In an effort to avoid Holt and perhaps to keep me away from the same, Cal started eating dinner in his wing of the castle. After inspecting the king’s dinner, I would deliver food to Cal. The prince of Haiathiel was keeping a closer eye on me, not even allowing Aliasse or Lianne to distract him.
In the prince’s solar, I finished my portion of meal first. “Cal, why have you been in a bad mood?” His bad moods came and went in a matter of hours, but this slump had lasted a week.
“I’m in a decent mood,” Cal replied, curling my hair around one of his long fingers. “Only you’ve been restless. It worries me.”
I was worrying him? “Is that all?”
Cal was wearing his own set of tight jeans today and a soft, gray tunic. “I’ve missed you.”
I tapped away his hand, which had drifted upwards to cup my face. “I’ve been at your side all day.” He did have a point that I had only seen snippets of him lately and too much of Holt.
“It feels as if you’ve gone somewhere, where I can’t follow.” Cal pushed his half-eaten food away. “I need you, Avi.”
“I’ll always be here to look out for you,” I assured him. With his head at an angle, he resembled a puppy, and I reached out to pat his head. He kissed the side of my hand, sending delicious shivers down my spine.
He laughed. “Now, where have you been?”
The spell he wove broke at the thought of his anger. “Nowhere.” Trying to act casual, I scooped his plate onto a tray. “Perhaps you’re the one who’s been so busy and forgot about me completely?”
“Forget you?” Cal returned. “Never.”
I stood and balanced the tray against my hip. “Do you want more wine?”
“No. Just come back soon.”
Cal sounded sad, though he was smiling. How odd. Out in the hallway leading to the kitchens, I was so busy ruminating about the cause of Cal’s depression that I ran straight into someone.
“Sorry.” At the flash of blue robes, I bowed my head. “Forgive me, Senator.”
Holt attempted to cover up a laugh with a cough. Poorly. “Have we already become strangers, Miss Avi? Perhaps you are ashamed to remember our last meeting?”
His face, though pale, still managed to convey a smile. The last time I had seen him…that same face expressed so much pain. “No,” I protested. “How have you been? Cal’s been keeping me busy.”
“And away from me,” the senator voiced my thoughts. The man began to circle me like a wolf around prey. “Have you considered the possibility that Letris loves you?”
“Enough to give up all other women?” I spoke with bitterness that made me cringe.
The senator nodded. “Haven’t you seen the way he looks at you? Avi, please, look at how jealous he’s become of us, and to his knowledge, the two of us are on friendly terms and nothing more.”
A hard lump of emotion lodged itself in my throat. Was Cal jealous? Or just possessive? Even if he married me and stopped dabbling with other women, I worried for my mental health. Cal would dazzle me and bend me unintentionally to his will. That fate was inevitable once a woman slept with Cal. All her thoughts would be consumed by him. I imagined it was the reason no maid wanted to leave the castle.
Only Callie was able to resist him for some reason. She had accompanied the senator and me on our trips to the Capitol until, for reasons unknown, she started to politely declined invitations. Had Cal said something to her? Had we not been as careful as we thought? It would explain Cal’s mood.
“I can’t marry him,” I told Holt. “I’d lose myself.”
“Lose yourself? Avi, if any person has the strength to deal with Letris, it’s you,” he insisted. The passion in his voice, no doubt, came from the thought of completing his scheme. Still, I wouldn’t be anyone’s tool.
“Is that what I am?”
“What do you mean?”
I flinched. “For some strange reason, I was under the impression we were friends though you continue trying to use me as a tool!”
“A hammer to save the kingdom, if anything.”
How can a human being be compared to a hammer?
“You’ll repair the kingdom,” he continued. “Have you ever considered the needs of the kingdom greater than your individual fate?”
I poked him in the chest, forcing him a step back. “You don’t understand that once Cal has me dazed, I probably won’t nag him. I’ll give in to whatever he wants. Even if I manage to keep my senses, he’ll get sick of my nagging, and then he’ll get distracted again! Don’t you see the flaw in your plan?”
Leaving Holt to stand alone in the corridor, I hurried down to the kitchen and dropped off Cal’s leftover food and dirty dishes. After fixing my face into a cheery expression, I ambled back to Cal’s quarters.
The prince of Haiathiel was nowhere to be seen. Then the blanket-covered lump on his bed caught my eyes. It was a perfectly unobtrusive, non-human-shaped lump. If Cal had been pacing the room, I wouldn’t have noticed it.
“Cal?” I called. I mock-searched his closet before sneaking towards the lump. “Aha!” I said in triumph as I uncovered the naked prince of Haiathiel. “Cal! Put some clothes on!” Thank goodness his legs were tucked against his stomach, hiding his lower body. Even so, I hadn’t missed the rest of his muscled body before I turned around.
“If I refuse?” he asked.
“Then I’m leaving.” I could feel the pulse from my racing heart in my fingers.
Cal sighed, and I heard him pull his discarded attire from under the bed. I closed my eyes and waited. Then, without warning, he wrapped arms around my shoulders and pulled me onto the bed. Before I could panic, he scooted back a safe distance. How far did he plan to take this?
His smile softened from lust to gentle affection. “I won’t hurt you, Avi.”
“This is still sexual harassment, you know,” I said.
“Harassment? When I want to cherish you?”
Cherish a taste-tester? It made me snicker though my prince frowned at the reaction. “You’re strange, Cal.”
“No stranger than the world you’ve told me about,” Cal returned. “May I kiss you?”
I kissed him instead. What would it be like to be touched and not give a damn about the consequences? To forget true love?
“This was long overdue, my sweet dark angel.” His thumb gently brushed a sensitive area through the thin cloth of my dress. “Let me take your gown off?”
“Leave it,” I said before pulling his mouth down to mine again. His lips curled into a smile, as his tongue flicked into my mouth. This was a lover’s kiss and a lover’s embrace. He tasted irresistible. Exactly what I had feared.
When we broke apart for air, I pushed at his chest. Perhaps reading my expression, Cal scurried to the other end of the bed. He stretched, all the contours beneath his shirt inviting touch. It took all the self-control I had not to undress and let Cal have what he wanted.
“See you later.” The one who was supposed to remind the prince of his duties prepared to flee like a coward. How could she when mere kisses drove her to maddening desire? My prince was grinning like a fool as I stumbled out of the room.
I breathed in and out, willing myself not to have panic attack. The memory of his kisses set my face burning. I had to find Callie and wrestle an answer to that very crucial question: how can any girl resist Cal? I rushed so fast to the library that I was panting like a dog when Callie saw me.
“Avi, you’re completely red! Are you all right?” She was sorting a shelf of black leather-bound books.
“Fine.” Damn Cal and his skillful tongue. “What are you up to?”
“I was putting some titles His Majesty wanted pulled in order.”
Since the king was an avid reader, Callie had her hands full keeping the library tidy and convenient for His Majesty. Even so, for all the knowledge the king acquired, he had never learned how to manage his son.
“What does the king read?” I asked my friend.
Straightening another row of books, Callie admitted, “He doesn’t explore much beyond fictional tales anymore. What is it, Avi?”
“How can you resist Cal?”
“No woman can resist him,” she returned, playful. At my stony look, she hesitated. “There is one thing that’s a bit unusual, but you can’t tell anyone.”
I held out my hand, and we shook pinkies on it. Whatever she told me would never pass my lips again unless she brought it up.
“When I came here,” Callie began in a whisper, with a nervous glance around the shelves. “I wasn’t a virgin.”
All of Cal’s maids arrived as virgins; none left that way. The girls who came to serve him were checked by Jim before becoming royal maids. It was to protect Cal’s body from common diseases, also known as STDs.
“Mind you, I wasn’t on the street long,” Callie continued. “Some men left me feeling dirty, some powerless, but there was one man, who didn’t make me feel that way. He was kind and even offered to give me enough money to escape…but I didn’t trust him.”
“You mean Cal?”
Callie refuted with a shake of her head. “Your senator. It was before the war. He’s so different now. Then, I realized who he was. In the end, it was Cal who finally convinced me to escape that life. He promised to protect me.”
Reeling at the romantic story, I clutched the bookcase for support. “But how does any of that help you resist Cal?”
Callie grinned. “My theory is that if you’ve slept with another man, Cal’s physical charm diminishes. Even so, I still love him,” she said fiercely. “I love Cal for saving me.”
He saved us both, gave us a home. I hugged her, and she shifted awkwardly.
“Avi, it’s fine.”
“Is that why you stopped coming with us?” I asked. “When you realized what Senator Holt did to you?”
Her giggle shook my bones. “Not exactly. I just don’t want him to recognize me and bring Cal any trouble. Hey, maybe, you should find a man for your bed?”
I stumbled away and wondered if her words were a ploy to get me to release her.
Callie reached over to tug a strand of hair hanging in my face. “Any particular reason you asked?”
It was a niggling idea but worth a shot. “Do you love Cal like you might love a husband?”
She reflected for a moment. “Right, Cal has to marry soon! Well, I love him as my protector, but he’s yours if you want him, Avi. You should marry him instead of allowing another girl to become queen.”
I placed my forehead against the grainy wood of a bookshelf. Not another person on the marry-me-to-Cal boat! Gentle fingers pried me away. “Sorry. I suppose marrying him would be overwhelming.”
A knock on the bookcase next to us made us both jump. Then a senator swept in between the two seven-foot bookcases to smile at us. “May I speak to Avi alone?”
Callie bowed to Senator Mativ as she made her escape. Mativ, not looking at me, came closer. “So, after spending quality time with our stormy senator, what have you learned?”
The man sure got to the point fast. In response, I shrugged. “Near to nothing. He is loyal to the king. He never speaks ill of anyone except Cal, of course.” If I started to prod Holt about the behavior of specific senators, he would always clam up.
“Then what is our senator planning to do about Cal?”
How mortifying it would be to reveal that Holt’s plot was to marry me off to Cal! “He would have me marry the prince,” I admitted. The king’s advisor was too sharp to buy lies. “If that doesn’t work out, I have no idea what he will do. What can he do?”
Mativ rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I only ask this of you, Avi, because I worry for the prince’s safety.”
“Poison isn’t a problem,” I reminded him. “Besides, Holt wouldn’t dare stab Cal here in the king’s own castle.”
“He may have men behind him,” Mativ said. “The castle is not prepared for a military coup. His Majesty thinks precautions are unnecessary.”
I shivered. “So, what else can I do?”
The old senator gave me a beam, and I was instantly sorry to have asked. My last investigation of Holt’s past hadn’t gotten far. I should have complained and whined and declared I couldn’t squeeze information from Holt.
“You, dear Avi, must gain access to Holt’s deepest confidence.”
Why did I not like the sound of that? “No, I’m too close to Cal for that.”
“Even so, the senator seeks out your company with surprising frequency,” Mativ said. “Surely it’s not so difficult to become his friend?”
“Maybe.” The senator only came with surprising frequency to further harass me about marrying the prince!
“Thank you, on behalf of His Majesty and the prince.” Mativ gave me a baroque bow. “You may just save Cal’s life.”
Save Cal’s life? I had thought his throne, not his life, was in actual danger.
Holt felt his eyebrow rise of its own accord. The taste-tester was pacing the length of Cal’s solar with a look of deep concentration tinged with frustration. During their most recent outings to the Capitol, she had been acting cheerful to the point of the senator wondering if something was amiss.
The girl groaned and turned away from his approach. She immersed herself in a painting of flowers hung above a gilded table.
“What’s wrong, Miss Avi?” Holt sat on the soft, embroidered fabric of the solar sofa and tried to exude an aura of patience and understanding. In truth, he hadn’t been sleeping well since Cal’s coronation was only seven months away. Those months would pass rapidly, especially since the prince had to marry previous to his coronation.
As Avi whipped around to face him, she surprised him with a vulnerable mien. “I’m worried for Cal.”
“He has nothing to worry about; I’d worry more about the kingdom.” King Aelius had been prodding Letris to take up the burden of ruling, but Holt knew from Otelius that the prince’s ignorance remained unchanged.
Avi sat on the sofa cushion beside him with a scowl. “What if someone wanted Cal off the throne badly enough to resort to force?”
“Who has that kind of force?”
“A senator could afford to hire men.” Avi stared up at him, and Holt couldn’t help feeling accused.
With what he hoped was a winsome smile, he assured her, “You know what my solution is. I don’t have men ready to take Cal away from you.” Nor could he afford it.
“If your solution fails, what are you going to do?”
Holt considered lying. If Avi didn’t marry Cal, Aliasse would have to slip the prince the lethal poison the Forthwright party had handed her. “I cannot vouch for Cal’s safety if you don’t marry him.”
“So, you are planning something after all!” the girl howled. She stood, a whirlwind of white, and snatched the front of the senator’s robes. “Treasonous wretch, don’t you dare hurt him!”
Holt replied, “I thought you didn’t care for him?”
“I do love him as a friend.” Her hands faltered, and she scooted away from the senator to hug a round, red cushion.
“You never harbored any attraction to him even when you first arrived here?”
“A little,” she admitted. “He scared me at first actually, but now…please, Holt, there must be a way to save him!”
“The prince must save himself.” The senator stood. It would be best to leave before Letris came and saw him talking to the beloved taste-tester.
“Fine!” Avi spat at his retreating back. “No matter how many men you have, I will convince the king to secure the castle with more guards. You won’t be able to lay a finger on him! Especially when I tell Mativ what you’re up to!”
Holt cleared his throat. He couldn’t afford to have any doubts cast on his loyalty, especially from Mativ. “Very well, but since you don’t have any specific information about my sinister plans, I doubt Mativ would take you seriously.”
Her mouth fell open. “Are you making fun of me, Senator? Are you making a mockery out of your threat to Cal?”
“I’m only saying that you know nothing about any plans and thus cannot take action to prevent them. So why uselessly complain to Mativ about nothing?”
He wrapped his arms around her as she attacked. Pausing in the effort to pound the senator’s chest into a pulp, Avi glared up at him. His grip tightened on her shoulders, and Avi flailed, tangled in the blue fabric of the senator’s uniform. “Let me go!”
Instead, on a whim, Holt kissed her forehead. The senator didn’t say a word as she stumbled away and began rubbing at the spot of the contact as if it were dirty. Head bowed, the taste-tester didn’t speak for a full minute until he stepped towards her.
“You want me to marry Cal, but…” She hid behind a curtain of black hair.
“Miss Avi—” he began.
“Go away,” she snapped, and the harshness in her tone forced Holt to admit it was time to retreat.
Unfortunately, he retreated straight into the prince of Haiathiel. Only seeing the distress on Avi’s face and asking no questions, Cal punched the sheepish senator in the face.
“Cal!” I shrieked as the senator fell backward like a stone post knocked askew. He landed with an unpleasant thump. Holt’s touch, while unexpected and disturbing in a hundred different ways, had caused me to blush like a fool. I never wanted to touch him again, to have my feelings flustered thanks to Mr. Beanbutt! Still…“You could have broken his nose! Or his head! A prince shouldn’t be breaking his senators!”
Taking my hand before I could check how brain-damaged the senator was, Cal asked me in a low, urgent tone: “Did he hurt you?”
Ah, my prince’s concern was so cute. “The idiot just surprised me a little. Er, we should probably move him to Jim’s wing.”
Cal tugged me away from the senator sprawled on the floor, dragging us through the corridors and finally into the prince’s study. “Avi, you have to stay away from that man!”
“But…” I still needed to find out the specifics of his possible plot against Cal. Since I wasn’t a bozo, I nodded. “You’re right.”
Cal pulled his hand through his hair and oozed pheromones. Even the lingering memory of the senator’s slimy kiss couldn’t take the edge off my pang of desire for Cal. “Of course, I am,” he said. “The man looks at you like a wolf looks at its next meal! I won’t tolerate it!”
I elbowed the agitated prince of Haiathiel. “I’m not much of a meal.”
“Stay away from him,” Cal repeated before striding out of the study and shutting the door in my face. A click and one immovable doorknob later, I could only stare at the door until Cal came to release me. He returned with a calmer face and cajoling words, but I strode past him before he could finish a single sentence.