Upon the death of old King Septimus his only son is about to ascend the throne, but nine year-old Gaston III is in danger. There are many who could benefit from the boy-king's prompt demise, and his young mother, Ariana, worries for his life. She needs brave and loyal warriors to help safeguard her son.
Ramon Villaverde, known as Ram "The Thruster", is the one soul to whom she turns in her hour of need. A warrior of few words and fiercely devoted to old King Septimus, Ram's stern heart has long held a buried secret. But on the day the king takes his last breath, he can no longer deny his desires for the sake of duty.
For when beautiful, widowed Queen Ariana looks to him for help, he pledges a vow to put her son's life before his own if need be. But his fealty will come with a price.
Now, Ariana must decide how far she will go, for the good of her son and the protection of his throne. She had no idea that her husband's most trusted warrior ever thought of her with anything more than disdain. Although he's always been cold to her and dismissive, she's about to discover Ram's deepest, darkest secret.
And why they really call him "The Thruster".
"Perhaps you have been too long a queen and forgotten how to be a woman. Or you never knew how." In the next moment, to her surprise, he was heading for the door.
Ariana knew she must act. He was a mule, thick-headed and infuriating, stuck in his ways, uncivil, impossibly bad tempered and eccentric. But they needed him.
She needed him. Is that what he wanted her to say?
"As a woman then!" she rushed after him and placed her hand on his arm as it reached for the bolt. "Not as a queen, but as a mother and a woman, I beg you to stay and protect us."
Ram stopped. He glowered down at her fingers against his sleeve. How dark and thick his lashes were, she realized.
"I...I can trust you, as I can no other. I know that, and Septimus always told me—"
"No. Do not mention his name." He spoke in a low voice, head still bowed. "You are asking for yourself, remember? Just yourself."
She bit her lip and nodded. "Yes. I know you are the best man to protect us. Please...stay." As she spoke the last words, Ariana felt desperate. She could see no emotion on his face. His eyelids were heavy, hiding his thoughts. Summoning her bravery, she raised her hand to his stern jaw and then his cheek, touching the rough bristles, running her fingertips across the hard contours. "I need you now, more than ever. Ram. Please."
Suddenly he caught her wrist in his firm grip and held it. She could not tug her hand away and after only a cursory attempt she went still. Slowly he drew her hand to his lips, pressing her fingers there.
Her pulse galloped and she knew he would feel it in her wrist, but she couldn't stop the mad racing that betrayed her. It didn't seem real. Was she dreaming?
His tongue flicked out and licked her fingers.
Real or not, this thing he did certainly wasn't chivalrous, not with her husband barely cold. What could he be thinking?
But Ramon Villaverde made his own rules. They didn't call him "The Thruster" because he hung back meekly, minded his manners and waited his turn.
She knew her face must be scarlet as her thoughts took a decidedly wicked turn.
He pursed his lips against her fingers and kissed them, leaving her skin wet and trembling. Then he released her hand.
Ariana was speechless— a state she'd once heard him say he preferred in his women. Now he pointed to his lips and waited.
He meant it then. He wanted a kiss.
Outrageous as it might be, what else could she do but concede to his demand?
There wasn't particularly anything else she wanted to do at that moment. So she lifted up on tiptoe— he made no move to adjust his height for her— and leaning slightly forward, she pressed her lips to his mouth.
A touch. Oh, a touch of skin to skin at last, after so long.
His hands went to her waist and lifted her. Suddenly he took control, forcing her backward until her spine was against the door, his mouth slanted to hers, his tongue thrusting between her lips. It was savage. What else would it be from such a man as he? With his body pressed to hers, she was trapped, at his mercy. The taste of ale was strong on his tongue, almost enough to make her drunk too.
Good god, what was she doing? Her husband's corpse barely cold, her son in danger...her own life on a precipice...
She reached for his hair, needing something to hold on to. His scalp was damp with sweat, his black hair surprisingly soft. The heat coming off him was immense, raising her own temperature until she too felt moist all over.
Finally he let her slide down the door again until her feet touched the ground.
"Very well...Ariana," he muttered, sounding hoarse, "since you entreat me so warmly, I will stay and guard you."
Breathless she waited, her fingers fidgeting and restless among the soft pleats of her gown. His gaze lifted, taking her in thoroughly and critically, just as he did in that forest glade ten years ago. It made her feel seventeen again, nervous, feverish, naïve. And trying to hide all of that in front of this man who looked at her as no one ever had. As no one ever dared. Before or since.
"I will make the arrangements," he said.
"Arrangements?" Her voice sounded distant. She had trouble moving her lips since they felt now as if they belonged to him.
"To keep you well guarded and ensure the Prince ascends his throne without opposition."
She took a breath. "Thank you. We are in your debt."
"Yes." She caught just the trace of a faint smile. "Soon I'll collect what you owe me. I've waited long enough."
Ariana took a step sideways, away from the door, trying to recover her wits. "Collect?"
"Fret not," he added, eyes gleaming under those heavy lids. "I'm not such a brute that I would ask for payment in full tonight. Your husband's not been dead five hours and I will honor his memory. Until after the funeral."
She fought to catch her breath, but it kept slipping away through her devil-possessed lips faster than her lungs could pump another. "I gave you your kiss. What more payment did you have in mind?"