Three years later
Tarienne was disturbed from stitching her tapestry by Daien knocking unexpectedly on her chamber door. She’d been pleased but surprised to see him. Her body had warmed involuntarily, her heart thumping against her ribs. Her reaction to his presence hadn’t changed in the three years she’d been in residence at Therin. She sighed. Daien had seemed uncomfortable when he passed on the message that she’d been summoned to the throne room for an audience with the King.
For a brief moment, icy shards of fear skittered down her spine. The heavily decorated corridors of the inner citadel they whisked along closed in around her crushing the breath from her lungs. She scrambled for a reason for the formal summons. Could the King have discovered her Fae heritage? Her heart pounding, Tarienne smoothed the front of her dress, her hands trembling.
Attempting to calm herself, Tarienne allowed herself a glance at Daien, striding along beside her. Despite her inner turmoil she smiled. Heart achingly handsome and known as a bit of a rogue, Daien worked hard at behaving today marching purposefully alongside her, his expression stern, almost. His presence calmed her and a modicum of rational thought returned. If King Eldian had discovered her magical abilities she’d surely either be in irons being dragged to the throne room, or in the depths of the castle dungeons.
She had been using magic for some time now, to heal villagers who came to her because they had heard of her talent with medicinal herbs. She’d been careful, they’d all thought it was the herbal remedies that helped them and that was partially true. She couldn’t turn them away, was drawn to help the simple people who were so grateful, so kind to her.
Only yesterday she had visited a family of seven in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of the city. They were distraught and desperate because the father was bedridden with what Tarienne suspected was pneumonia. She had made a tea from Elecampane root, Coltsfoot and Juniper to help clear his lungs and reduce the fever. She’d sponged his upper body and administered the tea, all-the-while working a silent wellness incantation. She’d instructed the family on administering the tea regularly and to sponge him down often until the fever broke. He’d been sleeping peacefully by the time she’d left. It was such a simple use of the immense magical power that she held, it would be ironic to be punished for it.
Breathing deeply to settle her churning stomach, Tarienne touched Daien’s arm to draw his attention, she couldn’t resist tempting his resolve.
“Not going to the tavern today, Daien?”
“The tavern, Milady ...?” Daien raised a questioning eyebrow as he turned to her, slowing his pace a little. “It’s out of bounds while I’m on duty!”
In contradiction to his solemn declaration, his face lit in a smile fit to melt the heart of any maiden. Tarienne sucked in a sharp breath. Daien added so only she could hear, “This afternoon as long as no-one catches me.” Then quickly schooled his features into the same serious look as before.
Tarienne chuckled, chiding him, a teasing tone lacing her voice. Sighing quietly, she wished things could be different. Daien warmed her heart so. She’d felt a connection between them since she’d first met Daien three years earlier however Daien had never shown any real interest beyond propriety. At times she’d been convinced that he cared for her, when she felt him so close in a crowd that the heat of his skin warmed her. At others, she was certain that he made himself scarce when she entered a room.
She’d watched Daien practice his swordsmanship and hand to hand combat with Aidan and the other guards, he was a strong and formidable warrior. She’d seen his bravery, honour and loyalty, witnessed his sweet nature when he’d comforted a child who’d fallen in the street and carried the small boy back to his parents. His deliciously expressive, chocolate brown eyes twinkled when he laughed, which he did often and it didn’t hurt that his lean, muscled body was honed to perfection. Her heart fluttered and a tiny flame of warmth trickled through her. Sighing again, she steeled herself for the meeting with the King.
Stepping into the throne room Tarienne pulled in another calming breath, missing Daien’s warmth the moment he stepped away awaiting the King’s orders.
“Thank you, Daien.”
King Eldian swung around to acknowledge her, dismissing Daien with a wave of his hand. Eldian halted no more than an arm’s length from Tarienne. His piercing grey-blue eyes assessed her for a moment. Forcing herself not to fidget under the King’s scrutiny, she waited.
Tarienne squeezed her hands tightly together to stop them from shaking. “Sire, you wished to speak with me?”
Powerfully built, the King dwarfed many men. His age ravaged, once handsome features and his slightly greying hair afforded him a distinguished appearance. His eyes held intelligence, promised intimidation. Eldian commanded respect, yet he also instilled fear in his people, showing a measure of fairness only where human folk were concerned. His major fault was his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the existence of magic or magical beings. Anyone thought to be practising a form of magic in the Kingdom of Therin would at the very least be banished to a harsh life with no support of family or friends, into the wilds, where vicious thieves, murderers and vile creatures lived.
Tarienne was fortunate, she would still have a home in her birthplace of Darewood or with Raef at Ferngrove. For Tarienne it would mean that she could not protect Aidan so he could fulfil the prophecy written long ago. This would in turn mean the demise of magic in the light. The Kingdom would be consumed by dark magic and the evil that wielded it. For an intelligent and courageous man who was a brilliant battle strategist, Tarienne could not comprehend King Eldian’s emotion driven response to magic. A frisson of anger chased away some of Tarienne’s worry. Many others, including Aidan, did not agree with this harsh decree. No-one however, herself included, would ever openly question the King’s ruling on any matter, especially this.
Tarienne lowered herself demurely into the ornate chair beside the throne as she had many times before, awaiting the King’s words.
“Dear, Tarienne I’ve noticed you spending a great deal more time with Aidan of late. This pleases me greatly.”
Tarienne let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. Relief flooded her at the unexpected direction of the discussion and she smiled.
“Yes, Sire, we are enjoying each other’s company more in recent weeks.”
Not a lie, just not the whole truth.
She and Aidan were feigning romantic involvement to prevent King Eldian from parading a long line of eligible women as potential brides for Aidan. Against tradition, Aidan wished to marry for love instead of duty.
Tarienne had discovered Aidan’s soft side quite soon after she moved to Castle Therin. They’d become close friends, sometimes confidantes. A few months ago it had become apparent that King Eldian was determined to find a suitable bride to rule at Aidan’s side and produce an heir to the throne to ensure continuation the royal lineage. Aidan had begged Tarienne to help. She loved him like a brother so she’d agreed but they both knew that the ruse couldn’t continue indefinitely. Her attention returned to the King’s words.
“Well, know this, my dear, seeing you together, pleases me greatly. I have despaired of Aidan ever seriously courting anyone let alone a most suitable choice like yourself. My time as King draws nigh. Soon Aidan will rule this kingdom. He’ll need a strong woman of royal breeding, to rule at his side.”
If only the King knew her true heritage he would not think her suitable. She felt guilty for deceiving the King and fearful that now he had acknowledged the match he’d force them into a wedding and they would be trapped. She must find Aidan quickly to discuss this new development.
“Thank you, Sire, have you also spoken with Aidan on this matter?”
“I will, on the hunt this afternoon.”
“Very well, Sire.” Quickly changing the subject, Tarienne added, “It is almost time for lunch, would you care to accompany me to the dining hall, My lord?”
Eldian nodded, a conspiratorial smile playing across his lips. “We’ll collect Aidan on the way.” He offered his arm and she looped hers through it as they headed for Prince Aidan’s chambers.
“Aidan,” the King called as he entered the Prince’s room without knocking, “It’s time for lunch.”
Aidan looked up from the sword he meticulously polished, a smile transforming his already handsome face. Tarienne admired that he always cleaned his own weapons. As the future King, he lacked the self absorption and class snobbery evident in Eldian.
“Father, Milady, I didn’t realise the time. I have not long returned from training with Orien and Daien.”
Tarienne’s pulse skipped at the mention of Daien, her chest tightened and the familiar, yet disconcerting tingle raced through her making her legs wobble.Shifting her stance she carefully schooled her expression into a joyful smile at being with Aidan. Eldian released her arm allowing her to scoot over to Aidan’s side, threading her arm through his. The King smiled indulgently and any happiness Tarienne had felt slipped away as they made their way along the long, cold corridor.
A delicious lunch of beef pies and apple pastries was served in the informal eating area beside the enormous kitchen. Aidan, Tarienne and Eldian chatted companionably about the upcoming Spring festival, the impending changes to the weather as the season of growth took hold and how delicious the food was. Therin was fortunate to have a very talented cook managing the kitchen staff and a full larder thanks to the skills of Aidan and his hunting parties and the rich soil tilled by the experienced fam folk on the outskirts of Therin. When the conversation turned to the afternoon’s impending hunt Tarienne asked the King if he would mind excusing her to continue the sewing she was doing for the Spring festival decorations.
Returning to her chambers Tarienne busied herself with her needlework, something she hoped she might eventually have the courage to gift to Daien. Her pulse fluttered at the thought of Daien, his lean, muscular frame, his confident swagger, his heart-stopping smile. How could she let Daien see that she cared for him now? Daien would never do anything to hurt Aidan, they were more than a Prince and his guard, they were friends. Their friendship was built on trust and the knowledge that each man had the other’s back when needed. What a mess everything was becoming. Sighing, Tarienne turned her attention back to her sewing, however, thoughts of Daien, his ready smile, his toned body, his thoughtful nature, continued to distract her.
After returning from the hunt, Aidan freshened up, changed his clothing and made his way down the long, chilly corridor to Tarienne’s chambers. Knocking, he called out to let her know who it was.
“Come in, Aidan.” She smiled as Aidan entered the room. He had taken the time to bathe and change his clothing despite his pressing need to talk to her about his father’s comments. Tarienne liked that cleanliness was important to him. He always smelled fresh and clean unlike some of the other courtiers who covered their lack of hygiene with heavy scents.
Aidan flopped melodramatically into the chair beside her, almost knocking her sewing from her hands. Tarienne calmly gathered the needlework in her lap, focusing on the next stitch.
“How was the hunt?” She lifted her eyes to meet Aidan’s.
“We brought down a stag, several deer and a boar. The kitchen stores will be full for some time. My father mentioned his happiness at our spending more time together.” Aidan raised an eyebrow, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “So our plan is working just as we hoped. Though I truly dislike lieing to him.”
“Now that he has acknowledged our interest, my concern is that he’ll expect a betrothal and wedding quite soon. What can we do Aidan?” Little frissons of panic darted across Tarienne’s chest, tightening it uncomfortably.
“Do not worry, Tarienne. I will tell him that we are taking it slowly.”
Tarienne interrupted him frustrated that Aidan didn’t seem to be taking the situation seriously enough. “But AIdan, in time he’ll expect a wedding. What then?”
“Then you will have provided me with some time to hopefully find someone. If not, I’ll tell him we’ve decided that we aren’t as suited as we first believed and I’ll be back to entertaining every eligible maiden of suitable lineage in the area!” Aidan sighed.
Tarienne chuckled at that thought, though she knew how frustrated Aidan had become at the constant stream of high born females his father had invited to Therin.
Aidan raised his eyebrows mischieviously, a cheeky grin spreading across his face.
“So, until then, to make our feelings appear real, perhaps we could share a kiss now and then?”
“Aidan, you may be the most handsome and eligible bachelor in the Kingdom but you are more like a brother to me and I’m doing this to save you from your fathers matchmaking.” Despite sounding stern, Tarienne smiled.
Aidan preened a little, a huge grin splitting his face. “You think I’m handsome?”
Tarienne rolled her eyes, chuckling. “That’s all you heard from what I said?”
Like Eldian, Aidan stood around six feet tall but his sunny, thoughtful disposition was so unlike his father. It was his charisma, good looks and the natural compassion that set the ladies hearts aflutter. Aidan did however take his responsibilities seriously. He trained hard, honing his lean body, building his strength and endurance to ensure his readiness when the battle for Therin finally erupted as they all knew it would. Aidan’s focus was to be the best swordsman and future King that he could to defend the Kingdom, to lead by example. He was actually quite shy and not conceited about his looks. Well, most of the time.Tarienne held back an unladylike snort.
Aidan’s short, unruly blonde hair, clear, blue eyes and angelic face had always reminded Tarienne of Elven royalty. Combine this with a smile that could set a woman’s heart racing and Aidan was indeed very easy on the eye. She truly loved him, but like a brother, not like she suspected he wanted her to and not like the King wnated her to. Tarienne appreciated Aidan’s handsome face and his toned body. He did not, however stir her heart as Daien did.
Daien’s rich, deep voice, reminded Tarienne of rich warm chocolate. Her insides melted when Daien spoke. His dark, brown eyes twinkled with mischief, in a ruggedly handsome face that often struggled to contain a grin. In contrast his fighting skills were unmatched, his unusual style unhurried almost relaxed. Her reaction to Daien disconcerted her. When the King’s Guards trained the site of Daien, shirtless, his muscles rippling, took her breath away. However Daien generally treated her no differently than any other member of the royal household. A little sigh escaped Tarienne’s lips. She couldn’t make Daien aware of her feelings for him, given their ruse for Aidan’s father. She and Aidan had agreed not to tell anyone, not even Daien. She forced her attention back to Aidan.
He watched her intently. A tiny frown of concern wrinkled Aidan’s forehead as his eyes sought hers.
“You know I appreciate what you’re doing, right?”
Aidan grasped the fingers of Tarienne’s free hand gently urging her up. Allowing him to lift her she dropped her needlework carefully on the arm of the chair with her other hand. Aidan leaned in, kissing her lightly on the cheek.
“Will you come for a walk with me?”
The innocent expression he pasted on his face, caused a chuckle to bubble up within her. She acquiesced to his insistent tug on her hand.
“Where are we going?”
“Around the grounds to check on the festival preparations and to the practice yard to speak with Orien about setting up the jousting tournament.”
Tarienne frowned, quickly brightening at the prospect of bumping into Daien. Their hands clasped maintaining the deception that they were in love, Aidan and Tarienne moved around the courtyard. Tarienne enjoyed the familiar contact of Aidan’s warm hand holding hers. It gave her comfort, accompanied by a sense of caring not apparent in the usual austerity of royal life.
Arrangements for the Spring festival were well underway. The delicious aroma of food cooking in preparation for the beginning of the weeklong Spring festival reached Tarienne’s nostrils. Her mouth watered at the delectable scents of roast meats and sugary treats wafting around her as they walked through the cobblestone streets. Aidan chatted briefly with the merchants bustling around their stand, all eager to talk to their Prince. Tarienne watched, smiling at Aidan as he showed genuine interest in each and every one. The people loved Aidan, she wished that he was King, things would be so different she mused. Be careful what you wish for.
The bustle of the courtyard left behind, Aidan and Tarienne approached the practice yard. The unmistakable ring of swords clashing filled the air. The King’s Guards were training. Tarienne’s pulse raced at the prospect of seeing Daien. When they rounded the corner the King rested casually on the rough wooden rail that separated the viewing stand from the training arena, observing the practice session. Eldian’s eyes slid down to their joined hands. He beamed. Tarienne suppressed a sigh, shifting her attention to the practice arena.
Tarienne’s gaze landed on the two men training and she couldn’t tear her eyes away. Well, from one in particular. The dust rose from the sun dried soil that served as the base of the arena as the two men jumped and slid around. Their focus was solely on each other waiting for their opponents’ next move. Their blades viciously sharp, the dance would be deadly were they not allies. One mistake and either man could be badly injured. Orien and Daien fought on unaware of their audience. Daien’s shirtless body glistened with perspiration. His sculpted muscles flexed and rippled as he blocked and parried Orien’s blows.
Tarienne’s heart clenched, her pulse thundering an erratic tempo. Gasping quietly she fought the urge to lift her hand to her chest chewed on her bottom lip instead in an attempt to control her reaction to the delicious site of a half naked Daien. Gods, what a gorgeous man. Tarienne breathed deeply reclaiming some much needed air. Fortunately the King did not hear her gasp or he would be swift to anger. He was not a forgiving man. Aidan however, did hear. Aidan’s eyebrows lifted as his gaze followed hers to the swordsmen. He grinned, knowing how she felt about Daien having prised the information from her during one of their long soul bearing conversations. Tarienne dug him in the ribs with her elbow, sending a quelling look his way.
Aidan let out a quiet, “Ooof,” rubbing at the spot where she’d jabbed him. However, his smirk stayed annoyingly in place.
Struggling to prevent her eyes from straying back to Daien, lest the King should see, Tarienne swallowed hard. With great effort she forced her focus back to King Eldian.
Plastering a smile on her face, she politely enquired, “Sire, did you enjoy the hunt today?”
Eldian turned toward her, his dark brown, leather jerkin a stark contrast to the crisp white of the shirt tucked into his black, leather trousers. His eyes lit,his passion for hunting obvious.
“Yes, very much Lady Tarienne. We captured a large stag for the feast tomorrow. The chase was exhilarating and the stag a worthy adversary.” Glancing between them, he smirked. “I see Aidan couldn’t wait to get back to you. I’ll leave you to enjoy each other’s company.”
Frustration welled inside Tarienne. Why had she ever d to this? Aidan lifted Tarienne’s hand to his lips, dropping a feather light kiss on her knuckles. Gazing into her eyes he leaned in closer for his father’s benefit. Eldian disappeared toward the inner citadel. Aidan sighed heavily, stepping back. Their hands still twined together he lead Tarienne down the steps to the practice yard.
Aidan cared very much for Tarienne and truly wanted to see her happy. He knew that his father loved him but that he also struggled with showing his emotions or any physical affection. A legacy of being the King, Aidan supposed. He knew that his father had done his best to raise him on his own. Aidan hoped that when he had children he would be a loving and patient father as well as a good King.
Aidan had unexpectedly found himself craving the sisterly affection that Tarienne bestowed upon him. If he was honest with himself that was why he’d suggested that they pretend to love each other. He could see now that it was selfish to expect Tarienne to continue with their ruse given how Daien and Tarienne felt about each other. He chuckled quietly, the irony that neither knew how the other felt not lost on him. Sobering he desperately hoped that someone would look at him one day, as Tarienne looked at Daien, as if he were the most special and desired person in the world.
Sighing again, Aidan led Tarienne to the edge of the practice yard absently caressing the back of her hand with his thumb. Realising what he was doing he stopped abruptly,sliding her a sideways glance. Mayhap it was time to tell his father that he wished to marry for love and let Tarienne have her chance with Daien?
Aidan had watched Daien’s eyes smoulder with desire for Tarienne. Daien hadn’t confessed outright that he had feelings for her however Aidan assumed he’d maintained his distance out of respect for their situation, their ruse for the King. God knows Aidan had pried and prodded enough during their companionable chats attempting to find out. It was fortunate that Daien didn’t have a quick temper. He’d just evaded the questions and laughing, changed the topic.
Aidan had discovered, however, that Daien felt he was unworthy of Tarienne. The King would feel the same, he would never allow Tarienne to consort with a guard, King’s Guard or not. Aidan decided that he could at least give Daien and Tarienne a legitimate excuse to spend some time together. Pleased with himself, Aidan grinned.
Tarienne’s eyes lowered as they approached the two guards who were finalising their match. Lifting her gaze slightly she stole a brief glance at Daien while he and Orien spoke with Aidan. Daien’s gaze flicked to their clasped hands and Tarienne had an undeniable urge to untangle her fingers from Aidan’s. She fidgeted, wishing Aidan would let her hand go. They had no need to continue their fiction now the King could not see them. Tarienne’s unrest drew Aidan’s attention. He turned toward her dropping her hand as though he’d read her mind.
“I have quite a lot to discuss with Orien regarding the jousting match, mayhap Daien can accompany you back to your chambers?”
Tarienne shot Aidan a surprised look. Aidan grinned.“You don’t mind do you, Daien?”
“Of course not, Sire.” Daien’s rich voice curled around Tarienne like an intimate caress.
Without further comment, Daien slipped his soft grey shirt over his head allowing the wrinkled edges to hang loosely over his black training pants. Raising his eyebrows he offered Tarienne his arm. Warmth crept up her neck as she linked her arm with Daien’s inadvertently brushing the heated skin of his side. Aidan chuckled and her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. Throwing a confused look at Aidan Tarienne glided away with Daien as gracefully as she could praying that Daien couldn’t feel her trembling or hear her heart thumping against her ribs.
Daien smelled like the outdoors, musky and deliciously masculine. His body radiated a tantalising warmth. Tarienne thought she might faint from the onslaught of emotion swirling through her and involuntarily swayed into him. Her body heated, her chest tightened and she struggled to breathe evenly. Clearing her throat, she desperately hoped that a conversation might settle the butterflies fluttering wildly in her stomach.
“Did you enjoy your training session, Daien?” Her voice had a huskier quality than usual.
“Always, My Lady. Orien and I are teaching each other our special techniques and honing our abilities in the process. It helps us stay in condition.”
Did Daien’s gaze just drift to her lips? His closeness and the timbre of his voice sent liquid heat spiralling through her. Desire pooled low in her belly and her breasts felt full and tight against the soft material of her bodice.
Losing herself in the sensations coursing through her she responded in the moment. “Mmmm, I noticed.” Realising her boldness and horrified at her lack of control, she felt heat creep up her neck again. She quickly added, “I ... noticed that you all appear to be using each others’ signature moves, though none appear to be able to execute yours quite so well as you.”
She forced a smile. Would he notice? Mortification filled her. Even more so, when a grin briefly played across Daien’s lips. When she finally dared to look at Daien again, his expression held only polite interest. Had she been mistkaken?
When they reached the door to her chamber it was all too soon. Tarienne wanted desperately to spend more time touching him, enjoying his warmth. Holding back a sigh when Daien untangled her armtaking her hand in his, his touch exquisitely gentle. Her heart thundered when he held her gaze. Moving ever so slightly closer a moment of indecision flitted across his face. Tarienne fervently hoped that he was considering a kiss.
Holding onto her hand a little longer than entirely appropriate Daien leaned in, close enough that his warm breath caressed her cheek.
“Thank you, My Lady.”
Tarienne frowned, throwing him a questioning look.
Daien whispered, “For noticing my condition ...”
Tarienne gasped audibly. He had heard her. Laughing heartily Daien bowed and strode quickly away. A retort on her lips Tarienne huffed crossly glaring at Daien’s disappearing form. Slowly, a smile curved the corners of her mouth. Tarienne entered her chamber, shaking her head and chuckling quietly to herself. What a rogue! Tarienne found it impossible to stay angry with him, especially when her body still hummed with the memory of his touch.
Daien hurried down the hall, his pulse racing, his trousers tighter than they had been earlier. He was grateful that his shirt was long enough to cover the bulge at the front of his pants. He berated himself. She’s a Lady, not some tavern wench and under the King’s care to boot. A mere guard cannot consort with a Lady of the Court. The problem was each time he touched Tarienne it became more difficult to maintain his prized control.
Daien headed toward the stables, his black stallion nickering at his approach. Taking a moment to run his hands down the horse’s muzzle Daien hauled in a deep breath, then hefted the saddle onto the black’s broad back. He tightened the straps around the horse’s girth and leapt up. Needing to get out of the castle walls he nudged the stallion into a slow trot until they emerged through the heavy castle gates.
Urging his mount into a run Daien bent low over the steed’s neck. They thundered across the open plain toward the lake exhilaration pumping through Daien’s veins.His pulse raced and his breathing accelerated. Finally they slowed entering the edge of the forest. Although Daien could travel through these woods blindfolded he would never risk injuring his mount on a stray tussock or catching its hoof in a rabbit hole. The lake appeared to his right, glistening, invitingly blue, beckoning for him to dive beneath its smooth surface, to cool his overheated blood.
Barely waiting for the stallion to stop Daien slid from its back. Loosely draping the reins around a sapling he began stripping leaving a trail of clothes leading toward the lake’s edge. Striding into the water its biting chill eased the ache in his loins almost immediately. Hauling in a deep breath Daien dove beneath the surface pulling through the inky depths. He burst up into the warm sunshine, raking his fingers through his dripping hair to clear it from his eyes. His feet touching the muddy bottom the water lapped around his waist. Now, if only the lake could cool the heated thoughts created by the mental image of Tarienne naked and wrapped around him. Daien swore.
Ducking beneath the surface he swam until he thought his lungs might burst. He’d swam here before with Aidan, training for the battle they knew would erupt soon but it was never like this. His thoughts wandered again and he wondered if Tarienne enjoyed swimming. His body responded to that thought. Swearing again he pulled through the water until his arms, chest and body ached.
When the sky began to darken, Daien dragged himself out of the water and dressed not bothering to dry himself. Jumping into the saddle he turned his stallion back to Castle Therin, Tarienne’s silky, red hair, compelling green eyes and a body that could send a man up in flames, consuming his thoughts. Thoughts that had turned toward the possibility of making Tarienne his. Unbidden his body filled with a possessive fire he’d not previously experienced. Leaning low, he kicked his horse into a dead run and didn’t slow until the castle came into view.