eBook release date: August 5, 2014
Originally released as part of the Love Is… Charity Anthology
Araneae Nation, Prequel
Length: Short Story
A Heart of Ice
Reine knows marriage isn’t about love. It’s about making the best bargain you can with what you have and then living with the consequences. Wedding vows are alliances given voice, and I do is on the tip of her tongue.
Ennis is a man on a mission to woo the future Araneidae maven, whether she wants him or not. Her clan is wealthy, prosperous and in dire need of the one thing his people have to offer—protection. But one look at her and all thought of his obligations vanish. He’ll court Reine, but he wants the feisty heiress all to himself.
Forced to entertain offers from her bevy of suitors, Reine is torn between duty to her people and loyalty to herself. Ennis is the man she wants, but is he the future paladin her fragile clan needs? She can choose to lead with her head or, for once, she can follow her heart.
Titles available in this series include:
A Heart of Ice Excerpt
Upon entering my bedroom, I spotted my dearest friend leaning out the window with a blowpipe in her hand. Her grin was wider than her cheeks and as sharp as the edge of Father’s sword. Her cackles rang hearty and loud. Curses rose from below, and she answered each merrily and with a shaken fist.
I slammed the door and leaned against it.
Isolde flung the blowpipe and whirled to face me with a slender sword drawn.
My eyebrow arched.
“Don’t give me that look.” She sheathed her blade. “The darts aren’t venom-laced.”
“Thank the gods for small mercies.” I snorted. “Mother will have cross words with you. Again.”
“Your mother loves me.” She patted her wild nest of hair. “Besides, I’m not afraid of her.”
That she wasn’t proved something I had long suspected. Isolde had no sense.
But who was I to judge when I was the fool who gifted her with the blowpipe in the first place?
“Speaking of your mother—” she narrowed her eyes, “—why did she summon you so early?”
I crossed my arms to keep from punching something. “She says I must marry.”
“What?” Her eyes bulged. “She can’t have meant it.”
I recited her argument by rote. “You are eighteen. I could have forced you to wed two years ago. Now you are all grown up, and our circumstances have changed. You must…” I sighed, “…marry.”
Her hand wrapped around her sword’s hilt. “I won’t let her force you.”
I grasped her wrist so she couldn’t draw her weapon. “Where did you get that sticker anyway?”
“It’s not a sticker, it’s a real sword.” She huffed. “If you must know, I won it in a card game.”
My eyes narrowed. “Who were you playing?”
She shrugged. “A few guards.”
“Isolde,” I groaned. “If Mother catches you carousing with them, she’ll send you home.”
The color leached from her cheeks. “I look forward to these three months the most every year.”
“As do I.”
Every summer Isolde’s parents let her visit. We had met in the summer market when I was eight and she was ten. Her parents brought her to Erania to sell, not realizing such practices were illegal in our city. I had been the one who found Isolde, and I had been the one to run to Mother on her behalf.
In the chaos that followed, Isolde’s parents were arrested. Her mother had bitten a finger off one of our guards. Rather than see Isolde sent away, I begged Mother to let her remain as my companion for the duration of her parents’ incarceration. From that bleak day to this, we were as close as sisters.
“We can’t explain away the sword.” I grabbed her arm. “Come on. We must return it.”
Her eyes rounded. “You’re going to venture down to the guards’ quarters?”
“I don’t see what choice I have.” I yanked her into the hall. “Stop dragging your feet. It’s almost time for my lessons, and the last thing I need is for Mother to catch me in the nest out of season.”
My clan, the Araneidae, had built this city of black marble above our true home, an underground nest with expansive tunnels and lush appointments able to keep us cozy during bitter winter months. During the brief summer, our people occupied the aboveground city to host trading days and parties.
Only guards on rotation and invalids were permitted to remain below out of season.
I was neither.
Isolde sniffed. “Can’t have her heir messing around with the riffraff, now can she?”
My mother was the Araneidae clan’s maven, a title and a responsibility I would inherit one day.
“It’s not a matter of class.” As Isolde well knew. “It’s a matter of impropriety.”
She caved and walked beside me. “You can’t just marry the first male who comes along.”
“Oh?” I had no plans to, but I was curious as to her reasoning. “Why not?”
“Males are like chocolates.” She licked her fingers. “They’re meant to be sampled.”
Laughter stopped up my throat. “You can’t say such things.”
“I say them, and I mean them.” She bumped her shoulder into mine. “Don’t be such a prude.”
“You’re right.” I never expected those words to cross my lips. “If I must marry one of Mother’s choices for me, perhaps I should take a lover. I ought to have that much choice, don’t you think?”
“I, um, well…”
“No. For once, we are in complete agreement.” I don’t know why the idea never crossed my mind before. “I will take my first lover.” I slid my gaze her way. “Are any of the guards handsome?”
Her expression turned pained. “You’ve lived here all your life and never noticed?”
“If we rode through a forest with hundreds of trees but were told we could only seek shelter beneath five of the sturdiest in the woods, would you spare a glance for the others as you passed them?” I let her ponder that. “Orwould you keep your gaze focused ahead on the trees you were allowed to use?”
“You’re comparing cones to needles.” She waved her hand. “There’s more to it.”
Ah, yes. Isolde and her elusive more. “What else is there?”
“The burn in your gut when a handsome male smiles at you, or the way your lips tingle before a male kisses you.” She made smacking noises. “You don’t waltz into a room and pick a male, check his teeth and his papers then decide if he’s worthy. You feel it. Your nipples get as hard as stones—”
I covered my ears. “Enough.”
“You’re right.” She yanked on my arms. “It’s really the males who get hard— Oof.”
I elbowed her again, harder. “You’re ruining the appeal for me.”
“If you take a lover, it won’t be all roses and sweet wine.” She chortled. “You realize that?”
“I am very well aware of how sex works, thank you.”
“It’s a messy, sticky business,” she warned me. “You have to get naked and then he pulls out—”
“Isolde.” My face was burning so hot I should have breathed fire.
She patted my cheeks and grinned. “What are friends for?”
“I hope you’re pleased.” I fanned my face. “You’ve just sent me to my future husband a virgin.”
“Aww.” She looped her arm through mine. “There’s more to sex than your mother told you.”
The rest of the way down to the west end, she took great delight in educating me.
Copyright © 2013 Hailey Edwards
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