Book Cover: Hidden In Ashes
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Childhood enmity turns to love, with one problem: his heart isn't his to give.

Lorin is a daro, a Lokmane trained to make humans feel special and valued. As Prime of Arkos House, no one stands between him and the safety of the daros under his careexcept his mistress. The dead one, and the new one. He needs to focus on the Essence crisis infiltrating the Houses, and his sister's safety. Not figure out how to balance his duties with falling in love.

When her mother dies, emotionally wounded Sagira Memeos becomes the Marcasian Empire’s newest High Lady. And reluctant owner of the most sought after daro in said empire. He’s her childhood nemesis, and way too sexy for his own good. With his kindness finding its way into her bruised soul, asking for his help to navigate her succession to ruling high lady probably isn't her brightest idea.

Lorin wants Sagira. But not if he has to pay for it with innocent lives. She’s a distraction he can't afford while the bedrock of Marcasian high society is under attack. Not to mention facing losing his sister to the man who wounded Sagira. If the daro houses fall, all hope of freedom goes with them.

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Chapter One

Karnak, Marcase Prime

Earth Year: 5236

Lorin, Prime of Arkos House, sank into the hot water of his private mineral pond. Every inch of his body ached from exhaustion, despite the last twenty-four hours spent sound asleep. Mistress didn’t believe in allowing him to actually rest during his two week sabbatical every year. No. He had to keep her pleased and sated, while ignoring his own needs.

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As a daro, and the Prime in charge of his House, he had legal protections other Lokmane didn’t. Not that Mistress cared about any of them, as she’d spent the last eleven Earth-years proving to him. Nor did she care he knew Taran, Prince Nicco, Princess Honor, and the emperor, and could make Mistress’s life miserable if he chose. Then again, she knew it wasn’t in him to do that. Even to the one woman alive he hated and wished dead.

He went to the side, folded his arms on the ledge, and rested his head on them with his eyes closed. Air jets kept the water moving. Soft splashing at the steps told him Cynda, his sister and caretaker, was coming in to rub his back. Three seconds later, her hands began working with slow, gentle strokes. He sighed in pleasure.

Too bad no magic hands existed to ease the soreness of his tongue.

I don’t understand why she won’t let me come with you.” Cynda focused on the knot in his neck driving him nuts.

Because she knows you’ll make her leave me alone, and she can’t have that.”

You’re a daro, Lorin. Not a common whore.”

Except when he spent time with Mistress, he felt like a common whore. Even when he was flawless, in his opinion, she found something to criticize. “Maybe she’ll drop dead. I don’t think any of the girls would care about claiming me.” He groaned as Cynda pressed into one of the knots in his shoulders. “I just want to be left alone to do my job.”

He loved being a daro—a Lokmane trained to provide a safe, intimate place for the humans of Marcasian high society. Soothing hurts, watching ignored men and women bloom under his attention, helping abuse victims move into the role of survivor, were all things he excelled at. He had a purpose larger than himself, and wasn’t locked into an identity as slave and property. Something he wanted every Lokmane on Marcase to experience.

All ability to talk disappeared for several dizzying minutes as Cynda dug her thumb into each knot. While his massage training focused on erotic pleasure, her’s was all about pain relief and relaxing him. She switched from digging knots to kneading muscles, and his powers of speech returned.How are the novices settling in?” One of the things he hated most about his forced sabbatical timing was missing the arrival of three new daros. Ones he’d chosen to complement Arkos House, and fill the gaps in his daro family.

Kell befriended one of the boys. The girl is hanging out with Keesa, thinks Garin is crude, and can’t believe any Prime would let him in a house.”

Lorin chuckled. Garin was crude, in an endearing sort of way. He almost had more clients than he could handle, despite being from the provinces and only four M-years of daro training, which made him a four in daro-speak. “And Yev’an?” The one ten he’d picked, even though he wasn’t a good candidate to be Prime one day. His personality fit Arkos.

Cynda sighed this time. “He’s a little thing, like you. I haven’t heard him speak, and he keeps to himself. I think he’s terrified.”

If I can move better after another nap, I’ll send for him. And the others.”

Good. Minton is trying to convince them you don’t care and that it’s normal for you to ignore novices.”

If he had the energy, he’d go punch Minton. He wasn’t claimed, and didn’t understand how difficult it was to balance Prime responsibilities with his obligation to Mistress. She didn’t care about his responsibilities either. “Why did I say yes when Teeg asked me?”

Cynda kissed his cheek. “Because you care, brother. You don’t think your daros exist to make you look good. I’ve heard some horror stories about other Primes letting the wrong client into a novice’s bed and breaking them.”

No one gets broken on my watch. Teeg would kill me.”

If I didn’t beat him to it.”

Lorin focused on relaxing, letting Cynda and the water do their jobs and rejuvenate his exhausted body. And mind.

Another set of feet entered his private room. The heavy tread and jingle of ankle bracelets signaled Garin’s arrival, the only daro Lorin allowed to join him in here without an invitation. Garin sat on the edge of the pool, legs dangling in the water. “Gonna live this time?”

Probably.” Lorin forced his eyes open to look at his friend. At six-six, Garin towered over him. Something about him put Lorin at ease to be himself, and he didn’t mind accepting Garin’s help when he was too tired to walk up three flights of stairs. “I asked you to keep Minton away from the novices.”

I’m doing the best I can. I can’t exactly punch him in the mouth when he starts yakking in front of everyone. Though I’d love to try.” Garin waggled his eyebrows and grinned.

Lorin laughed, as always. “Before you do, give me warning so I can sell tickets.”

Garin’s grin faded. “Kell told them about the time you dragged Camden Hart out of here by his ear. Yev’an believed it, but I’m not sure the other two did.”

Cynda said he’s little, like me.

Garin nodded. “About your height. May not be finished growing yet.” He kicked at the water, splashing it into Lorin’s hair. “He’s claimed too. He hid it well, but he was relieved when the man left.”

Lorin knew the feeling. Relief at being out of her bed gave him the strength yesterday to get in the car on his own, though Garin had carried him upstairs.

Arkos said to tell you don’t feel like you have to come down tonight.”

He says that every year. I’ve never taken him up on it and I never will, no matter how tired I am. Especially if Yev’an is so scared. I wouldn’t have made it through my first open night without Teeg.”

Garin splashed again. “I don’t understand why claimed daros are always eights and tens, and tend to be so scared. You have more protections and rights than the rest of us.”

Lorin pushed back from the ledge, moved to the built-in bench, and let his arms float so Cynda could work on them. He’d often wondered too, and the only explanation he’d come up with was the value of their training, eight M-years and ten M-years. An eternity and a fortune went into making eights and tens. “The claiming, mine in particular, removes most of those rights and protections. Which is a big part of the tension between Minton and I.”

Minton, bane of his existence. A ten who believed he’d been cheated out of his rightful place as Prime of Arkos House. Didn’t matter there was no way in hell, or every inhabited planet in the galaxy, Teeg would’ve chosen a pompous, selfish ass like Minton to lead the most respected House in Karnak.

Garin sighed. Of all the daros at Arkos, he knew the most about Lorin’s lack of protection when it came to his mistress. “I’ll never figure out the inter-house politics and all the posturing. What’s wrong with focusing on satisfied and happy clients?”

Nothing. It’s why I like you and wish to the gods I could get rid of Minton.”

Garin didn’t respond. His legs kept moving in the water, lapping waves against Lorin’s shoulders and splashing into his hair. Cynda worked on his arms for half an hour then washed his hair and rubbed conditioner in it from roots to ends. She rinsed and repeated twice more.

The stiffness and bone-deep ache were gone, but getting out took Garin’s help. He sank into the nearest lounge chair, resting his forehead on Garin’s shoulder as Cynda rubbed the straightening cream into his hair. Mistress hated his curls. The thought made him want to beg Cynda to leave it out for a change. Let him have control of something he ought to have control over.

When he stood, he wobbled. Garin picked him up and carried him to bed. He hadn’t the energy to fight it. Cynda arranged the pillows, pulled the sheet and blankets up to his chin. He closed his eyes and fell asleep again to the sound of Cynda’s bedroom door slamming shut.

Two hours later, his eyes fluttered open. Cynda sat in the chair by the window, using the sunlight to illuminate her sewing. He sighed and stretched then curled around a pillow. “What are you working on?”

She lifted her gaze for a moment to smile at him. Her cheeks were flushed, eyes sparkling. Garin had carried her off for some wild sex, no doubt. “Putting new buttons on your white shirt.” She returned her attention to her work, a faint tinge of pink creeping up her neck.

I don’t mind you being with him, Cynda. How many times do I have to say it before you believe me? I trust him to be gentle with you.”

She rubbed her hand over the scarred left side of her face. “I’m just a way to gain favor with you. I know that, and it’s okay.”

Lorin slid from between satin sheets to kneel beside his sister. He caressed the scars. Kissed her forehead. “With Garin, it’s not about me. He’s falling in love with you, Cynda. Don’t turn him away because you think you’re nothing but an avenue into my good graces.”

She turned her head to break the contact. “How do you know he’s not lying?”

He pushed to his feet, steadied himself with a hand on the back of the chair, and kissed the top of her head this time. “No one can lie to me when my tongue is in his or her mouth. You know that.” He tilted her head back to look at him. “His deepest desire is to buy his freedom and marry you.”

Why?”

We all have scars, Cynda. Garin’s aren’t visible, but they’re still there. I’m not afraid of you being with him.”

As long as you’re active, Lorin, I’m not going anywhere.”

He knew better than to keep pushing when she trotted out this line, so he backed away and went to his closet for clothes. His hangup about being clothed all the time had disappeared years ago, but Yev’an no doubt used clothing as a shield. Lorin had too, eleven years ago when he arrived at Arkos House as a young man afraid he wouldn’t be able to live up to Mistress’s demands and keep his sister safe.

Once dressed in his softest cotton lounge pants and an open shirt, he paged Ali, the house schedule keeper, and asked for the novices to be sent up. He opened the drapes in his receiving room, and two of the windows to let in the summer breeze and the scent of the lush rose garden below.

A bowl of fruit sat on the coffee table, with ripe apples on top. His favorite, but the fruit would inflame the sore spots between his tongue piercings. The oranges looked good too, but then he’d have to pick pulp out of the holes and off the stud posts. He picked up an apple anyway and inhaled the sweet juicy scent, weighing whether or not he wanted to deal with the trouble.

Hungry?”

Starving.”

Cynda tugged him away from the fruit. “I’ll go get something that won’t require twenty minutes with the mirror.”

Thank you.” He retrieved his tablet from the drawer in his cabinet desk and stretched out on the chaise end of the sofa to start catching up on messages while waiting for the novices and food.

Half a dozen were stupid jokes from Markos, one of his clients and a dear friend; one from Teeg with a picture of his two-year-old twins; a couple from Amun, another client and friend, asking advice on a present for his wife.

He paused at the two from Mayara, Prime of Echis House in Nubia, subject line: Essence. He groaned a little. Essence meant he had to deal with the woman, instead of deleting the messages. Knocking on the door kept him from opening it. “Yes?”

Ali poked his head in. “They’re here. One at a time?”

Please.” Lorin turned the tablet off. Tucked it between the cushion and arm of the sofa as Ali showed the first novice in. She bowed her head to him. He motioned for her to sit beside him and she did, her floor-length silk gown whispering over the rug. The side slit went halfway up her thigh and revealed a perfectly shaped leg when she sat, and a stack of silver ankle bracelets two inches high.

Welcome to Arkos House, A’rika.” He brushed her chin with the pad of his right thumb. She opened her mouth. Six copper-colored studs, the mark of the Sekhmet school. He’d hoped Keesa would take her in. Sekhmet daros tended to stick together since they weren’t as valued as Pater and Maxim daros. He leaned forward to cover her mouth with his. Field focused on her core personality, he swept his tongue across the roof of her mouth and the inside of her upper lip.

Adventurous, with a bit of a wild side. Not even a hint of fear. Excitement bubbled through her, infusing her mouth with the taste of honey. He broke the kiss and smiled at her.

I heard you don’t choose from Sekhmet often. I’m honored to be here.” The words came out a little breathless, as usual after a first kiss from him. Eleven years and he still had it.

I liked what I saw. Do you have any preferences?”

Studs clinked against her teeth. He shook his head. “You can chip a tooth doing that. I don’t recommend it.”

Her cheeks flushed and she glanced at her lap. “I don’t have any that I know of.”

If it changes with experience, tell me. I was told Keesa has taken you in. Take questions to her first, and if it needs to come to me, she’ll tell you. Unless you have problems with a client. The moment they’re formed enough to speak, bring those concerns to me.

She nodded. “Minton said—”

Ninety percent of what Minton says is a lie. I’m your Prime, which means I’m here to help you and protect you.” He smoothed hair from her face and smiled. “I take my responsibilities seriously.”

Is my dress acceptable for a debut?” She stood and turned a slow circle. The blue silk fell in sheer waves from a high waistband.

It’s perfect. There’s a house jewel collection for you to use until yours is built. I’ll see you in a couple more hours.”

Another nod and she left the room with the graceful walk of a daro who excelled at dancing.

He repeated everything with Emrys, who preferred women but was willing to take men if they showed true interest. Eight black tongue studs showed he’d been to Maxim. Paired with Kell was perfect, since he’d been at Maxim too. Something about Emrys made Lorin hesitate, though. The boy harbored a great deal of anger. He hid it well, but Lorin’s ability to find lies with a kiss meant none of his daros could hide their true feelings from him for long. He’d have to get to know the boy before he could find the source of the anger, though.

Lorin stayed in his seat because, like Garin, Emrys towered over him at six-five. Not only was he the youngest reigning Prime in the empire, but he was the shortest active male daro. Every male daro he met made him feel like a shrimp.

Until Yev’an entered, trying to hide in his clothes. He pressed his back against the door, eyes darting back and forth, chest moving in a rhythm Lorin recognized—concealed panic. He stood and held his hand out. Gentled his voice and tried to keep the bedroom timbre out of it. “It’s all right, Yev’an. I don’t bite.”

Yev’an swallowed hard, but left the door and slid his hand into Lorin’s. He squeezed. Turned his head for Yev’an to see the gold coil pierced along the outer edge of his left ear, another sign he was claimed, in addition to the gold collar around his throat instead of the daro chain necklace. The boy collapsed onto the sofa, rubbing his coil with his left hand. “I hate him,” he whispered.

I hate mine too. I’ve never met a claimed daro who feels any different.” Lorin didn’t need to kiss this one to know fear ruled him. One harsh word from a client and he’d shatter. “What do you want?”

To never be touched by another man as long as I live.”

Done.” Lorin released his hand. “But I can’t keep you from your master. I wish I could.”

Yev’an relaxed a little, leaning into the cushions.

Do you have your own caretaker?”

Yev’an shook his head. “He wouldn’t let me.”

Lorin swallowed his anger. As a ten Yev’an, had earned the right to choose his own and have one already familiar with his needs and how to relax him. A year from now, he’d have the clients, gifts, and wardrobe to require his own. “We’ll find you one.”

Studs clinked against teeth. This time, Lorin stayed silent. The boy might not react well to being chided during their first meeting. He needed gentle, tender care to build his confidence. There was one I wanted, and nobody picked her. She’ll be too old next time, won’t she?”

Probably. We’ll find her, and if she’s willing, mine will finish training her.”

Yev’an smiled. Some of the fear left, and he straightened.

Lorin returned it. “Have you had sex with a woman before?”

Once.” He fixed his gaze on his knees. “I wasn’t very good at it.”

The first few times are always awkward, no matter how much training you have. Mine was a disaster and I was so upset when the floor didn’t open and swallow me. I have the perfect person in mind for you. If she doesn’t come tonight, you can keep an empty bed if you like.”

His head came up and blue eyes widened. “Really?”

Really. You’re safe here, Yev’an. I will never pair you with someone capable of hurting you.”

But you’re so young.” His neck flushed and he looked down again.

Lorin lifted Yev’an’s head with a finger to his chin. Showed him all seventeen gold studs pierced through his tongue. “I may be young, but I know what I’m doing. All I need to figure out what a client wants is one kiss. My prime taught me how to do it, and I’ll teach you, if you want. The better your client list, the easier it is to petition for your freedom.”

Unless you were owned by High Lady Lapis Memeos. Damn that woman, holding him so tight it was a miracle he hadn’t suffocated. Drop dead, bitch, please.

I’ll think about it.” Yev’an smoothed his silk pants. “Do I have to change?”

No.” But who he could pair the boy with for the night? Garin’s clients would scare him spitless. Minton would lie to him. Kell ignored women. The number of people Lorin needed to greet tonight made him a bad choice. Braith was perfect, but not due back from his sabbatical—a real one—for another week. Damn. “Is there anyone you feel comfortable shadowing tonight?”

Garin seems nice. He scared my master into leaving early, and helped me choose a room. And he didn’t touch me.”

Too bad Garin was ineligible for Prime; he had a knack for soothing nervous daros. “All right. For now, you can share a caretaker with him and Kell. She’s very calm and sweet, and they do whatever she says.”

Yev’an nodded and stood. His shoulders were straighter, his eyes a little less haunted. With protection and time, he’d come out of his shell and become very popular. Though his unwillingness to see men made grooming him as a possible successor for Arkos almost impossible.

I’ll see you in an hour.”

Yev’an left. Two minutes later Cynda came in with food. The Essence messages would have to wait.

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