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|Pleasure(Shadowdwellers #3) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Are you mad?” Malaya snapped at him. “And give them the opportunity to force two arranged marriages into this monarchy? Just keep quiet, Tristan. After all, that is what you excel at.”
The barb was hot and actually quite cruel, but Malaya was still angry with him, angry enough that she didn’t stop when he came to a sudden halt in his shock at her relentlessly unforgiving attitude. Tristan had known for six months, an entire half of a year, that this was coming. Yet he had only had the wisdom to come and tell her about it three weeks ago. She had barely had time to prepare herself against the Senate and their machinations.
As if that weren’t disturbing enough, her formerly rock-steady bodyguard had become an insolent stranger who seemed determined to make her life twice as hellish as it already was. He’d disappeared for two weeks, after only demanding one and taking that one without permission besides, only to come back and say nothing that didn’t come out as a curse or a grumble indicative of his discontent.
It was like walking over ground that shook in violence, and it was all she could do to keep her balance. Every minute she was perched to fall flat on her face and none of those who usually were there to help catch her were there for her now. In fact, they stomped their feet on the sidelines, making the ground shake all the harder.
She left the Senate at a clip, rapidly descending the stairs until someone abruptly stepped into her path. Guin was on them instantly, stepping between her and any threat until he could determine the level of danger that might be at hand. When he stepped away to let her see the Senator who had approached her, she knew it was safe.
“Anai Helene.” Malaya greeted her with a nod of her head. “How may I help you?”
“K’yatsume.” Senator Helene bowed her head with respect as her hand touched her heart. “Good night to you. I was wondering if I might beg some of your time tonight or if I may schedule an appointment. The Children’s Activities Foundation is in need of your input and your influence. You know how the rest of the committee can be sometimes,” she added with a frustrated sigh.
Malaya smiled at her and rested a hand on the other woman’s elbow.
“I know, and I am sorry to have neglected my place on the committee. Please, speak with Trace. He is arranging my schedule now as well as my brother’s. Tell him I expect a full committee meeting to take place by the end of next week. I will give you an hour of my time at the very least.”
“Oh, thank you, K’yatsume. You know how much you will benefit our children by doing this, and we are so grateful. It seems like so much more gets accomplished when you are there to lend your special guidance.”
“Yes.” She chuckled. “The way some people can quibble, it makes me wonder who the children really are sometimes.” Anai Helene laughed and Malaya lifted a hand to call Trace forward. Tristan’s vizier was at her elbow instantly and took Helene aside.
Unfortunately, the damage was already done. Once one person stopped her in public, it became an open invitation to others to approach her. The royal guards moved in quickly to support Xenia and Guin, and Guin kept her so close that she could feel the heat of his body even through the leather he wore. He wore what he always wore. Denim jeans, usually in black, a long-sleeved shirt in a similar dark color, and the soft leather vest and hard leather bracers and shoulder guards. It was the minimum in protection, but anything more got in his way, she knew. He had no patience for it. Besides, he had always treated his life as incidental to her own and his body as a weapon and tool made only for her protection. He had never had any qualms about jumping into the path of death if it was aiming for her.
She worked the small crowd on autopilot, greeting everyone, both common and noble, with the same enthusiasm. She especially delighted in those who brought their younglings up to meet her. They were always so shy and in awe of her, doubly so if her twin was nearby, and she had made a habit of bringing a bag of dried frousi cubes, a very sweet treat, to give to them. She kissed every sticky, smudged, or weepy cheek if they let her.
Malaya felt Guin’s hand run down the length of her spine, a signal that she needed to move away before she became trapped there for hours. She straightened quickly, but less because of his urging than because he had sent a wicked chill into her nervous system. The Chancellor gave no outward sign of it otherwise, and she moved forward immediately. As she did she rode the flustered wave of her thoughts.
It kept happening. Every time Guin touched her incidentally he kept setting off a peculiar variety of reactions inside of her. It had been that way ever since he’d…
Malaya dipped her head, her hair curtaining her face as she did so. Her cheeks were hot and she knew she was blushing, just as she always did each time she thought back three weeks to their last volatile fight. Guin had demanded his week of freedom and she had denied him. Then, as some kind of crazy bullying tactic only Guin understood, he had cornered her, come up aggressively against her and had boldly fondled her breast.
“Let me go, or else, K’yatsume, I will stay very, very, very close to you instead…So close,” he had promised, “that I will be as good as inside you. Then again, I may not stop at ‘as good as.’”
His behavior and his words had been very inappropriate and she had been deeply rattled by the suggestiveness of it. Not just because he had threatened her in such a way, but because he was one of her very closest friends and…and what he had done had made her entire body flash hot and tight with unexpected arousal. Because of Guin! How inconceivable an idea! It was the equivalent of getting Tristan to make a pass at her. Any sexual reaction should be labeled as obscene.
Now she couldn’t seem to get away from that obscenity. The nature of his job placed him literally on top of her all night long and he thought nothing of touching her, pulling her, or guiding her dozens of times in dozens of ways. It was nothing to him, all efficiency and business and all about his job, but for her…she was constantly breaking out in shivers and hot flashes that made absolutely no sense whatsoever! It was wearing on her patience and, unfortunately, the frustration could get no outlet against the silent Guin, so instead had poured itself like fuel onto the fire of her anger at her brother.
No wonder Tristan was baffled by her behavior. She had never before held such an active grudge against him for so long. But every time she thought about forgiving him, she would think of the six months she had spent worrying about his behavior as he had acted so off-character in his efforts to purge himself of his distress over his knowledge of this law. Of course, his “efforts” had included a vast array of bed partners day after day after day. It was when she recalled his “suffering” that she would get mad all over again.
Well, at least the daily sex-a-thons had been dialed back to a reasonable rate and the palace was no longer subject to the noisy symphony her brother’s sexual skills could create. She would have thought that this, at least, would make Guin happy. It had clearly been getting on his nerves. Maybe he’d taken the opportunity to get laid during his little impromptu furlough, she thought grumpily. But if he had, it certainly hadn’t improved his disposition, and, frankly, the idea of it didn’t do much for her disposition either. Maybe she was the one who needed some rip-roaring good sex to unwind with.
Thinking of sex with Guin so close up against her was not a place she should go, Malaya realized hastily. Gods help her if she ever had some crazy flash fantasy with him in it. She’d never be able to look him in the eyes again.
When they reached the palace she wasted no time heading for her suite. She didn’t make any acknowledgment to Tristan as he and Trace split off in the opposite direction, and she barely noticed Rika following Guin closely as a guide for her steps. Crush had blinded Rika completely some weeks ago, and between that and the threats hovering close, Rika had been moved into Malaya’s suite of rooms where Guin could watch over her as well.
Malaya gave the guard at her door a nod and entered the suite. Without a word she crossed the sitting room and entered her bedroom.
The servant was there in an instant, bowing in respect.
“My mistress,” she said softly.
“I want a bath. Very hot and scented with lavender. It soothes me and I need very badly to relax.”
“Of course, K’yatsume,” she said, hurrying to do just that, the deep dark scarlet of her servant’s sari disappearing in a streak.
Malaya sighed heavily, rubbing fingers into her forehead over her eyes.
She’d grown so used to his silence that the query startled her. She spun around to face Guin, realizing they were alone and that he had shut her bedroom door. He was leaning back against the portal, his arms crossed over his mighty chest and his knee bent at a casual cock. The way his granite-colored eyes took her measure slowly had her gritting her teeth against another welling shiver. This was absurd, she thought angrily. Why couldn’t her body get it? He’d been tormenting her any way he could. He certainly had never meant to be taken seriously! These little frissons of expectation were stupid and misdirected and they really had to stop.
“No. Tension. So,” she squared off with him, “suddenly you decide to speak without cursing a blue streak? And by the way, that delightful off-color expletive in the Senate was disrespectful and inappropriate.”
“Is there ever a time when it is respectful and appropriate? I am aware of what I say and all of its ramifications, Princess.”
“Then I would ask you to refrain from it while I’m standing in front of the Senate and trying to convince the conniving bastards that I know what I’m talking about!”
“Do you?” he asked softly, the lift of one black brow speaking volumes about his attitude toward her recent decisions.
“Believe it or not, Ajai Guin, I do!” she retorted hotly. “And if you stand there one instant longer and imply I am some kind of idiot, I am going to kick you in the—”
A clearing throat cut off Malaya’s threat. She swore soundlessly as she remembered the serving girl who’d been in the bath. She despised losing her temper in front of others, especially servants who might gossip. Damn Guin anyway for pushing her! Damn everyone for getting on her every last living nerve!
“Go! Both of you leave me be!”
Malaya pushed past Fatima and strode into the large bath area. Fatima had scented the steaming water and the entire room smelled of lavender. Malaya took a very deep breath in and reached up to loosen the collar of her dress. She kicked away her shoes, the anklet she wore ringing musically in response. Then she stripped away the sheath dress and exhaled in relief from the snug fabric. She wasn’t used to such head-to-toe tightness in her clothing. She much preferred the wide flaring skirts and brief midriff-baring blouses she usually wore. She even preferred the proper elegance of the sari. However, her clothing consultant had insisted she wear the new fashion, citing it as all the rage. Malaya had liked the regal feel of it and now was glad she had worn something that reflected that to her audience.
Naked now except for her anklet, navel stud, and the delicate gold chain that draped from her earlobe to her pierced nose, Malaya moved toward the steps leading down into the large tub. It was still in the process of filling, the wide mouths of the reservoir taps making a quick job of it. She moved through the splendidly hot water that covered her to her hips even though she stood, and reached to shut both taps down.
At last, she thought with a sigh.
Then she turned around and saw Guin. Her hands went to her hips in pique and she frowned. “I thought I told you to go.”
“Come now, K’yatsume, you know you can’t dismiss me from your presence unless you are going to sleep. Though I never did understand the thinking behind that rule. I am allowed to see you like this”—he held out a hand to indicate her nudity—“and I am required to be present during even your most intimate moments, but while you are asleep in your bed is off-limits. Explain that to me.”
“Well, normally you are supposed to be a woman,” she reminded him dryly. “Tristan and I broke convention when we chose guards of the opposite sex. The sleeping thing is because it is the state of ultimate vulnerability. Only a husband or wife should be trusted to see you and feel you as you are in that state. It is intimacy.”
“But I’ve slept with you quite often,” he reminded her with a nuance to his gravelly voice that made the observation sound more suggestive than was merited.
“That was during the war. In camp and on the run and dozens of other impromptu situations. Things are different now,” she said, feeling a strange sensation of regret as she said it. “There are new rules.”
“Rules we must obey,” he remarked, stepping forward so his hard boots sounded sharply on the tile. Reaching the edge of the bath, he lowered himself into a balanced crouch. “Isn’t that right? Rules and laws have to be obeyed.”
“Yes,” she agreed. She raised her chin, knowing his bent. “And it’s tradition I am thinking of respecting, not some decrepit law. The law will be fixed and updated, Guin.”
“But you will pay for it by bartering yourself into a loveless union?” he challenged her, his dark features growing even darker in his temper. “You’ve already made this decision, haven’t you? If this is so, do me the courtesy and let me know now. I will not stand here and watch this play out with a false hope that you will choose to assert your rights.”
“Why is this so upsetting to you?” she questioned in retort. “What could it possibly matter to you if my marriage is chosen or arranged?”
He stared hard at her, his silence long and tense. Then he dropped a hand to the edge of the bath, gripping the tile hard as he knelt on a single knee.