“Should have used Craft, Cassie,” she muttered as she finally got the heel clear of the hem. “Pass the shoe through the cloth and you’re less likely to topple over and fall on your ass.”

Once she got the trousers on, she buttoned up the long-sleeved shirt, and quickly braided her hair, using Craft to secure the end of the braid.

“Good enough,” she muttered as she hurried back to the flower bed, returning at the same time Gray arrived with the rattling wheelbarrow.

“These are a bit rusty, but I found a couple of short-handled claws that are good for loosening soil and digging out weeds,” he said. He hesitated, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he kept glancing at her face and then looking away.

Finally he said, “Your skin is very pale.”

Cassidy wrinkled her nose. “Pale skin goes with the red hair.” Unlike her brother Clayton’s, her skin never changed to that soft gold color when she spent time in the sun. It just went from milk to cooked lobster.

“Your eyes aren’t brown, but they aren’t green either.”

“The color is called hazel. Doesn’t anyone have eyes like that here?”

Gray shook his head. “Brown and blue mostly. Some green. None like yours. They’re pretty.”

A little flutter of feminine pleasure. The only man who had thought anything about her was pretty was her father, and fathers never saw daughters in the same way as other men, so Poppi’s opinion didn’t really count.

Which wasn’t something she would ever say to Poppi.

Gray took a step back, as if he was leaving.

“I know you have other work to do,” Cassidy said,“but could you stay a few minutes and point out some of the good plants?” She wanted him to stay. This place didn’t feel as lonely now that she’d met him.

Another hesitation. “You want me to help?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

“No, I don’t mind.” He seemed to be mulling over a lot more than spending an hour weeding a flower bed. “You should wear a hat to protect your face.”

“Oh, I . . .” He was right, of course. But somehow in the past few minutes he’d made some transition from scared younger boy to bossy older boy. Politely bossy, but she remembered a childhood afternoon visit with her cousin Aaron, which had been her first experience with being around a Warlord Prince of any age, and she still remembered that particular tone of bossiness that no one but a Warlord Prince could achieve.

“Don’t you have a hat?”

“Yes, I have a hat, but . . . You’ll laugh at my hat.”

“I won’t laugh,” Gray said quickly, putting one hand over his heart. Then he thought for a moment and added, “I’ll try not to laugh.”

Good enough.

She called in her gardening hat and plunked it on her head. It was a simple straw hat with a wide brim that kept the sun off her face and neck.

Gray didn’t laugh, but his smile kept getting wider and wider as he studied her hat.

“Why does it have a chunk missing from one side?” he asked.

“Because my brother was teasing me last summer and holding it behind his back—and didn’t notice when the goat snuck up behind him and took a bite out of it.”

His smile got even wider. “Shouldn’t it have ribbons?”

“I use Craft to keep it in place.”

Nodding, and still smiling, he handed her one of the short-handled claws. “I’ll show you what doesn’t belong in this garden.”

Where in the name of Hell did she go? Theran scanned the weed-tangled mess of raised beds that framed a terrace before he headed for the rest of the formal gardens.

She’d said she wanted a little air and would be back shortly. That had been over an hour ago. A meal, and the men, were waiting for her return so they could get on with the rest of these meetings.

Considering how bad everything looked, what could Lady Cassidy find out here that would amuse her for so long?

The answer punched his heart. He lengthened his stride as he headed for the big stone shed. It had held the groundskeeper’s office at one time, but had become a catchall for unwanted tools. He’d helped Gray clear out the smaller room in the shed and put in a cot, a small chest of drawers, and a bookcase.

Gray was used to living rough. So was he. But here, with the mansion in sight, it seemed . . . meaner, coarser.

It was all Gray could tolerate.

If Cassidy thought she could play with a damaged man just because Gray wasn’t able to fight back, she’d find out the truth quick enough. He, Theran, wasn’t fifteen anymore, didn’t—wouldn’t—hide anymore. And Gray wasn’t standing alone anymore, facing something that terrified him.

He spotted Gray and hurried toward his cousin, no longer caring if he found Cassidy. A wheelbarrow full of weeds was on Gray’s left and someone—he caught a glimpse of a straw hat—was on the other side of the wheelbarrow.

“That’s called pearl of wisdom,” Gray said, pointing to a plant. “See? The flower has a sheen like the inside of a shell, and the seedpod looks like a pearl. The flower only blooms for a couple of weeks in the spring.”

“Gray,” Theran called, wondering what servant had befriended his cousin.

Gray looked around, a queer wariness in his eyes before he spotted Theran.

“Theran!” he said happily.

From the other side of the wheelbarrow, a husky voice said, “Oh, shit. Theran.”

When she popped up, it took him a moment to recognize her. She was the only person in Dena Nehele who had red hair, but it still took him a moment to recognize her.

Not a Queen. Despite her caste, she was not a Queen.

“Has an hour gone by already?” Cassidy asked.

“And then some. We’ve held the midday meal, thinking you would be back soon.” He couldn’t keep the tightness out of his voice, couldn’t even keep it on the right side of respectful.

“My apologies, Prince Theran.” There was a tightness in her voice too as she stood up and vanished that stupid hat. “I’ll wash up and join you as soon as I can. Please tell the men not to wait for me. They shouldn’t have to eat cold food just because I lost track of the time.”

“We live to serve,” Theran said.

She winced and wouldn’t meet his eyes as she hurried back to the mansion.

Theran watched her for a moment, then looked at Gray. “Are you all right?”

That queer wariness was back in Gray’s eyes. “I’m fine.”


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