Nicarr’s getting married—and about time too, as his wild ways have already come close to causing an intergalactic incident or two, but this isn’t the kind of marriage he’d hoped for and not at all like the one his fathers, Blake and Davos, have. Instead, it’s a political marriage to a young Xalian princess to forge an alliance that will end a small but vicious war in the quadrant. Nicarr’s ready to do his duty and wants to avoid some of the pitfalls his older brothers have fallen into with their husbands, so he decides it’s good that his heart won’t be involved. After the wedding and perhaps a child or two to seal the union, he can go back home to Tygeria and only be required to visit from time to time. The one thing he hadn’t counted on, though, was how much he and Princess Brista clash from the moment they meet. In fact, a fight starts between them that has to be broken up by her handsome brother, King Axel. That same night, Brista is murdered in Nicarr’s bed, and the young prince finds himself under suspicion and a definite person of interest to King Axel.
As Axel investigates the crime, he becomes more and more convinced that one of the princes was involved. His most likely suspect is the irritatingly arrogant and far too good-looking Prince Nicarr, but how can he arrest King Davos’s son without igniting a war that would destroy his people? The only way is to marry the man himself, and make sure he metes out the punishment the young prince deserves for the rest of his life. If only he wasn’t so attracted to him... With the fate of his planet at stake, he slowly begins to realize this crime is more complicated than he first realized, and when someone tries to kill another of the young princes and even the Consort Blake himself, Axel and Nicarr must work together to find the murderer before he kills again.
Nicarr’s first panicked impulse after King Axel left was to go straight to his parents. He’d actually made it all the way to the door before he stopped himself. He wasn’t a child, damn it. He felt shocked and bruised by the conversation he’d had with the Xalian king, but he was at a loss as to what to do about it. He had to think this through and not just blindly react. That’s what his trainers at the academy had tried to drill into his head over and over again.
He hadn’t been to his room on the night the princess was killed, but the man in the robe who had entered his room looked almost exactly like him—from the back at least. He knew it had to be one of his brothers. In fact, the pendant told him all he needed to know. It belonged to his brother, Larz.
Nicarr knew that for a fact, because he remembered when his omak had given Larz the pendant. It had only been a few months ago, when Larz came back to Tygeria for his first visit after the family had finally located him. He hadn’t stayed long—he and Mikos had argued the entire time he was there, and Larz’s mate, Janos, hadn’t made the trip with him, so Larz was anxious to return to Laltana. But before he left, Blake had given him the pendant, because he’d bought it for his son for his sixteenth birthday, had ordered it before he left. Larz had been kidnapped before he’d ever had a chance to receive the gift. It had been there waiting, all that time, and after Blake returned, he had often taken it out and stared at it for long minutes, his eyes suspiciously wet. It had been a special order for Larz’s sixteenth birthday, the pendant set with what Blake called Larz’s “birthstone,” whatever that was. Some kind of sentimental human foolishness, his father Davos had told him. Anyway, after Larz had been found, Blake had given it to him. Nicarr had already noticed Larz wearing it on this trip.
In fact, now he thought about it, Larz had been wearing it on the night of the reception. He noticed it when the light caught it as he stood arguing with Mikos.
But how could it have gotten to Nicarr’s room? On his bed? Could it be possible that Larz really was somehow involved in Brista’s death? He immediately rejected the idea. Larz would never do such a thing. He dropped his head in his hands, trying to decide what he should do next. The comments about running to his father and older brother Mikos had stung, and he hated the idea that the king and others might think he was some spoiled child who couldn’t handle his own affairs.
He wished he could speak directly to Larz, but Larz had told the whole family he was leaving the day they found Brista’s body. He’d stopped by early that morning to tell Nicarr goodbye. His ship must already be well on its way by now. It was odd in a way, though, how quickly Larz had left, even after they found Brista murdered in Nicarr’s room. Renard had joked that he was anxious to get back to his husband, Janos, but maybe he’d really had some kind of urgent business to attend to. Maybe he’d been running away.
His father could help him get a message to Larz on his ship, but what kind of message would Nicarr send?
Hey, Larz, sorry to see you go, and by the way, did you happen to stab Princess Brista by any chance before you left and did you drop your pendant on my bed?
No, he didn’t believe it. Not Larz. Maybe his brother had been passing by the room, saw something happening inside and gone in to help—but then why hadn’t he raised an alarm or told anyone? It didn’t make sense, but neither did the idea of Larz as a murderer. It simply wasn’t anything he would do. It was impossible, and what could the motive have been? It just hadn’t happened, and Nicarr was convinced of that.
Could the Xalians have faked the footage Axel had shown him? Unlikely, and again, for what purpose? They hated the Tygerians, but they needed them to make this alliance. His family already knew how they felt about Tygerians, and King Davos and Mikos had spent a god deal of time warning Larz of the antipathy that would come his way, even after marrying the princess. They told him that the planets of the Cygnus cluster also wanted peace with Tygeria, however, because the alternative was to be overrun or destroyed.
So, he was back to considering Larz. Why had he gone into the room that night and what had happened once he got there? Why hadn’t he told anyone, especially the next morning when Brista hadn’t shown up? It went around and around in his brain and gave him a headache. This was a scandal that could destroy the royal family’s reputation, though Davos was popular with his people. Nicarr was aware that any hint of scandal in their prominent family could result in embarrassment for them. It would be clandestine, for fear of retaliation, but insidious. The family’s privacy would be exposed, their honor ruined, and his father and Mikos would be furious. They were far too powerful for much of it to stick, but his parents would hate it nonetheless, and the idea that it would be because of something he himself had done was abhorrent to him. There had been far too much of that kind of thing already with some of his other brothers, and he’d vowed to be different.
He got up to pace the room and was still engaged in that action ten minutes or so later when a sharp knock came on the door again. He rushed over to answer it, hoping to see a friendly face, but instead King Axel stood there. Nicarr hated the fact he still found him so attractive.
His eyes were cold as they swept over him, though. He didn’t wait to be invited inside, but came in, brushing past Nicarr. “I’ve come to make you an offer, Nicarr. Listen to me, because I think it’s an offer you’d be a fool to turn down.”
“I want nothing from you!”
“Be quiet and listen to me, I said. You’re going to do as I say from this time forward, or else I’ll have you, your omak and your lover Captain Lira arrested on charges of murder, conspiracy, and concealing a crime.”
“I’ve told you my omak had nothing to do with any of this. Neither did my friend. Stop bringing them up. My father would never allow you to arrest them!”
“I might remind you that you and your entire family are on my planet. You have your guards, but I have an entire army at my disposal. Don’t fuck with me, princeling, or I’ll detain you and your entire family in my prison.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Wouldn’t I? Would you like to try me and see?”
“We have ships in orbit around this shithole planet. They could obliterate you.”
“Then they’d obliterate your entire family while they’re at it.”
It was an impasse and Nicarr knew it. He wanted desperately to strike this man in front of him—so much that he balled up his fists and leaned toward him, itching for a fight.
“Don’t even think about it, boy, or I’ll knock you down and call the guards, who are standing by just outside this door. They’ll take you into custody and throw you in the dungeons and your whole family with you.”
“I’m not guilty of what you say! Leave me alone.” It was such a childish thing to say—he regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth.
“You don’t make the rules here, princeling, so stop trying to tell me what to do. Either you or one of your brothers murdered my sister. If it wasn’t you, then which one was it? The Bloody Prince Mikos? His temper is legendary. Or perhaps Larz? His room is across the hall from yours.”
His only reply was sullen silence.
“I don’t believe in wasting time, Nicarr, so I’ll get right to the point. The deal I came to offer you. You and I are going to marry.” Nicarr blinked several times in a row, shocked by the idea. Had he heard correctly?
“You want to marry me? I-I don’t understand.”
“It’s a simple statement. We’re going to be married, and you’re going to provide me with heirs. Two babies, I think. An heir and a spare, as the saying goes.”
Nicarr really did look shocked then. He reared back in surprise and raised his eyebrows. “You want me to... I think you have the wrong impression.”
“What impression is that?”
“Tygerian males don’t bear children.”
“But you can. You have a brother who did, I believe.”
“Vannos. Yes, but his was a special circumstance.”
“So is this one.”
“No,” Nicarr insisted firmly. “Tygerian men don’t become pregnant. Their nobyos bear the children, and the nobyos are always from different planets. In our culture….” He shook his head and started again. “You see, they might be human, like my omak or Leerian or Jayronian or even Nilanium, but never Tygerian.”
Axel could tell the young prince was a bit flustered but was still trying to be polite. “It’s just not done. We are warriors, sir.”
“You’re not a warrior, Nicarr. Nor will you ever be. You’ll be too busy being a good little mate to me and raising our children.”
Nicarr’s face flamed red, and he stood up quickly, his fists clenched at his side. “No! I decline your offer. Get out.”
“Sit down, Nicarr.”
“I said, sit down. Shut your mouth and listen to me. We’re going to have a talk and all I require from you at the end of this talk is a simple, ‘Yes sir, I understand.’”