"C'mon, Darling. You can't do this to me. I'm desperate for you, man. You've got to give it to me. Right here. Right now. I need you like I've never needed you before."
In the hallway of the Caronese Winter Palace, Maris froze as he heard the deeply masculine, pleading Andarion accent through the door speaking with his male best friend.
There was no way the two of them were talking about what it sounded like. Unlike him, they were both straight. He knew that for a fact, and yet, as they continued arguing, it definitely sounded like two lovers squabbling.
Completely confounded, Maris met Nykyrian's stunned expression as the royal prince caught up to him in the hallway outside Darling's office. Tall, blond, and lethal, Nykyrian—or Nemesis, as he was better known—was a former League assassin who had an intensity that let you know in an instant he saw you first as a target and then, only if you were lucky, a sentient creature he might not want to kill.
Being half Andarion, Nykyrian's hearing was even more astute than Maris's. Not that anyone needed supersonic hearing to miss this exchange. Their decibel level carried quite plainly through the heavy door of the emperor's office.
And how Darling's two imperial guards remained stone-faced while it went on was a testament to their training.
"Hell. No. Hauk," Darling snapped, enunciating each word with rage. "As much as I love and owe you, I'm not doing that for you. Ever. Forget it.... And even if we did, you couldn't handle it. Besides, you've never wanted it before. Not like this, and definitely not from me."
Maris's jaw dropped in synchronicity with Nykyrian's.
"Ah, come on, Darling." Hauk continued to plead in a tender, needful tone Maris had never heard him use before. "After everything I've done over the years to protect your sorry ass, I can't believe you won't share it with me. Don't be like this. This isn't a want. It's a need. A major one. If you really loved me, you'd do this for me without question. Now give it to me! Please!"
"No! Not if we were the last two beings in the universe. Not even if you were down on your knees in front of me, buck naked and begging me for it."
His expression horrified, Nykyrian opened the door to show Darling and Hauk standing on opposite sides of Darling's desk, glaring at each other as if they were about to come to blows.
With his short red hair brushed back from his face and his royal harone hanging to his left shoulder, Darling was dressed in dark blue and maroon emperor robes while Hauk was swathed in a red-tinged black blast-resistant Sentella battlesuit that hugged every inch of his huge, well-muscled body. His black hair fell to his shoulders in small, extremely attractive braids that were common for the warriors on his home planet to designate them as the fiercest of their breed. The stark darkness of his warrior's uniform made his skin glow a rich tawny-caramel that would make anyone's mouth water for a taste.
Obviously annoyed, Hauk turned toward them and pinned them with his red-and-white Andarion eyes.
Even though Nykyrian shared many Andarion traits with Hauk, such as fangs, sensitive hearing, and extreme height, he had green human eyes. Ones that showed no fear as he locked gazes with Hauk. "Thank the gods you're both still dressed and not entwined naked on the floor.... Now tell me, what exactly are we interrupting?"
Hauk scowled at the comment and question as if replaying their exchange in his head while Darling burst into laughter.
"Damn, Nyk ... my wife's not that pregnant." Darling's tone was filled with utter indignation.
Maris scoffed. "Oh please, honey. Zarya's so pregnant, one good sneeze could launch your son into this world in a matter of seconds."
Darling gave him a droll stare, but he knew it was true. Due any minute now, the poor girl was almost as huge as a shuttle craft.
And crankier than a Gondarion were-beast.
Moving closer to Hauk, Nykyrian looked back and forth between them. "And neither of you has answered my question. What had the two of you shouting lewd come-ons at each other?"
Now it was Maris's turn to burst into laughter, as a smile toyed at the edges of Nykyrian's lips.
With a nonchalance Maris knew he didn't feel, Darling crossed his arms over his chest. "It's something truly horrific, Nyk. We're talking the stuff of haunting nightmares...."
Maris arched a brow at that dire statement. Given what each of them had survived, he could only imagine what would make the intrepid Andarion warrior flinch.
Darling jerked his chin toward Hauk. "He's facing six weeks alone with a creature so terrifying that he's actually in here begging me for explosive devices that can temporarily maim him so that he won't have to go near it."
The gape returned to Nykyrian as he faced Hauk. "Seriously? It's a child, Hauk, not a rabid animal you're about to be caged with."
Hauk scoffed at his nonchalance. "I beg to differ, and need I remind you how you felt the first time you learned you had a half-grown daughter and a baby on the way? As I recall, you weren't exactly let's-all-go-to-the-park-and-have-fun, buddy. But six kids later, you're fine with it all, while I'm sick to my stomach at the prospect. What do you feed them? What if he has to go to the bathroom? Huh? What do I do then?"
Darling rolled his eyes. "Your nephew's fourteen, Hauk. I promise you, you won't have to burp him or change his nappies."
"Oh, how do you know?" Hauk scoffed.
"True, Darling," Nykyrian said drily. "We still have to change Hauk's anytime you set off an explosion too close to him."
Maris and Darling laughed while Hauk glared viciously at Nykyrian. That alone spoke volumes about Nykyrian's courage.
Anyone else who received such a look from Hauk would run screaming for the door.
"Go ahead," Hauk growled. "All of you. Laugh at me. Sure. Why not? But none of you have ever had to survive alone with a child, in the wilderness, for six minutes, never mind six weeks. Endurance is the hardest thing any Andarion goes through. Both the adult and the child."
Instantly, Nykyrian sobered as if he had sudden clarity over this uncharacteristic outburst. A deep sadness darkened his green eyes before he looked at Darling, then Maris. "Would you two mind giving us the room for a minute?"
"Sure." Darling stepped out from behind his desk and followed Maris to the door.
Hauk visibly cringed at the sound of their exit as he realized what Nykyrian really wanted to talk about. It was something he'd been trying to bury for weeks now as this date thundered closer.
And it was the last thing he wanted to discuss with anyone.
"This isn't about Darice.... I've known you almost the whole of your life, Dancer, and I've seen you roll around the floor with my boys, Jayne's kids, and Devyn enough to know that you're not really afraid of children. This is about you and Keris, isn't it?"
Hauk turned away from his best friend, unable to face the truth Nykyrian spoke. Out of his small handful of friends, only Nyk knew about his eldest brother, Keris—because Nyk, alone, had been in Hauk's life when it'd happened. And since the day Keris had died during Hauk's Endurance, Hauk had barely been able to say his brother's name aloud.
Gods, even now it was enough to bring him to his knees. Every fucking day of his life had been spent with guilt and grief over an unnecessary loss that no one in his family had ever forgiven him for.
Especially not himself.
And now he was supposed to take Keris's son on the same expedition that had scarred them both for life and cost Keris his.
It was so unfair.
"Darice is the spitting image of his father, did you know that?" Hauk whispered. "I love my nephew with every part of me, but there are times I can't even bear to look at him. Even their speech inflections are the same."
"I know." Nykyrian moved to stand by his side so that they could keep their voices low. "I really do know, Hauk. My daughter has some of Aksel's and Arast's mannerisms and expressions. And when she cops their condescending tones and snotty attitudes, it takes every bit of will I possess not to put her through a wall. It's not her fault she takes after them. They were in her life longer than I've been. Hell, she doesn't even know she does it. But even so, it feels like they're back from the grave to torment me."
Flexing his jaw, Hauk winced at the pain in Nykyrian's voice. A pain he understood better than anyone since he'd been there to see firsthand what Nyk's adoptive brothers had done to him. It was a hell no child should ever endure.
And he'd seen the exact tones and expressions Thia used that were identical to those of her long-dead stepfather and uncle. It had to be grueling for Nyk to deal with that all over again.
Fate was a bitch, and that whore mocked them both daily.
His anger mounting, he met Nykyrian's gaze. For once, he didn't see the war-hardened face of an assassin wingman who'd stood by his side for countless battles and protected his ass like a true blood brother. He saw the horrifically scarred face of the boy Nyk had been when they'd first met as children.
A boy who'd once saved Hauk's life while everyone else had stood back to watch him burn.
There was a lot to be said for a friendship that spanned double-digit years. But right now, it seriously rankled him that Nyk knew what was really bothering him.
And it made him wonder something about his friend that he hadn't considered before. "Is that why you didn't take Thia on her Endurance?"
Nykyrian shook his head. "Thia's only a quarter Andarion, and by the time her mother got around to telling me I had a daughter, Thia was past the age of it."
Not to mention, the first two years of their living together, Nykyrian had been going through extensive operations and physical therapy for the almost fatal injuries Aksel had given him the day Nyk had finally put the bastard in his grave. Even now, eight years later, Nykyrian still walked with a pronounced limp, and only had limited use of his right hand and arm.
Hauk ground his teeth as other painful childhood memories surged. "It's a stupid tradition. It chafes my ass that I have to do this."
Nykyrian snorted at his outburst. "Everything chafes your ass, my brother."
True, but still ...
Hauk let out an elongated growl. Even if his father hadn't lost his legs in battle or been too disabled to be exposed to the harsh conditions of Endurance, his father was too old to do it now. And his brother Fain had been disinherited even before Hauk had gone through his. There was no other male in their family lineage who could take Darice.
Like it or not, Hauk was honor bound and family obligated to see this through.
But honestly, he'd rather sacrifice a testicle than go. Every time Darice looked at him, he saw the accusation and anger in his nephew that blamed him for Keris's death.
Nykyrian stepped away from him. "Have you mentioned to your father the staggering bounties on your head? Or that you have enough assassins after you that you could start your own army?"
Hauk made a rude noise at the mere suggestion. "My father's an Andarion war hero. Do you really think that would deter him?" He'd think Hauk weak and cowardly for even mentioning it.
Nykyrian sighed. "No. He'd say it adds to the challenge of it all."
"Exactly. You've no idea how many times I've cursed my parents for their blind adherence to the old ways."
Nykyrian clapped a hand on Hauk's shoulder. "Again, brother, I do know. You never bitch about it, but I can read your expressions better than your words." He went to pour them both a shot of Tondarion Fire—a potent alcohol—from the small table beside Darling's desk. "You know, you could take Thia with you as a distraction. It might help you get through this."
A taunting grin spread across his lips as he took the shot glass from Nykyrian's gloved hand. "You would really turn your beautiful daughter loose, alone with two Andarion males, for six weeks?"
"Never. But I would trust her with my family."
And that they definitely were.
Hauk knocked back the drink in one gulp and pinned his gaze on Nyk. "And I can read you as well as you read me. Why do you want her gone so badly?"
"I don't. But ..." Nyk let his words trail off as he gulped his own drink then poured another. "She's been acting out since Zarina was born. It's almost like she thinks that now that we have another daughter, she's not wanted anymore. Truthfully, I don't know what to do. She stays out all night. Drags home the kind of dregs we're paid to kill, and then dares me to lay a hand on them." He growled low in his throat. "I'm a trained assassin, Hauk, and they're dating my precious little girl. Putting body parts on her ... and that's just their hands, that I know of. Any idea how hard it is for me to let them leave my house upright and in one piece? She won't even let me give them a damn bloody nose. Gah, it's more than I can bear."
He scoffed at Nykyrian's irritation. "And now you know why your father-in-law had you shot ... multiple times."
Nykyrian glared at him. "I curse you, Hauk ... may you live to raise a beautiful daughter. And I hope you have more than one, you son of a bitch." He slung his shot back even faster than Hauk had. "Thia's been way too serious with this latest veriton. I'm thinking if she's gone for six weeks, he'll get bored and move on to someone safer."
"If he doesn't?"
"I still have a few places left to hide bodies no one knows about."
Hauk laughed then sobered as he seriously considered the offer. In all honesty, Thia would be a welcome distraction. While she didn't care for roughing it, she could cook better than either of them. And the additional body might keep the memories of Keris at bay. It wouldn't be the same as it'd been when he and his brother had gone alone to Oksana for Endurance.
Best of all, Thia actually liked him.
He inclined his head to Nykyrian. "I'll be more than happy to spend a few weeks with my first love. Besides, as an Andarion princess, she needs to have this on her résumé."
"Just don't let her think for one instant that I'm doing this to get rid of her."
"Trust me, I know. You're doing this to get rid of her boyfriend."
"Exactly." Nykyrian headed to the door to readmit Darling to his office.
Before he could open it, Hauk pulled him to a stop. "Thank you."
Nykyrian held his hand up to him. "Estra, mi dreystin."
Taking his proffered hand, Hauk pulled him into a rare familial hug and repeated the Andarion words of loyalty that literally translated to anytime, my brother. But the Andarion connotation was much deeper than that. It was an oath of absolute kinship. One that bound them closer than blood.
No Andarion said those words lightly. It meant that they would die back-to-back, fighting any and all attackers.
And it was one they'd both proven to each other repeatedly.
Nykyrian stepped away from him. "Just remember, Hauk, I know Andarion urges, and if any male, including you, lays a finger on my girl while she's in your custody, I will cut you into pieces and feast on your entrails."
Laughing, Hauk knew Nykyrian meant those words most of all.
"Nyk," Hauk breathed. "If you really loved me, drey, you'd take that blaster at your hip and shoot me right between the eyes. Right here. Right now. This instant."
Nykyrian came as close to laughter as the somber warrior could.
As if on cue, Darice stormed off the shuttle and slung his pack to the ground in front of Hauk's feet. At fourteen, he was as tall as most full-grown human males, but he only reached the middle of Hauk's and Nykyrian's chests. Even so, he was still just a boy with the very lean build and temperament that marked the young.
And as he moved to glare up at Hauk with his fists clenched at his sides, Hauk understood why some species chose to eat said young rather than raise them to adulthood.
It was so tempting.
Furious, the boy gestured toward the shuttle. "I'm not going anywhere with that—"
"Bite it," Hauk growled before his nephew let loose a word that would have him disciplined.
Or worse, hunting on the ground for his teeth.
Darice hissed and exposed his long canines in protest.
"Oh my God, did he just fang you?" Thia gasped as she joined them in the landing bay. With an exaggerated gape, she blinked at her father. "Dad, he just fanged Uncle Hauk and Uncle Hauk didn't kill him. Is the world coming to an end and I missed the e-mail?"