Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Amber Allure
...“You are welcome in my home and at my table, as is any man in the king’s army. But some of the men who have passed through here have been…troublesome.”
“Troublesome?” I asked.
“Yes.” He faced me fully now, pushing his shoulders back. “Which is why, as with every man who comes to my door, there is one condition to your stay.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Yes?”
“My daughters, Arana and Liela.” He stepped closer, expression darkening. “Lay a hand on either of them, Commander, and your skull will decorate my vineyard’s gates. Am I clear?”
“You have my word,” I said without hesitation. “On my honor as a soldier of the king, your daughters are safe from me.”
He eyed me, probably searching my expression for signs of dishonesty. Then, with a subtle, curt nod, he left.
As soon as he was gone, the maid took me upstairs to the guest chambers.
My accommodations were as large and twice as luxurious as the largest room of the home I’d left behind before the war. It was finely appointed, from the polished furniture to the exquisite pottery that must have come from the west. The duke must have been either tremendously trusting of his guests—or their fear of punishment—or so wealthy he could afford to risk such expensive finery being damaged or stolen.
As I took in my surroundings, my gaze stopped at the immense bed. I hadn’t seen a bed so inviting in years—smooth, even, wrapped in fresh linens—and had I not been invited to dine with the duke and his family this evening, I’d have gone to sleep in it immediately. Just a few hours. I could wait.
The servant filled the wash basin and tub with fresh, clean water, and after she’d gone, I dug a blade from my saddle bag so I could at last shave two weeks’ worth of traveling from my jaw. Once all of that was gone, I splashed some more of the cool water on my face before stripping off my uniform to bathe.
Clean, shaven, and dressed in a more appropriate—though stiffer and not as comfortable—uniform, I felt human for the first time in weeks. Cleanliness was something every soldier took for granted until he went to battle. The first time he experienced the sensation of being free of blood, sweat, mud, and gods knew what else the battlefield layered on our flesh and clothes, he appreciated what it meant to be clean.
As I buttoned my collar, I went to the window and looked out at the vineyards below. The trees whipped and bowed in the strengthening wind, and below them, servants scurried from building to building, securing doors, windows, and gates. A couple of boys in threadbare pants herded chickens into a shed beside the barn. Women carried pails and buckets, men led horses and cattle, and—
What is this?
I leaned closer to the window, nearly touching my nose to the glass.
One man worked alongside the others, giving directions and orders while leading an antsy gray stallion. Even in dusty work clothes, he was too well dressed to be a servant. Too young to be Maht himself, though the duke’s blood clearly ran through his veins. His hair was almost as black as the duke’s, his stubble-dusted jaw and smooth cheekbones carved from the same marble.
There was no mistaking this was Duke Maht’s son. Able-bodied and strong, without the hardness of a soldier who’d been to war, so he was likely the youngest son. Youngest, but most certainly a man. A head taller than his father, slightly narrower in the shoulders, this was no child. Twenty, I supposed. Certainly not much older.
And stunning. Perhaps it had been too long since I’d seen a young man who wasn’t covered in dirt and blood, but I was sure it was more than that. Something told me the duke’s son would have stood out even if he were muddy and bloody, just like he did now in spite of sweat and dust.
He disappeared into the barn with the stallion, and I exhaled, wondering how long I’d been holding my breath.
“My daughters, Arana and Liela,” Duke Maht had said. “Lay a hand on either of them, Commander, and your skull will decorate my vineyard’s gates.”
He'd said nothing of a son...