Book Cover: Essence of Loyalty
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He fought for her. Now she must fight for him.

Lorin, Prime of Arkos House, just wants to do his job and court his Sunny, High Lady Sagira Memeos. But a private meeting with the emperor reveals Essence, an illegal designer drug targeting Lokmane, is spreading to the edges of the Marcasian empire. Which threatens Lok'ma. Lorin takes his private war public--and puts those he loves in danger.

Sunny isn’t sure Lorin’s war is a good idea. Especially since he’s asked her to be a daro ally in the Marcasian Lords’ Chamber. It puts a giant target on her sisters. When Lorin's war spills over into her personal life and her house is broken into, backing away from him is the only answer she can find.

When Lorin is shot, then kidnapped from a public place, Sunny must accept her societal position and go on record as a Lokmane rights supporter. But taking a stand puts her future with Lorin—as well as his life—in jeopardy. Choosing between love and loyalty might break them both.

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Earth Year

Karnak, Marcase

War: Day One

The spicy-sweet citrus of his Sunny’s perfume filled his head. Lorin smiled and opened his eyes. She knelt beside his bed, arms folded on his covers, chin on her hands—staring at him, their noses centimeters apart. “Good morning, Lorin.”

He cupped her cheek, sliding his thumb along her cheekbone. “Morning, Sunny. Are you eating breakfast with me?”

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She nodded, dislodging his hand. “Figured you’d want a friendly face before you walk into battle in a couple hours.”

Lorin groaned. Battle. Appearing before the daro board to make his case for having Yev’an’s claim removed. Not something he looked forward to, but Yev’an was a gentle, scared boy who ought to be free of the bastard who owned him. For that reason, Lorin planned to step out of the shadows all daros lived in, and fight for Yev’an. As well as every other daro and Lokmane threatened by the brewing Essence crisis. “Battle is the right word.”

Sunny smoothed his curls. “I think you’re very brave to do this. I’m not sure I could.”

Lorin sat up, keeping his covers over his naked lower half. Lack of clothes still made Sunny uncomfortable, though they’d come a long way since the day Lapis Memeos died three months ago.

Three months of freedom, after eleven years of fearing he’d never be free of the woman. His plan to convince Sunny he was a real person had exceeded his expectations, and he’d fallen in love with his childhood nemesis. He had helped her navigate her ascension to ruling high lady of the empire, and she had held him while his controlled world fell apart around him.

Essence, a designer drug used on Lokmane, was spreading through the daro houses, and so far they hadn’t found a way to stop the deadly stuff. It had already cost one of Lorin’s daros his life. Being a daro was supposed to keep them safe, make them untouchable. But Minton was dead. Kell and Keesa, two more of his daros, had been overdosed as well. Both had survived, but it didn’t lessen the weight of the guilt on his heart.

Neither did thinking about Yev’an’s situation. But this one he could do something about. And he would in three hours, when he stood before the daro board and made his case to have the claim voided.

Claims were horrible things. They gave owners rights to have their daro whenever they wanted, and to manipulate their client lists. In Yev’an’s case, and Lorin’s, the claim also led to physical abuse and hating oneself. Mistress’s claim on him had made his life beyond miserable. If he did nothing for Yev’an, the boy was doomed to the same hell Lorin had lived in for too long.

Yev’an’s master wasn’t a high noble. Lorin could find no valid reason not to intervene and put a stop to the abuse.

He shoved all of it aside. Right now, his Sunny was here, and she belonged to him. He leaned forward, covered her mouth with his, and drew her into his lap. Her arms went around his neck as he worked magic with his studs. All seventeen of them—tongue piercings only daros were allowed, and he’d earned every single one with hard work and dedication to his craft.

Sunny broke it and leaned back to catch her breath. “I can’t believe your studs ever gave me the willies.”

He smiled. Touched one of her red curls. “I can’t believe I ever thought you’d be as horrible as your mother.”

I could’ve been, if not for you,” she whispered. She touched her forehead to his for a moment. “You saved me, Lorin. Don’t ever forget it.”

How can I? You did the same for me.”

Cynda cleared her throat. “Breakfast is on the patio. Clock’s ticking, brother.”

Sunny slid off the bed. “I’ll be outside.”

He watched her go. At this rate, she’d never be comfortable in his world. Never be comfortable with the sight of him wearing nothing. Never be comfortable putting her hands anywhere on his body. Her cascade attempts were improving, but remained far too hesitant for his liking.

Well, he wasn’t known as one of the most patient daros in Karnak for no reason. Sunny was worth the effort.

He left his bed, pulled on a pair of cotton lounge pants, and went to the patio. Yellow and orange kissed the treetops, and the breeze held a hint of chill. Fall was coming, and there weren’t many days left of eating his meals out here with nothing between him and the sun.

He took his seat, poured a cup of coffee, and removed the cover from his plate. An herb and feta omelet, toasted raisin bread with honeyed butter, and yogurt swirled with orange marmalade. One of his favorites. Sunny’s too. “Have you thought about who to appoint to sit in for you in chamber?”

Sunny wrinkled her nose. “Must we talk about it?”

Chamber opens in one week. You have to choose someone.”

Sunny cut into her omelet, but didn’t lift the bite. “I’ve been distracted with something that hit me the other day.”

Lorin slid his bare toes up her left calf. “What?”

My heir.”

His insides went cold. The thought of Sunny having a child with another man infuriated him. Securing her heir would give people an opportunity to speculate on where her heart lay, or to push her into a marriage she’d regret. Even make her uncomfortable enough to distance herself from him—something he wasn’t okay with.

But he was a daro, a creature of shadows and night. A keeper of secrets. A pair of loving arms to soothe fears and dry tears. A safe place for his clients to feel treasured and cherished, loved and adored. As a daro, he had no legitimate claim to her heart, and no right to give his heart away. He was meant to care for wounded people, to build intimate relationships in a world ruled by money and alliances of power.

Lorin as a man able to make his own choices did not exist. He was a daro, Prime of Arkos House and responsible for twenty-eight other daros who looked to him for protection and help. He also represented the Karnak Houses on the Synedrium, a responsibility the four other Primes didn’t want. He had a minimum of ten more years of being active before he had a prayer of being free enough to claim Sunny the way he wanted.

The only child I want to have is yours.”

His heart leaped, but he stuffed it down. No matter how much he hated the idea, this was one thing they couldn’t share. “My child can’t be your heir, Sunny. Nor can we have one before I retire. We’ve talked about this.”

Her fingers tightened on her fork until her knuckles turned white. “I still can’t make myself be naked in a room with you. How can I have a child with a stranger?”

You don’t have to marry him, or even have sex. There is such a thing as an heir contract, where there’s no physical intimacy involved.”

It wouldn’t be fair to the children.”

It would also mean if he turned out to be a bastard, you could protect the children from him.”

Her death grip on the fork relaxed. “You do have a point there. But how would I choose? Every eligible bachelor in Karnak is after me.” She lifted her blue-crystal gaze from her plate. “I don’t trust myself to pick someone since I can’t stand the thought of being alone with one long enough to get to know him.”

For the first time in his life, anger at being a daro wound through Lorin’s heart. He had no right to tell other men to stay away. Her position as a high lady meant her duties to the empire came first, before her love for him. As his duties as Prime of Arkos House came before his love for her.

With a sigh, she bent her head. “I wish we could run away and build our life the way we want it.”

Lorin dropped his fork, left his chair, and knelt beside Sunny. Took her hands in his. “At this very moment, so do I. But we can’t. Like it or not, you’re a high noble and I’m a Prime. It’s not meant for us to be together in any way other than daro and client. The fact we’ve made it this far is more than we ought to have.”

It’s not enough,” she whispered. Soft fingers stroked his cheek. “I want you all to myself and I’m no longer afraid to admit it. I don’t want to share you.”

He captured her hand and kissed her fingers, then returned to his seat. “I want the same, but it’s impossible. My heart and loyalties aren’t mine to give away. If they were, I’d give them to you without a second thought.” Breakfast no longer appealed. Unable to look at the hurt in Sunny’s eyes, he swirled his fork through the yogurt.

What if I abdicated and we ran away?”

You know I won’t. I can’t abandon my daros any more than you can abandon your sisters.” He lifted his head to see her. “Like it or not, our lives are not our own. We already have more than I dreamed possible. Reaching further right now will only hurt us.”

I don’t care.” Sunny threw her napkin on the table, shoved her chair back, and went to the balcony railing. She leaned on it, staring at the gardens below, no doubt.

Lorin followed her. Slid his arms around her waist from behind. “I do. I’m about to start a war, yaseera. It isn’t fair to fire the opening shot, then tuck tail and run. For this to work, we need a high noble as ally in chamber. You’re the only one we can count on, especially if Hepshut turns out to be tied to Essence production.”

She faced him. Draped her arms around his neck. “I don’t care about politics, Lorin. I don’t care about the empire either. All I care about is having a life with you. A life where I feel safe. It’s not too much to ask.”

He touched his forehead to hers and closed his eyes. “You’re wrong. It is too much to ask of me. The law forbids me to give it to you right now, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. Like it or not, I am a daro and my life is not my own.”

I hate this. I hate sharing you. I hate knowing how many other people have the right to be with you.”

He opened his eyes to see her, to beg her to accept their fate. “I’ve never hidden from you what I am. You went into this knowing I can’t give you all of me for at least ten more M-years. We have to make the best of the life we’ve been dealt.”

She ducked out of his arms. “I’m not hungry anymore. Think I’ll head to the office and see what I can do about finding someone for my chamber seat.”

From his place leaning on the rail, Lorin watched her go. The thought of her getting to know another man well enough to have a child left him cold inside. It must be how she felt when she saw him with a client. He returned to the table and forced down the toast and yogurt.

Cynda came up behind him and hugged him. His twin always knew what to do to soothe him. “Everything will be okay, Lorin.”

How?”

I don’t know yet. But it will.”

He covered his leftovers, followed Cynda inside, and went through his transformation into the Prime of Arkos. Black leather pants, a gray silk shirt with a v-neck, his signet pendant on a leather cord, stacked chevron rings, and the five row hand drape with rust-hued rubies down the center from his wrist to middle finger. And eyes outlined in kohl.

Yev’an and Damon Arkos were in his sitting room when he stepped in, Yev’an also in leather pants and a silk shirt with his silver collar reflecting the light. If things went according to plan, the collar would be replaced with a chain-link necklace. Damon wore one of his pinstripe three-piece suits.

Yev’an sat with his hands pinned between his knees, bottom lip pinched between his teeth. Lorin knelt in front of him and ran his thumb across the boy’s chin to make him release it. “Everything will be okay, Yev’an.”

I dreamed last night they said no, and he came here and beat the snot out of me.”

Lorin put his hands on the boy’s face. “He’s never stepping foot in this house again.” The bastard had been banished over the summer after Damon caught him beating the boy.

But he still sends for me, and I have to go.” Yev’an’s voice shook.

Lorin stood, pulled Yev’an up, and hugged him. “I’ve never lost a battle. I don’t intend to start now. If for some reason they say no, we’ll file criminal charges against him. Then they’ll have no choice but to release the claim. Trust me, Yev’an. Please.”

Yev’an sniffed. “Okay.”

Lorin released him, smoothed his hair, and headed downstairs.

An hour later, they were in the hearing room at the Cultural Ministry building, Lorin studying the committee members. He knew very little about the newest member and his loyalties, though his ties to High Lord Hepshut weren’t a secret. His vote wasn’t likely to be in Yev’an’s favor, since Hepshut and his sons were banned from every House in Karnak. The man hated the daros for their refusal to bow at his feet.

The chairman tapped his gavel. “The hearing in the matter of releasing the claim on Yev’an of Arkos is now in session. Mr. Arkos, Lorin, present your case.”

Lorin squeezed Yev’an’s hand, shot a glare at Yev’an’s master, and joined Damon at the podium in front of the committee members. Six women, six men. One beholden to a high noble for his appointment, two more on the verge of retirement, and the rest dedicated to upholding the ideals of the daro houses. They needed nine votes to release the claim. Lorin was certain of seven.

Damon presented the evidence, including the video Lorin had recorded the night he and Damon had Yev’an’s master removed from the house two months ago. All six women paled as they watched it, and one wiped her eyes. Six votes assured to release the claim, as expected, and Lorin held his smile back.

Yev’an’s master presented his case, an incoherent rambling. Once he was finished, Lorin returned to the podium. The chairman looked up from his notes. “Lorin, as Prime of Arkos, your first conversation with Yev’an included his preferences, correct?”

Yes.”

What did he say?”

That he never wanted to be touched by a man again as long as he lives. Every time his owner left, Yev’an came to my room bruised and in tears. Fear of what his owner will do to him continues to affect his list building. It’s half the size it should be. I field at least a dozen requests every open night, but he’s too fragile for most of them. Instead of building his confidence and learning from the other daros, he keeps to himself and doesn’t want anyone seeing the bruises and bite marks on his body. As a result, he isn’t yet bringing in enough to start saving for retirement.”

Is it true you banned his owner from your House?”

Yes, in an effort to protect Yev’an. The man has switched to sending for Yev’an at all hours of the night and day, making it impossible to settle into any kind of schedule. The few appointments he does book often have to be rescheduled or canceled.”

His weekly average of completed appointments?”

Eight. His appointment logs have been provided in the evidence folders.”

The chairman leafed through the papers, mouth pursed and turning into a grimace. “In twenty-five years of being part of the daro world, I have never seen such a low completion rate. It’s your view this is not a reflection of Yev’an’s skills?”

Correct, Mr. Chairman. The few clients he has placed on his list have nothing but praise for him. Two have agreed to speak with you. Their contact information is in your folder.”

The chairman looked to his right and left. “I don’t think that will be necessary. We’ll adjourn to discuss the matter. It shouldn’t take long. The evidence is clear the claim is interfering in every facet of Yev’an’s life.”

Lorin bowed his head to the committee members and returned to his seat. Yev’an grabbed his arm and pressed as close as physically possible. Lorin put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and held him, angled to block his master’s view of Yev’an.

What now?” Yev’an whispered.

We wait for the verdict. The chairman needs two more votes. Like he said, it won’t take long.”

Yev’an sniffed, still burying himself in Lorin’s side. “I want to be free of him so I can be a real daro. I like being one.”

So do I. There’s just something about knowing when a hurting person comes to you, you can make it all better for a little while. It’s a rush I never get tired of.”

A rush Sunny didn’t seem to understand. Yes, he loved her. With all his heart. He wanted to be only with her. But at the same time, he didn’t want to abandon his clients. They needed him as much as Sunny did. A couple of them needed him more, if he were honest about it. Sunny had her sisters. Some of his clients had no one except him.

The board members returned to their seats. Lorin stood, bringing Yev’an up with him. The chairman tapped his gavel again. “By a vote of nine to three, the claim on Yev’an of Arkos is released. Yev’an, step forward.”

Yev’an went rigid. Lorin nudged him forward, staying at his side as they walked to the table.

His master stalked toward them, hands in fists at his sides. “You can’t do this. He’s mine.”

Lorin stepped into the man’s path, keeping Yev’an safe behind him. “He’s a daro. His responsibilities to his clients come before your desires.”

The man had the decency not to attack him in front of the board. He threw his coder on the table and left the room. Damon pocketed the coder, and touched Yev’an’s cheek. “It’s all right. I’ll take it off when we get home.” He faced the committee and bowed from the waist. “Thank you for setting this right.”

The ones who’d voted in Yev’an’s favor inclined their heads. The Hepshut stooge, as expected, wasn’t one of them. Neither were the two about to retire. Lorin glared at them a moment. They’d never been friendly to the daros they were charged with overseeing.

They returned home and Damon removed Yev’an’s collar. He threw it in his dormant fireplace, grinning for the first time since his arrival three months ago. “Thank you, Lorin.”

Lorin kissed the boy’s forehead. “You’re most welcome. Get some sleep.” He waited until Yev’an crawled into bed, then returned to his own room. Undid his hair, wiped the kohl from his eyes, changed into his cotton pants from earlier, and called Sunny.

She answered on the fourth ring, with video. Her hair was loose now, instead of contained in a clip as it had been this morning. The riot of curls made his fingers itch to play with them. “Is something wrong?”

He shook his head. Brushed his hair out of his eyes. Unlike her tight corkscrew curls, his own were soft and big—and made Sunny jealous since his weren’t as prone to insanity. “I wanted to tell you, if you want, I can help you find someone for the heir contract.”

Trembling lips curved. “Thank you. Amun offered too. Is it too much to ask you to join us for lunch and we can start making a list?”

Yes. I need sleep, Sunny. I have a full night. Why don’t you join me for supper around seven?”

She nodded. “We’ll be there. He has some suggestions for my chamber appointee too. Is Yev’an free?”

His turn to nod. Then he smothered a yawn. “I’ll see you tonight.” He ended the call, crawled into bed, and pulled his covers up to his chin. When Sunny realized she was leaving, and Amun wasn’t, things were bound to get interesting.

And not in a good way.

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