Ace In The Hole
Arcylaen was pacing the foyer by the time his aunt decided to bring Leandra home. He’d been a nervous wreck since the woman had declared her intentions and forbade him from interfering. He was sure he had something unpleasant coming his way for not giving Leandra a head’s up, but worried more if she and his aunt had been getting on okay.
When Emmon opened the door, the last thing Cylaen expected was to hear and see the two women laughing like old friends. Something powerful punched him right in the chest at the sight of the glowing smile on his sexy kitten’s face. It was the very thing that made his lingering distrust for her so damn painful. When he was with her, all of his concerns seemed so frail and distant. Her personality, passions, the things that made her happy and the way her mind worked; none of those things matched the worst of his fears, so he had no clue why they were still there. Brejeir was right, it was tearing him up inside, driving him crazy.
“I don’t know if I should be afraid or celebrating,” he commented, when his aunt greeted him with a lot less hostility than her arrival to his office.
“Both, darling,” she smiled, patting him on the cheek. “It’s good for you to stay on your toes, especially with the trials ahead. Now, I think I’ll go freshen up before dinner. You put me in the East tower, Emmon?”
“Of course, my Lady,” he answered and led her away.
Arcylaen stepped into Leandra and wrapped his arms around her waist, before they were even alone. He didn’t care who saw. Relief filled him when she didn’t hesitate to rest her hands on his arms and smile up at him. He peered into her beautiful face, the sparkle of humor in her feline eyes and forwent all charm for straight up pleading.
“I’m sorry. She insisted on surprising you and forbade me from calling to warn you ahead of time. You don’t know how frightening she can be–”
Leandra laughed. “Are you going to get on your knees and beg forgiveness, your highness?”
Cylaen popped his jaw to the side, torn between doing just that and narrowing his eyes at her for the highness remark.
“Do I need to?” he hazarded.
“No,” she chuckled again, wrapping her arms around his neck. “You’re just lucky it turned out so well, or I might have lorded it over you until I felt thoroughly compensated.”
There was no mistaking the sensual gleam in her eyes, or in the purring undertone of her voice. He saw it, heard it and felt it reverberate through every single one of his male instincts.
“Well, now let’s not call the matter squared just yet,” he suggested, dropping his gaze to her mouth, because the desire to kiss her in ways he’d yet to even try was growing strong. His kitten had no idea the feast he planned to make out of her. “I think you might feel better if you let me make it up to you, and we do have some time before dinner.”
She snickered, and placed a chaste kiss on his starving mouth. “Which, I’m going to use to go freshen up, as well, while you track Rynd down for your daily report.”
Cylaen released a quiet growl, when she slipped right out of his hands and headed for the stairs. “I’m going to put that Hawk under a gag order,” he warned.
“That wasn’t a trade secret, your majesty, I’m just that smart,” she winked over her shoulder. Halfway up the stairs, she smiled down at him. “You’re right, I do feel better. Maybe I’ll hold onto this for awhile.”
A rumble of laughter filled him and the foyer. Fuck, her mind was marvelous. “You just let me know when you really want to feel better, kitten, we’ll see who’s the one lording then.”
He followed her beautiful laugh all the way across the second story balcony, before shaking off the lustful effects and doing precisely what she predicted by tracking Rynd down. He didn’t have anything to report that Arcylaen wasn’t already aware of, but that was a good thing. The signs the Hawk was watching for weren’t things Leandra would necessarily notice, because as she’d admitted, she hadn’t been in Skaulling during the reign of the Black Dogs. She had no idea the terrifying lengths criminals would go to for a shot at a big payday or revenge.
Parting with Rynd in the kitchen, Cylaen made it into the dining room just as Sajyn and the rest of the kitchen staff were setting up the trays on the serving cabinet. His aunt appeared a few seconds later. When he attempted to give her his seat at the head of the table, she shook her head and skirted around him for Brejeir’s place, instead. He moved just in time to pull the chair out for her.
“That seat was never meant for me, Cyl,” she said, her gaze lingering on the chair they both knew should still be occupied by her brother, his father. It was a shared sorrow that went unspoken. “Where’s your lovely Cat?”
“She’ll be arriving any moment,” he answered, because he could feel Leandra descending the grand staircase in the foyer, her presence like an enticing shiver down his spine.
“I like her,” Aunt Aviya said, looking him straight in the eyes. “I mean it.”
Arcylaen felt pride and apprehension with that declaration. There was a hidden warning in his aunt’s tone, as if she feared he might muck it up. Shit, he was afraid he’d screw it up, but doubted it was for the same reasons. Most of his concern was the Warden bond, the constant worry that he’d say something the wrong way again. The other part was attached to his inability to trust her completely.
He remained standing, waiting for Leandra to enter the room. She looked both relaxed in the simple floral dress, and stunning. He knew it was the woman. He doubted there was a single article of clothing she couldn’t pull off. She’d just sat down in the chair he’d pulled out for her, when the rest of his kin filed into the room. Grevys, Daelyn and Rivyr made a beeline for their aunt, while Brejeir meandered in at his usual pace.
“There’s the rest of my boys,” their aunt greeted, standing to accept their hugs and kisses.
It was a far cry from the way she’d greeted him and Brej at the office, which is exactly what the look Brej gave him translated to. Arcylaen chuckled and pushed Leandra’s chair back in for her.
“Brejeir, did you just roll your eyes?” Aunt Aviya never missed a thing.
“No, ma’am,” he grinned, turning it right to Daelyn, as he snagged their younger brother’s chair and sat down beside Leandra, as if he’d won a major victory.
Once everyone was settled and the first course served, Aunt Aviya jumped right into her campaign plans without preamble.
“House Turvo must be your first stop,” she stated.
Cylaen paused mid-chew and gave the woman a weary look. “I’m trying to eat.”
“Don’t give me your sass, Cylaen,” she chastised. “You know I’m right. They’re already feeling offended and vulnerable due to this situation, to not visit them first would come across as both cowardly and more offensive. They are second in line for Dragon’s Head, that gives them precedence, whether you like it or not.”
Cylaen groaned and continued chewing. He knew she was right, that didn’t make it any less unpleasant and it wasn’t like it hadn’t already crossed his mind.
“It would be getting the biggest hurdle out of the way first, rather than spending a week fretting about it,” Leandra commented, though she sounded just as disgruntled about the prospect as he felt.
“That’s the spirit, my girl,” Aunt Aviya smiled, lifting her wine in a toast.
“It’s not like we don’t already know what their answer’s going to be, at any rate,” Brejeir chimed in.
“After your brother gives them his answer, yes,” Aunt Aviya agreed. “But, they still have to be given the chance to ask it.”
Cylaen’s grip tightened around the handle of his spoon when Leandra stiffened beside him, her hand pausing in the process of lifting soup to her mouth.
“I’m fine, Arcylaen,” Leandra cut him off. “You think I haven’t already guessed what they’re planning? Bartering their vote to keep you as Dragon’s Head on the condition that you wed Eleqwyn is their most obvious course of action. What I worry about is their ace in the hole.”
“What ace in the hole?” Brej asked, as that phrase got everyone’s attention.
“That’s just it,” Leandra sighed. “I have no idea what it is, but they have one. Because for all of Eleqwyn’s predictable traits, she has zero confidence in her ability to win Arcylaen over on her own. She proved that the night of the Gala. She’s not stupid. She knows Arcylaen’s disinterest in her has nothing to do with me or any other woman.”
“Cyl?” Brejeir questioned.
Arcylaen was still wrapping his head around the idea that the Turvo’s might have a secret weapon against him, but more so about how in the hell Leandra had been able to see it, when none of them had. Her mind, yes it was freaking spectacular, but her ability to think so strategically didn’t help his remaining concerns about her connections to the robberies.
“She’s not wrong.” He shrugged.
“No shit, she’s not wrong,” Brejeir exasperated. “But what would they have up their sleeve?”
“There are two ladies at your table, nephew,” Aunt Aviya chided him.
Brejeir opened his mouth, then sulked back into his soup, muttering under his breath about Leandra never caring if he swore.
Their aunt ignored him and tilted her head at Leandra. “I like the way your mind works,” she said. “I worried that the Turvo’s might rush to get a lead on us with the rest of the Houses. That could be the ace they’re hoping for.”
“Especially, if they’ve already started,” Daelyn put in. “Eleqwyn’s known about the panther’s choice since first thing this morning, at least, which means they could already be a day ahead of us.”
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Leandra said. “If there’s one thing she seems very confident in, it’s that all of the Dragons will want to keep the traditions going strong.”
“Not all,” Aunt Aviya interjected. “But, yes, a good many of them will want to hold fast to that, until they meet you, Miss Leontle. When they see you and Arcylaen together as a united front, hear your answers to their questions and learn about your joint renovation projects for the cities, they will change their minds. Dragons may be strong headed about their traditions, but they are and will always be, protectors at heart. These cities mean everything to them, they’ve fought and bled for them. You mustn’t forget that. You will be speaking with war veterans and families who lived through the reign of the Black Dogs and the war to take them down.”
“How Arcylaen handled the war should be enough all on its own,” Rivyr put in.
Cylaen looked at him and sighed, shaking his head. “We’re not playing that card, brother,” he said, understanding his thoughts on it, but disagreeing. “This isn’t about what happened during the war, it’s about what happened after. I didn’t step up to the plate and take the official position as Dragon’s Head. No matter my reasons, I’m sure it’s long been seen as a sign of weakness and no one wants a weak leader.”
“It’s the robberies,” Leandra said, surprising everyone.
Arcylaen looked at her, their eyes crashing and holding. “What?”
“They know something about the robberies,” she said. “That’s their ace. That’s the only way they’d be able to discredit you as a good leader, Arcylaen, because I agree with Rivyr, your past and present actions which have led Skaulling and all its citizens back to their former glories should be enough, whether your leadership was official or not. There’s only one thing that’s happened in all that time that has shaken the Dragons’ confidence in you, and that’s the robberies.”
“I think she might be right, nephew,” Aunt Aviya said, her tone grim. “Somehow, the Turvo’s have found evidence that you and your investigation team missed.”
“How?” he balked, every muscle in his body tightening with the absurdity and denial, even as a darkness crept into his blood, chilling him. “I went over both my team’s and the Council’s investigation reports. The only way they have evidence we don’t, is if they found it after the fact–”
“Or before and withheld it,” Brejeir stated.
“No,” Arcylaen immediately denied. “Eleqwyn might be a prickly little snot, but we’re talking about an entire family of Dragons who’s bloodline and history stretches as far back as ours. I refuse to believe they would purposely obstruct an investigation.”
“Even if they found it afterward and withheld it, it’s still obstruction,” Leandra pointed out. “And who’s to say all of the Turvo’s know about it?”
Cylaen ground his teeth, the uncertainty that Eleqwyn might actually do something like that out of desperation was too great to ignore. He still refused to believe it would be any other Turvo, though. He rose from his chair, and flashed a look at the only brother sitting beside his kitten.
When Brejeir stood to join him, Leandra did the same and he had to bite down on his desire to tell her to stay. It was just a word, but with the Warden bond, it would be a command she couldn’t refuse and it would mess everything up all over again.
Instead, he held his hand up to stop her. She crossed her arms, matching his imploring look with a determined one. Cylaen tried to think of how best to phrase his words so they wouldn’t emerge as a directive, but before he could say anything, she sighed and let her arms fall to her sides again.
“Fine,” she exhaled. “But you better fill me in later, or I’ll find somebody who will.”
His grin was fast and masked too many reactions at once to put names to, but stars above, she was a constant fascination. Arcylaen stepped into her and placed a kiss on her cheek. “It’s a date,” he whispered in her ear, not even trying to hide his naughty innuendo.
It was better to see the glint of appreciative humor in her eyes, as he walked away, than frustration. Just as he reached the door, his youngest brother had to put his two cents in.
“They don’t even have to talk anymore, that’s just creepy.”
“No, my youngest hatchling,” Aunt Aviya smiled, sending Cylaen a wink when he glanced over his shoulder. “That’s called partnership.”
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