He watched her walk out of the room and wondered when she’d learned to dothat with her hips.

“Why don’t I do that?” Since he needed a minute before he left the room, he ate a cookie. “Damn, theyare good.” He studied the cookies—and smiled.

They tasted best when warm? Well, he’d have to see how warm he could make it when he walked into the bedroom holding a bakery tin full of these cookies—and wearing nothing but black leather pants that fit like a second skin.

TERREILLE

Winsol. For the Blood it was the most important day of the year.

For Theran, it was a bittersweet evening.

He sat in a chair near the fire Julien had lit in the parlor, his socked feet resting on a stool. Watching the flames, he idly swirled brandy in a snifter.

He’d enjoyed these past few days more than he’d expected. The first time he’d shown up at a social engagement without Kermilla, there had been an awkward silence, but word must have spread after that because none of his other hosts mentioned her absence. And because her absence meant he was free to travel to other towns, he’d spent some time with other Warlord Princes who had been friends in the rogue camps.

The days leading up to Winsol had been full. He still missed Kermilla with an ache that made him feel hollowed out at times—even when he acknowledged to himself that she wouldn’t have enjoyed the parties half as much as he did, being used to things that were so much grander.

If she’d asked him to spend Winsol with her in Dharo, he wouldn’t have hesitated. Would his clothes and manners have been that much of an embarrassment to her?

Probably.

She certainly would have been offended by the thought of sitting down with the servants for the Winsol feast. Since he couldn’t see the cook making a separate meal just for him, he’d asked Julien, Hanna, and the others to join him in the dining room and to set the table with whatever bits of fancy the butler and housekeeper could find. Despite the surroundings and a much better quality of food, sitting with them tonight had felt more like a Winsol dinner in the rogue camps—camaraderie and easy teasing between the adults and youngsters, and laughter. A great deal of laughter and the hopeful relief that the bad times were behind them.

He enjoyed the meal and the chance to know them as people instead of just servants.

But he still missed Kermilla. And Gray. Hell’s fire, he missed Gray. Not Gray as he’d been for the past ten years, but the youth he had been before he was captured and tortured. As he sipped his brandy and stared at the fire, Theran kept remembering that last Winsol when Gray was whole and happy—when one of them wasn’t weighed down by nightmares and the other by guilt.

A tap on the parlor door before Julien stepped in. “Prince Talon is here and asked if you’re available to see him.”

“Of course!” Theran set the brandy aside and pushed out of the chair. “Send him in.”

“We don’t have any of that special wine,” Julien said. “Is there something else we can offer as refreshment?”

Would Julien actually open a vein and mix his own blood with red wine to make yarbarah?

Studying his butler’s face, Theran realized that was a distinct possibility. “Let me find out if he wants anything.” He paused, wondering if he was reading something in Julien’s voice that wasn’t really there. “I appreciate the offer.”

Julien nodded and stepped out of the room.

A minute later, Talon walked in.

“Happy Winsol,” Talon said, giving Theran a hard hug and a smile.

“Happy Winsol.” Theran grinned, delighted by this visit. “Come sit by the fire. I don’t think we’ll have more snow until morning, but the old men who have weather aches say no one will move far from their own doorstep tomorrow.”

“They’re probably right,” Talon replied, taking a seat by the fire. “Plenty of snow up in the mountains this year.”

“You were in the Tamanara Mountains?” Theran couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice. Did Cassidy know her Master of the Guard was visiting the rogue camps?

“I always visit the camps during the Winsol nights.” Talon gave him a sharp look. “You know that.”

Of course he did. The past few years, he’d made those visits with the older man.

“I didn’t think you’d have time for that this year,” Theran said. He didn’t add that, until tonight, he hadn’t thought about the men who had remained in the mountain camps.

“I had time.”

Made time is what Talon meant.Since he should have done the same, he changed the subject. “How’s Gray?”

Talon smiled. “Boy’s got as much energy as a Sceltie, and he’s almost as good at herding.”

Is she working him hard?Not a question he could ask out loud since Cassidy was a sore subject between them.

Still smiling, Talon shook his head. “When he wasn’t working in the Queen’s gardens, he was overseeing the restoration of the small public gardens and parks in the village. Since Cassie, Shira, and Vae all insisted that he balance that with quiet work, Powell put him in charge of helping villages establish loaning libraries. I’ve never seen him happier.”

“Won’t he miss having you with him for Winsol?” Theran asked.

“Nah. Cassie’s parents and her brother are staying for Winsol. Along with the First Circle, he’s got plenty of people around him.” Talon gave him a long look, then asked quietly, “What about you? Why are you alone tonight?”

“I’ve attended more parties, winter picnics, musical evenings, card parties, riding parties, you-name-it parties in the past six days than I’ve ever seen. I had a choice of attending four Winsol parties or having a quiet evening at home. I chose to stay home.”

“And Kermilla?”

He ignored the ache caused by the sound of her name. “She had Winsol commitments to fill in Dharo.”

Cassidy’s court didn’t know that Kermilla was gone for good, and he wasn’t about to say anything that would lead Talon to think that. Besides, he didn’t know for certain she was gone for good. Correne’s death and the reason the little bitch had died had shaken Kermilla. It would have shaken any woman with a sensitive heart. Once she had some time away, she might realize that her influence as Dena Nehele’s Queen would curb the younger Queens and could prevent another tragedy like the one that had left a boy so horribly maimed.

As pleased as he was to see Talon, it was unfortunate that Cassidy’s Master of the Guard had learned that Kermilla wasn’t currently in Dena Nehele. Without Kermilla’s presence, Cassidy would solidify her claim as Territory Queen next spring without a challenge. He still didn’t think she was the best Queen for Dena Nehele, so he saw no reason to surrender the field to her until he had no other choice.

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