He held out the document.

She read it, her brow furrowing.

“What does this mean?” she asked, handing it back to him.

“It means Cassidy holds Ferall’s leash.”

“Well, good riddance. He was a crude man. I didn’t like him.”

“He’s an Opal-Jeweled Warlord Prince. I’ve seen what he’s done on a killing field. He’s no Lucivar Yaslana, but even so he was feared—and with good reason.”

“Oh.”

No real comprehension. He heard that truth in her voice, saw it in her eyes. “And it means that Cassidy now rules half of what used to be Dena Nehele.”

Thatshe understood, and those pretty blue eyes blazed with anger.

“You have to stop this, Theran. You have to get the court formed andstop this. ”

Hadn’t he been trying for months to introduce her to the other Warlord Princes and give her a chance to shine? It wasn’t his fault she’d pissed off Ferall and some of the others. But she kept snapping at him because her position was still so tenuous, or she sulked over his tight control of the purse, or pouted over some real—or imagined—insult from Julien. Or wanted sex, which was becoming less and less appealing because there seemed to be less and less heart in the act.

Sometimes he wanted to shout at her to stop being a stupid, selfish girl and start being the Queen he knew she could be.

And yet, despite his growing frustration and anger with her, she still felt soright, and heknew if she could have a little more time to mature, shewould be the Queen Dena Nehele so desperately needed.

She was right about one thing: every day that slipped away without a court forming around her made Dena Nehele more vulnerable—and made Cassidy, and her court, look better.

Over the next few days, Theran felt like a man bleeding to death from a wound he couldn’t find.

Thinking that any court was better than no court, and figuring Kermilla wouldn’t object since she considered these Blood acceptable companions socially, he’d gone to visit the aristo families in Grayhaven—and discovered they hadall left town on business of one kind or another. The servants couldn’t tell him where the families had gone, couldn’t tell him when they would return.

The message was clear enough: The men were afraid he would require them to serve in Kermilla’s court, so they had removed themselves from his reach.

When he went to talk to the Warlord Princes living in his own Province, they stared at him with bleak eyes and offered nothing.

And with each day and each failure, Kermilla became shriller and more demanding.

He sent another summons to the Warlord Princes in the remaining Provinces, demanding that they present themselves to Kermilla for consideration in her court.

This time, no one answered.

CHAPTER 44

TERREILLE

Ignoring her yip of protest, Gray bundled Cassidy into her winter coat and hustled her to the kitchen door.

“Put your boots on,” he said. “There’s something I want to show you.”

Well, she needed a break from the paperwork anyway, and he looked like he could be as stubborn as a Sceltie about showing her whatever this was.

When they were outside, Cassidy lifted her face to the sun. “Not one word about my needing a hat. Not today when the air has that first scent of spring.”

“Wasn’t going to say a thing.” Taking her hand, he led her to the sitting area under the tree.

“Oh!” Delight filled her. “Oh, Gray! Look!”

He grinned. “The first blooms of spring.”

Sturdy little flowers poked up through the snow, purple and yellow and white. Similar to one of the spring flowers in Dharo, but not quite the same. The kind of flower Gray called common ground.

“Bulbs?” Cassie asked.

“Yep. There are a couple more varieties planted around the tree, but they’ll bloom later in the spring.”

“A couple—” Wondering how he knew that since the court hadn’t been here last spring, she turned to look at him—and saw something in his eyes that left her breathless. “These weren’t here last spring, were they?”

He shook his head. “I planted them this past fall. Wanted it to be a surprise.”

You’re the surprise.“Thank you.”

A choice. A chance.

“Gray?”

“Cassie?”

“Could you consider marrying me?”

No expression on his face. Blank eyes. Then, hesitantly, “Really? You’re not teasing me?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t tease about that. I love you when you’re Gray and when you’re Jared Blaed. I want to build a life with you that spans the seasons.”

“You’re in love with me?” His eyes looked a little less blank, but she wasn’t sure his brain was fully working.

“Yes, I’m in love with you.”

“Cassie.”

He kissed her with enough heat to sizzle through her body and melt bone. Then he wrapped his arms around her and held on.

“I fell in love with you the first time I met you,” he said. “That’s what gave me the courage to wake up and grow up. So that I could be with you.” He eased back enough to look at her. “You’re going to buy me a wedding ring, right?”

Happy tears stung her eyes. She laughed. “Yes, I’m going to buy you a traditional ring.”

“Come on,” Gray said. “Let’s—”

*Gray? Cassie?*

Vae trotted up to them. She wagged a greeting, then stared at both of them.

*Cassie is crying, and you are happy,* she told Gray, her words accompanied by a growl. *Why?*

“I’m happy too,” Cassie said, wiping tears off her face. “Gray and I are going to get married.”

“Do you know about human marriage?” Gray asked.

*I know.* The growling stopped and the tail wagged with more enthusiasm. *Is this a secret?*

Gray laughed. “No, it’s not a secret.”

Vae lifted her muzzle and howled. A few moments later, Khollie howled from the other side of the stone fence. A few moments after that, Lloyd and Kief joined in. Then Darcy. Then Keely.

They heard another faint howl coming from the direction of Eyota’s main street.

“Hell’s fire,” Gray said. “They’ll tell the whole village before we have time to get back to the house.”

“Then we’d better hurry.”

Laughing, they ran back to the house, stomped snow off their boots, and smacked into Ranon and Shaddo, who were heading outside to find out what had stirred up the dogs.


Tags: Anne Bishop The Black Jewels Science Fiction
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