“That’s not the Cat I thought we’d be seeing tonight,” Brej commented, once they were far enough away. “But it definitely coincides with what Rivyr discovered about the House of Cayen.”
“What?” Arcylaen prompted.
“Even though all the paperwork was drawn up under Mantao Leontle, the money was directly wired from Leandra Leontle’s account–his sister,” Brej shared. “He didn’t contribute a cent, and the neighbors claim they’ve only seen a woman coming and going from the house.”
“I already uncovered their relation, Brej,” Cylaen barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “Do you think she forged his signature?”
“No, it turns out the woman’s been sitting on her trust fund, only using it to pay for the necessities and her schooling,” Brej shook his head. “She has no credit history, so had no other choice but to have someone else sign for the loan. Rivyr said that wasn’t rare, though the other person is usually added afterward. So far no requests have been filed for that.”
“Hmm, well I think I just found out why she wanted it,” Cylaen replied. “Turns out she’s our new Exhibit Coordinator and Conservationist.”
“What, her?” Brej questioned skeptically, glancing in Leandra’s direction.
“I know. She didn’t strike me as the bookworm type, either, but if she’s telling the truth then that’s exactly what she is,” Cylaen said. “I want that story checked out, thoroughly. Find out where she went to school and how long she’s been working for the Museum of Meive.”
“Got it,” Brej nodded, then gave the woman another once-over. “I hope for your sake she’s telling the truth, because that is one fine looking pus-”
“I will gouge your eyes out and cram them down your foul throat,” Arcylaen warned darkly.
Brejeir grinned in utter delight, slapped him on the shoulder and stalked away. Releasing a sigh, Cylaen settled with the fact that he’d just walked right into his brother’s ploy like an idiot, then started making his way back to Leandra.
He’d given his orders to the entire staff at the beginning of the night. Anyone bearing the Echelonite of a Cat was a person of interest. When Ordis had contacted him the moment she’d arrived, Cylaen had been both surprised and suspicious to learn it was a woman and not Mantao. It would hardly be the first time a man attempted to use a loyal lover as a distraction against his enemies.
Arcylaen had watched for her, anyway, determined to get the truth of it. The very second he’d laid eyes on her coming down those stairs, he’d been utterly captivated. Desperate to know who she was and exactly how she was connected to Mr. Leontle. The denial that she could already belong to someone else had been instantaneous and alarming.
That’s why he clung to his suspicions so strongly, because he already wanted her that badly. She was the most alluring example of feminine beauty he’d ever seen. Her body was curved so sensually under the thin, golden silk clinging to all the right places. Every man in the room wanted her, watched her lustfully. Every woman had a glint of envy in their eye. Her raven hair tumbled down her back in lazy curls nearly to her waist. With naturally tanned skin, feline eyes and that full mouth, she was an exotic delicacy in a room full of ordinary.
He’d nearly come unglued when he’d seen Haraj make a beeline right for her, not even attempting to disguise his intentions. Once Cylaen had seen the obvious disinterest on Leandra’s face, he’d decided to send the Griffin on an unnecessary errand so he could get the information he wanted while convincing her to remain by his side for the rest of the evening.
Now, thanks to his brother, Cylaen felt like the world’s biggest hypocrite. He may as well have walked right up to her and said: “Me Dragon, you treasure, I keep you now.” The imagery was shamefully barbaric. Scowling at himself, he made his way back to the sexy Cat. He wanted more information, regardless of how he felt about his attraction to her. The timing of her arrival, the purchase of the House of Cayen, it all felt a little too coincidental for his liking.
Unfortunately, he kept getting stopped by his guests and as one of the hosts, there was nothing he could do but stand there and give them the polite conversation they were seeking.
The museum had gone all out for the Gala, making sure the main floor was ripe with new relics the citizens had never seen before. Banners hung and draped along the high ceilings announcing the current or upcoming exhibits taking place in other parts of the building.
“It’s a morbid curiosity, isn’t it?” Lady Krennys commented, nodding toward the veiled Cayen exhibit. “To want to ogle the possessions of a family we all have so many reasons to despise?”
“It is,” he agreed, glancing in the same direction, his eyes landed on Leandra, instead. She was still studying the plaques, but had managed to snag herself a flute of bubbly from a passing waiter. “We’re hoping that will be the very thing drawing more people into the museum. It suffered too much under the reign of those criminals, the least their possessions can do is muster up some much needed donations or an increase in visitors.”
Smiling at him, the older woman patted his arm. “You’ve been spearheading the refurbishment of Skaulling for years, Lord Draea, you should just make it official. I can’t think of anyone who’d run or vote against you. This territory needs a Dragon with your compassion and vision for the betterment of its progress.”
“And it has Thirteen Houses of them, my Lady,” Cylaen pointed out with a wink and charming smile. “Unofficially.”
Chuckling, she gave him a knowing look, then turned back to the group of older dignitaries her husband was conversing with. Cylaen didn’t hesitate to take the offered escape and finally make his way back to Leandra. He was surprised by how much relief he felt to be by her side again and wasn’t exactly sure where it stemmed from. Concern or desire?
“My apologies for keeping you waiting.”
“No worries,” she smiled politely. “You’re one of the hosts, I’m sure that title doesn’t include babysitting foreign appraisers.”
Something was different. Cylaen wasn’t blind or so hopeful that he’d missed her reaction to him the moment she’d turned to face him after completely mangling the pronunciation of his name. It had been just the opposite of her reaction to Haraj, which both his ego and desire had preened over. When she’d mentioned never meeting a Dragon before, he’d wondered if he’d misinterpreted her interest, until Brejeir had arrived. There had been nothing in her eyes for his brother, save for the same closed-off politeness he was witnessing now.
“It doesn’t,” he replied, leaving it at that. “Did you need more help pronouncing names?”
Laughing lightly, she gave him a brief look of appreciation for the tease, then shook her head. “No, thank you. I think one embarrassing moment a night should do it, my Lord.”
“You know Brejeir was only kidding about the title thing, right?” He remarked.
“Are not all Dragons Lords and Ladies?” She asked and Cylaen thought he caught a glimpse of humor dancing in her eyes, so smiled slowly.
“Only to the traditionalists and elitists, which may be one in the same,” he answered. “Otherwise, we’re just regular citizens trying to make our way and leave our mark. Make a difference–and our annual budget projections.”
His smile grew more confident when that earned him another laugh. He was tormenting himself by bringing that rosy hue to her cheeks, he knew, but couldn’t seem to stop.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” He decided to press his luck.
Eying him cautiously, her nod was shallow. “You can ask,” she replied.
Her cleverness pleased him. “Why did your brother purchase the House of Cayen here in Lonnex?”
Her shoulders relaxed slightly, obviously relieved by the question, which piqued his curiosity. What question had she been dreading, perhaps fearing? Then, she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth in thought and Cylaen’s gaze latched onto that simple gesture, the heat of his desire rising before he managed to tear his eyes away.
“He didn’t,” she answered quietly. “I mean, on paper he quite literally did, but Mantao is far more interested in his next adrenaline rush than acquiring real estate. Unfortunately, no matter how good I am at saving money, I’m fairly lousy at spending it properly. I’ve never been through the process of getting a loan before, so I had no idea how important credit was. The bank said it was perfectly legal for Mantao to apply for me-”
“It is,” he cut off her concern. “I was just curious why a Cat from Meive would want to own a Dog House in Lonnex.”
Leandra made a sound that might have been a laugh, yet also came across resigned, which is precisely what her expression suggested. “I suppose it sounds a bit twisted when you look at it that way, but the truth is far less fascinating.”
“I’m listening,” he invited.
Taking a deep breath, her shoulders moved with the exhale. “I was afraid it would get demolished, and good or bad, it’s still a historical landmark. I couldn’t bear the thought of something with historical significance getting destroyed or just allowed to sink into ruin. The bank said no one has made a single offer on it in five years.”
“You can understand why, I’m sure,” Cylaen said.
Her response was intriguing, even if it drudged up horrible memories. It added weight to her claim as a Conservationist, but that was still a surface detail and he didn’t trust anything at face value. He couldn’t afford to.
“As I’m sure some part of you understands the need to preserve history, otherwise you wouldn’t have contributed to an exhibit dedicated to the same family,” she countered, gesturing to his plaque. “You wouldn’t keep things that belonged to Skaulling’s worst enemies, when you could’ve just as easily destroyed them. Melted down the relics, broke them, burned them, completely eradicated the Black Dogs from the world’s memories, but you didn’t.”
They should have. That was his first thought, the first regret that flashed through him with her words. Then they wouldn’t be dealing with thieves. Arcylaen wouldn’t be sending Phoenixes to prison. They bloody well should have destroyed all of it!
“There are no heroes to celebrate without the deeds of their foes, the world has never only documented one side of the story,” she continued, unaware of his internal struggle. “Our descendants have the right to know the mistakes of their ancestors, so they can choose to be better. To make better choices.”
“I agree, except, there will never be any descendants of the Black Dogs of Cayen to make any of those choices, Leandra,” he countered a bit more harshly than he intended, but dammit, something about her argument sparked his own passionate view on the monstrous family the world was far better off without.
It was hard to keep all the pain and grief they’d caused pushed down, when it threatened to rise up and smother him, as if five years hadn’t already come to pass. The mildly stricken expression on her crestfallen face said it all, though. On this matter, they may never see eye-to-eye.
“Perhaps not,” she replied quietly, peering down at her drink. “But it’s foolish to believe the Black Dogs will be the last enemies Cauldex will ever have to face.”
Cylaen was at a loss for words, still battling through the nasty side affects of so many buried emotions to find his decency fast enough. Polishing off her drink, Leandra set the empty glass aside, but didn’t meet his gaze again.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to freshen up before the unveiling.”
Then she was gone.
© A.C. Melody
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