Page 8 of A Mere Formality

If his eyes could shoot lightning, she would’ve been fried on the spot.

“Very well then.” His Grace announced with a placating smile. “Term number one: penis. Also known as dick, cock, Johnson, lance, sword, thruster, little soldier.”

Deirdre leaned toward. “You may want to call for some refreshments, my lord. It will be a very long day.”

Four hours later Nagrad tossed his reader onto the table. “I need some fresh air.”

He strode onto the balcony. Deirdre rose, stretching, and went outside also.

The second she stepped out of the room, Nagrad took her by the elbow. “Come with me, my Lady.”

His touch on her arm was very light, yet she knew with absolute certainty she couldn’t get away. He led her to the farthest point of the balcony out of the ear shot of the bodyguards within the room. “It’s you,” he said. “I know it’s you. You came up with this farce.”

“What gives you that idea?”

“You were gloating in every second of it. Why are you doing this?”

“I simply want to know what’s required of me.”

He turned away from her, plainly trying to keep control of himself. “This matter could be settled later. It’s of no consequence.”

“It’s of a great consequence to me. You opened the door, all I had to do was walk through it.”

“I opened the door?” he snarled.

“Temper, temper, my Lord. I’m sure your guards would rush to my rescue if you were to choke me. Patience is a virtue.”

He stared at her. “God preserve the man who makes an enemy of you.” He turned on his heel and stalked off.

Deirdre sighed and went back to the room. As she slumped into her chair, His Grace leaned to her. “How did it go?”

“My future husband hates me with a passion of a thousand stars,” she said.

The Duke gently patted her hand. “We’ll get through this.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Chapter 11

“Entry number three hundred and twelve: Multiple partners.” The Duke droned on.

Deirdre put her head onto her hands. Post-booster cooldown required at least twelve hours of sleep. She barely got eight before the Reigh demanded her presence. Her head hurt. Her ears were filled with something soft and mushy. Across the table Nagrad looked exhausted. The two Reigh witnesses, picked by him from the bodyguard, didn’t look much better.

“Subsection A. Two male partners and one female partner.”

“Pass,” Nagrad called. There were deep bags under his eyes.

“Let it be known that Lord Nagrad abandons all claim to the act described in entry number three hundred and twelve, subsection A and all the subsequent positions described or listed under subsection A.”

“So noted,” the witnesses intoned.

Everyone made the appropriate notations in their copy of the list.

“Subsection B: Two female partners and one male partner.” The Duke waited for a moment, but Nagrad appeared absorbed in his reader.

“Position one: the male partner assumes horizontal position with his back to the surface. The first female partner kneels.”

Deirdre rolled her eyes. Just pass now, you know you can’t take it in front of the witnesses. Nagrad listened to the description with the look of somber concentration. “Pass,” he said finally.

“Let it be known that Lord Nagrad abandons all claim to the act described in entry number three hundred and twelve, subsection A, position one.”

Deirdre stuck her tongue out at him.

Nagrad mouthed, “After we’re married.”

“So noted,” the witnesses mumbled.

“Position number two: the first female partner clasps the male partner’s.”

The Duke’s comlink beeped. “Excuse me. It appears I have an urgent call.” He strode away onto the balcony.

Deirdre put her head onto the table with a soft bump. Marry me off, I don’t care. I just want some sleep.

She heard the Duke’s footsteps. They stopped next to her. “Thirty five billion,” he said softly.

She raised her head. Nagrad sat very still.

“That’s an extraordinary offer.” A slow kind smile softened the Duke’s face. “You won’t get a better one.”

“Done,” Nagrad breathed.

There. The odd look on his face, relief mixed with surprise, brought out her own smile. We did it, she thought. We saved the cluster and we saved you and your people. She watched the beginning of a smile curl his lips. In this moment of joy, he seemed almost vulnerable.

“Thirty six billion, if you abandon your claim to Deirdre,” the Duke said.

Cold washed over her. That’s it. It’s over. I will never see him again.

“No,” Nagrad said.

“We both know it was never about the girl. Let her go.”

Nagrad’s face snapped back into an impenetrable mask. “She stays or the deal is off.”

The Duke drew himself to his full height, suddenly regal and terrifying. “Ask yourself, would you truly force yourself on this woman?”

Nagrad looked at her. “Do you want out?”

“She has a brilliant career ahead of her,” the Duke said. “Don’t stand in her way.”

Nagrad took her hand and swept her off the chair. “A minute of your time, my Lady.” He pushed past the Duke and drew her outside.

I’m so sick of running onto this balcony, a thought flashed through her head.

Nagrad ran his hand through his hair. “I’m past my undergrowth years.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m not an adolescent anymore. What I mean to say is, women no longer unsettle me.” He held up his hands, seemingly lost or words. “This is harder than I thought.”

He looked so lost that she laughed softly. “Did I unsettle you?”

“Yes,” he said, relieved. “I… miss you when you’re away. I think of you. I don’t want you to leave.”

“You were ready to trade me in for the Vunta billions.”

“Yes,” he admitted. “I would’ve done whatever was best for the Branch. What would you have done in my place?”

Deirdre looked at the forest beyond the balcony. “In your place I would’ve auctioned myself off if I thought I’d get more than one bid.”

The Duke and the bodyguards were watching them.

“I wish I knew what to say,” Nagrad said. “But if you give me a chance, I think I would come to love you very much. Marry me and I promise you I’ll be as loyal to you as my father was to me. I’ll do everything I can to make you happy.”

Tags: Ilona Andrews Science Fiction
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