Authors: Sasha L. Miller
Tags: #M/M romance, fantasy
All Larkin wants is to be left in peace, live a life free of lies and deceit. But agreements have been made and he must see them through if he ever hopes to achieve his goals. But between nefarious dealings, dangerous encounters, and one stubbornly determined prince, the obstacles may ultimately prove insurmountable …
The Duke's Deception
By Sasha L. Miller
Published by Less Than Three Press LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for the purpose of reviews.
Edited by Samantha M. Derr
Cover designed by Megan Derr
This book is a work of fiction and all names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
First Edition January 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Sasha L. Miller
Printed in the United States of America
The corridor was quiet, empty, and absolutely perfect for sneaking back to his rooms. Larkin stumbled along, forcing himself to stay alert for any sound. He couldn't afford to get caught, not given the shape he was in. There was no way to explain any of his injuries that wouldn't bring more attention than Larkin could afford to have focused on him.
If he could reach his room, he could take the healing potion he had tucked away. This wasn't the emergency he'd thought he'd need it for, but given his choices were take it or go to the healers…
Larkin froze, listening carefully. Had he imagined that soft scuff of a footstep? He shuffled sideways, into the shadows of a slightly protruding support beam. It wouldn't stand up to more than a cursory look, but anyone sneaking around this late would hopefully, like him, be more inclined to secrecy than finding out who else lurked in the palace hallways.
Unfortunately, it appeared he really had run out of luck. Larkin bit back a curse as Prince Garnett Beringer appeared out of the connecting corridor a few doors down the hallway. Between his unyielding, stiff posture and the slightly out-of-fashion, high-collared jackets he preferred, he was unmistakable even in the low light provided by the mage lights lining the corridors. Garnett glanced to the left, away from where Larkin stood, and then, of course, looked down towards where Larkin leaned against the wall, half-hidden behind the corridor.
If it had been anyone else, they would have taken Larkin's attempt to conceal himself as the hint that it was. Anyone else should have been sneaking around as much as Larkin was. Not Garnett, however. He was as straight-laced and boring as the position of Chief Financier to the Crown suggested. He was also annoyingly persistent, even in the face of dozens of brush offs.
He was heading straight for Larkin, swift, sure steps closing the space between them. A frown marred his face, as though he already disapproved of whomever lurked in the hallway. Normally Larkin wouldn't hesitate to tease and play at where Garnett had been and why he was sneaking around, but he didn't have the time tonight. His arm was going numb, which Larkin was fairly certain was a bad sign. At least his jacket seemed to be absorbing most of the blood and the low light should conceal the stains.
Rallying what little energy he had left, Larkin pasted a smile on his face as Garnett reached him. "Good evening, your highness."
"Are you all right?" Garnett asked. He made an aborted movement, as though he wanted to physically reassure himself that Larkin was, in fact, whole.
"I'm more than all right, highness," Larkin said. "I had a lovely evening with a lovely woman—"
Garnett cut him off with a frustrated noise, and Larkin fell silent, startled by the uncharacteristic display of emotion. Garnett was usually much more collected even when he dealt with Larkin, who went out of his way to annoy Garnett. He couldn't have Garnett getting too close, after all. That would ruin everything he was working for.
"You don't have to lie to me," Garnett said. His voice was quiet, but it sounded far too loud in the dark, silent hallway. "Are you all right?"
Larkin swallowed because the answer was no, but he couldn't say it. Garnett would ruin everything. "I'm fine, highness. I appreciate the ill-placed concern. If you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with my bed."
Steeling himself, Larkin forced himself into motion. He couldn't afford to show weakness, but affecting his normal stride nearly took all the energy he had left. Garnett stepped forward, reaching towards him again. Larkin tried to sidestep, but not only did he not manage it, Garnett succeeded in grabbing his injured arm.
Pain lanced up his arm, white-hot and sharp, almost as terrible as the spell that had inflicted the injury. A cry of pain slipped free before Larkin could smother it, and Garnett let go as if he'd been burned. Larkin bundled his arm close despite the pain that movement caused and forced himself to move. He couldn't explain it, and Garnett would want to know.
"You need to go to the healing wing, your grace," Garnett was saying. He was following Larkin, but he kept his hands to himself. Larkin's entire arm was an agony of movement, but if he stopped or slowed, Larkin wasn't sure he could make it to his room. He only needed to get that far.
"Move," Larkin said, trying to move around Garnett, who had stepped in front of him and then stopped. "I need—"
"To see the healers," Garnett said firmly. He pointedly looked at Larkin's arm. "You're dripping blood."
Larkin looked down. Garnett was correct, of course. It wasn't a lot of blood, but it dripped steadily down his numb fingers before falling to the floor. He watched it, contemplating what to do about it. "That's your fault."
Garnett rubbed both hands over his face, giving Larkin an exasperated look. Their conversations always seemed to end with that look, but Larkin doubted Garnett was about to give up and wander away now.
"I need to get to my room," Larkin said, keeping his voice as steady as he could. "I'm not going to a healer. The longer you block my way, the longer it goes untreated."
Garnett wordlessly stepped aside, and Larkin stumbled into motion again. His head was spinning, and as Larkin had expected, Garnett fell into step beside him. He could deal with getting rid of Garnett once he'd taken the healing potion.
"Does your injury affect your left arm?" Garnett asked.
"I'm not discussing it," Larkin said through gritted teeth, taking the corner that Garnett had come from earlier.
"Why are you so stubborn?" Garnett demanded. He stepped close again, and Larkin really wished he would stop doing that. It was already hard to think. Adding in the heady scent of Garnett's cologne wasn't helping matters. He grabbed Larkin's hand, stooping slightly to swing Larkin's left arm up and over his shoulders. "Lean on me."
Larkin froze, but there was only so much fight left in him. "It's the fourth door on the right."
"I know," Garnett said. Larkin filed that away for later examination, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other as Garnett led him down the hallway. In the first stroke of luck Larkin had had all night, no one else appeared. He was leaning on Garnett far more than he liked by the time they reached his rooms, but there was nothing to be done for that.
Larkin shut his eyes, calling up what little remained of his magic to deactivate the wards protecting his room. They fell away almost immediately at his touch. "It's open."
Garnett opened the door, then stepped back slightly so Larkin could go through the doorway first. He didn't let Larkin go, his arm a warm, steadying presence around Larkin's waist. Garnett nudged the door shut once they were both in then helped Larkin over to the sofa.
The fire had long since burned out, leaving the room chilly and dark. Garnett sparked a fire magically, barely even glancing at the fireplace as he did so. He also conjured a half-dozen mage lights near the ceiling, flooding the room with brilliant light. Larkin flinched away from it, startled.
"I'm going to fetch a healer," Garnett said, heading towards the door.
"No," Larkin said, straightening up. Garnett paused, halfway across the room already. "I have— Fetch that little wooden box up there." Larkin gestured to the box in question, half-hidden on a bookshelf near the fireplace. Garnett hesitated but finally obliged, changing direction. He dug the box out of its nook between the rows of books and behind a few ugly cherub statuettes and brought it over to Larkin.
He obviously wasn't happy about not being able to fetch a healer, but Larkin wasn't particularly interested in keeping Garnett happy. He hadn't asked for Garnett's help, and Garnett had very nearly made it worse. He could still ruin everything, but Larkin would have to deal with that problem when it came.
"What is it?" Garnett asked. He sat down on the sofa next to Larkin, attempting to lift the lid. The magic sealing it closed kept him from doing so, however.
"It's a box, highness," Larkin said, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Instead, he shut them, focusing on the seal spell and painstakingly fitting in the pieces of the unlock spell that would open it. The unlock spell snapped into place with an almost audible pop, and Larkin nearly passed out as the spell completed. He didn't have the energy to deal with any of this, let alone the prince sitting next to him.
Garnett whistled, low and impressed. "Where did you get that?"
"I know someone," Larkin mumbled, holding out his hand for the small vial Garnett held. The healing potion shimmered a pretty, pearlescent blue within. Garnett pulled the cork on it, passing it over without comment. His face spoke volumes, however, and Larkin got the distinct impression that Garnett didn't approve of Larkin's method for dealing with his injuries.
Taking the vial, Larkin tilted it into his mouth. It tasted of mint and something much more vile that Larkin couldn't name. Swallowing all of it, he leaned against the back of the sofa and waited for it to kick in. He didn't have any idea how long that could take, but hopefully it would be quick.
"You have about ten minutes before that kicks in and you fall asleep for about twelve hours," Garnett said, taking the empty vial back. "What happened?"
"Twelve hours?" Larkin repeated. "Really?"
"You'll feel like you've drunk too much wine when you wake, too," Garnett said. He stared at Larkin unflinching, repeating, "What happened?"
"I went for a walk in the wrong part of town," Larkin said, shrugging. "I was mistaken."
"Mistaken?" Garnett pressed. "About what?"
"It being safe," Larkin said, smiling. The pain was gone, he realized, replaced with a thick, heavy cloud of lethargy. He yawned, sliding down on the sofa. He should probably make his way to his bedroom, but the sofa was certainly comfortable enough.
"Why not report it?" Garnett asked. Larkin didn't bother to answer that. He couldn't answer that. Garnett's frown deepened, and he asked, "Why can't you answer that?"
Larkin shut his mouth, refusing to open it. If he couldn't control what he was saying out loud, he wouldn't say anything at all. Garnett sighed, climbing to his feet. Larkin watched him, wondering if that was a side effect of the healing potion and if Garnett had known Larkin would get loose in the mouth after taking it. It didn't seem like something Garnett would do, but he was more familiar with the potion than Larkin was.
"Come on, you'll sleep better in your bed," Garnett said, holding out a hand. Larkin debated briefly, but if he was going to be sleeping for twelve hours, the bed was the better option. He set his left hand in Garnett's right, letting Garnett help him to his feet. His right arm twinged unhappily, but it was a dull ache compared to the pain before he'd taken the potion.