “I’m completely useless, you should leave me here.”

Alberic turned to glare down at me.

I cringed back and swallowed hard. “Or not.”

Alberic snorted and tied the bow on his sash. “This summons concerns you too.” He turned on his heel and led the way to the elevator.

I followed after him and the little page. “Me? How does this concern me? You’re the heir to the kingdom, not me!”

My prince opened the gate to the elevator and turned to smile sweetly. “Anything that concerns me, concerns my minions by default.”

Clearly, that was just an excuse to keep me at his side. I stepped into the elevator car and fisted my hands at my sides.

My prince closed the door to the elevator with a loud clang. “My guess is that he’s found another kingdom he wants to add to his, by way of marrying me to their princess.”

I rolled my eyes. “In the hopes that you’ll bump off the legitimate male heir and inherit through marriage?”

He smiled and grabbed the brass lever to pull it down. “I see you know the king well.” The elevator car began to lower.

I should, I’d sat through more than my share of the man’s lectures to his son on politics.

“There is absolutely no need for concern that he’ll succeed in finding me a proper bride.” My prince scowled. “The king has abysmal taste in women.”

I looked away and snorted. “Rather like your own?”

My prince turned sharply, his brows lowered in definite suspicion. “What was that?”

I opened my eyes wide and gave him my most innocent smile. “He should leave you to find your own.”

Alberic rolled his eyes and sighed. “I’d have to wait until his death for that.” He blew out a sigh. “Pity he’s even more resistant to poisons than I am.”

It was a pity. Seriously. The man was practically insane, though he was smart enough to leave law-making and actual governing to his council.

On the other hand, if I wanted to save myself, finding a suitable bride for my prince might be my only hope. It wasn’t that my virginity meant so much to me; it was more that his kiss had shown me in no uncertain terms, that once he’d taken me to his bed I might not ever want to leave it.

I needed to get him a bride, and I needed to get him one fast.

~ * ~

Ch-4

~ Four ~

One would think the king’s private chambers would be quiet, subdued, and genteel.

Nope. It was a madhouse of over-dressed lords and ladies with servants rushing back and forth carrying drinks, snacks, documents, and the occasional small pet.

Resplendent in his gold silk frock coat embroidered with cream roses, my prince followed the young page beyond the wide-flung doors.

I stepped to the side, perfectly content to wait out in the hall, or rather, perfectly content to be left out in the hall long enough to make an escape.

My prince promptly ducked back out and snagged me by the lapel. “Oh, no you don’t! If I have to go in there, you’re coming too.” He hauled me in behind him, diving straight into the crush.

The crowd parted around him with wide eyes, choked off whispers, and almost unseemly haste. Clearly, no one wanted to bump into him.

I sighed heavily. I couldn’t say that my prince was misunderstood; he was rather temperamental. However, while my prince very much enjoyed scaring the living daylights out of people with his pranks, he didn’t believe in killing anyone that wasn’t actively trying to kill him first. Though he had absolutely no compunction about sending them to the palace dungeons to be entertained by the royal guards for a few weeks, or months.

Eventually he released me, but by then I had no choice but to follow at his heels. Unfortunately, kicking and screaming in protest in front of the nobility was out of the question. Anything I did would reflect badly on my prince. Not that my prince wasn’t perfectly capable of making his own bad impressions.

I followed Alberic to the far wall with its monstrous balconies and glass doors that shed light on the tall throne draped in red velvet and trimmed in white ermine atop a six step dais. It was the only chair in the room, and upon it sat the king.

His royal highness was a flushed and corpulent man who had taken to wearing floor-length robes to hide his steadily increasing waistline. Extravagant curling white horsehair wigs hid his utterly bald pate. His jaw line, almost completely encased in rolls of moist flesh, was brutally square where my prince’s was gracefully rounded, almost pointed. His nose was squashed and a bit crooked where my prince’s was delicate and defined. Thick black brows rose and met in the middle over bulbous black eyes. My prince’s eyes, however, were almond shaped and tilted slightly upward, the green of cut emeralds.

There was absolutely no trace of bloodline similarity between my golden prince and the king. I often wondered how such a beautiful prince could possibly come from that man’s seed.

The king’s fevered and bloodshot black gaze locked onto my prince, and his smile twisted into an open leer dripping with absolute malice. “I found you a bride, my son.”

Alberic’s lips twisted into a smile that was equally malicious. “You do remember what happened to the last one you found me, yes?”

That would be Princess Isolde, also known as Princess Snow. She died from eating her own poisoned apple. It hadn’t exactly been her idea to eat it; she’d intended it for my prince. However, my prince was a little too familiar with poisons not to recognize it on the first taste, if not by scent alone. From that moment, her fate was sealed.

My prince can be very…persuasive, especially when wielding the cold hard evidence of an attempted murder. However, the cold hard evidence of a previously successful murder didn’t help her case one bit. According to my prince’s spies…err, sources, no one knew what had become of her royal father, but Isolde had put her royal mother to death in front of a few too many witnesses by having her dance her life away in red hot iron shoes, which was of course how she’d gained a kingdom.

A murderess was never a good choice for a queen.

The king waved his hand in dismissal. “That was then, this is now. The kingdom of Swanstone is hosting a unicorn hunt. The one who succeeds in capturing a unicorn will be awarded the hand of the princess Rosette, and become heir to the kingdom.” The king leaned close to the prince. “Bring me that kingdom.”

Alberic’s smile widened. “Do you happen to have the princess’s measurements?”

The king blinked. “What?”

“Hips, waist, bust-line…?”

The king scowled. “Hell no, I don’t have that!”

Alberic rolled his eyes. “What’s the point of winning a less than satisfactory princess?”

The king swatted at his only legitimate heir with his long and pointy scepter. He missed, of course. “I could care less what you do with the princess, I just want that kingdom! So, go and get it!”

My prince promptly launched into a lecture on the importance of princesses being physically worth marrying.

The king naturally, had to launch into a counter-lecture on the greater importance of expanding the kingdom.

Meanwhile, I ducked back into the crowd and made my escape. Weaving and dodging lords, ladies, and servants, I hauled ass as fast as politeness would allow. If I could get to the attics and hide myself long enough, my prince would be forced to leave without me. This would allow me to make a nice clean escape to the nearest faraway place with my virginity–and my sanity—intact.

I made it out the double doors and into the hallway, only to be brought up short by a hard, choking jerk on my coat collar.

A very amused yet deeply malicious voice whispered in my ear. “You wouldn’t be thinking of hiding until I was gone and then escaping, would you?”

I swallowed hard. “Not at all, my prince. I was rushing off to pack our things for the journey.”

I was patted on the head rather heavily. “Good peon. Let’s get to it.”

It was then that I realized that the Fates truly had it in for me.

* * * * * *

Back in his suite, I packed my prince’s saddlebags with spare traveling clothes and weapons, making sure that his black-powder horn was full and fresh, and the bag holding the lead balls for his pistol was full. I also ordered traveling provisions from the kitchens, arranged for maps to the kingdom of Lyoness, and notified the grooms that our horses needed to be saddled.

All with Alberic practically hanging over my shoulder.

My only chance for privacy came when he started stripping down to change into his riding attire. As soon as his back was turned, I slipped through the small door from the prince’s room into my room to change my clothes and pack for traveling.

I hung my sable velvet waistcoat and frock coat neatly on the wall pegs and grabbed my saddlebags. With extreme haste, I changed out of my silk shirt and neck cloth to don sturdy cream muslin. My velvet breeches were swapped for a pair of deep brown deerskin. Luckily, my hand had finally recovered, so I was able to button them, as well as my matching deerskin waistcoat. I stomped into my thigh-high riding boots and then set to packing my saddlebags. I tossed in clothes, weapons, powder, ammunition, my compass, and the small journal I kept during my travels, which included an annotated list of inns I’d visited.

The necessities handled, I slid into the shoulder-harness for my throwing knives and strapped my gun-belt around my hips. I took a moment to check my pistol to be sure that it was in working order. It was; I cleaned it regularly. Then I shrugged into my dark brown deerskin riding coat with the plain horn buttons. I grabbed my bedroll, which also held my rolled up foul-weather coat, and collected my broad-brimmed hat.

Time to go.

Knowing that Alberic was bound to come through the door to check on me at any moment, I grabbed the handle to the outer door to make my escape into the hall.

The handle moved, but the door didn’t budge.

I pushed.

Nothing.

I shoved.

Still nothing.

I tried everything short of slamming my foot into the door, which would have made a horrendous amount of noise and given me away.

Big fat nothing.

I couldn’t open my door. “Shit!”

“Something wrong, Julian?”

I whirled around.

My prince was leaning against the rounded doorframe of the small door that led into his suite. He was already dressed for traveling, his white cotton neck cloth neatly tied around the collar of his white cotton shirt, and his sleek black leather frock coat buttoned over his red leather waistcoat. His sword belt and gun belt were buckled over his knotted red sash, and his black breeches were tucked neatly into his gleaming thigh-high riding boots with their wickedly sharp silver spurs. His smile radiated as much amusement as it did annoyance. Not a healthy combination.

I glared at him. “I can’t open my door.” There was no question in my mind that he was behind it.

Alberic waved toward the door leading into his chambers. “This one works just fine.” He smiled with all his teeth. “Why don’t you try it?”

I shouldered my saddlebags and tromped toward my prince and out the small door. What other choice did I have?

While musing aloud about the Princess Rosette, or rather about the size of her bustline, and whether or not she was still virginal, my prince gleefully proceeded to toss his saddlebags on my other shoulder. He then shoved a valise into each of my hands, and tucked his bedroll around my neck. Lifting a third valise, he led the way out his perfectly functional chamber door.

Bowed under the weight of his possessions and mine, and feeling distinctly like a pack horse, I followed him. When we passed my chamber door, I suddenly noticed the half a dozen boards that had been nailed across my door frame. Kicking my door would not have opened it.

Feeling more than a little put out, I scowled at my prince. “When did you nail my door shut?”

Alberic waved his hand negligently. “I arranged to have that done while we were visiting the king.” He turned to smile at me. “That little page was very helpful in fetching a workman on such short notice.”

I stared at him in open-mouthed shock. “What…? Why?”

My prince opened the elevator gate and turned with a pleased smirk. “Don’t worry. I’ll have the boards removed.”

“Is that so?” I stomped into the elevator behind him. “When, exactly?”

Alberic slammed the gate closed. “As soon as I have you thoroughly addicted to my body.” He pulled the brass lever down.

The elevator descended, and I had the distinct impression that I was falling headlong into hell. I couldn’t help but feel that all of the trials I’d gone through and the terrors I’d survived were nothing compared to what awaited me in two weeks’ time.

* * * * * *

And so with my prince mounted on his dapple gray gelding, and me on my chocolate brown mare leading the equally chocolate brown gelding pack horse, we rode out of the castle bailey, across the drawbridge, and onto the forest road heading for the kingdom of Lyoness.

One would think that a prince of such a powerful kingdom would ride to his bride in a coach pulled by six white steeds accompanied by a troop of soldiers. Nope, not my prince, though I did suggest it when we originally went to visit Princess Isolde.

He’d turned to me with a sneer. “What? Are you stupid? We might as well wear a sign alerting every brigand from here to there that says, “I’m rich! Come rob me!’”

Anyway…

Keeping to a slow but comfortable trot, we made good time through the forest and into the farmlands beyond. A lunch of meat and bread with a bottle of cooled tea was partaken of while in the saddle.

When early afternoon finally melted into evening, we came to an inn we’d visited fairly frequently over the past few years.

The main tavern room was, of course, filled to the brim with locals having dinner and a few pints of the local ale. However, it appeared that Alberic and I were the inn’s only overnight occupants.

While I made arrangements for our rooms, my prince grabbed a literal double armful of giggling barmaids and hauled them into a private dining room, slamming the door closed behind him.

I did not want to know what he was doing in there. I could pretty much guess, anyway. Sighing, I went back out to the stables to unsaddle and feed our horses, and collected our belongings.

I hauled all three of my prince’s valises plus his saddlebags up to his room, lit his fire in the small fireplace, turned his feather mattress over, and then made his bed with the sheets and blankets he’d brought. In case you haven’t guessed, my prince did not believe in ‘roughing’ it.

Finally finished, I dropped my saddle bags in my tiny cubby hole of a room next door, turned my straw mattress over, and spread out my saddle blankets. My room didn’t come with a fireplace. Prepared for the night, I pulled off my deerskin frock coat and gun-belt, leaving them on the hanging pegs by the door. Armed with only my knives, my heaviest towel, and a thick bar of milled soap wrapped in wax paper, I went back downstairs to inquire about their bath.

This was one of my favorite inns, as it had a luxury few had. A monstrous fire-stoked hot bath that was large enough for six people to soak in. It cost a few extra coins to ensure that I was the only occupant in the outdoor bathhouse, but I was perfectly happy to spend my prince’s silver for that pleasure.

The bathhouse was not much more than a circular hut of cut spruce logs with a thatched roof over a deep sunken stone-lined pool fed from a hot spring. But to me, it was the height of luxury indeed.

My prince had a private bathing chamber all to himself with piped-in hot water. I had a copper tub set before the fire in my bedroom, filled by way of half a dozen tin buckets of water heated in my fireplace. My prince had offered his chamber for my use…as long as he got to watch while I bathed. An offer I refused. Often.

After stripping down, I scooped out a bucket of water and scrubbed myself down with the soap I had brought. One did not wash in a hot bath. That would make the water dirty. One also did not use the soap provided by the inn, if one was intelligent. Coarse lye soap was fine for thick-skinned farmers, but it had a nasty habit of scouring my skin right off.

With my towel and throwing knives well within hand’s reach, I slipped into the steaming water and sat down on the stones, sinking to the neck. Comfortably seated, I proceeded to let the exquisite heat force all the road-kinks and the day’s stress from my muscles, leaving me in a blissful state of complete relaxation.

A wooden thunk announced that someone had lifted the latch to the bath’s door.

I grabbed a knife and positioned it for throwing. “Open that door, and you’ll get a knife in your gut!”

From the other side of the closed door came a frighteningly familiar voice. “Julian, you will allow your prince to enter, or you will suffer very dire consequences when you get out of there.”

My heart stopped in shock then redoubled in speed from sheer terror. Unlike your average person, my prince never made a threat he wouldn’t carry out. “I’m bathing!”

There was a low chuckle. “Well, obviously, as this is a bath house.”

I scrambled up from my seat and grabbed for my towel. “Gimme a minute to get dressed!”

“Don’t you dare!”

~ * ~

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