Roehn didn’t have time to register the warmth spreading up her arm from their linked hands, before he opened the door and led her outside. Her jaw dropped, along with her spirits. She continued past him and out into the street, turning in a slow circle.
They were all boarded up, one building after another…discarded. Graffiti clashed with broken glass, overgrown sidewalks and the scattered debris of things left behind. An old doll buggy, a ripped and mildewed mattress. Remnants of lives no longer there.
The restaurant was the third in a long row of closed businesses with empty apartments above them on one side of the street. The other held an abandoned apartment complex flanked by empty townhouses. More than one showed signs of fire and whatever other kind of destruction had been wrought then, and since.
“There are neighborhoods like this all over Skaulling,” Arcylaen’s voice penetrated the shocked silence. “War zones where all of the occupants had either been criminals, or innocent citizens we managed to evacuate. The rest fled on their own, once they realized what was happening and that they were free to leave at last.”
Roehn covered her mouth with her hand. So many lives. Her eyes roamed over the countless dingy windows, two or three per family and a least a dozen sets in each building. How many more streets looked just like this or worse? This is what her family had done! All this time, she’d been spouting about the importance of preserving their House, their relics and these were the ruins they’d left behind! All of these homes and the shattered families who’d suffered for decades inside of them.
Lonnex was the Heart City of Skaulling, the others spanned out from it like spokes on a wagon wheel, increasing in number the further out they went. Four surrounding cities, eight outlying cities and Lonnex in the very center. The original Thirteen Dragon Kingdoms. That was a lot of lives!
“Why are you showing this to me?” She repeated, the uneasiness no longer a match for the disgust he felt for everything her family had done.
She couldn’t wrap her head around their relation, how she could have possibly come from them. It made her physically ill to know their DNA was floating around inside of her.
“I wanted you to see the difference you’re helping to make,” he answered.
Stunned, she faced him with wide eyes. “Me?” She asked loudly, her voice echoing off all the empty stone and brick.
He grabbed her shoulders to turn her back toward the scenery, wrapping an arm around her waist to hold her to him while he gestured over her shoulder with his other hand. Any other time, the position would’ve rendered Roehn into a melted puddle, but the moment was far more profound than basic desires.
“You reminded me that not everyone was here during those horrific times,” he answered. “That you never lived through it in order to understand why we Skaullings could just allow places like this, like the House of Cayen, to fall into ruin. It’s difficult to explain what it’s like living in the absence of hope. Despair is an infection of the soul. It eats away at your mind, until there’s nothing left but the disease.”
Roehn turned to face him again, so many words trying to form, but she couldn’t speak them. She had no idea how to make them emerge in any helpful way. There was no solace to offer, no amount of her own truth that could ever erase what had been done here.
“That mindset, that habitual way of life, can be very hard to recover from. And in the process of trying to heal ourselves and the people, grieve the ones we’ve lost and recuperate the crumbling infrastructure before the entire city falls–places like this, that harbor more bad memories than anything else, don’t exactly make it onto the priority list,” he continued, before shaking his head. “But you opened my eyes to the truth, that ignoring these wounded places doesn’t make them go away. It will never fix all the ways they’re broken. We have an opportunity to take back what was ours, and make sure that everything happening in these damaged neighborhoods from this day forward, is something better.
“So yes, Leandra, you. You are already inspiring changes for the good, making a difference by helping me see that we first have to let go of the insult of the bad, before we can hope to make better choices for the future.” He pulled her around to his side and gestured to the boarded up restaurant. “Even if it’s just one dilapidated building at a time.”
Roehn gasped as a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “You bought it?” She asked. “You bought the restaurant?”
“Indeed, I did,” he answered.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“I have a few ideas circling. I was actually hoping to get your opinion on them over lunch.”
“I don’t know anything about business,” she stammered, trying not to feel touched and failing. “Shouldn’t you be asking some kind of analyst or something?”
Arcylaen shook his head and leaned closer, his eyes dropping to her mouth even though she hadn’t addressed him as Lord. Roehn was saved from the temptation of yielding completely, when Daelyn stuck his head out the door.
“Hey, you two, lunch,” he called. “You can snog later!”
Though her cheeks reddened in embarrassment again, Roehn was surprised by the disappointment that shot through her for the missed opportunity.
“As I was saying,” Arcylaen sighed, after sending his brother a dark look that had the younger Draea chuckling back into the restaurant. “I want you in on the renovations, because you were my inspiration. All an analyst can give me is numbers and probabilities. They can’t give me a different perspective or the right kind of good.”
A little speechless, Roehn smiled and couldn’t seem to stop the sensation from completely taking over her face. “The right kind of good?”
“Yes, the kind motivated by preservation, not greed,” he nodded.
“Oh, I can be greedy,” she cautioned lightheartedly.
“Yes, I know,” he said lowly. “Every time I think about kissing you, you manage to keep your lips from mine.”
The laughter bubbled out of her mouth, drowning the familiar warning alarms going off in her head. Maybe it was the need to forget they were standing in the rubble of her family’s tyranny, or perhaps it was his ability to say all the right things, at all the right times, while coming across one hundred percent sincere. Most likely, Roehn was experiencing a temporary lapse in judgement, because she found herself returning his flirtations as she started walking away.
“But, you make it so easy, my Lord.”
Roehn made it two steps, before she was yanked back and spun around in his arms. Her hands slapped into the hardness of his chest that clothing did nothing to disguise, and Arcylaen’s mouth crushed down on hers.
His tongue plunged right in for the kill, taking all that he’d denied them both each time before. Deliciously hot tingles ignited throughout Roehn’s lips and she swore she could feel the erotic vibrations in her teeth. Then she realized it was a deep, growling moan coming from Arcylaen’s throat. All the lustful thoughts of him she’d ever ignored came rushing to the surface and Roehn’s fingers curled around the lapels of his suit, so she could kiss him back for the very first time.
His arm banded around her, holding her steady while their kiss reached a fiery peak. Then it slowly ebbed into a savoring smolder neither was ready to give up on just yet. Arcylaen’s hands cradled her face, his thumb caressing her cheek bone. He moaned again, and Roehn couldn’t miss the damning sound of his satisfaction.
“You wanted me to kiss you this time, didn’t you, Leandra?” He rubbed in her face, his teeth sinking into her bottom lip slowly, turning the small bite of pain into a seduction.
All she could manage was a whimpering kind of confession. Once again, wishing for the ability to experience the moment completely carefree of any consequences, the way every other woman could. But, the Dragon was too pleased to let her revel.
“Oh, kitty cat,” he purred deeply, brushing his lips across hers again. “Big mistake.”
© A.C. Melody
♥ For all previous episodes, check out the Wicked Web link above, or continue reading with Episode 13