“Anything wrong?” Andrew asked in English, his chest pressed to her shoulder in a possessive manner any of the hopefuls would be sure to recognize.
She sank further into him. “I thought...” But the more she thought about it, the more ridiculous it sounded.
“What?” His voice was gruff, and her hair stirred at the movement of his head as he scanned the room.
“Nothing.” She laughed nervously. “My imagination.”
“If you’re certain...” Andrew’s voice announced clearly that he wasn’t.
“I—I am. I’m just being silly.”
“I’ll stay with you.”
Pilar turned to him, wincing at his open challenge to a group of hopefuls milling nearby. “Please, Andrew. I’m fine. Really, I am.”
“If you’re uneasy, you don’t have to do this. I can escort you to your rooms.”
Her cheeks heated. “No. I’ll never find a mate if you hover. I want to, Andrew. Promise me you’ll let me try.” Of course, she’d been trying for nearly a year, and she was still skittish as a kittle around the hopefuls.
He nodded, stroking at her cheek lightly. “If you need my help—”
Pilar smiled. “I’m never alone.”
Andrew dropped a kiss on her cheek and withdrew. Pilar took a calming breath and smiled at the lord approaching her. She could do this. She could find a mate.
“Good evening, mi’lord,” she offered brightly, searching for his name and coming up short...again. It was Lor...something, she was certain. It was deplorable that she couldn’t remember most of their names. Then again, she’d only been actively meeting the nobles at events, and there were so many hopefuls at each one.
He bowed, keeping his eyes averted. “Good evening, Pilar Laes. Would you care to take some air with me?”
She stared at him in surprise. No man had dared ask her that in all the time she’d met men. “Why...yes, mi’lord. I believe I would,” she managed.
Her heart skipped as the lord offered his arm. Pilar placed her hand through his elbow, glancing around for Andrew automatically. He was engaged in conversation with his twin, Alex. Their father and mother were dancing together, and Carter was nowhere in sight.
Pilar fought back a moment of panic. She was walking away with this lord, and none of her family would be trailing in her wake. Pilar straightened her spine and managed a smile for her escort. If she ever wanted to find a mate, it was the price she would have to pay.
The night air was cool and the stars bright. Pilar resisted the urge to laugh out loud. Like Carter, she’d always favored a clear, night sky.
“This is to your liking?” the man at her side asked.
“Yes. It is...Li...” Pilar grimaced in the realization that she still hadn’t remembered his name. Was it Lorent? Lorel?
He chuckled. “Loryol, Pilar Laes.”
Her cheeks burned in a fierce blush. “Loryol. Of course. My apologies, Loryol Li.”
“None needed. You meet many men. You can hardly be expected to remember every name.” Loryol met her eyes fully. “But, perhaps the most important are remembered...fondly remembered.”
Pilar released his arm, suddenly uncertain. Something in Loryol’s eyes was too familiar. She hadn’t given him permission to look her in the eye, but he was doing so without hesitation.
She took a step toward the manor. “We should go back. My brothers—”
Loryol’s hands closed on her shoulders, pulling Pilar into the shelter of his body. “Just a few moments,” he requested.
“You—you don’t have permission to touch me.” Pilar’s heart pounded in fear. She didn’t want to scream, but Loryol might leave her no choice but to alert the guards.
“I mean you no harm.” His voice was smooth...melodic.
“The law doesn’t say—”
His lips brushed across hers. Pilar stiffened in surprise, pushing at Loryol’s chest. His mouth came down again, bypassing her face and laying a kiss at her pulse point.
She stilled, her thoughts scattered. Loryol traced the artery with the tip of his tongue.
“You should stop,” Pilar managed, her eyes sliding shut in the cascade of new stimuli.
She knew what Loryol was doing, of course. All the re-breds had been trained in Keen lovemaking. The women healers had told Pilar it was for her own protection. She’d never understood that comment until now.
Loryol’s hand stroked at her hip, sending sparks of pleasure through her system. Pilar’s mind worked dully at the situation. He was trying to seduce her. If Loryol succeeded, he could demand a Trial Moon.
“No.” Pilar pushed him away more forcefully, trying to bolt for the manor.
His hand closed on her wrist, tighter than she was comfortable with, wrenching her back to him. Loryol’s eyes glittered in the starlight, a fierce determination etched on his face.
“Release me,” she ordered him, but her voice was devoid of the conviction she wanted it to carry.
“You should not play with a Keen lord,” he informed her.
“I’m not playing. I’m leaving.” Pilar pulled at his hold, her breathing hitching when he didn’t budge. She looked toward the manor through the thick foliage hiding all but the highest windows from view, praying for some sound indicating that Andrew was in pursuit. Even Carter would be acceptable at this point.
Loryol’s grip tightened, a silent promise that she was going nowhere he didn’t want her to go. He shook his head slowly. “Why do you fear me? Have I injured you?”
“If you don’t release me—”
“Release her. Now.”
Pilar jumped at the strange voice. She searched out the dark shadow moving toward them in relief. She wasn’t alone and at Loryol’s mercy.
“I said release her. I won’t say it a third time.”
She had a face to match to the voice now. Bathed in starlight, the fury of his words couldn’t compare to the promise of death in his eyes.
Loryol chuckled. “Amazing. You actually think you can order me?”
“I can stop you, but I promise you that Alex Li the Elder and the lady’s brothers will kill you where you stand, if you don’t release her. I’ll make sure of it.”
Loryol’s cocky grin disappeared. He released her arm.
All of her life, Pilar had been trained to run to her family or guards in a case like this. She didn’t. The moment she was free of Loryol, Pilar surged behind her savior.
He looked around at her in shock then turned to Loryol. “Do you wish me to deliver Loryol to your father?” he asked solemnly.
Pilar shuddered, pressing her cheek to the man’s back, his silin shirt soothing her nerves. “No,” she whispered. “My father knows where to find him.”
Loryol stomped away, grumbling curses.
The second man stood his ground for several minutes. Finally, he sighed and relaxed slightly. “Are you well, Pilar Laes?”
She nodded against his back.
“Then I should take you to your—”
“Not yet...please.” Pilar managed an unwavering voice though tears threatened.
He turned to her, his dark eyes growing darker in concern. His gaze scanned over her, boldly drinking in every inch of her body. “Were you hurt?”
“No,” she denied, though she rubbed at her wrist. She did hurt, and Andrew’s fury wasn’t something Pilar wanted to see anytime soon.
The man scooped up her hand, his eyes narrowing. “I should have taken him to your father. We should go now. They can stop Loryol before—”
“No,” she gasped. There had to be a better way. Seeing Pilar come in with a mark on her body would send Andrew over the edge of reason. “Alex,” she mused. If Alex healed the bruise, before Andrew saw it...
“If you brought my brother Alex— Oh... No. You won’t know which is which,” she decided miserably.
“Does it matter?”
“Of course, it does,” she snapped. “If Alex heals this before Andrew sees—”
“You want to heal the damage before you go in?”
“Unless I want to be under heavy guard for the rest of my life.” And, that wasn’t a stretch of the imagination. She’d never find a mate that way. “But, how will you tell them apart?”
“I don’t need to,” he offered in a voice that sounded of complete confidence in his answer.
“Yes, you do need to. Or...someone needs to.” Who could he ask, without arousing suspicion? Carter! Her younger brother bordered on oblivious.
“If healing is the problem, let me heal you.”
Pilar stared at him, shocked beyond speech for an instant, but the young lord seemed sincere. “You possess the healing magic?”
He raised an eyebrow, as if frustrated by the question. “Yes. I do.” His tone rode the line between patient and patronizing.
“But...it’s so rare. The royal family and the re-breds, naturally. Other than that, there are only...perhaps...a dozen men—”
“Fifteen, to be precise,” he offered with a slight tip of his head.
“How wonderful.” Pilar touched his arm, feeling like a silly school girl in his presence. “A treasure,” she breathed.
“Pardon?” he asked again.
“My apologies. I meant... You’re a treasure.”
“My healing magic?” he scoffed.
“And your noble nature. Not every man would have stopped Loryol. Many men would have taken advantage of the situation, if they’d done anything, at all.”
He blushed. “May I heal you?”
“Absolutely.” She offered her arm, her heart skipping in excitement. She’d never been healed by anyone but her immediate family and her Cousin Joseph. “With my thanks.”
The lord cradled her wrist to his mouth and started to heal the bruises.
Pilar weaved on her feet in surprise. The healing was always enjoyable, but coming from an eligible young lord instead of a family member made it more so.
The sensation of ice hit her first. Then the heat followed closely by the pulse of pleasure. Her human genetics made this simple exchange more erotic than the seduction attempts Loryol had played at.
Pulse after pulse of his healing coursed over her nerves, bringing her nipples to aching points against her gown, making her sex hot and heavy and her thighs damp with the lubricant for lovemaking.
The lord placed a kiss on the inside of her wrist, marking the end of his healing.
“What is your name?” Pilar asked, her voice strange in her own ears.
He met her eyes, seemingly surprised. “Cored, mi’lady.”
She nodded shakily. “Cored Li,” she greeted him, rising on her toes and sealing her mouth to his.