Dark Heat – June 30, 2014
When their powers unite, no one can keep them caged.…
A Heat Series story.
When healer Caelan angers her king, she's thrown into prison where she bargains her body to a warrior for protection. Their special powers unite, turning lust into something unforeseen. Soon they are forced to choose between freedom and what’s growing between them.
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The bloodred, heavy velvet on the walls made the massive throne room stifling. The bold, swirling pattern on the hard tile beneath her knees bit into her skin through her healer’s robes, adding to her urge to leap to her feet and run. But it was the man Caelan prostrated herself before who had her attention, even as she tried not to stare at him, fearful of drawing his notice.
No matter what the consequences were, she couldn’t lie. She could, however, evade the question with other truths. What mattered were the words that left her mouth. This gift, which had saved lives in the past, now led her into a situation where her own was in jeopardy.
Whatever she said, she would either betray her only friend or enrage her King.
Caelan bowed her head deeper, hoping to delay the inevitable, knowing King Useph wouldn’t hesitate to crush her if he suspected even a fraction of how much she really knew.
Standing to her left, Brianna sobbed silently, her body shaking, blood sliding down her cheek, along her chin, to puddle on the skirt of her golden angel’s gown. During her beating, her kind blue eyes had filled with anger and a stubbornness Caelan would never have guessed possible in her sweet, gentle-natured friend. As delicately beautiful as Brianna was, as fragile as she appeared, even after they’d terrorized her, she had lied.
"You dare to defy me. Me, your King!" Useph had been their friend long ago. The three of them, all related through the vagaries of noble birth, had grown up in this castle together, running wild, playing in the gardens, and laughing together. In the five years since he’d ascended to the throne, he’d turned from a lost, gentle boy into a power-hungry ruler Caelan didn’t even recognize, crushing anyone who got in his way.
Righteous anger marred his handsome face, but it was the fisting hand on the arm of his throne chair that had everyone in the room flinching.
His calculating gaze swooped down on her. "But you, Caelan, you cannot lie." His voice turned knowing, dripping like honey, his eyes full of satisfaction.
No, she couldn’t lie. Falsehoods of any kind eroded her ability to heal. There was a reason her magic was called Speaking. She healed with words, a gift bestowed by the Goddess at her birth. If she lied, her words lost their power. So she would not lie. But that didn’t mean she had to tell the complete truth either. "Please, Sire, I have never seen Brianna with him."
And that was true. She’d never actually seen them, but knew without a doubt that they’d been together. Brianna had told her they’d spent the last month lying in sunbeams and laughing. And Radley’s face, as Caelan shoved him aboard a ship to safety that had left port only hours before Useph had them dragged to the throne room, had been filled with grief only a lovesick fool could experience. They’d been playing with their very lives and they’d known it, yet they’d fallen in love anyway. And their foolish behavior now involved Caelan, putting her in a position where she risked her healing power.
He’s on the edge, Caelan. Keep your head down, your voice respectful. Don’t anger him, or he’ll lash out at you with more than a fist to your face. You just need to make it through this interview unscathed. He won’t kill Brianna. He loves her, he always has.
Useph settled back into the plush, red silk of his ornate throne chair, stretching his legs out in a deceptively lazy action. "You have never seen them together. How carefully worded, Caelan." He tsked. "So close to a lie."
Caelan reeled in her temper. She could not, not, treat him with anything but the utmost respect, or he’d go into one of his rages. He’d be sorry later, but if he killed her, the damage would be done. "Carefully worded or not, Cousin, I am telling the truth."
"If you are so insistent on hiding Brianna’s secrets, perhaps you would like to take her punishment as well. Cousin." He spat the last word, obviously displeased that she’d called attention to their family connection. Leaning forward, he stared at Brianna while drumming ring-laden fingers on his knee. "Would you let your best friend take your punishment to protect your lover?"
Brianna pulled her chin up, her eyes briefly begging Caelan’s forgiveness, then her face turned hard. "I am not Radley’s lover, my King, so I cannot tell you where he has gone."
Radley, a common soldier, a farmer’s son. And the love of Brianna’s life.
In the shadows behind the throne, Useph’s advisor, Sneed, snorted in disbelief.
Brianna glared at Sneed with a contempt they all might feel, but no one dared to express. "If you punish Caelan because of your incorrect suspicions, her blood is on your hands, not mine."
Caelan barely stifled her moan. Had Brianna’s love for Radley turned her insane? Was she mad? She must be, to bait Useph like this.
Only by denying it and sticking to her denial can she save Radley’s life. Useph had promised her lover’s death, but Radley had disappeared. Their King knew Radley could not have escaped the castle unless someone aided him. The magical locks surrounding the area Brianna had been seen in could only be opened by those who had been blessed in ritual.
Only one person could tell him what he needed to know, and Caelan knew it would take luck she’d never had to keep her involvement secret.
She just wished Brianna hadn’t fallen in love in the first place. No man was worth risking your life for under any circumstances. Why did first her mother and now Brianna have to make that mistake?
Useph lunged to his feet. "Don’t you dare talk to me like that!" In two steps, he was before Brianna, the crack of his open palm on her face ringing through the room.
Caelan kept her head bowed, trying not to flinch. Her heart ached for her friend, but she didn’t want to be caught in the middle of this battle. She was a peacemaker and had never been one to flout the rules or engage in confrontation. Her only mistake had been to help a friend in need.
In a moment of panic, she’d let Radley out of the castle and bargained with a boat master to secure him a space on a schooner setting sail for the New Worlds. Caelan had broken the rule she’d lived her life by, and now the consequences could be deadly.
"Your chaste body was intended for a marriage alliance and well you knew it, Brianna. Yet you sullied yourself like a whore with a farmer’s son." Useph trailed a gentle finger down her face, shaking his head as if he was saddened by her behavior.
But Caelan had long suspected that the King had put off marrying Brianna because he wanted her for himself.
"Did you think that my love for you would keep you from feeling my wrath? Did you think you could do whatever you wanted because I’ve always desired you?" His hand snarled in her hair, viciously yanking downward until Brianna fell to her knees before him. “I will kill your lover when I find him. You let him out of the keep, Bree. You helped him escape,” he murmured so softly that Caelan could barely hear the words from where she knelt.
“No,” Brianna moaned, and Caelan could tell from the agony on her face that she’d finally broken. Tears and blood ran down her face, mixing into a pink rain. Her body shook uncontrollably with fear. “I didn’t let him out. I didn’t unlock the door.”
Caelan dropped her head into her hands. She’s scared. She’s thinking about the time we saw the King beat one of his commanders. The beating had gone on and on, until it was too much to endure. The sound of Useph’s fists, then the whip Sneed had so helpfully provided, the spray of blood, the never-ending cries the commander had uttered, pinned upright by his arms between two of his own soldiers. Until his face had turned to just a slab of meat with little specks of bone poking through. He’d lived—Caelan had been able to save him—but the ruined shreds of his face still made her stomach clench a year later.
And all that had only been over an order not being followed with enough speed. The commander’s sin was not nearly as monumental as Brianna ruining a potential marriage alliance that would bring untold wealth and power to their country.
“If you didn’t let him out, who did, Bree?” A stolen glance at Useph showed his long brown hair had shaken free from its queue by the force of his words.
“She lies,” Sneed scoffed. “Radley can’t let himself out. He hasn’t gone through the Keep Ritual.”
“So who helped you, Bree?”
Brianna whimpered, crumpling in on herself.
“Shhh,” Useph whispered. “Calm yourself.” He dropped to his knees and cuddled her close, rocking her a little. “I need to know where he’s hiding, Bree. Once I kill him, everything will be all right again.” He pulled back to chuck her under the chin. “Just tell me where he’s gone.”
“I don’t know. I swear it.”
“She knows,” Sneed snarled, pointing a gnarled finger at Brianna.
“I don’t think she does, Sneed. I don’t think she knows where he’s gone.” Curling a lazy finger around one of Brianna’s curls, he stared off in space for a moment while Bree sobbed great tears of pain and hopelessness.
Standing abruptly, Useph dumped her on the floor and turned in half-time. “Who knows all her secrets, Sneed?”
“Who, my liege?” Sneed asked promptly, ever there to play the lackey.
“Why, her best friend and constant companion, of course. And to make things even more convenient, the only person in this whole castle who cannot lie.” He crossed the room and stopped so close Caelan could see small drops of Brianna’s blood on his otherwise perfect leather shoes. Feathering a finger along her cheek, he whispered, “And you will tell, Cousin. You will tell me where Brianna’s lover is hiding.”
The turn of events had Caelan gasping for breath. Nausea welled up, her stomach twisting so sharply she would have burst into tears and huddled in a ball on the floor if she didn’t think that would anger Useph more.
Instead she closed her eyes, trying to form the prayer that might call the Goddess. She didn’t expect to be answered. Her deity was always so close when she healed, but in other parts of her life, the Goddess had gone silent.
Behind her closed lids, Brianna’s shining face greeted her. “I love him, Caelan,” she’d whispered months ago, sharing her precious secret, unable to contain her joy. “He’s so gentle and sweet. And he loves me in return. He doesn’t just want to possess me for my beautiful face, but really loves me, Caelly.”
Caelan had tried to warn her, tried so hard to talk some sense into Brianna, but love clouded the air, making reasonable, well-thought-out actions impossible.
“Caelan, I’m waiting for the truth,” Useph said, the sharpness of his tone saying he wouldn’t wait long. He confirmed it by whispering, “You have until the count of five to tell me, or I’m throwing you into The Abyss.”
“Please,” she begged. Could she say the words that would lead to Radley’s death? Could she live with that on her conscience?
Yet the dungeon below the castle—called The Abyss because people went in but rarely came out—scared her worse than anything. A deep pit carved into natural caves where people could only leave if the jailors hauled them up by ropes tied around their waists. She would be a lamb to the slaughter.
Anger crawled up her body and almost shook free a set of words she could never take back. How dare Brianna put her into this position? For that matter, how dare Useph? She was a healer. She’d just wanted to help when Brianna had come to her in tears and panic with the news they’d been seen.
“One,” Useph said gently.
“I am your Speaker, King Useph,” she reminded him in desperation. “I’m valuable to your household. Please do not do this to me.”
No emotion passed his face at her plea. “Two.”
In the background, Sneed sighed. “If you can’t control two girls, Useph, how can you control a kingdom?”
“Do you think I won’t do this?” Useph fisted his hands in her healer robes and hauled her to her feet. “Three.”
“You will. You will. I know you will,” Caelan said, rushing to reassure him.
“Tell me, Caelan.”
If she told, she would save herself from the torture she knew was coming. But how could she live with herself if her words led to someone’s death?
“Oh, Goddess,” she whimpered. She couldn’t tell, couldn’t leave anyone in Useph’s hands. She could only refuse and hope Useph came to his senses before his punishment killed her. “I cannot.”
“Five.” Useph let her go so abruptly she tumbled backward, falling onto her bottom, pain shooting up her spine. “You leave me no choice. Guards, take her to the dungeon and ask her tomorrow and every day after that if she’s ready to tell where he’s gone.”
Two men grabbed Caelan’s arms.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Caelan!” Brianna sobbed from where she sat crumpled and broken on the floor.
“So am I, Brianna,” she said, right before the doors to the throne room closed behind her, maybe forever.