Being a bride is a state of mind, not of body.
Lord Carwyn has come to the royal palace of Moorcondia to support his beloved cousin, Nora. The princess has been promised in marriage to bind a treaty between her country and the archipelago nation called The Southern Chain. Carwyn’s efforts to help her turn into a daring plan when he catches his first sight of Nora’s intended. The foreigner captivates him in a way no other man ever has.
Kai Aleki feels the fate of his people on his shoulders. As his nation’s military leader, he understands how duty always comes first and that a strong alliance is crucial to fight the vicious marauders known only as the Swarm. He has no interest in marrying a woman, but the delectable and attentive Carwyn captures his attention.
Carwyn has a solution that will satisfy everyone. He secretly takes Nora’s place and marries Aleki himself. A delighted Aleki sets off, determined to protect the known world from the Swarm after safely delivering Carwyn to his new home. Their imperative journey holds hidden dangers, forcing Aleki and his bride to join forces to defeat a common enemy.
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of violence, death and ordered suicide.
General Release Date: 21st March 2023
“This is so unfair!”
Carwyn watched helplessly as his dear cousin Nora, Duchess of Windham and Countess of Kenworth, raged against her fate while pacing her private garden.
“How can the king and my father do this to me? After all they promised, I’m to be traded away like a prize cow to a foreign prince now that I’m of legal age to wed.”
Carwyn had given up trying to keep pace with the furious girl. Her longer legs, fueled by anger, gave her an advantage. The best he could do was catch her attention with each turn leading back to his spot by the fountain. “They’re scared, Nora. This alliance with the Southern Chain is critical to bolstering a defensive line against the Swarm, as well as to find their source and defeat them.”
Nora turned furious eyes at him. “Ridiculous! The king is afraid of no one—and neither is my father.”
Carwyn knew better than to argue the point, but he could vividly recall the time when his cousin had come down with the pox and nearly died from it. The look in her father’s eyes was one of pure terror. No one was above being frightened—no one sane, anyway. And the Swarm was an enemy unlike any other. The mysterious people came from the gods knew where, completely destroying the places they attacked, killing, looting and burning everything and dragging those still alive away to an unknown fate—slavery probably, which was bad enough, but there were rumors of strange rituals and blood-drinking. He shivered at the mere thought of it, although his wiser self told him those were likely tall tales. At least he hoped so.
He chased after Nora’s back and taking her arm, pulled her up short. “Please, Nora, calm yourself.” When she turned her blazing gaze on him, he reminded himself that this was his liege lady as well as his kinswoman and friend. Swallowing back his urge to apologize, he pressed forward with telling her of the decision he’d come to only that morning. “I understand how hard it’s going to be for you to make your home in a distant land. That’s why I’m coming with you. If you’ll have me, of course.”
Letting go, he took a step back and braced for her response. Nora didn’t like being ‘handled’, and what he was suggesting had to be embraced as her idea more than his. He ignored the unease manifesting in his queasy stomach. He’d only just arrived at the Moorcondian capital, a life-long dream of his. Kenworth was beautiful, quiet and…boring. His eighteenth birthday had given him the courage to press his parents once more to let him come visit the king’s court and hopefully find a useful role there. They hadn’t wanted to let their youngest child go so far away. Although they hadn’t said as much, he knew his family worried that he was too delicate of mind and emotions to navigate court life. How much worse would they feel finding out that he’d sailed away to a distant land to live among strangers they knew little about?
Nora’s high dudgeon eased, leaving a sheen of tears in her eyes. “You’d do that? Oh Carwyn, you know nothing of these Chainers. You don’t understand how much your life would be different from what you’re used to.”
Carwyn swallowed his trepidation. “Neither do you. The traders who’ve been there say it’s spectacular and the people are friendly.” They also said the ‘Chainers’ were a fierce tribe of near savages. There was no point in bringing up that information, however. He took Nora’s hands in his own. “And we’ll have each other. If our childhoods taught us nothing else, together we are nearly invincible.”
Nora surprised him with a tight embrace. “Oh Carwyn, your parents will be grief-stricken at the idea. They will never allow it. It’s bad enough that Cariad is out to sea mapping those treacherous waters.”
“That’s different. What he’s doing is inherently dangerous.” Carwyn nevertheless took a moment to worry about his older brother. The bookish boy was ill-suited for such an adventure, but he was a wizard in memorizing topography and an excellent draftsman to boot. “And it’s not for my parents to say. If the king decides I should go, then the matter is settled. If you ask him, I’m sure he will agree, if only because your father will advocate it. He wouldn’t want you to be alone in this, Nora, and a whole army of maids at your side will never match the benefit of having a family member with you.”
Nora let go and stepped away from him. She twisted her fingers as she spoke. “I shouldn’t be so selfish, but I lack the courage to refuse your kind offer.”
Carwyn put on a bright smile. “It’s a plan, then. And who knows? Perhaps I’ll find a lover of my own. It’s past time I do so, and I have heard the Chainer men are gorgeous.” He fluttered his eyelashes.
Nora chuckled as he’d intended. “Remember how we used to dream of what our first lover would be like? I never thought I’d go to my marriage bed a virgin. What if he’s not kind to me?” As powerful as she was, Nora had the same worries and desires as anyone else of their age.
Carwyn clasped her arms and peered into her still-moist eyes. “Then we’ll find a way to castrate the bastard and toss his genitals into the sea.”
Nora rolled her eyes. “Well, if anyone can pull that off, it’s you, Carwyn.”
Before he could further soothe her fears, the heralds blared loudly. They both looked in the direction of the main entrance to the city. The Southern Chain prince had arrived. Kai Aleki. The Chainers had different titles. Once they were wed, Nora would be known as a kailisa as well as a princess, a duchess and a countess. He understood how important it was to her to have her own titles. The Chainers might not care about her independent positions. Becoming known only as an extension of her husband would grate on her. As a mere lord and not his father’s heir, he could only relate to her feelings on the matter academically. In his more wistful moments, he wished he could become like Prince Ronan—the adored wife of a powerful man. If he went with Nora, his dream could never be, probably. The Chainers customs were not well known. It was possible that his attraction to men would be frowned upon…or even illegal. If he thought about it too much, he might go back on his offer. Never. Sacrificing for the royal family had been bred into him, and being Nora’s champion had been his role in life for as long as he could remember.
Nora took in a shuddering breath. “He’s arrived.”
“Yes, and we must both get ready for the welcome banquet. Come… I’ll walk you to your apartment.” He took his cousin’s hand and tugged her along. Whether she knew it or not, Nora was literally dragging her feet.
He deposited her with her maids, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek before leaving. “Make yourself as stunning as always, and Kai Aleki’s eyes will pop out right in front of the court. You can do this,” he added in a voice only for her ears.
Having done his duty, Carwyn hurried to his less luxurious accommodations in the palace. As a minor member of the king’s extended family, he was entitled to be housed there, although he had to share. As he entered the room, two of his three roommates were entwined on a bed, flushed and puffing from their recent exertions. He paid them no mind. Those two were always going at it. He couldn’t understand why they were so enthralled with one another. Boys his own age didn’t interest him in the least. He wanted a man, someone strong enough to take charge and carry him off to bed. There was nothing arousing about holding on to a body as slender as his own. Carwyn craved muscle that could both mount him vigorously and be careful of him, too. Is there such a man even out there for me?
Heading for his own bed, he contemplated how he might style his hair. It was long enough to produce a decent braid and it would be a more formal look than leaving it down. He did love the feel of it swinging against his cheeks, but he wasn’t in Kenworth anymore. He needed to blend into palace life and represent his family well. His small chest of drawers held fewer outfits than he would have liked, and there was really only one that would do for such an occasion. The green velvet tunic and trousers with gold thread trim brought out the green in his hazel eyes and complemented his yellow hair. He laid them carefully on top of his bed and stripped off what he was wearing. The other boys started making noises that indicated they weren’t done with each other.
Carwyn tsked. “You’d best move your pretty asses. Princess Eleanora’s betrothed has arrived.” That news got them moving. They nearly tumbled onto the floor in their haste to leave the bed. Carwyn shook his head. At the same time, he admired how they’d been so engrossed in each other that they hadn’t heard the heralds. Such devotion was enviable. Still, there was no time to dwell on such matters. “And I need someone to braid my hair, please.”
* * * *
Carwyn arrived in the king’s enormous receiving room in time to witness the royal family enter. His status rated a spot near the dais where the king already sat, his queen by his side. It gave him an up-close view of Nora’s face. Her expression was aloof, something he knew she’d cultivated to mask her feelings. Her father’s emotions were more on display. The man held his wife’s hand with a hard look that made clear to all how much he hated what was happening. The Duchess of Vostguard looked sad, which wasn’t surprising. The Marsher boy was a very empathetic person—or so Carwyn had heard. He didn’t know Taryn very well, having spoken to him only twice for brief moments, but the man seemed very open and caring, embracing his husband’s four daughters as if they were his own. Carwyn thought the influence Prince Soren’s wife had on him was a good thing, and he hoped they never lost that bit of humanity.
Everyone’s attention was grabbed by a yell that made Carwyn jump. He trained his gaze along with the rest of the court on the double doors opening. His mouth dropped at what he saw. A dozen men entered, wearing nothing more than colorful skirts draped over their narrow hips to hang below their knees and calf-high black boots. Their bare chests bore strange patterns, as did their faces. Each man had black hair tied into a knot on the top of his head. There was utter silence as the Moorcondians of the royal court got their first look at the Southern Chain warriors. Then there was another startling cry before the men came into the room in a synchronized crouch of three rows. They chanted as one in a language that Carwyn had never heard before. Each word was punctuated by sharp arm movements that included slapping their thick thighs. As they progressed toward the dais, their actions were in perfect unity, except for their expressions. Each man contorted his face in different ways, all shows of menace and threats of violence that made Carwyn glad these were Moorcondia’s allies, not enemies. When the first row was only a few feet from the dais, they halted, again as one, and taking a knee, swiveled their heads back toward the doors, their palms pressed together in front of their chins, heads bowed.
That’s when the most impressive one of them all stepped into the room. Kai Aleki wasn’t the tallest or brawniest of the Chainers, yet he nevertheless commanded everyone’s attention. Like his men, he wore only a skirt that wrapped around his tapered waist. As he walked, Carwyn caught flashes of the man’s muscular thighs. His glossy black hair was also tied into a knot on the top of his head, but the real attraction was his beautiful face. Carwyn’s breath caught at the sight of it. He’d never set eyes upon a more beautiful man in his whole life. Aleki was the perfect example of his peoples’ appearance, with his gold-hued skin and dark eyes that turned up slightly at the outer corners and highlighted by slashing cheekbones. His only face-markings, however, were vine-like patterns that climbed up along his temples. It was all the more attention-grabbing for its subtlety. And unlike his men, the kai made no sound and kept his face neutral as he approached the king, his gaze fixed on his destination. When he reached the front row of his men, he stood in the middle of them, pressed his palms as they did and bowed his head to the king. The show of respect lasted only a second before he straightened and stood with his arms crossed and legs braced.
Now Carwyn’s view was only of the man’s profile, but that was enough to make his heart stutter and his cock harden. For the first time in his life, he was jealous of his cousin. Nora was going to have this pure example of masculinity in her bed. Does she even appreciate him? A glance at her face told him nothing. Her cool expression hadn’t changed—nor had her father’s. If anything, Carwyn could swear the prince’s displeasure had ratcheted. The Duchess of Vostguard had placed his other hand over his husband’s in an obvious effort to soothe him. His reaction wasn’t hard to understand. Nora was a refined, scholarly woman who led a fairly quiet life of duty. Whatever other kind of man he might be, Aleki was the embodiment of raw power. Their lives together could be passionate if his cousin allowed herself to embrace that side of her. He wasn’t sure she could, and for certain, her father was having a hard time with the idea that his daughter was going to be bedded by a man whose fierceness rivaled his own.
There was no more time to ponder Nora’s fate, however. The king stood with raised arms. “Greetings, Kai Aleki, and welcome to Moorcondia.” He held out one hand in Nora’s direction, a silent command for her to approach. Being a dutiful niece and subject, she came to his side and took the proffered hand. “May I present Her Royal Highness, Princess Eleanora, Duchess of Windham and Countess of Kenworth.” He paused a fraction of a second. “And your bride.”
Aleki once again put his palms together and this time bowed to Nora. She inclined her head with downcast eyes. Neither of them spoke, not even rehearsed greetings that propriety normally dictated. Nora’s silence was not surprising, but perhaps Aleki was equally unhappy with his fate. The moment of slight awkwardness passed, however, and when Aleki straightened and lowered his arms, his eyes slanted to one side. Carwyn jolted as his gaze and the kai’s met. It was a brief encounter and over in the blink of an eye, yet in that time, Carwyn’s desire for the man caused him to get hot and breathless. His palms grew moist, and his mouth dropped open on a sigh that he couldn’t hold back. Aleki showed no reaction other than a quick flaring of his nostrils before he turned his attention back to the king.