“I know Christmas is still a few days away, but I’ve brought you a gift. A small token to prove to you I’m sincere.”
Asher cringed as the royally annoying Prince Julian Montclair spoke in his oily, far-from-sincere voice.
And no doubt he was talking to Princess Charlotte. Julian had been chasing the princess’s skirts for nearly as long as Asher has known him. Since that day, ten years ago, when he’d come across Asher and Charlotte kissing in the woods and had been so furious, he’d gotten Asher thrown into the dungeons beneath his father’s castle.
Sure, Asher was a pauper and the princess, well, she wasn’t supposed to be locking lips with someone so beneath her station, but gods be damned, they’d been thirteen at the time. The punishment hadn’t exactly fit the crime.
Shaking his head, Asher turned to head back to the stable. He’d intended to give one of the horses a run, but not if it meant he would have to interact with the two people around the corner—out of sight, but not out of earshot.
“You’re giving me a necklace? Why do you think you need to prove your sincerity, Julian?”
Asher paused, curiosity overruling the knowledge that being anywhere in Julian’s vicinity was never in his best interest.
“The serving girl comes to mind,” Julian said, and Asher’s fist tightened around the reins until the leather bit into his skin.
“You insisted that was entirely innocent. Are you changing your story?” There was a layer of frost to Charlotte’s voice now.
“No, not at all. It’s just … I know you were upset by it. Even if it was innocent. Because, of course, it looked … well, we all know what it looked like.”
Asher leaned forward to better catch her response, which was silly since he doubted she would say, “Yah, it looked like you were trying to convince that serving girl to share your bed that night. And considering you’re a fucking prince, it probably happened. Even though you’re supposedly courting me, presumably falling in love with me, treating me like the princess I am, the queen I will someday be.”
But the words were only in Asher’s head. In fact, she didn’t say anything at all, and eventually, Julian cleared his throat.
“It’s enchanted,” he said. “See how it has started to glow with a blue light? That’s how you know your one true love is near.”
Give me a break. An enchanted necklace? Fucking parlor tricks. Asher could create magic like that in his sleep. And he’d bet the ten silver pieces he was paid last week that Prince Julian either bought the necklace that way or paid someone to cast a spell over it. Because everyone and the gods were fully aware the man could barely invoke the simplest of spells.
But power and control were all about the station one was born into, and Julian Montclair has been one lucky son of a bitch—no, son of a queen—since the moment he came into this world, wailing like a gods-damned banshee.
“It’s lovely,” Charlotte said. “And it’s warm to the touch.” Asher grimaced as her voice drifted over him, like it always did, making him hard, making him grit his teeth, making him angry for being so stupid. There were plenty of women in the village who were of an acceptable station and perfectly happy to warm Asher’s bed for a day, an hour, a year, however long he was willing—and he wouldn’t end up in the gallows the next morning, either.
Yet all he did was yearn for a woman he couldn’t have. A woman he didn’t really want.
Okay, didn’t want to want.
“It’s channeling my feelings,” Julian’s unctuous voice said. He was touching her, too, no doubt. He’d likely removed his gloves so he could rub his hands over her arms, his fingers probably grazing the sides of her breasts. Asher had seen him do it too many times to those serving girls he swore he wasn’t sleeping with. It was his signature move.
Wait, no, Julian wasn’t the bastard. That was Asher. He was the one born without a father, while Julian had been born into royalty, his mother a queen, his father, the king, standing by, prepared to declare him heir to the kingdom.
Clearly tired of skulking here instead of going for the ride Asher had promised, the horse nickered and pawed the ground.
“Oh. Who’s there?”
And then the princess stepped around the corner, resplendent as ever in a pale blue cloak lined with white fur, white leather gloves, and a matching hat perched at a slightly off-kilter angle on her golden curls. Those almond-shaped blue eyes widened for a moment when her gaze fell onto Asher, and the sides of her rose-colored lips lifted into a smile. For him. And the fact that they moved at all meant she hadn’t been smiling before.
Gods be damned, he’d spent his whole miserable life pining for things he couldn’t have, and this woman was most definitely the farthest out of reach of all his unobtainable dreams.
“Asher.” The way she said his name, slightly breathy, almost hopeful, slammed into his balls like it always did, and he shifted his hips and willed his hand not to reach down to adjust his swelling cock.
“Were you taking Juniper out for a ride?” she asked.
He glanced at the snow-covered ground, at the woods on the horizon, at the garland of evergreen boughs dressed with red ribbons adorning the stone structure next to them. Pretty much everywhere but at her and her companion.
Clearing his throat, he finally nodded. Julian glared at him like he wished he could conjure daggers with his mind and toss them at Asher. Too bad for Julian he couldn’t even create a simple poison and convince Asher to drink it.
“Perhaps I would like a ride,” Charlotte said, brushing her gloved hand along the horse’s neck. “Julian and I are heading to the stable so he can be off. He really needs to go so he is home in time for Christmas.”
“I told you, I’m happy to stay—”
She shook her head and talked over Julian’s protest. “Nonsense. Go home and spend the holiday with your family. You’ll be back again soon enough. Too soon, undoubtedly.”
Asher bit the inside of his cheek to keep from chuckling, while Julian gave the princess a look as if he couldn’t quite determine if she was insulting him.
“Would you mind saddling a horse for me, Asher?” Charlotte asked.
He was the horse trainer, not the stable boy, but those of high stations didn’t always understand the difference. Or care. Sighing, he followed along behind when she and Julian began walking toward the stable.
Asher watched as the prince reached out as if he meant to clasp Charlotte’s hand, and she tucked her own into the folds of her heavy cloak. It may have been an entirely innocent movement, but Asher wasn’t convinced. Which was interesting, because he, like nearly everyone else in the kingdom, was under the assumption Charlotte welcomed Julian’s advances. For most of the last ten years, the king and queen have been anticipating the day they announce their betrothal and therefore finally make the move to merge the two kingdoms.
For Asher, it was the day he planned to move on, to pack his meager belongings and strike out on his own, to go in search of a new home. He would never live in a place ruled by Julian Montclair.
“Hey, stable boy,” Julian said when they stepped inside the stone and wood structure.
Asher snorted. His arms were twice the size of Julian’s, his chest wider, his legs thicker and stronger. With the mop of dark hair on his head and the thick growth of beard on his face that he was too lazy to shave, he was far from being a boy, and Julian bloody well knew it.
“Horse trainer, actually,” Charlotte said. Asher caught her eye and arched his brow. She didn’t need to defend him. He didn’t give a fuck what this loser thought of him.
“Well,” Julian muttered, flapping his hand. “Do you see a stable boy around anywhere? I presume one who trains horses can also prepare them for a journey.”
“I presume one who rides horses can too,” Asher snapped back before he could catch himself.
Julian narrowed his eyes and glared at Asher, who didn’t flinch or look away. Julian may carry the title of prince, but until he married the princess, he had no authority while they stood on her father’s land. Not like ten years ago, when he claimed Asher and Charlotte were on his parents’ property when they’d been kissing by that stream that created the boundary between the two kingdoms.
“Oh gods above,” Charlotte said, and she shouldered her way past the two men and stomped toward to the stall where Julian’s horse had been housed for the past seven days while its owner called upon the princess and tried to woo her into becoming his wife. When he wasn’t wooing serving girls into his bed, at any rate.
Not wanting the finicky animal to bite or kick Charlotte, Asher hurried after her, reaching the stall door first and nudging her out of the way so he could tend to Julian’s snorting, glaring beast. The necklace around her neck glowed more brightly for a scant second.
Stupid parlor tricks.
Asher shook his head and guided the horse to where Julian’s saddle and tack were being kept, near the stablemaster’s office. The moment the last strip of leather was secured around the horse’s belly, Charlotte stepped up to the beast, Julian trailing along behind her.
“Thank you for visiting,” she said, patting the horse’s shoulder. “And for the token.” She touched the slightly glowing gem, a bright blue resting against the pale blue of her cloak.
“I’ll be back on Christmas Day,” Julian said.
“That really isn’t necessary,” she said. “You should stay home, be with your family.”
Julian reached for her and hesitated. “Could you give us a moment?” he said, glaring at Asher, who shrugged and led his horse outside into the snow, securing it next to the one he’d intended to take for a run before he bumped into the courting couple.
In short order, the prince strode from the stable and snatched the reins, smoothly leaping onto the horse’s back. Glancing down at Asher, he lowered his lids and said, “Paupers don’t marry princesses, boy. Perhaps you should set your sights lower.”
Asher arched his brows. “I’m not the one unsuccessfully courting the princess. Or whoring around with serving girls in the interim. I recently heard another has discovered herself with child, and with no man about to lay claim to her bastard.”
Julian’s face turned as red as his cloak, his ungloved hand squeezing the reins so tightly, the knuckles were white. “Do you recall your visit to my father’s dungeon? Do you recall the smell? The sounds? The fear that permeated the place?”
Asher still regularly woke from a restless sleep, bathed in sweat, his heart beating erratically, as his mind relived those moments when he’d thought he was going to perish in that underground prison.
“It’s gotten worse,” Julian continued, one side of his lips quirking. “And I cannot wait for the day I make the princess mine. Because that’ll be the same day you return to that place—and this time, you won’t leave alive.”
Magic coursed through Asher’s veins and he struggled to control the urge to knock Julian from his horse and beat the man to a bloody pulp. Instead, he touched his fingers to the horse’s rump, giving it a slight zap, which caused it to snort and jump, bucking and leaping around in circles while Julian tugged on the reins and shouted at the animal.
Turning away from the sight, Asher came to a stuttering halt when Charlotte stood not ten feet away, holding Juniper and another horse both by the reins. While he’d been verbally sparring with Julian, she had saddled her own horse.
“I would have done that for you,” he said.
She shrugged. “Like you said, if one can ride the beast, one should know how to prepare it for the journey.”
Right. He hadn’t meant for her to take that particular insult to heart.
“Help me up?” she asked. Apparently the interaction with Julian had made him bold, because instead of lacing his fingers so she could use his hands as a step up, he grasped her around the waist and tossed her into the saddle. She gave a startled eep and covered the glowing pendant with her hand. “Thank you.” Her voice was breathy again, like she’d gotten some sort of enjoyment out of that brief moment of physical contact.
He nodded and leaped onto Juniper’s back, tugging the reins to guide the horse down the path leading to the woods where he often exercised the animals. Julian, he noted, had gotten his own beast under control and was cantering away in the opposite direction, toward the road that would take him back to his home. The same path Asher and Charlotte had taken that fateful day ten years ago, when their innocence had been striped in more ways than one.
Asher spurred his horse on, needing the speed to help chase the demons away—not to mention the lust swimming through his system. Which was ridiculous. Charlotte was untouchable, a princess; one who was all but engaged to another. To Julian Montclair, no less.
When would he ever learn to stop yearning for things he could not have?
Sound interesting? It’s the first chapter of my contribution to an upcoming Christmas anthology called 12 Magical Nights of Christmas. Releases on Christmas Eve. The cover reveal is in a couple weeks, September 15-17, over on Facebook. Here’s the link:
Head on over; it’s guaranteed to be fun. There will be prizes, books, and a bunch of authors having a grand ole time. Pretty sure the book will be up for pre-order by then, too. Oh yeah, and all proceeds from sales of the anthology will be donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. This same group of authors worked together on a Valentine’s anthology and ultimately donated thousands of dollars to St. Jude’s!
Tami Lund is an author, award winner, wine drinker, and contributor to fun anthologies. Her website is here, if you want to scope it out for a free read: http://tamilund.com.