Authors: C.L. Stockton
“You will have to remain long enough to settle your father’s estate.” I should have known Colton would think of something to keep me here.
“That won’t take long.” I turned to look at him, my narrow eyes telling him in no uncertain terms to stop.
“Won’t it?” He swished the wine around in his glass before taking a sip, his eyes appraising over the rim.
“Surely none can refuse a prince of Goran.” I kept my tone light and airy, but could not help emphasizing the word prince.
“Some people find refusing princes entertaining.”
“Only when said prince has a hard time respecting boundaries.” I continued cutting my meat, not daring to look at him. If he was smiling, I would have to stab him.
“Boundaries are only for those who doubt their resolve.”
I chose not to answer. Our little discussion was already drawing enough attention as it was. Looking up, I saw three pairs of eyes trained on us. Desperately, I cast around for a topic.
Queen Cassandra saved me. “Tell me, Cadrian, do you dance?”
The question seemed odd to me. “As much as most people.”
“Excellent. As long as you are here, I would enjoy your company when I attend social engagements as my family is unbelievably accomplished at wiggling their way out of invitations.” She glowered at the men around the table. None looked abashed.
“Mother, it is hardly my fault ladies converge on me until I can hardly breathe, much less dance.” Rob stabbed his green beans with more force than necessary.
“Marry one of them and the problem will disappear,” Cassandra returned, taking a bite of green beans.
Rob looked wounded she would suggest such a thing. “Why? It is Sorin they want.” I had trouble believing that statement. When a man looked like that and was a prince to boot, ladies probably lined up ten deep for a chance to dance with him.
“That is not true. Why, only yesterday Lady Hershey told me how much her daughter, Lady Joy, enjoyed her dance with you.” Seeing Rob’s confusion, his mother prompted, “The blonde with the high pitched laugh.”
“Oh.” From Rob’s calm reaction, I had a feeling variations of this conversation were typical dinner fodder. “Surely you do not wish to add that laugh to our quiet dinner table.”
Colton chuckled, quickly muffling it in his napkin when Rob glared at him. “Do not think Mother’s forgotten about you, Sorin. I believe she has at least six eligibles lined up for your perusal at tomorrow’s ball.”
“Seven,” Cassandra corrected. I ignored the stab of instinctive jealousy at the thought of Colton so much as entertaining thoughts of that nature toward another woman. Then I resisted the urge to bang my head against the table because I’d gone and fallen in love with the blasted man. If I had any sense, I would plead a headache, run to my room, use the bed sheets to sneak out and be on the way to Chester before I ruined my life further.
“It is too bad, isn’t it, that I will be leaving tomorrow morning.” He sounded anything but sorry. Then his words sank in.
He was leaving?
“Where are you going?” I couldn’t check the words, or my curiosity.
The familiar look he gave me said he would not tell me anything. “I fancy a trip to the coast at the moment.”
“Liar.” I poked his arm.
Before Colton could retaliate, his father said, “Sorin is checking on a small matter for me.” As if that explained anything.
“Richard, he will never marry if you continue sending him to the far reaches of the country!” Cassandra pounded the table in frustration. “We will never have grandchildren at this rate!”
“Sorin has plenty of time for marriage. You know this cannot wait.” King Richard gave his wife a pointed look. My attention caught on that look. Whatever was going on, the queen knew about it.
My mind raced. Did she know about my father? The Tallons? After all, she was a North by marriage. How far did her knowledge extend? Was Rob also involved? Looking around the table, I began to feel outnumbered.
“Thanks a lot. Now she will introduce me to the ladies instead.” Rob spoke across the table to his brother.
“Perhaps you will even find one you like.” Colton neatly cut a piece of meat, each movement of the knife controlled and precise.
“Doubtful. Besides, I won’t marry before my elder brother.”
“Then you have a long wait ahead of you.” Though his tone was light, I caught a dark undertone in his voice. I kept my eyes on my plate and didn’t look up, even when I felt his eyes on me.
“Or so you think.” I did spare Rob a glance, deeming him safe. He was smirking at his brother.
“And that means what exactly?” Colton didn’t sound pleased at the direction this conversation was taking.
“You’re smart. Figure it out.” Deliberately Rob looked at me.
Colton frowned. “There is nothing to figure out.”
Rob turned to me. “Do you ever acutely dislike him?”
“All the time.”
He turned back to his brother. “See. Even women dislike you.”
“Excellent. I shall be able to remain unattached longer.” Colton’s eyes slid to me, and he gave me a sly smile. “Besides, Cadrian likes me.”
My cheeks immediately warmed. “I do not!”
“If you say so.” He leaned closer, so Rob couldn’t hear. “Then your opinion has changed since the library.”
“You are loathsome.” I changed the grip on my knife to one more conducive to stabbing.
“The only thing worse than arguing with a prince is killing one.” He indicated my hand clenched on the knife. I slackened my grip, and focused on not stabbing him.
Across the table, Rob watched closely. Luckily, the king and queen were still arguing about sending Colton away. Something about being eighty and too old to enjoy grandchildren.
Hmm. Perhaps now was the time to exact some revenge on Colton. “At least I am not terrified of marriage.” Cassandra’s head abruptly lifted. It must have been the word marriage.
“He told you about that?” Cassandra asked, leaning forward.
“Only in passing.” Colton added, “If I’d known she was a poor confidant, I never would have told her.”
“What else has he told you?” The queen was not to be deterred.
“Nothing of interest.” Colton cut across any reply I might have made.
“Hush, you.” She swatted in Colton’s direction. “You and I will talk later, Cadrian, when Sorin’s gone.”
“Not if I bring her along.”
“No!” I said at the same time the king said, “Absolutely out of the question.”
Colton looked from me to his father. “Well, if you feel that strongly about it.” He shrugged and went back to eating his meat.
“Perhaps you and I need to review the mission objectives,” King Richard mused.
“I am perfectly aware of the objectives. I couldn’t be otherwise after this morning.” Colton frowned. “This does not involve only you, Father. This is important to me as well.”
“See that nothing changes your mind.”
I hated when others insisted on continuing conversations as if they were the only ones at the table. And since I was on the outside, it was especially annoying. I wondered what else they’d spoken about. Considering a new, secret journey was on the table, it didn’t take much of a leap to assume it probably had something to do with my father.
“Is this about my father?” I had never been known for my tact. When I wanted answers, I went for the jugular.
“ Colton began, but King Richard quieted him with a look. I was willing to wager nobody argued with the king when he looked down the arrogant North nose at them.
“Excellent question, Miss Summerlynn. This has everything to do with the project your father was working on when he died.”
“Which was?” I wondered if he would tell me what Colton blatantly refused to.
“I think you know. You may have fooled my son, but I am well aware of the Summerlynn charm.” He carefully set his wine glass down. “If it were up to me, you’d be in prison and not at my dinner table.”
“If the people in prison have better manners, I shall be glad to join them.” I heard the queen’s gasp, but I didn’t care. Having been dragged from one hostile situation to the next, I was through being walked over. “I believe it is time you told me why I am here.”
“You are here because I instructed my son to bring you for questioning.”
My heard squeezed painfully in my chest. Any romantic illusions I had were swiftly dismissed. Colton hadn’t brought me here because of some protective instinct or because he couldn’t bear to be parted from me. I was here because his father demanded it.
Angry, more at my foolish heart than anything else, I said, “Then this is a waste of time.” I met King Richard’s stare with a hard look of my own. “You cannot project guilt onto me because my father happened to be in opposition to you.”
The king’s breath hissed out between his teeth. “You know something.”
“Not really. Anyone with half a brain can see the only reason my father attracted your notice is because he is working against you, most likely on something very crucial.”
“Richard, this is not a conversation for the dinner table.” Cassandra attempted to waylay the argument brewing, but to no avail.
“I agree. We will continue this is my office.” He stood, as did Colton. “Sorin, you are not invited.” He marched out of the dining room, expecting me to follow.
Colton’s hand caught my elbow. “Let me speak to him first.”
Angrily, I jerked free. “Don’t touch me.”
After a bright flare of pain, his eyes carefully emptied of emotion. Retracting his hand, he gave a tight nod.
“I apologize for my rudeness.” I tossed my napkin on the table and stalked into the hall.
Having no idea where the office was, I found a footman who took me there. I thought briefly of making for the nearest exit, but when the king of Goran was one’s opponent, escape was impossible. He had resources I could only guess at.
Upon opening the door to the king’s office, I was nearly overwhelmed by a large oil painting of a gore filled battle scene that claimed the entire wall behind an equally impressive desk. My eyes lingered on the rolling white eyes of the central horse, and hoped my own didn’t look like that.
As for the rest of the room, none of it inspired confidence. Painted a dark grey with dark wainscoting, the only light came from four heavily curtained windows along the back wall. Half shelves ran the circumference of the room, full of neatly labeled books, papers and other paraphernalia that kept a country running. Companion paintings to the large one behind King Richard’s desk also circled the room. I felt as though I was in the middle of a battle.
I probably was. Without the calming influence of his family, King Richard’s features sharpened. The way he looked down his long nose was meant to imply I was his inferior. That may be true, at least in
terms of rank, but I had as much right to innocence as he.
So I walked in, shoulders back, head high, and sat myself in the first of four chairs lining the front of his desk. King Richard remained seated. The desk was the largest I’d seen, nearly matching the length of the huge oil painting behind it.
We took each other’s measure. That he was determined to win this battle, and that he was accustomed to winning were written in every line of his aristocratic face. A hint of ruthlessness appeared around his mouth. I felt as though I was in the path of a tornado. Things were spinning wildly around me for no apparent reason.
That was not entirely true. The person who set things spinning was my recently deceased father. I spared a thought for the pain of his loss, before quickly shutting that line of thinking. My father was dead and had left me to clean up his mess.
“Tell me what you know, and be quick about it.” King Richard’s first demand fell between us. Not having much to bargain with, I thought I’d better give him what he wanted.
“When Sal de Mar fell, my father gave me a purse and thrust me at Prince Sorin, demanding we go to Lisbon. I assumed he would meet us there, so—“
“What was in the purse?” King Richard interrupted.
“Money and a letter. Prince Sorin has it.”
“Yes, the letter from last night. Continue.” The king leaned back in his chair and focused his complete attention on me.
“We arrived at Lisbon and went to an address from my father’s letter. There, I met with a man just as interested in my father as everyone else. As I was unable to provide the information he wanted, he wouldn’t tell me anything. Are you sure you wish me to continue? It makes for a rather boring story.”
Ignoring my comment, the king replied, “You said you went to an address in Lisbon you saw in the letter. There is no address on the letter.”
Sorin was right. His father did know everything. “On the letter or not, we went to the address and found nothing.”
“Why should I believe you?”
Steadily, I met his gaze. “Prince Sorin’s account must mirror mine.”
“With a few interesting side notes.” King Richard again sat back in his chair. “Continue.”
“I will not bore you with the mundane details of our trip through the lovely country of Goran and will skip straight to our abduction by a group of men in the forest. The men were not unknown to your son. He spent the better part of two days closeted with them while I was left to wait in an empty room. After we were released, I was brought here.”