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Kellie Dennis: Book Covers By Design
Release Date: 04 December, 2015
The Mauritanian Saga: Book One
All of his life, Caden DeMott’s mismatched eyes have made him the target of superstition and scorn. Though he is the son of a nobleman, he’s been allowed to run free over the hills and moors, mostly ignored by his family. No one ever thought to inform him that he had been betrothed since infancy, until the day his fiancé, Prince Rhys Gwyther arrived to marry him.
Rhys is the prince of the small island country of Mauritania, a land rich in gems, rose oil, and pearls, but poor in skilled artisans and seeds to grow crops. In order to further cement the trade route to the mainland, he’s been sent to marry a man he’s never met, and bring him back to Mauritania. Unfortunately, an accident years before has left Rhys with a lot of emotional baggage and very little trust in strangers.
But trust is exactly what Caden and Rhys are going to need if they are to make a life together, and help unravel the mystery of who’s been smuggling valuable gems and pearls off the island. Add in the realization that Caden’s stepmother, Mildred and her island representative, Maxwell, have been importing inferior goods for years, forcing Mauritania to become more dependent on them, and trust becomes even more difficult.
Caden possesses the knowledge to finally allow Rhys’ father to unravel the plot to ruin Mauritania, but only if the king and his son are willing to put their faith in Caden’s loyalty to his new home. Something that is difficult to do after Caden is accused of cheating on his marriage vows to Rhys with his guard, Luc. Will Rhys believe him innocent? Or will their marriage be over before it truly has a chance to begin?
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“HAVE YOU TOLD him yet?”
“Why the hell not!”
Jackson DeMott turned toward the cold, haughty voice of his wife, Mildred, and resisted the urge to shudder at the sight of her pale, pinched face. Dark, heavy eye makeup only served to make her appear sick and bruised, despite her insistence that it was the height of fashion. Her thin, mousy brown hair was pinned elaborately on the top of her head, hiding the places where her scalp had begun to show. Her arms were crossed over her almost non-existent bosom, and judging from the way she frowned, she was only moments away from throwing another of her infamous fits.
“Jackson, I asked you a question. Why haven’t you told him, and why aren’t you dressed properly? Those clothes are more suited for a funeral than a wedding?!”
“On the contrary, how could I possibly wear anything else on the day that I’m being forced to give my first born son away?”
“You’ve known this day was coming since the day he was born. Why you’ve insisted on keeping it from him and coddling the boy I will never understand, but it stops here and now. Caden is one and twenty, no longer a child, and Prince Rhys will be here any time now. I will not have that beastly little devil spawn of yours shaming this family.”
Jackson ran a tired hand over his face, feeling far older than his forty-seven years. “I’d hoped that one day you could see it in your heart to love him as if he were your own son, but I’ve come to realize over the years that you are nothing more than a vain, cruel, heartless woman. That boy has done nothing to you save from having the misfortune of not being of your blood. I loathe the day I ever allowed you to talk me into making this agreement, but more than that, I loathe you with every fiber of my being.”
Mildred sneered, appearing unmoved by his outburst. “Would you have preferred to lose this manor as well as your estates? Your father’s gambling, coupled with your ineptitude, left us on the cusp of ruin, and it was my swift thinking and my father’s brilliance that saved us. It is only right that Caden, as the eldest, be the first to marry.”
“Would you have been so quick to offer up Tristan or Glenn had one of them been the only option?”
“I would have offered them you had the circumstances dictated that as the only solution,” Mildred spat.
“Why you selfish, grasping….”
Mildred stomped her foot loudly on the marble floor, the echo of her shoe like a rifle shot. “Enough! Hate me if you will, but that changes nothing. Now go and get that little bastard of yours ready for his wedding day, and so help me, Jackson, if either of you messes this up, you’ll suffer in ways you cannot possibly imagine.”
“Someday I can only hope to see you suffer in ways that have not even been dreamed up yet,” Jackson growled with hatred in his eyes as he pushed past his wife. His steps were heavy with anger as he ascended the stairs to the second floor, fists clenched so tightly that half crescent indents were forming on his palms. Outside his eldest son’s chamber, he paused and took several deep breaths, desperately seeking some small measure of calm before delivering the life-altering news. If only there were a way to be certain Rhys would be kind and understanding of Caden’s odd, distracting behaviors, but sadly, few had ever truly given the young man a fair chance. If he could, Jackson would have spared his son the kind of bitter, miserable marriage he himself endured, but he held little hope that Rhys would be any different from those who had ridiculed Caden in the past.
Knocking on the door, Jackson mentally prepared his speech while waiting for Caden to answer. When he did not, Jackson pushed open the door and let his eyes drift around the dimly lit chamber until they came to rest on the figure curled upon the bearskin rug by the hearth, two large hounds on either side of him. Jackson couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the trio before a sudden thought abruptly wiped the smile from his face.
Would Rhys allow Caden to keep the animals, or would his son be forced to leave his two closest companions behind? Jackson crossed the chamber quietly, stopping near the hearth. When one of the hounds growled low and raised his head, the white splotch of fur around his left eye identified him as Titus. When Titus saw that it was Jackson he laid his head back on his paws and closed his eyes again while the other hound, Brutes, snored on.
With a sigh, Jackson knelt and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder, gently shaking him awake. Caden blinked sleepy, mismatched eyes up at his father, and as his son sat up, Jackson wondered what Rhys’ reaction to seeing Caden’s eyes would be and whether the prince was yet another superstitious fool who believed Caden’s one green eye and one white were a sign that he was devil-touched.
Fools, Jackson through to himself as Caden reached out and placed his hand on Brutes’ head, rubbing the dog’s ears. Caden’s head was cocked to one side, and he made a soft, clicking sound with his tongue that let Jackson know he was listening. While his son could speak, Caden used words sparingly and only after careful thought. It was one of the many things that made the boy so endearing in his father’s eyes. In another’s eyes, however, Jackson knew it was just another sign that Caden was different from others his age.
“I’m sorry I had to wake you. Were you up late wandering the moors again?”
Caden grinned and nodded, mismatched eyes lighting up and darting to the heavy curtains that were blocking out much of the sun and the moors that lay just beyond the window.
Jackson sighed heavily and rubbed his chin, still struggling to find just the right words. “Caden, there’s something very important that I need to say to you, and I am going to need you to listen to me very carefully and do exactly as I ask. All right?”
Jackson watched his son frown before giving a single, stiff nod.
“Your grandfather was a good man, a kind man, with a great deal of political influence, but for all his good points he loved gaming and at times put little thought into the wagers he made. Over time, all of his gambling caught up with him, and he was deeply in debt.
“As you know, my marriage to Mildred was arranged by her father as a token of goodwill in order to attain your grandfather’s votes, granting his family exclusive trading rights with the small country of Mauritania. Relations between our country and Mauritania had been strained for years, and without being able to import goods, the people of Mauritania were floundering. The deal made Mildred’s father quite wealthy, and with it came a great deal of power.
“Mildred’s dowry paid off a large chunk of the debt your grandfather had accumulated, but there was still a great deal owed. It was Mildred who first suggested that we advance our family’s ties with Mauritania by proposing a marriage between our firstborn child and the firstborn child of the king of Mauritania. After all, it was Mildred who stood to inherit her father’s trading routes and ships when he passed on, and a marriage between the families would further solidify the contract.
“What I didn’t know at the time was that Mildred had discovered I’d been dallying with your mother, who was governess to your Uncle Jamie. She’d figured out that the child Vanessa was carrying was mine and confronted me with it. I never once denied that it was true, Caden. I never denied you, but I wish that I had because Mildred told your grandfather about you, and he was so overjoyed to be a grandfather that he insisted you be given our family name and raised by Mildred and me.
“Mildred arranged for your mother to be richly compensated and set up with a home far from here, and then Mildred claimed you as her own, at least when the outside world could see her doing it.
“Caden, son, I am sorrier than words can ever express. I know that living with Mildred has never been a pleasant experience for you, and I suspect that it is why you have come to love the night time when you can wander about freely without the fear of running into her and her waspish tongue. I wish I had seen through her plan from the beginning, but I did not, and signed the contract with the Mauritanian king when it was placed in front of me.
“What I am trying to say is that you are promised to Prince Rhys of Mauritania, and he is on his way here to claim you. You are to be married in the chapel here, today. Preparations are already underway. After the ceremony you will set sail to Mauritania, where you will live from now on.”
For the first time since he began, Jackson hesitated.
“I… I’m sorry, Caden. Please understand that there is no way to break the contract. If you refuse, you will be taken to Mauritania by force, and this home and all that I own will be forfeited. Your brothers would be forced to apprentice rather than finish their educations, and all of those who depend upon this estate and manor for shelter and work would be forced to fend for themselves. I cannot allow that to happen. Caden you must marry the prince.”
Jackson had watched a medley of emotions play across Caden’s face as the story unfolded, but now the young man sat with his hand still upon the head of his hound, a blank, almost expressionless look in his eyes. Jackson lingered with bated breath, waiting on Caden’s response.
Caden blinked several times and resumed scratching Brutes’ ears. “Will I ever see you again?”
Jackson tried to give his son a smile but was certain it came out a grimace. “I will do my best to come to Mauritania and visit with you each year around the time of your birth.”
Caden dropped his gaze, but not before Jackson saw the shimmer of tears forming there. He should have known Caden would not be fooled by such a flimsy lie.
“And what about them?” Caden asked, stroking Titus’ head now as well. Jackson heard the hitch in his son’s voice and the shaky exhale of breath that revealed just how flimsy a hold he had on his emotions.
“I honestly can’t answer that,” Jackson told him. “You will have to ask Prince Rhys if he will allow you to keep them. I promise you that they will have a home here for the rest of their days if he will not.”
Caden ducked his head, hiding the tears that now flowed freely. With some difficulty, Jackson swallowed down the lump in his throat and reached out to pull his son into an embrace. For several long minutes, no other words were spoken.
“I have never disobeyed you father,” Caden’s soft voice whispered in his ear. “I will marry the prince and do my best not to shame you.”
“I am proud of you, my son,” Jackson whispered back, hugging him tighter, “and I have faith in you. I know you will do your best.”
“Is he kind? Is he going to be afraid of me? Perhaps he won’t want me because of my eyes.”
“He faces the same repercussions as you do if he refuses to honor the contract. As for whether he is a kind man or not, I cannot say, for I have never met him. All I know of Prince Rhys is that he is two years older than you.”
Caden pulled out of his father’s embrace and laid his head on Titus’ back as a loud horn sounded in the distance. There was no more time for words; the prince had arrived.
“Hurry, Caden, clean yourself up and put on your finest clothes. It will be to your advantage to present yourself in the best light that you possibly can.”
Caden nodded and gave both hounds one final ear rub before he stood. Jackson called out for a bath, and a servant to help Caden with his clothes before hurrying back downstairs to await the Prince’s arrival.
It wasn’t long before the doors to the great hall flew open wide and more horns preceded the Prince’s entrance. The first thing Jackson noticed was the deep, pronounced scowl on Rhys’ face. The Prince moved stiffly, eyes forward, shoulders squared and rigid. He was a handsome young man, despite the scowl, with high cheekbones and a chiseled, rugged jaw. His golden hair hung loose around his face, shimmering in the light of the oil lamps, and his bright gray eyes were striking.
Jackson was so focused on the man’s good looks that he didn’t notice his limp, but Mildred did, and loudly whispered about how fitting it was that they’d sent a broken Prince to wed a devil’s spawn. Jackson tensed at her words, as did the servants nearest them, all watching as the Prince’s steps faltered, a sure sign that he’d heard.
RHYS tilted his chin up, refusing to let them see her words had cut him deeply. A quick scan of those assembled left Rhys confused. None looked young enough to be his intended, while a few appeared to be too young. Was it possible that he’d come all this way just to be humiliated? Had they spirited him away, hidden him somewhere when word of the crippled prince had reached them? He could only image what his father’s reaction would be if he returned home unmarried.
No. He was the crown prince of Mauritania, and he had an iron clad contract that he would not allow them to break. If they had sent his intended away, then Rhys would simply insist that they retrieve him, or Rhys himself would scour the countryside until he was found, and damn all those who dared to get in his way. He would not be humiliated and sent home in disgrace!
Determined, he continued forward, stopping when he reached the lord and lady of the manor and bowed stiffly. Jackson returned his bow, and Mildred dipped into a low curtsey, the picture of courtly grace.
“We are honored to receive you,” Mildred said sweetly, as if that could possibly erase the ugliness of her earlier words.
“I am honored to be here in your home,” Rhys responded, nearly choking on the lie.
As they finished the formalities, Rhys once again let his eyes drift over the two younger men assembled, both appearing to still be in their teens.
“Pardon me,” he said, fear and worry making him rush to address the situation right away. “But which of you is Caden?”
Mildred laughed and Jackson looked appalled.
“Your highness, please allow me to present our youngest sons, Tristan and Glenn, both home from university at the moment. Caden is still upstairs getting ready for the ceremony,” Jackson said.
“Yes, please excuse his tardiness, your grace,” Mildred said with false sincerity. “Caden was only just informed that the wedding was to take place, but I assure you he is more than prepared to do his duty.”
Years of court training and lessons in proper manners from his mother were the only things that kept Rhys from snorting at the ridiculousness of the woman’s statement. He found it impossible to believe that anyone could be prepared for such a situation with only a few hours’ notice. This was not the way that Rhys had hoped things would transpire, but there was little he could do about it now.
“Preparations at the chapel are almost complete, your highness, and we have a chamber set aside for your use so that you might freshen up before the ceremony. If you will only follow me,” Mildred said with the faintest hint of a smirk.
“My thanks, my lady,” Rhys said, wishing he could wipe that smirk off her face. He followed her, annoyed with the pace she seemed to deliberately set, knowing the faster gait made his limp stand out more. The uselessness of her husband annoyed him as well; the man stood there, unwilling or unable to take charge of the situation himself.
Mildred opened the door to an elaborately decorated chamber, and Rhys paused at the door, looking down at her. “I would like the opportunity to speak with Caden before the ceremony. In fact, I insist upon it.”
When she looked shaken, Rhys didn’t even bother to suppress his grin. Seeing her white-knuckled grip on the doorway and the flash of fury in her eyes was all he needed to be certain that he’d struck a nerve. Was there something about Caden that these people were trying to hide? Had it been a deliberate act to not have him downstairs when he’d arrived in the hope he wouldn’t see him until it was too late?
“As you wish, Your Highness,” Mildred bit out before she turned in a swish of heavy skirts and stalked away.
Relieved to be standing there with only his bodyguard and trusted manservant, Rhys stepped into the chamber and waited for Nigel to close the door and take up his post in front of it before sitting on the bed and rubbing his sore and weary leg.
“I don’t like this,” Nigel said, his arms crossed over his massive chest.
Rhys nodded in agreement. “Nor do I, but I have little choice in the matter. You know this.”
“That woman makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I’m only glad that we made arrangements to return to the ship as soon as the ceremony and feast are over,” Nigel said. “She seems the type to stab a man in the back while robbing him blind.”
Rhys smiled grimly while Petyr helped him with his clothes. “I’m as eager as you are to be gone from this place and that shrew.”
“The nerve of her to make such a comment,” Petyr tsk-tsked as he worked. “Made me wish to snatch what’s left of the hair from her head.”
“I doubt my father would approve of such an assault on a valuable ally, though I can’t say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed watching,” Rhys said with an impish grin.
His smile did little to soften the lines of worry that were etched into Nigel’s face. The man had been his bodyguard all of his life. Hell, he’d practically helped raise him and was like a second uncle; he didn’t need to ask to know that Nigel was worried.
“If your intended is anything like his mother, then I cannot see how you can ever hope to live in harmony.” Nigel said as Petyr tied Rhys’ cravat.
“The contract says nothing about living in harmony, only that we must wed and reside in Mauritania; it doesn’t even dictate that we must share the same home. If it turns out that he takes after his mother, I am sure we can find a suitable place for him to live out the remainder of his days.”
Nigel nodded as Petyr stepped back, admiring his handiwork.
“It will do for now, though I wish you would have allowed me to bring some more elegant attire,” Petyr fussed.
“You’ll have your chance to break out all of the finery for the ceremony my parents have planned, this will do for now. Let’s just get it over with and be on our way.”
“That would please me greatly,” Nigel said with a huff of disdain as someone knocked on the door. Nigel opened it enough for them to see that it was Jackson, the lord of the manor, who stood on the other side.
“Forgive my interruption, but my lady wife said that the prince wished to speak to Caden before the ceremony. I’ve come to take you to him.”
Nigel puffed out his chest. “The crown prince of Mauritania does not go to others, they come to him.”
“I… as you wish,” Jackson said, beating a hasty retreat. He returned a short time later with Caden in tow. Nigel eyed the tall, dark-haired young man who refused to look at him before finally opening the door wide enough to let him in.
When Jackson tried to follow, Nigel’s massive arm shot out to block his path. “The prince asked for Caden, not you.” Without waiting for an answer, Nigel shut the door in the lord’s face.
As the echo of the slamming door faded, Caden bowed but said nothing.
“I asked you here so that we could discuss a few things before the wedding,” Prince Rhys began, expecting that Caden would look up at him now that he’d been acknowledged, but Caden kept his eyes on the ground. “I would prefer it if you would do me the courtesy of looking at me while we have this conversation,” Rhys sternly prodded, and yet again, Caden stood silently and did nothing to respond to him. “Did you hear me?” Rhys thundered.
“Yes, Sire,” Caden said at last.
“Then I expect that you will answer me when I speak to you. Is that understood?”
Caden nodded and made a soft clicking sound with his tongue.
“With words,” Rhys growled, already growing frustrated and annoyed with what he was sure was just another attempt to embarrass him.
“Do you have any intention of obeying me, or do you plan to go out of your way to ignore even the smallest request that I make of you?” Rhys snapped as he began to pace. “I asked you to look at me while I talk. Now I am ordering you to look at me!”
Caden drew in a deep breath and raised his head.
Rhys froze, mouth agape, lost for a moment in the brilliance of Caden’s mismatched eyes. He stared for so long that Caden ducked his head again, allowing the long, heavy strands of midnight hair to hide his eyes.
“What is the matter with your eyes, and who told you that you could look away?” Rhys asked, trying to shake off how much the eyes had unnerved him.
“I was born this way,” Caden answered as he raised his head once more. “I am sorry if they offend you.”
Rhys couldn’t have been more shocked to hear those words than if he’d just been struck by lightning. His jaw dropped, and he was sure he must have looked like an absolute idiot to Caden, who still stood close to Nigel and the door, his face showing the faintest hint of a blush beneath Rhys’ scrutiny. Once he let himself move past Caden’s eyes, Rhys was shocked to see the absolute beauty of the man.
This was no pale, sallow, skinny creature like the two young men he’d met in the hall; Caden was broad-shouldered and muscular and stood only slightly shorter than Rhys. His hair was worn loose and wild around his face in a style very similar to the one that Rhys preferred. And rather than tight, restrictive shoes, he wore soft leather boots, the kind that Rhys wished he was wearing at the moment as his own shoes were most uncomfortable.
Rhys watched as the blush deepened and spread throughout Caden’s face the longer Rhys silently stared at him. From the occasional jerky nods the other man was making, Rhys could tell he really wanted to look away again and was struggling to obey Rhys’ command.
“What have you been told about me?” Rhys demanded once the silence in the chamber had stretched on until Caden’s face was bright and flushed beneath his scrutiny.
“That I am to marry you and live with you in Mauritania.”
Caden shook his head, clicking his tongue a few times before his blush deepened and he remembered to speak. “And that is all, Sire.”
Rhys glared at him and began to pace. “I find that very hard to believe, so you may as well admit the truth. I have already heard your mother’s insults. I’d like to know how many of them she’s passed along to you.”
Caden frowned. “Lady Mildred hasn’t spoken to me about you at all, Sire. She rarely has cause to speak to me.”
“Is that the way you refer to your mother?” Nigel asked from the door.
Caden turned to look at the guard, then turned back toward Rhys and said nothing.
“You are to answer him the same as you are to answer me!” Rhys said angrily.
Caden flinched, his hands curling into fists. “Mother seems too familiar a term for one who has never acted like a mother.”
His words stopped Rhys in his tracks, and he was unsure whether to be annoyed or to laugh at the other man’s reasoning. “How do you feel about marrying me?”
Caden shrugged. “I feel nothing, Sire. My father had only just finished telling me when the horns announced your arrival. I haven’t really had the chance to think about it.”
“Well I am giving you the chance now. Think about it and tell me!” Rhys demanded.
Caden drew in a deep, shuddering breath, his fingers beginning to worry the fabric of his clothes. “I… I am afraid.”
Rhys blinked. That had not been the admission he’d been expecting; he’d expected Caden to be repulsed, angry even, but not afraid. “Why?”
Caden ducked his head, then raised it again. “Because you already seem displeased with me, Sire, and I am unsure what I have done to cause it. If it is my eyes, I am truly sorry. I am not devil-touched. I swear that is just the superstition of some of our people, the priests have blessed me many times to be sure of it.”
Rhys once more found himself with his mouth hanging open as he looked at Caden, wanting to laugh at the absurdity of it until a sudden realization dawned on him. “Your eyes offend your mother, don’t they?”
Caden hesitated, and then nodded once, his face turning a deeper shade of red.
Rhys thought back to the cruel words Mildred had whispered in the hall and could only imagine what Caden must endure, living with her day after day. It came as a relief to Rhys to know that there had certainly been no laughter and poking fun about the broken prince between mother and son. More at ease, Rhys stood in front of Caden and studied his eyes at length, knowing it was making him uncomfortable. Caden’s one green eye was a mixture of colors, light and dark green with gold flecks that almost seemed to sparkle, while his white eye wasn’t truly white at all, but so pale a green that the color was only visible when one looked deeply enough to see it. It was fascinating to stare into them, and Rhys was certain it was going to become one of his favorite pastimes, once they got the wedding underway.
Satisfied that his intended did not mean to start their union with mockery and insults, Rhys stepped away. “Is there anything you wish to ask me before we are wed?”
Caden nodded, and Rhys stood ready to answer questions about his people or the home they would be living in, or even about the nature of his limp and how he’d been injured, but that wasn’t what Caden wanted to know.
“Will you allow me to bring my hounds, Brutes and Titus, with me to Mauritania? I’ve raised them since they were pups, and I promise they are well trained and will be no trouble.”
“Your dogs…?” Rhys began, stunned for a moment. “I offer you the chance to ask me whatever you wish, and you ask me if you can bring your dogs to live with us?”
“Yes, Sire. They are my best friends, I would hate to leave them behind.”
“And if I say no?”
“Then I will leave them for my father to care for,” Caden said, his breath hitching as he said the words.
Rhys had no problem with dogs, loved them in fact, but he wanted to test the truth of Caden’s words, fully expecting a tantrum. “Then no, you cannot bring the dogs. They will have to stay behind.”
Caden stiffened, tears springing to his eyes. Rhys watched him struggle to maintain his composure and awaited the outburst of hateful words and insults that he was sure would come. A single tear slid down Caden’s cheek, and his lower lip trembled before he spoke, but they weren’t the words Rhys had been expecting.
“As you wish, Sire,” was all that Caden said, even as he began to shake with the effort of holding back his tears.
Again Rhys was left feeling confused and unsettled, unable to understand why he had not received the responses he’d expected. Perhaps Caden was waiting until after the wedding to show his true colors? Or maybe he was waiting until they arrived back in Mauritania, where there would be others anxious and eager to insult and belittle their prince. Rhys would have to remain on guard and watch him closely to ensure Caden stayed clear of them. He would not have his own husband undermining and humiliating him.
“Go back to your chamber and finish your preparations. We will be married in less than an hour,” Rhys ordered and watched as Caden bowed and then quickly fled the chamber. When the door closed behind him, Rhys caught sight of Nigel’s pinched frown.
“What do you think he’s planning?” Rhys asked the trusted guard.
Nigel shook his head. “I’m not certain that he’s planning anything, Rhys. He seemed quite sincere.”
“For now, but keep a close eye on him once he’s on the ship. I find him unsettling. When we arrive back in Mauritania, I will appoint Luc to be his guard. That way we are sure to learn of whatever mischief he gets into.”
Nigel studied Rhys for several long minutes “I think you would have made great strides in earning his loyalty and trust if you had allowed him to bring the dogs.”
“I was hoping to prompt him to a fit of temper, but he has a calmer disposition than I’d thought.”
“You prompted him to tears. I am not sure that is the best way to begin a union,” Petyr scolded gently.
Rhys had the good grace to look properly chastised, but he was not going to change his mind about the dogs, not when it could be seen as a sign of weakness. The last thing he needed was for Caden to think he could be moved by piteous tears.
“He’ll get over it. It isn’t as if either of us has been given much of a choice in the matter,” Rhys said as he sat back down on the bed and rubbed at his leg again while Petyr finished fussing over him.
Soon it was time for the ceremony, and the trio found themselves in the lavishly adorned chapel where the priest performed a lengthy ceremony that went on far longer than Rhys’ aching leg appreciated. It was only sheer stubbornness that kept him on his feet until the priest made his proclamation that they were now married. A huge cheer rose up from the crowd, and Rhys wondered how many were cheering simply because the wedding was over.
Ignoring the final line about sealing the union with a kiss, Rhys strode toward the side door of the church, wanting nothing more than to just sit for a moment and rub his leg where none could see. Nigel followed, leaving Caden behind. However, it wasn’t long before they were interrupted.
“Your Highness, a word if you please,” Jackson entreated as he stepped into the small chamber of the chapel where Rhys sat.
“Not now,” Rhys snarled, having ceased rubbing his leg the moment Jackson had come in.
“Please, Your Highness, it will only take a moment. It is a matter of some great importance.”
“Fine, just hurry up and get it over with!” Rhys’ leg throbbed, and he wanted nothing more than to be back on his ship where he could lie down and rest. Unfortunately there was still the damned feast and celebration to attend, and was it too much to ask for just a few moments of silence to prepare himself to face it? Couldn’t the man even grant him that?
“It’s about Caden, Your Highness.”
“I have already said no to his request about the dogs. If you have come to plead his case, then you are wasting your breath. I will not be swayed!” Rhys said angrily. So that was his game, was it, to go to others thinking that they might be able to persuade Rhys to change his mind? Well, it wasn’t going to happen.
Only, Jackson stood there blinking and looking rather confused at his outburst. “I am not sure what you are referring to, Your Highness. I only felt that it might be helpful to let you know that Caden is, well, he’s always been a bit different, and I have indulged him in those things, for the most part. He walks the moors at night, he spends more time with the animals than he does people, and there are times when he will go days without speaking to anyone. He is well trained with a sword and a bow and the best hunter in my lands, but most importantly, he has always been a good and obedient son, and there is not an unkind bone in his body. Please, Your Highness, try not to judge him for his differences. Give him a chance, and I am sure you will find him to be a loyal and loving companion.”
“He is my husband, not a pet, and I do not expect to have to earn his loyalty. His oath at the front of the church guaranteed it,” Rhys snapped, annoyed that the man had seen fit to try and lecture him.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Jackson said softly.
“My only hope is that you have spent as much time in teaching him honesty and obedience as you have in teaching him weapons and allowing him to freely roam. I will not tolerate such undisciplined comings and goings when he is in my home, and I will not have him roaming the countryside without my giving him leave to do so.”
Jackson’s shoulders slumped and his eyes took on a weary, exhausted look as he nodded his head. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“Now, I have given you your moment. Please excuse yourself,” Rhys snapped.
Jackson bowed low and quickly left the chamber.
“Pompous bastard,” Rhys muttered.
“Rhys, I know that you’re in pain right now, but I think you are mistaken,” Nigel tried to point out. “It seems as if all the man wanted was to tell you a bit more about his son so that maybe this transition could be easier on both of you.”
“It will go easily enough as long as Caden does as he is told and does not expect to be given free rein to do as he pleases.”
Nigel shook his head and remained silent.
“Do you intend to treat him as a slave or as your husband?” Petyr asked, his soft voice cutting through the silence.
“His behavior will determine how he is treated,” Rhys said, unable to keep the pain out of his voice.
“Then perhaps you should wait to see how he behaves before you begin setting restrictions on him. Give yourself the opportunity to get to know him as his father suggested, and give him the opportunity to see you as something other than a bad tempered tyrant.”
Rhys turned to glare at Petyr, but the other man stared back impassively until the prince at last lowered his head. “Can we please just get this over with so that we can get back to the ship?” Rhys pleaded.
Nigel nodded and helped the young prince to his feet while Petyr straightened and dusted his clothes. For a moment, it didn’t seem as if Rhys would make it to the reception unaided; the first step he took saw his leg buckle beneath him. Were it not for Nigel’s strong arm around his shoulders he would have found himself in a heap on the stone floor.
Slowly, and as regally as he could manage, Rhys made his way to the feast. He scanned the chamber even as Mildred’s loud, haughty voice reached his ears, the woman bragging to all within earshot of now being related to royalty. It was enough to bring a sneer to Rhys’ face. He moved toward the head table and sat down, his stomach taking that moment to remind him how hungry he was. At least the food smelled delicious, and Rhys happily began to fill his plate until he realized Caden was not at the table with him.
Rhys scowled and scanned the chamber again, finally locating Caden seated at a small table to his left with his two younger brothers and two large animals that could only have been the hounds Caden had asked to bring along. What magnificent animals, Rhys immediately thought upon seeing the strong, well-bred beasts sitting obediently beside their master, eating the food he offered them. While the chamber around him was filled with merriment, there did not seem to be any joy at Caden’s table, in fact, no one seemed to be paying him any mind at all.
There didn’t seem to be any well-wishers, no congratulations being passed around. In fact, it was almost as if Caden were invisible given the way he was being ignored. It suddenly dawned on Rhys that he hadn’t even thought to look at his husband when the ceremony had concluded. Did Caden even know that his place was on the dais beside Rhys?
Rhys suddenly felt very alone in the chamber himself as he looked around more and realized that only he and Jackson were seated at the high table. Nigel stood behind Rhys to his left, ever vigilant, while Petyr was off in another part of the manor supervising the movement of Caden’s possessions onto the ship in preparation for their departure.
Rhys watched as Caden hugged the massive tan and white hound that sat on his left. Even from his vantage point , Rhys could see the tears on Caden’s cheeks and wondered how it was that his younger brothers, seated less than a foot away from him, didn’t seem to notice? The two younger men were eating and talking, so wrapped up in their friends and the revelry around them that they were oblivious.
Rhys stood and with slow, deliberate strides closed the distance between Caden and him. “You are supposed to be sitting on the dais with me.”
“I’m sorry, Sire, I didn’t know,” Caden said softly, remembering to look up at Rhys when he spoke. Caden stood, and the dogs stood as well, but Caden just scratched each of their massive heads and gave them the order to sit. The hounds complied, neither moving a muscle nor making a sound as Caden followed Rhys back to the royal table.
“You are always to sit with me at meals. I detest dining alone,” Rhys told him as they sat down.
“Your father told me that you are used to roaming the moors at all hours of the night. That will cease from this point forward. I expect you to be in our bed at night, and yes, before you ask, you are expected to share a bed with me.” Rhys fixed Caden with a hard stare, waiting for the protest to begin.
But again, Caden’s response was a softly spoken, “Yes, Sire.”
“I expect to know where you are at all times,” Rhys continued. “Wandering the countryside, even in the day, will not be tolerated. We have an image to maintain.”
“Damn it, can you say anything besides that?” Rhys hissed, his temper nearing at boiling point again.
“I will say whatever you wish for me to say, Sire. I have no desire to upset you further,” Caden said, staring into Rhys’ eyes.
Rhys’ shoulders slumped. It just wasn’t working, trying to provoke a show of temper or resistance from Caden. “Well, I can promise that you calling me ‘Sire’ every two seconds is going to upset me a great deal. Sire, is my father. Do you think that you can manage to learn to call me Rhys?”
“Yes, Si… Rhys,” Caden said, and for the first time Rhys saw the hint of a smile on the other man’s face.
Rhys nodded in response to that, pleased with his answer as well as the hint of a smile. It really made those mismatched eyes seem to light up more, though he wondered what kind of scene Caden intended to make when the time came to say goodbye.
Soon enough the moment came, and Rhys discovered that Caden had no intention of making a scene at all. The young man calmly hugged his father and hounds, spoke a polite but tense goodbye to his mother and siblings, and then stepped onto the boat where Rhys awaited him. Rhys was about to give the order to have the boarding plank removed when something tugged at his conscience. Maybe it was the way Caden stood so straight and proud beside him, so stoic and emotionless, just as Rhys had done in the great hall when Mildred’s insult had reached his ears. Or maybe it was just that Rhys, as a dog-lover himself, felt a strong surge of pity for the animals being left behind. Either way, he found himself turning to face Caden.
“Get your dogs. They can come,” he said to the slightly shorter man, and then watched in amazement as Caden’s eyes lit up like a thousand torches and a brilliant grin crossed his face. Before Rhys even knew how to respond Caden’s arms were around him, and his husband was hugging him tightly.
“Thank you, Rhys. Thank you,” Caden said, his voice filled with emotion and making Rhys shiver a bit at the intensity of it. The sound of his own name coming from Caden’s lips with such feeling made Rhys forget the pain in his leg and the comment that had set his temper on end before he’d even laid eyes on the man he married. God, if Caden spoke a simple thank you that way, what would his voice sound like rough and deepened with passion?
Rhys watched as Caden carefully crossed the plank to carry the massive hounds onto the ship one by one, the smile never leaving his face. As for Rhys, he found himself missing that brief hug they’d shared and vowed to get Caden back into his embrace sooner rather than later.
Once the second hound was onboard Rhys gave the order for the plank to be taken down. With a final bow to the lord and lady of the manor, the ship got underway. By this time next week they would be in Mauritania.
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