Minn, an Earless in need of a husband, will face her greatest challenge when breathtaking adventure finds her on a lonely dark road. When a cursed girl crosses her path she is saved by the mysterious and extraordinary Tomass, a sorcerer who reveals his nemesis has entered a plot with hers.
Together they join forces to unravel the dark plot of the Duchess Serinne and dark sorcerer M’Graough. Tomass is a man forbidden; a social outcast practicing dangerous magic he can’t possible suit a woman of noble birth, but he is the greatest temptation she 
will ever face. Trained in the sensual arts Tomass can only raise magic with her help and her body, and every day they spend together she falls deeper under his compelling spell.
In a world of swordfights, magic, duels, and epic battles, they must fight for their lives to avert the war to end all wars. But can true love win the day, or is it just another spell to hold them back? When valor and strength means everything to a woman, is she brave enough to find the true strength in surrendering her passions to a demanding man who takes no prisoners?

Preview

Prologue

 

The battle was hardly finished when the call came that victory had been won. I stood over the body of a great opponent, the Northlund Duchess Gravin al Fadd, and knew her death was something momentous. Second to the enemy’s queen, she was the lover of my mortal enemy Serinne. War or not, I would have to answer for this sin.

In my position as general of the queen’s army, I learned of our victory quickly and had to spread word to my troops. Many were still fighting, swords clashing, other weapons from the citizen-soldiers forced into the damn war swinging through the air. I sent my attendants out weaving and ducking clubs, horse whips, swords, and kitchen knives as the call came out.

I myself waded to the front and on the opposing side I heard the call for defeat and retreat ring out. The sound was one that had haunted my dreams, and the reality of it washed over me, slowly burning away disbelief.

I was not alone in my surprise. After seven years of war, no one seemed able to believe it, and I had to have my personal guard arrest many who struck at the fleeing opponents, backs to us now. Blood lust, once raised, was hard to quell. For the beauteous promise of peace I arrested many women still trying to fight, holding them only until the crazed look left their eyes.

All in all, to stop the fighting, it took several hours. Troops had to be moved, retreat paths opened, head counts taken, and prisoner exchange negotiations were set. I only handled the highest of prisoner exchanges, including many male fighters of noble houses captured from the Northlund troops. In the wee hours of the night, when I could hand off my duties to others, I was exhausted, filthy, and the dressing on my recent wounds needed to be changed.

Donarre was sent to me. He was a paid companion, a pleasurer I had brought with me to war as a cavalier young woman to relieve boredom. Over seven years we had grown into friends, no longer sharing our bodies. It had been well over a year since I had known him in such a way. He was smart, helped me to plot strategy, and I knew it couldn’t have been easy. The bastard son of a Northlund marquess, he’d been born in the country we now fought.

We’d begun the war as a frivolous woman of title and a high class whore.  Now we were both seasoned fighters, and I knew he must share my joy in the end to war. I expected him to be joyous at the call of victory, the end of the war, but as he supervised the copper tub being filled, he was almost glum.

“Donarre, what is it? I thought you would be happy.”

He smiled as my valet began to remove my armor. “My lady, Minn, now that peace has been declared there is much to rebuild.”

“Indeed. Once our queen settles a treaty with Northlund’s, the world must right seven years of destruction, death, and famine.”

“I have been thinking since the call came.” He smoothed his short dark hair and turned his equally dark eyes to the horizon. “I will be moving on.”

I waved my valet away once I was down to my blood-soaked dress. “Must you leave?”

He turned back to me and smiled. “For years now we have lived as friends, as brother and sister. You will retire as general and return to being an earless. You’re fourth in line of succession, it’s time you found a husband and settled down, Minn.”

I frowned, though I knew he was right. “I am sure I can find a husband, perhaps the second son of a duchess.  But you are my friend, Donarre. How will you survive in this world?”

“Minn…I spoke to one of the prisoners. My father is dead. I am the only child left, and someone needs to take his seat, hold his lands, and help his vassals.”

Donarre was a noble by-blow, but he’d been raised by his mother, a smith. Taught to read and write by his liege as he was of an age as her own son, Donarre was intelligent and well-spoken. Thanks to his beauty, he had found work at sixteen years as a man of the evening in Filtin Bischart’s gaming hell, branding him as one of the highest stock. I had retained him as my private companion when I took my mother’s seat in council just one year before the war.

I had kept another for a time, but between the two, Donarre had been of a better mindset for war. Like most women of my station called to arms, I had expected a small skirmish lasting short days and brought ball gowns and a pleasurer expecting more military balls than action. What I had gotten was seven years of unforgettable hell. Donarre’s only life experience was working on his back until he had become my chief advisor, though the world might never know it.

“Can you do that? Can you manage vast holdings?”

“I must. You taught me well, my friend. By Northlund law, if there are no other children, even an illegitimate child like me may inherit the title. Minn, I am to be marquess.”

“Congratulations,” I hugged him, and he hugged me back but quickly pulled away.

“Perhaps when I have rebuilt my own holdings, I may call upon you, as one noble to another. By then, I may have a wife and you a husband and we can dine in peace.”

“I’m sure that would be wise. To seal the treaty between our countries, I am sure our queen will wish fraternization between nobles.”

“Minn, It was today you slew Gravin.”

“Yes?”

“Serinne will not take kindly to the death of her lover. Particularly now.” He unfurled a scroll I recognized as one coming from our spy network.

I took it and brought it to the flame, seeing the coded message. He brought my cipher key and adjusted it so I could sit and translate. Once done, I read it with a sigh.

“Duchess Gravin al Fadd to kill our queen in two days. Serinne will take the throne and place Gravin upon Northlund’s throne. You must kill Gravin.” I set it down and shook my head. “Good timing. Such plotting is afoot, surely the queen knows?”

“I would hope our spymaster, Bischart, has alerted her. You understand you will know no peace now, Minn.”

I rolled my neck. “Serinne has ever been a thorn in my side. She pulled my pigtails when we shared a tutor, pursued my lovers in college, and tried to undermine me at council meetings. Why should it be any different?”

“Because you have killed her lover. Be sure whatever man you find to be your husband is strong, smart, and adaptive. Serinne is a petty woman. As much as she desires to rule the world and the four realms, she wishes to destroy you. You took her lover, she will do the same.”

“Donarre, as far as she knows you re my lover. You had best take care.”

He stood at the flap of my tent and looked out to the sky. “This is her most serious plot yet. I think she meant to join the North and South, turn two realms to one. From there? Who knows? She won’t stop until she’s dead, Minn. But more than that, the world is changing. The concessions Northlund must make are considerable. We are standing on the threshold of change, you cannot let her win.”

I stood and crossed to my friend, placing my hand on his shoulder. “I won’t, Donarre. I swear to it.”

“You are a good woman, but the fight of your life is upon you.”

I smiled and tried for humor. “After seven years of hell, defeating one mad duchess will be easy.”

He just looked away.

 

 Chapter One

 

In the bright light pouring down between the thick trees of the Dark Forest, I saw a body on the road. I pulled up the reins, stopping my faithful horse Thunder, and drew my sword. I sensed a trap, and was instantly wary. The Dark Forest hid the powerful sorcerers, whom held no allegiance but their own, but also fellow outlaw thieves. At my station, I would draw a handsome ransom, or so most would think. There was no one to pay it, but perhaps my lawyer.

On that depressing thought, I looked all about, but detected no one. I did see the small footprints the body had left from the woods to where it lay on the road, and there were larger footprints, but they stopped halfway to the girl and doubled back into the Dark Forest. Behind me were tall fields edging the woods, but I detected no movement in trees or plain, so I sheathed my sword and hopped down.

The body was a girl, a young girl, not even close to womanhood. Curiously, she was wet, her yellow dress plastered to her back and her inky dark hair dripping as she lay face down. She wore no sandals, carried nothing. Feeling dread growing I leaned down and sniffed.

Unnerved, I drew my sword once more and stood in a defensive position, my sword guarded high out. I sensed a presence watching me and forbidden magic was afoot. Every sense on alert, my weary body readied for a fight.

“Come out now. I hold nothing against magic, lest it hurt this child. If you have hurt her, come out and face me.”

There was nothing but the sound of the wind, no smells that did not come from natural fields and the animals that dwelled on farms. I scanned and scanned but even Thunder sensed nothing, nuzzling my shoulder.

I laid my weapon down at the ready and bent down to turn her over. She breathed, was warm, but had been spelled. Someone had cast a spell on her, and someone else had removed it. Curiously I couldn’t tell which one had left the large footprints in her wake.

I slapped her face lightly. “Wake, wake and tell me your name.” And tell me who spelled you, who knew the secret of saltwater, possessed some so far inland, and used it to free you.

I only knew how saltwater could break small spells because of my mother’s studies. She had read many books on knowledge with hunger, even the forbidden texts documenting the history and practices of the secret male society of sorcerers. I’d often stolen into the library late at night to read them as sorcerers had fascinated me from an early age. I imagined great, tall men with long beards whose magic lit the night, but the reality seemed to be something else entirely.

Calling on that archaic knowledge I smoothed her hair back and recited the words, a guide had advised, would bring anyone out of the magical sleep that followed a saltwater break. Even for those of us who could not wield magic. “Broken now is the vow made in vain that brought the rain.”

Her eyes opened, startling me. Even in moonlight, I could see they were a shade of blue like my own, touching on violet. Only the women of my line had such eyes, and I was the last.

“Tomass is coming,” her thin voice said.

She blinked and suddenly they were brown. I knew enough of spells from my mother’s studies to know this meant she had borne a spell meant for me, but someone had parted her from it with a saltwater bath.

“What did you say?”

“Where am I? Who are you?”

“I am Minn, to my friends. Who are you, girl?”

“I do not know.”

“Where do you come from?”

“I do not know.”

“How did you come here, bespelled?”

“I don’t know.” She sounded anguished.

“Who is Tomass?”

“Who?” I sighed, knowing that the saltwater had washed away knowledge of who wrought the spell and who removed it. I made a sound of disgust and pulled her up. “Come on; at the next village let us see if anyone knows you.”

When she stood, I saw something in the road. Bending down, I found a card, and in the moonlight I saw scrawled on the face was Tomass, Master Sorcerer. Flipping it over I saw handwritten words, addressed to me:

Earless, I will visit you tomorrow. Someone spelled this girl with your death. It seems we have a mutual enemy.

                                                Tomass

 

The masculine scrawl made me raise my eyebrow. One half of the mystery was solved, this Tomass was the sorcerer who’d doused the girl in saltwater. But a mutual enemy…I knew no sorcerers. My only enemy was Serinne, and the spoiled Duchess enjoyed gambling, dueling, pleasurers. She would have nothing to do with any sorcerer.

Still feeling eyes on me, I turned back to the girl and set her on my horse, climbing up behind her. She weighed barely two stone, light as a feather. I kicked my horse into motion and we rode in silence, galloping now to clear the Dark Forest.

A magic spell carried on a girl meant for me. The question weighing most on my mind was not who wanted to kill me, for the list was very long, but who had saved me? Who was familiar with magic, and on my side?

 

***

 

The bustling capital city of Plaindand was a shock to my system. Much had changed in seven years. When I’d left, it was bustling and cosmopolitan. Now factories that had produced steel for the war belched out smoke at the western gate of the ancient city. Around them sprung up houses stacked upon one another of poor quality, and the women and men who dwelled there were sallow-eyed and haunted.

As I rode past these new buildings crowding the ancient wall, I passed into familiar territory. Along the main road, I rode Thunder, and it took all I had not to gape. It was not my fellow soldiers, many wounded, many missing limbs. No, the ravages of war were familiar and steadying. It was the people who had not gone to Hell with me that had changed.

In my day, women favored soft white dresses, falling to the knees, securing over one shoulder. Now they wore a completely different style. The skirts were long, heavy for the late summer air, split on the sides they were in bright colors. Peaking between the slits was the familiar soft white dress, which secured over both shoulders. A tight breast plate of stiff fabric tied over like armor. The whole of women’s outfits seemed a mockery of military style, and it shriveled my heart.

Men down in the central plains had always dressed more heavily than those of my home, I thought with a sigh. Now these men dressed strangely as well. Their pants soft and tight, shorts billowing, made of the same white fawn-soft cotton all my old dresses were made of. They were all varying shades of dirty or new white. Thank the gods the young ones still wore their hair long, although they seemed even younger to me than when I’d left.

I turned onto the lane that ran from City Circle to five homes beyond mine. The yards were small with ornate shrubs demarcating them. When I had left, the evergreens were simple, but now they were sculpted into ancient pyramid chambers, frolicking animals, even people. Behind them many townhouses had been repainted in bright colors; it seemed every piece of trim was painted a different color than its neighbors. It was garish, and only made me smile when my simple townhome came into view.

Three stories high and narrow, the paint was the same dusty brown it had been since my childhood. The brick foundation was covered by the flat evergreen shrubs that circled the lawn to the gate. I stopped Thunder and stared. This had always been my mother’s city home, never mine.

I had come to Plaindand on my own at the age of seventeen for school, and had retained my own townhome closer to the fashionable circle and the gaming hells there. It was long since sold, but now this larger townhome was mine. I remembered shopping trips with my aunt when we stayed there as guests. Now I was mistress.

I should have walked Thunder to the stables in the rear, but I didn’t know if I was expected. Two months had come and gone since the end of the war. Strangely one thing after another delayed me: victory parties, legal disputes, even a bridge washout that added two hundred miles to my journey. Last had been the spelled girl who was luckily known at the next town and safe.

Now I was finally home, and expecting a visit from a sorcerer who shared a common enemy. I smiled at that, I did not know why, not when I was so weary. Wondering about the mysterious Tomass, I loosely tied Thunder off to the post at my gate and strode up the walk. For the first time since notice of my mother’s death had reached me in the field three years earlier, I truly felt the weight of my station as those doors opened.

Once settled, bathed, and fed from meager stores, the first person I met with was my lawyer. She had a report prepared for me on my lands, mines, factories, and shipping concerns, long neglected with all my efforts being directed towards the war.

My factories had sustained some damage in the few incursions of the third year of war, but had remained. Decreased profits had meant no rebuilding, and operations were at diminished capacity. My fields were partially unattended due to lack of workers, servants being drawn off by more profitable work elsewhere. The same with the mines, but worst was my shipping concern. Of my fleet of twelve ships, my flagship and three more had been sunk in naval battles. With the loss, no new shipping orders were being placed even as restrictions were lifted since the war’s end. I was bleeding money, and it was bad, in short.

My lawyer, Mellin Dunkard, agreed that this all seemed strange. We worked all that morning and past lunch to divulge the exact numbers, and across the board it seemed all my holdings were depressed thirty percent. If one was as good with the ledgers as I, they would see this was the perfect number to float above suspicion yet damage my ability to function and repair my holdings properly.

However, no one but I knew of my secret holdings.

I opened a book I found in the drawer of the desk in the study and began to write out what I needed, removing as well a tarnished key. “Take this draft to the Bank of Calumbria, it will get you into my vault. Chamber number three four two is mine. Take this key and open it. There are thirty thousand pieces of gold; I want them immediately deposited to the bank. You are to carry drafts only for safety, but assemble representatives from my concerns. Nine goes to the mines, tell the manager to hire more workers, begin repairs immediately.

“Another nine goes to the factories, to the same effect, and the next nine thousand goes to…”

“My lady?” Mellin looked up from her notes.

I nearly laughed in frustration. “Do I secure the building of another flagship so an order comes through, but I have no wheat to ship, or do I use the money to bolster the villages under my stewardship and have wheat I cannot ship?”

She adjusted her glasses. “The fields. The wheat. We can secure a loan for the ship if we must. But if orders come through for the mine and the factories, we may not need to.”

I nodded. “Nine thousand to my majordomo to be given as aid to those hurt by the war, and two thousand to the manager of my shipping concern. She may use it to purchase smaller boats that may suit for trade with Northlund.”

“And the last thousand?”

“Bring it to me. I must hire new staff; all I seem to have is a maid at the moment. Take your pay from it, if course.”

“Of course. Anything else, my lady?”

“Know you anything about sorcerers?”

Mellin blinked owlishly. “They are male, live alone, blue boots one and all. There is salacious gossip about them.”

“Oh?”

Mellin blushed and brushed back her sable hair. “Um, well, they-ah are reputed to be even better…um, than the highest paid…companions.”

I knew Mellin was a member of the church of the Goddess, a conservative group, and speaking of such things would always make the lovely plump woman turn scarlet. “Have you ever heard of any sorcerer named simply Tomass?”

She shook her head. “Just those in the guild.”

“Guild?”

“The sorcerers have their own governing body. They are spread out across the countryside, but the guild that leads them, comprised of elders, is located in the Dark Forest west of town.”

“Interesting. All right, let us speak no more on that. Thank you for doing all this.”

She stood with me and smiled. “It’s good to see you again, my friend. You look…” Her eyes cast over me, much of my scarred skin exposed in my old-fashioned one-shoulder gown. “Mature.”

I tried not to let the scars bother me; they were the cost of battle. But so many of us now bore them, I knew society had deemed perfect, unblemished milk-white skin the rage. I was bronzed by sun and bore the marks of swords, knives, and even hatchets along my upper arms, shoulders, legs, and back.

“And you as well. If our mothers could see us now.”

I walked her out and checked my watch. The maid had been sent to put out word on the street that I would need a cook, housekeeper, buttress, and driver for the ancient coach in the garage. The candidates should be arriving soon, and I anticipated a visit from the mysterious Tomass at any moment.

The place was dusty, and everything was covered by white sheets to protect it. I opened windows to let the sooty air in and sighed over the tangled gardens in the back. It seemed all my holdings had fallen into some disrepair, and I wondered about Firefield, my ancestral estate and childhood home in the country. Delice, my majordoma there had not said anything was in need of repair in her letters, and I found myself desiring to be there more than anything.

By supper I had secured the cook who began immediately as well as the buttress who also started taking no less than twelve calling cards from old friends who knocked at the door at regular intervals. I had not yet selected a good housekeeper or driver, but it could wait, I thought. When my lawyer returned with eight hundred gold pieces I realized I would have to budget carefully as I was still owed pay by the queen for my military service.

I stared at the calling cards. These were the ones who had not answered the call of war, and I had my buttress discard their cards. What would we have to discuss? Their whoring and gambling, and my battle scars? I threw them away and placed the card from the mysterious sorcerer on the desk.

For the moment, the buttress and I cleaned the public rooms and the bedroom I was to use while the cook scrubbed the kitchen and sent a runner for groceries. As dusk approached, we finally got it looking respectable, but the wood needed polish and details had to be seen to. Still it was fit to receive any worthy visitors who might stop by.

I sat down alone to a simple supper of roast pheasant, boiled vegetables, bread from the baker and butter lent from the pantry of a neighbor. The wine was excellent, from my own cellars, and I savored it. It had been a rarity at war; mostly we drank ale fermented in the heat of battle, tasting of filthy local water and endless sand from the north coast.

As I relaxed with a glass of port in the study after dinner, I was alone when the bell rang at the front door. I looked at the only substantial card of pulped paper I had not thrown into the fire. Tomass…Master Sorcerer. Whatever that meant. In my old world ‘master’ was slang for the man who held dominion over a woman’s heart when she had married another. Was this alleged sorcerer such a man? A glorified consort with simply a novel approach, as Mellin had alluded they could be, or was he the wizened old man of my childhood imaginings?

I opened the door to a tall figure, hooded, with wide shoulders. His cloak was black, the color of mourning. A widower, perhaps.

He produced a card with flourish, the same as his other but said nothing at first. I couldn’t see his face but felt his gaze on me, and he seemed surprised. By what I couldn’t say.

“Welcome. I am the Earless du Cassaman,” I said in proper greeting.

“I am Tomass,” he said in a deep voice that was a rough rumble.

Opening the door wide, I stepped back. “Come in then.”

Once he stood in my foyer I closed the door and he turned, throwing back the hood. I couldn’t say what I’d been expecting, but he was not it. He was nothing like any of the sorcerers sketched in my mother’s books; he was not old, stooped, nor wizened.

What I noticed first was the beard, neat and trimmed into a goatee; it was the mark of a married man, not a “master.” The second was his long hair, as black as the cloak, the length signifying he was a single man, neither married nor widower. The sketches of old sorcerers from my mother’s books showed old men with long beards and hair, strange, but perhaps possessing both was the way sorcerers proclaimed to the world what they were.

His eyes were a piercing blue, rimmed with kohl like a man of the barbarian eastern desert tribes, and hanging from his earlobe was a piece of silver wire with a gem at the dangling tip, similar to the gemstones Northlundian free  men wore. He seemed to be of every culture and none, and beyond that he was startlingly handsome.

“My lady, I am Tomass, Master Sorcerer.” He bowed slightly, the way one high ranking woman would to another of equal station. I raised my eyebrow at that and couldn’t stop my crooked smile.

“Indeed. Come into my parlor, we have much to discuss it seems.” I led him into the front receiving room, across from my office. Paneled in dark, expensive wood, the couches and chairs were covered in brocade from the south.

He removed his cloak and hung it on the rack. Beneath it he wore dark clothes, a dark blue old fashioned robe that showed off the top of a sculpted chest, large arms, and damn near perfect legs encased in soft leather boots. It was a style even older than my garb, and it suited his eclectic style well. Oh, if he was indeed a companion I was duly intrigued. This was the first stirrings of lust I’d felt in long months.

Indicating one couch I crossed to the small bar. “Wine?”

“I do not drink much.” I judged his age to be just a few years beneath my own, still in his mid twenties. Odd that he wore clothes my grandfather would have as a young man, but it suited him well.

He sat, placing his oblong bag next to him on the floor. Watching his graceful movements, I poured two glasses anyway and handed him one, sitting across from him in an old leather chair. “How is it you know me?”

“All know of your reputation. You were the queen’s most trusted commander in battle.”

“That is in the past now,” I said, my way of saying I did not wish to discuss battle with a man who could never understand. Sorcerer or not, he was a man, and such brutality was not fit for their ears.

He smiled, his sensual lips parting in a true grin. “I happened to be traveling last evening and came upon a young girl. She carried a spell with your name on her lips, your eyes were hers. Everyone knows of the Cassaman eyes. This meant a piece of you had been worked in the magic, which means it was a spell to kill. The only such sorcerer who would work this on someone of your station is M’Graough, my archenemy, a truly evil man.

“I doused her, but she had no memory, her mind had been wiped nearly clean. I tried to chase M’Graough but lost his trail in the dark. I came back just as you rode off.”

“You lost this sorcerer in the Dark Forest then.”

He nodded and sipped the wine, eyes widening at the taste as if he’d never had it before. He was a most strange puzzle I had to admit. One that was quite intriguing. Probably not a very effective sorcerer, but at least he could give me information. More than that, for the first time in a long time a specific man incited my lust. This strange young man made me wonder what he looked like naked, what sounds he made when he came, how he would taste.

Under the weight of my gaze he looked around the room, unable to meet my eyes. He certainly feigned innocence quite well, and I felt moisture flow between my legs wondering if that façade would fall once he was naked and underneath me. Something about him hinted at grand passions caged, waiting to be set free.

Glancing at my family crest hanging above the mantel he nodded. “Thank you for returning the girl to her family. Neither she nor they can tell us what happened. Before suppertime last evening, she disappeared from the field. I was the next to see her, just three miles from her home.”

“And you know this sorcerer is the only one who could do it?”

He nodded.

I’d grown bored with this hedging and intrigue. This sorcerer was just the latest weapon in Serinne’s arsenal. She hadn’t the guts to attack me to my face directly, not since we’d reached our majority. “He was hired by Duchess Serinne du Valchamp. I can easily kill her, and I plan on it. I simply must wait for a convenient time. M’Graough is a tool, not an enemy, and I do not need you to settle the matter.”

His eyes widened and he gulped his wine, coughing as he choked on it. Such innocence surprised me. Perhaps I was a bit coarse, too used to the company of other women and war, but there was no help for it. I was tired, and the hour was late. Plus, coming here alone without a chaperone at this hour told me he was no innocent, no man was that foolish or careless of his honor. “I am a warrior, what else do you expect me to say?”

He shifted uncomfortably glumly pouted.  “You must first defeat M’Graough and you will need my aid. You cannot fight a sorcerer.”

“So you came to offer your service?” I asked, and he nodded.

“You are a man alone in a woman’s world. You think magic can protect you, yet here you are, alone, in a strange lady’s home. I could have my way with you if I so chose and never see the inside of a prison. If you think to offer me your service, what payment do you imagine I will demand?”

He blushed, but his eyes skimmed my face and body. So…he was not entirely averse to the idea of ravishment. “I had thought we might work together.”

I smiled and crossed my legs, basking in his assessment of them. He had no idea just who he was messing with. “I am general of the entire armies of Angorland.  What makes you think a mere slip of a boy could aid me?” I wondered what his demands would be. Most companions wished for a good townhouse, but I barely had money for my own.

“I am no boy!” By the gods his anger was beautiful, I thought. Indeed he was most capable of grand passions. “I came to warn you. You need help.”

He would be most fun to bait, and I found myself suddenly in the mood to toy with him. “Is that the only reason you came? You have no wish for anything else?” I let my eyes rake him head to toe.

He blushed, deepening his mystery, and sat up ramrod straight. “My lady, I am here only to see you safe. M’Graough must be stopped.”

I cocked my head. The indignant virgin didn’t fit with the rest of the show, what game was he about? “Again, what do I need you for? I kill Serinne and no more work for him. I assume if his employer is no more, so too does his job terminate.”

“I have spoken with the sorcerers guild, and we know he has been paid in advance and swore a blood-oath to complete this task. The price alone suggests this Duchess du Valchamp wants you dead at all costs. A blood-oath cannot be broken. He will not stop until you are dead.”

I drummed my fingers on the arm of my chair, thinking to dismiss this amusingly odd young man. A magical assassin was serious business, and I had no time to babysit any young upstart.

“I already know the trick to defeating his spells, the same as you used last night. Saltwater was already known to me. My mother was quite an…unusual scholar, a student of magic. All I need do is carry saltwater with me to defeat this great and powerful M’Graough.” I set my glass down and rose. “So thank you for your warning, but-”

His lips thinned and his hand shot out to grab my bare arm, stopping me from leaving. I froze and tried to ignore the tingle that rose where our flesh touched. “He won’t try that method again. To detect magic in an object, or a bespelled animal of no higher thought…you need one skilled in magic. The guild agrees you need aid. Should M’Graough challenge you himself, I am the only one who can protect you.”

Shrugging off his hold, I stepped back. I was getting nowhere…the logic of men, it seemed, was forever a mystery. “Why should you wish to risk life and…limb…” trailing off I reclaimed my chair, taking my turn to skim my eyes once more over his form and appreciate, “to help me?”

He blushed, but whether it came from my appraisal or my question I could not say. “I thought perhaps we could do a turn for one another.”

I raised my brow as that was an all-too-common expression for sex, or at least it had been back in my heyday. He didn’t seem to realize it, so I covered my smile with my wine glass. “And how can I do-you-one?”

He missed the wry smile I gave to accompany that. “I can protect you, keep you safe from M’Graough. All I ask in return is one thing.”

“And that is?”

“That you allow me to kill M’Graough, help me to achieve that goal.”

I set my goblet down on and laughed. “You? You could not likely kill a chicken for supper.” I had assessed thousands of women comprising my battalions. I knew innocence, and if he had shown up to the battlefield I would have sent him with many others to clear the field of bodies, tend to the wounded, stockpile cannonballs.

His face was schooled into stony seriousness under the rapid flush. “I have to. He killed my master, the only father I’ve ever known. I swore to kill M’Graough; I swore a blood-oath on his deathbed, but…”

I admired his stubbornness, and a bit of mine crumbled. “You need help.” He brightened at that and nodded. “You need a protector.”

At that he blushed deeper and looked away. “I do, and I know of your reputation. You’re quite honorable.”

I snorted and found myself wishing I had a cheroot, but I was trying to cut back on the habit. “And those who spoke of me must have forgotten to mention that before the war I was the most renowned despoiler of virgins Plaindand had ever seen?”

He paled noticeably and I had to wonder if this strange, eclectic was untouched. Reclusive as he must surely be, it was quite possible, but his beauty…had any woman happened upon him in whatever lair he dwelled in, he would not be safe, muscles or no. ‘Twas the beauty of men, that their natures were so easily turned against them, making them helpless to our advances. In my mother’s journals, she had noted sorcerers gave their bodies freely, but this young man did not act like he was of the world.

“No-o-oo,” he drawled carefully, making me laugh.

“And does this bother you?”

“I have been assured by my elders your honor will respect my wishes.”

Shock rolled through me. A virgin, he must be. I had lied, I had never taken a virgin before, but I found myself intrigued by the challenge. As a sorcerer he had no reputation to shred unless he was bent on being accepted in polite society, and as their status was illegal, I doubted that was even a distant thought in his mind.

“Did they? These men I have never met promised honor on my behalf?” He had the good grace to blush. I finished my wine and set the empty glass down, leaning forward on my chair. “And do you trust them?”

His chin stubbornly rose. “I do. I did not come here to be…seduced; I came on a quest for vengeance.”

Biting my cheek to keep from laughing, I nodded at his sober tone. “Cheer up; perhaps I haven’t the mind for untried youths any longer.” I tried to put him at ease, but it was a lie. I was finding I had quite the taste for this untried youth.

Relief relaxed his features, pricking my pride just a smidgeon. “I should hope not. Listen, I do need your help yes, but you need mine. We cannot survive unless we work together.”

“Would not any sorcerer be effective against M’Graough?”

“But I am the only one here,” he said shrewdly. “The guild wants M’Graough dead and they respect my blood oath. He has tried to kill you once, and I saved you. You owe me a life for a life. I gave you yours, I want M’Graough’s.”

He was quite melodramatic, beautiful in his passion. Had he not called in a debt I would have patronized and teased and sent him on his way. Now I knew he was serious, and would foolishly follow me around or go after this sorcerer himself unless I relented.

Sighing again, I questioned the wisdom of my decision, but better a sorcerer in hand than on the loose. “I have, at best, one week. A week until the queen arrives and convenes the council, in which to dispatch Serinne. After that I must attend to my own businesses and estates. One week is all I can give you.” And no matter what, I would have my lawyer look into this alleged council of sorcerers and contact them.

Like a shot, he was off the couch and kneeling at my feet. “Thank you, my lady.” He grabbed my hand and this time we both froze. I felt a strange sensation, a shiver of excitement, and it seemed he felt it too. It was pure desire, something I had not felt in months, with an intensity I had not felt in years.

I snatched my hand back and gripped my bare thigh. “You may stay here with me. To have a care for your reputation we will tell anyone who asks that you are my cousin.” With any luck, I could keep him busy for a week while I went about seeking my own duel.

He smiled up at me, a true grin of hope and friendship. “I care nothing for my reputation.” As soon as he said it, he seemed to realize just what it meant and as scandalized surprise dawned, my grin increased fractionally.

With that he stood and I did as well, following polite custom, suppressing my own grin as he quickly stepped back. Again I was struck by his great height and visible strength. Nothing about him was like any man I had ever seen, Tomass was a true puzzle. I had gleaned he’d been raised without the firm hand of a female, perhaps he assumed his place was greater than it truly was.

If I did not have a mad duchess and an evil sorcerer after me, and were my people not hurting so, I might be tempted to break this young horse in. There was too much at stake to consider this, however, and I was to be a responsible aristocrat now, which meant no despoiling of virgins, no matter how tempting. Not until my wedding night to a boring young virgin of noble blood.

“Are these your things?” I motioned to his bag.

“Not all. I had taken a room in Rivet Town.”

“Rivet Town?”

“The area by the factories.”

“That is not a safe place. Go now and grab your things, return here before midnight. Be prepared to demonstrate your skill upon your return.”

I escorted him to the door and watched him walk to the street without a word of reply, hood pulled over his head. Truthfully I did not need a demonstration of his power, it rolled off him like an aura now that I took the time to try and feel it. As he walked, women, highborn, parted to give him a path, startled by the unescorted man walking against the flow of their fashionable evening strolls.

I had no idea exactly who or what Tomass was, but it was clear he was a man of consequence, and I had bound our fates together for one week.