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Desired by the Dark Prince: Chapter Three

Matilde pushed herself back up another step, refusing to look at the silent mob behind her.

Mob was probably an overstatement.

But the gray-cloaked forms, hoods pulled down so far she couldn’t see their faces, stood as a silent wall.

Only the fluttering at the ends of their sleeves that fell to cover their hands gave her any sense that they were alive.

Fine, they wouldn’t help her. She’d figure it out on her own.

Palms pressed hard against the next step, she pushed herself up, then sank down with a little shriek as a bellow echoed through the building.

She turned back to the figures, her eyes wide.

“What was that?” she demanded.

Unsurprisingly, they stayed silent, but now they were huddled back, pressed against the wall they had emerged from, shaking as they stared at the open shaft.

Wondering, Matilde’s gaze followed theirs until a rush of midnight filled the air.

That was impossible.

A long black sinuous form slashed through the air, falling from the heights of the tower, past her, then circled back, to crouch on the landing she had painfully worked her way up from.

As its claws touched the floor, it dissolved into smoke, leaving a man kneeling before her.

Rather, the asshole.

And he was completely, utterly naked.

“If you think you’re going to surprise me into submission with that little trick, think again,” she snapped out, hoping her voice didn’t shake, with pain or surprise.

Having older brothers took away any shock of so much bare flesh, and logic demanded his body would be made of the same midnight hue as his face.

She’d been around the men of the garrison for too long to be startled at the shifting shape.

She’d seen them change their forms before.

But this was something different.

Primal.

Raw.

He stayed kneeling at her side, the angle of his muscular thigh shielding just how raw he was.

“My only intent was to reach your side quickly, my lady.”

He reached for her, and she quickly moved her focus to his hands. Three fingers instead of four, strangely long, ending in short, sharp nails that could almost be called claws.

His face. His face would be safe.

Matilde’s breath caught in her throat as she studied him, her fingers fisted in the fabric of her gown.

From a distance, from the back, clothed like a man of Crucible, someone might make a mistake.

Think he was just a tall, broad human man.

But this close?

The black skin shone, the scales that accented the high cheekbones, curving around his eyes and dusted down the temples, reflecting in the soft light.

The short, spiky hair might have been made of black wire, the eyes so dark as to be almost pupilless.

He seemed to be made of harsh planes and angles, but his lips were disturbingly lush.

Matilde quickly jerked her eyes away.

What the hell was she even thinking about his lips for?

“With your permission.”

“No. The only thing I’m giving my permission for is for you to take me the hell home,” Matilde snapped.

He only tilted his head slightly, but she could guess at his expression.

“Before I do that, may I see to your injury, and offer you a deal?”

A deal. Matilde’s brother Declan was always on the lookout for deals.

She wondered what he’d have to say about this one.

“I don’t make deals with anyone when they’re naked. It’s a good rule.”

The hooded figures were still silent, but now their agitation increased.

He simply raised his hand, and one placed a long swath of black fabric in it. Without looking away from her gaze, he threw it around himself, sliding his broad arms through the loose openings, tying off the front until he was covered.

He flicked his hand at the group surrounding them. “Leave us.”

They melted back into the wall.

“I offer you no harm.” He reached for her again with those long finger, and she pulled back, not quite a flinch, but close.

“Please.” The word sounded strange in his mouth, as if it was one he had not used often.

Whatever else, he hadn’t actually hurt her. And she sure couldn’t get up the stairs again, not by herself, not like this.

“Alright.”

No sooner had the words sounded, than he swept her into his arms, lightly running up the flights of stairs she’d just so painfully, slowly, traveled.

“I will have a regeneration device brought to your room immediately.”

“If that’s what you used before, I’m not sure if it did much good,” Matilde muttered, arms held tightly in her lap, holding herself stiffly away, rather than leaning against the broad planes of his chest, separated from her by only the thin fabric of his robe.

“You did not see what your leg looked like before.”

“Humph. You can tell me all about it while you’re pitching your deal.”

They were already back where she had started, passing into the room.

The lights were brought up, and a tall gleaming machine was already at the far side of her bed.

“You can put me down now,” Matilde said.

“Of course, my lady.”

He set her down gently on the mattress, then stepped to the side to adjust something on the machine, his long fingers delicately working the controls.

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

The words had some unknown emphasis.

Possession, but something more.

She suspected that everything here meant something beyond the surface.

“Lie back up against the pillows.” He turned, holding a thick, textured pad which was attached by a cable to the machine.

Matilde stayed as she was.

He sighed. “Please.”

He wanted something again.

And despite her pain and her fear, she knew she could work with that.

It wasn’t just what she’d picked up watching her brother the merchant, she’d learned hard lessons during the years Phaylle had lived with her father and had turned her homelife upside down.

“I’ll cooperate, as long as you explain what’s going on here.”

The corners of his lips quirked up, just a bit.

“It was never my intention not to explain,” he said as he stepped toward her, a bulky rectangle in hand, looking almost like a cushion, but made of metal. “I’d simply hoped you would have time to recover fully first.”

Matilde eyed the thing in his hand suspiciously.

“I think we should start now,” she said. “For example, what is that?”

“It is a modified regeneration pad,” he said easily. “Usually it is more of an…” He tilted his head slightly, forehead wrinkling as if trying to think of a word, “immersive experience.”

He held the pad out for her to examine, and she took it from him gingerly, testing its weight in her hands.

It was heavier than it looked, but soft, not the cold hard thing she’d expected.

She handed it back to him.

“So, what does it do?”

“It heals injuries. Rather, it encourages your body to heal itself.”

Matilde snorted. “You could just take me back and let my cousin take care of it.”

His full lips compressed, just for a moment. “I had actually considered that as an option. And if this does not work, it is what we will do.”

“What?” Shock jolted Matilde up from the pillows. “You’d go to all the effort of kidnapping someone just to bring them back?”

“I brought you here because you were injured,” he snarled. “It is not safe for you out there with those barbarians.”

Matilde narrowed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. “Those barbarians are my friends and family, my people.” He only scowled in response. “Speaking of barbarians, you know me, know all about me. And you haven’t even told me your name. So who’s the barbarian now?”

The machine chimed, a low ringing sound that echoed through the chamber.

“If you will allow me?” He gestured toward her leg.

Matilde wanted answers. But more than that, right now she really wanted the pain to stop.

“We can try it. For now.”

He bent over her leg, fingers coolly tracing the injured area.

Even through the nightgown Matilde could feel the heat of his fingers.

“That stays on,” she clarified.

“Of course,” he answered mildly, then gently laid the pad over her leg. It covered her entire thigh and she hissed in sharp surprise at the pain.

“That’s not helping!”

He moved as if to hold her hand, then stepped away.

“Give it a moment. While it is working, I will answer all your questions.”

He bowed, so low that it seemed like the sweep of his hand would brush the floor.

“I am Prince Tosrich Neic Balgzer Reucec Ryaca Tirus, grandson of Ban Leath Jann Avant Carrick Ziven, ruler of the Kuseon Empire. At your service, my lady.”

Matilde had thought she was prepared for anything.

Certainly, after seeing him change from a creature out of the old fables from the lost homeworld into a man, she shouldn’t have been shocked by anything else.

And she’d overheard enough snippets of conversation between her new in-laws to know of the war between the Alliance and the Empire.

But suspecting and knowing were different.

She sat up straighter in the bed, aware of how vulnerable she was. Her heartbeat raced, but right now she couldn’t tell why.

Terror, or something else?

“I suppose I’m a hostage?” she asked. “It’s probably not a bad strategy, but–”

“No,” Prince whatever-the-hell-all-those-names-were interrupted, his hand slashing through the air. “Of course not.” He closed his eyes, seeming to collect himself. “You are a guest.”

“We need to talk about your definition of an invitation,” Matilde answered.

For a moment she thought he was going to rub his temples, like her father had when she was little, when all of her brothers had done something particularly troublesome.

“A fragment of an exploding spaceship crashed through your roof, shattering your leg. Your femoral artery was nicked.” He jabbed the air toward her leg. “If I hadn’t taken you, I fear you would not have survived. Your cousin, with all of her skills, would not have reached you in time.”

Oh.

Maybe she’d hit her head on the stairs. It was the only reason she could think of to explain why Tirus’s presence no longer terrified her.

Broken leg or not, she should be fighting, searching for a way out of this room, out of this tower, away from him.

He’d carried her so carefully back up the stairs, seemed genuinely worried about her leg.

There’d been plenty of opportunities for him to grope her, let his hands ‘accidentally’ slide where they shouldn’t be.

Most men would have. Every market day they proved it again and again.

But he hadn’t.

It was possible, just maybe, that she was safe here, with him.

For some definition of ‘safe’ that she wasn’t entirely sure about.

And if he could be trusted, something she’d never thought about, never seen or heard or had a chance to avoid, almost killed her while she slept.

That was truly terrifying.

It didn’t seem real, and maybe that was for the best.

Her hand drifted down to rub at her leg, but she pulled back again rather than touch the strange pulsing pad.

Except…

“Wait a minute. How did you even know what happened, much less were able to get there so quickly?”

His eyes fell to the ground as he shuffled his feet, the hem of the robe fluttering around his knees.

Tentative trust or not, Matilde had taught too many wayward boys to not recognize the signs. “What did you do? Tell me.”

“Ever since I found you, I’ve had a microdrone stationed nearby.”

Matilde felt like tapping her foot, but it didn’t have quite the same effect while lying in a plush bed.

“You know you’re going to have to explain more than that.” Good thing she could rely on tone of voice to get the point across.

“A small camera.” His gaze flicked up to meet hers, then returned to the floor. “Only so I could ensure your safety.”

“We’ll talk about that more later.” Matilde had a notion of what a camera was. She’d seen images in Ship that looked like a window, but from places impossibly far away.

Kennet had rambled on about how they worked, but she was far more interested in where the images led to. She’d been surprised at her own disappointment that she couldn’t just open the window and walk through.

“And what do you mean ever since you found me? I hadn’t been aware you were looking.”

“Neither was I.” He sighed and turned to check the beeping device that still chimed and burbled next to the bed.

“Your leg seems to be reacting better to the treatment this time. I was uncertain how much your species could integrate with our medicine. I should not have been surprised.”

Matilde studied the straight back, the stiff shoulders. He was deflecting, stalling his answer.

That was fine.

She could wait. There were plenty of other things to learn about.

“So, you put this thing on me before, but it didn’t work? What makes you think it will make a difference now?”

He whirled back to face her, lips curled back slightly, just enough for her to see the pointed teeth.

“Your leg was shattered. You would have died.” He waved sharply at her currently very much unshattered leg. “I’d say it worked, just not enough.”

She watched him regain control, take in one slow, steady breath, then another.

“Since I didn’t see it, I’ll take your word for it.” Her leg had certainly hurt badly enough to convince her that something awful had happened. Then a terrible thought struck her. “Wait a minute? Where’s Monkee?”

He frowned, shaking his head. “You were the only person in the building.”

“No, Monkee, he was right there in the bed with me.”

Never mind. He hadn’t really been frowning before. Now, now he certainly was.

“Who was in the bed with you?” His voice seemed slightly strangled, but she didn’t care.

“I told you. Monkee, my cat. He’s about this big,” she motioned with her hands, “orange with stripes and white paws, and he was right with me and–”

“Wait,” he grabbed a small rectangle that had been attached at his waist, tapping it a few times.

One of those strange windows opened in the middle of the air, this time showing a scene from back in the summer, when Monkee hunted in long strands of grass as she sat beneath a tree, reading a book.

“This creature?”

“Yes, that.” Her eyes were fixed on Monkee, locked forever playing in the summer afternoon.

“I did not…” he blinked rapidly. “I did not see such a thing in the wreckage. However, I did not look for it.”

“I want my cat,” she said flatly, her leg forgotten, everything gone but the need to know what had happened.

“I’m sorry, my lady. I didn’t recognize that it was important to you. I will deploy a search immediately.”

She tore her eyes away from the repeating image; Monkee stalking beside her, pouncing, stalking again.

“You’ve never had a pet?”

He shook his head slowly. “I’m not entirely certain what that word is. It does not seem to translate.”

Translate. Of course. Matilde filed the information away and focused on what was important.

Matilde thought of the years she had spent with Monkee, the good times and the bad. How he had always been there, no matter what.

Her throat caught up. “It’s a companion. Not for always, they don’t live long enough. But no matter how bad your day is, having a pet makes it better. And if it’s a good day, they make that even better.”

This time he didn’t hesitate to take her hand and squeeze it slightly.

“Such a thing has never been a part of my existence,” he said slowly. “But if it is important to you, it will be found.”

“What if going home is important to me?” she whispered, gazing up and into his endlessly dark eyes.

“I would hope that you would listen to my request first.”

The machine beeped again, and the heat of the pad slowly ebbed away, leaving a tingling warmth through her thigh.

She took a deep breath and nodded.

Mysteries after mysteries.

“All right, I’ll listen.”

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