January 26, 4811: Planet Englor
A glade outside Hawthorne Proper in the country of Moreal
A DRIED, crumpled leaf blew across the toe of his shiny black boot as he lifted his right foot. Nate should have stayed home—honor be damned. The situation was all a misunderstanding, an accident. Now he would pay dearly for it. He was going to die.
Nate swallowed hard and drew a deep breath as he took his sixth step. The crisp morning breeze ruffled his hair, blowing an overlong lock of dark brown into his eyes. He blinked and shook his head to dislodge it, then wished he hadn’t. His head still ached from the heavy imbibing he’d indulged in the night before. If by some miracle he got out of this alive, he’d never drink again.
“Seven.” Lord White’s voice sounded exceedingly harsh over the rustle of leaves and a neighing horse. Then again, maybe the circumstances made it sound that way with the serenity of the glade as a contrast.
With his mind dazed and his body on autopilot, Nate continued forward, peering over the horizon, past the bare trees, to where the sun began to light the sky with its morning blush. When was the last time he’d been up early enough to see the sunrise? He couldn’t remember, but knowing this might be the last time, his carefree existence as the oldest son of the Duke of Hawthorne suddenly seemed worthless.
Someone at the edge of the clearing coughed as Lord White’s voice rang out.
Nate advanced a pace. Why had he ever thought he could reason with the viscount? Daniel Bradford, Viscount Hargrove and heir of the Marquess of Oxley, had always been a hothead. Despite the fact their fathers were the dearest of friends and Nate had known Hargrove practically since birth, there had never been any love lost between them. As children they’d been rivals, but as adults they merely ignored each other—until last night. Last night, they’d become bitter enemies.
Closing his eyes, Nate planted one foot in front of the other. The ancient Terran gun felt heavy in his hand. He didn’t want to do this. The accusation that had brought him here was false, but his alibi was just as damning. Everything in him screamed to run from the field and flee. He’d be called a coward, but at least he’d live another twenty years.
Nate turned, knowing exactly what he had to do. He could not kill Hargrove. If by some miracle Nate lived, his father would surely disown him. He might be a wastrel, but he adored his father, and disappointing him was the worst fate Nate could suffer, more horrible than even death. He aimed over Hargrove’s left shoulder.
The sound of gunfire erupted, and a searing pain blossomed in his side. Flinching from the agony, his finger jerked the trigger.
Hargrove’s blue eyes widened, his mouth dropped open, and he stared at his chest where a red stain spread across the tan brocade waistcoat. He looked back at Nate, his face pasty white, and crumpled to the ground like a rag doll.
A loud feminine scream tore through the air. Miss Victoria Evans, Hargrove’s fiancée, ran onto the field and flung herself over the viscount.
Oh galaxy, what have I done? Nate stood perfectly still, watching for any movement from his opponent.
Someone rushed toward Nate. “Star dust, Nate.”
Nate was vaguely aware of the hustle and bustle around him as he let the gun slip from his numb hand. It hit the dead grass with a soft thud. Staring at Hargrove’s lifeless body, partially covered by Victoria’s blue riding habit, he willed the man to get up, but that wasn’t to be.
A flock of people crowded around the viscount, partially blocking the view, but the sobbing and sounds of disorder continued.
Fingers prodded his side, making the dull twinge flare into sharp pain. He hissed out a breath and glanced down at Jared’s dark head. Why was his younger brother here?
Perched on his knees, Jared examined Nate’s side. “It’s only a flesh wound.” He rose and moved in front of Nate. “We have to get out of here.” He clasped Nate’s shoulders and shook him. “Nate, are you listening to me?”
Nate tore his gaze away from Jared’s worried brown eyes and looked past his shoulder. Hargrove couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t. Nate hadn’t meant to kill the viscount. He was the one who was supposed to die.
The physician stood over Hargrove, shaking his head as Victoria sobbed harder, raking her hand through Hargrove’s blond hair, begging him to respond. Even Lord White had waddled his portly body over to stand by the downed man.
“Nate.” Jared shook him harder.
Touching his injury, Nate winced at the pain. What was he to do now? He yanked his hand away from the sticky mess and brought it up between him and Jared. Dark red coated his fingertips and dripped down his hand.
“Dammit, Nathaniel.” Jared slapped him, jerking Nate’s head to the side and nearly knocking him off-balance. “Get it together. We have to go.”
The sting snapped Nate from his daze. Jared was right. Dueling happened quite a bit, but it was illegal. No one would say a word unless the authorities happened along, and then they would all be incarcerated. Which was no less than he deserved.
“Did you ride your horse, or did you come in one of the lifts?” Jared asked, tugging him toward the horses. Right past the tree line, horse-drawn coaches and the Low In-Flight Transports hovered above the ground just off the road.
“I took a lift.” Nate freed himself from Jared’s grip as they cleared the trees. “What are you doing here, Jared?” Nate knew for a fact his brother had not been in the glade when he’d started pacing off. He’d purposely come to the duel alone, not even bringing a second.
Nabil, Jared’s horse, stood several yards away from the lift bearing their family crest. As Nate and Jared approached, the gelding pranced toward them, sensing their unease and the need for urgency.
Jared tilted his boyish face in defiance as he walked to the lift. “Open door. Steps down.” The door slid into the doorframe, and steps descended from the side of the vehicle. “I came to watch your back, brother mine. I woke and you were gone. You should’ve told me you planned to go through with this. I barely made it here in time.” Jared motioned toward the carriage, then nudged Nate in that direction.
After Nate got in, Jared barked out, “Steps up.”
The stairs disappeared into the side of the black metal conveyance, and Nate braced his hands on the doorframe. For the first time, he noticed Jared wore the same black knee britches as the night before. He was without a morning coat, waistcoat, and cravat, and his pale blue shirt had one sleeve rolled above his forearm. Even his shoulder-length dark brown hair hung loose, as though he hadn’t even run a comb through it, and his jaw was shadowed with stubble. By the looks of it, Jared had rolled out of bed, with no assistance from his valet, and onto his horse to follow Nate.
Feeling anesthetized from head to toe, Nate said, “I wasn’t going to go through with the duel. I came to talk Hargrove out of it, but he wouldn’t listen.” Staring out the lift door toward the trees, he tried to see through the dried brush as his stomach dropped to his feet, feeling the full impact of what he’d done—however inadvertently. He’d killed a man.
“I’m sorry.” Jared’s voice was so quiet Nate barely heard him.
“So am I,” he whispered back, giving his only sibling a sad smile. “Let’s go home, little brother.”
Jared nodded and climbed into the saddle. After trotting off the grass and onto the road, he rode at a fast clip in the direction of Hawthorne.
Nate looked back at the clearing one last time, then closed his eyes, knowing his life would never be the same. Closing the door, he set a course toward home and his father’s censure.
November 5, 4829: Planet Regelence
Townsend Castle in Classige, Pruluce (the ruling country of Regelence)
AN EAR-PIERCING screech echoed through the castle, followed by the slap of bare feet on marble floor. The sound of skin hitting the polished stone in the entryway suddenly muted into a soft thud and Aiden looked up from his sketchscreen.
Muffin, his oldest brother’s ward, barreled through the door of the parlor, naked and dripping wet. Her shoulder-length red hair was plastered to her freckled face and around her neck and shoulders. She ran as fast as her short thin legs would carry her, trailing water on the blue carpet and looking over her shoulder. Barely sparing Aiden a glance, she dove under the chaise he reclined on.
It must be bath time. He bit his bottom lip to keep from laughing. After saving his latest painting, he put the stylus in its holder on the side of the screen and set it aside. Leaning over the edge of the chaise, he lifted the gold damask ruffle and focused on a pair of blinking, wide blue eyes.
Muffin brought her tiny finger to her pursed lips as rivulets of water ran over her rosy cheeks. “Shhh… I’ll owe you, Aid’n.”
Dropping the fabric, Aiden sat back up, still fighting off his mirth. The four-year-old hadn’t figured out that Jeffers, the castle computer, knew everything that happened under its roof. Doubtlessly, Nurse Christy would ask Jeffers to pinpoint Muffin, but Aiden decided to take pity on the waterlogged sprite. Sure she needed her bath, but rebelling now and again kept things interesting. “Jeffers?”
“Yes, Your Highness?” the disembodied baritone asked.
“You have not seen Lady Muffin.”
“Your Highness, you know I’m not allowed to lie to castle guardians and chaperones on your behalf, including Lady Muffin’s nurse.”
Aiden sighed. He did know, darn it. Inside the castle and on its immediate lawn were the only places he and his siblings were allowed without a chaperone. Which was why they had to resort to trickery to get any time by themselves. Speaking of alone time…. He glanced at the clock on the mantel above the white marble fireplace—9:12 a.m. Three minutes until Payton shut down Jeffers, assuming Payton could circumvent Jeffers’s cameras, the other castle servants, the Royal Guards, and a security system to get to the access panel in the basement. The last time Payton flipped Jeffers’s switch, their parents responded by implementing more defense measures. “Fine, let me rephrase that. You do not see Lady Muffin. She is hiding somewhere in the house.”
“That is true, Your Highness. My cameras cannot see under the chaise, although my heat sensors tell me she is there. I will tell Nurse Christy thus.”
Aiden snorted. Jeffers would probably word his response to Christy exactly like that. Not that it mattered, because Christy could easily follow the water trail to her missing charge. But it would give the little rascal a chance to assert her independence and cause chaos in which he could escape. As long as Christy wasn’t in the parlor at the time Aiden had to make his getaway.
A loud clacking of heels clipped down the hall outside the parlor. Aiden held his breath until the footsteps moved on past. He glanced at the clock again—9:14 a.m.—then out the open parlor door. “Jeffers, close the parlor door. I’d like privacy, please. Also, close all cameras, heat sensors, and microphones in this room until further notice.”
The blue-curtained french door closed with a snick. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Aiden hopped off his seat and looked under the chaise, debating for several seconds on whether to tell Muffin about the scheme he, Payton, Colton, and Tarren had concocted. He didn’t want to chance the imp going outside and getting hurt, but even she should be able to take advantage of the rare freedom. Knowing her, she’d likely use her stolen minutes of independence to sneak into the kitchen and get some sweets. “Muffin, Payton is turning off The Spy today. Promise me you won’t go outside?”
Her damp head bobbed and a bright smile lit her cheeks. “Promise.”
“And no telling Rexley.”
Again she nodded. “’Kay.”
Whew. Muffin told Rexley everything, and what his oldest brother knew, their parents knew. Rexley was heir to the throne and probably pictured in the dictionary under responsible. If he got word of Tarren cajoling Payton into shutting Jeffers off, Rexley would be honor bound to go straight to their father and sire.
Aiden dropped the concealing material and gathered the fourteen-by-eighteen-inch sketchscreen he’d brought with him for his afternoon of freedom. He’d considered bringing a traditional sketchbook and some charcoal, but with the sketchscreen, he could do more things. He could alter his renderings any way he wished, and he had the ability to delete, whereas with the conventional means, he eventually ran out of paper.
He glanced at the fireplace. The mantel clock read 9:15 a.m. “Jeffers?”
There was no answer.
“Jeffers? Are you there?”
Still the computer didn’t respond.
Yes. Payton had done it. In all of Aiden’s nineteen years, he’d never known Jeffers not to respond after the first call. Even after asking for privacy, speaking the computer’s name would bring him back into the room.
The french door opened and shut.
No. He was so close. Aiden spun around, expecting to find Christy, and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Colton leaning against the door.
His brother clasped one large hand to his muscular chest and ran the other through his short black hair. Predictably, he was dressed for riding in buckskin pants and his favorite brown riding boots. “That was close. Muffin escaped from her bath when Christy turned her back and now Christy and Cony are looking for her.”
Muffin’s head popped out from under the gold damask. “Cony?”
Colton started, but then the corner of his mouth turned up. “Yup, Cony finished his meeting early, and Christy intercepted him on the way to his study.”
“Dust.” Aiden’s shoulders slumped. If their sire was out and about in the halls, they’d never make it past him, because their parent was a very astute man. He probably already realized Jeffers was out of commission. Which meant at any moment, not only their parents, but guards, would be swarming the place. “We have to hurry, Colton.”
Colton nodded. “Exactly what I was thinking.” Turning toward the door, he lifted the edge of the curtain and peeked out.
Walking up behind him, Aiden tried to see over Colton’s towering form without luck. Colton was the tallest of his brothers, and he’d inherited Father’s muscular physique. Aiden, even though nearly a year older than Colton, was the shortest of his siblings—except maybe Payton—but at least he’d inherited Father’s broad shoulders too. “Well? Is Cony out the—”
Colton jumped away from the door, his sherry-colored eyes wide. “Come on. Now Father is there too. We’ll have to go out the window.” He shooed Aiden to the front of the room.
“Father too?” Muffin asked.
Hurrying to the window, Colton knocked the heavy velvet drapes aside and got tangled in the gold gauzy panels underneath. “Yes, Muffin. Father is, at this moment, on his way into the breakfast room.”
Great. The breakfast room was across from them. Aiden set his sketchscreen down to hold the curtains out of the way before Colton tore them down and they got in trouble for that too. “Where are you going?”
Unlatching the wood frames of the window, Colton pushed the panes open. “Riding. Where else?” That figured. Colton would spend his entire day on horseback if he were allowed.
“I meant, where are you going riding?”
The door opened.
Aiden let go of the curtains and dropped to his stomach. Only a second later, Colton dove to the ground next to him.
The door shut, and the sound of panting followed.
Dust. So close yet so far. They were behind the sofa, which had mahogany legs and an eagle’s claw-foot, with an eight-inch gap between the bottom of the beige material and the floor. Anyone who bothered to look would see them. If it were Cony and Father, he and Colton were caught for sure.
Aiden tried to see under the love seat, but the chaise blocked the view of the door. Catching Colton’s gaze, Aiden tipped his head, indicating his brother should peek and see who was in the room with them. Colton was on the other side and could peer around the edge.
Shaking his head, Colton mouthed the word, “You.”
The big coward. If you want something done…. Aiden belly-crawled to the edge of the sofa, but before he could glance around it, Muffin said, “Hi, Payton,” and scrambled from under the chaise.
Payton? Aiden glanced around the side of the love seat. Sure enough, his second-oldest brother hurried farther into the room, catching Muffin as she leaped at him.
Payton’s gaze landed on the open window, and his brow scrunched. Looking down, he spotted Aiden. “Wha—”
Colton stood. “Payton, what are you doing here?”
Payton rolled his eyes, then glared at Colton. “Running for my life. What are you doing here? I sacrifice myself so you can get out, and you’re still here?” Frowning, he arranged Muffin in his arms and rushed to the window. “Muffin, you’re naked.”
She giggled and nodded.
“And you’re wet.” Payton wiped his hand on his pants and moved the curtain aside. “Why is she wet?”
“Bath time,” Aiden, Muffin, and Colton answered together. Only Muffin said it more like “Baff time.”
Groaning, Payton peeked out the window. “I forgot about that. Bad planning all the way around. I’m going to throttle Tarren.” He set Muffin down, did another quick surveillance outside, and climbed out of the room. Reaching back inside, he snagged Muffin. Once he got the little girl settled onto his hip again, he motioned to Aiden and Colton. “Come on. I don’t see any guards outside yet, and we have mere seconds before our father and sire come in here. They’re going room to room.”
Aiden grabbed his sketchscreen while Colton disappeared through the billowing gold fabric and midnight blue brocade. Once outside, he reached back in, offering to hold Aiden’s screen while Aiden climbed out.
After taking his screen back from Colton, the three of them and Muffin snuck around the perimeter of the castle. Colton took the lead, leaving Payton and Muffin to bring up the rear. If they could make it around back, the hedges and rosebushes in the formal garden would conceal them as they made their way to the stables.
“Psst.” Payton tapped Aiden’s shoulder. “Give me your cravat.”
“What?” Aiden turned to his older sibling. Payton had on a navy morning coat, a pale blue waistcoat over a snowy white shirt and neckcloth. “Why?”
“So I can fashion some sort of cover for Muffin. I can’t walk around with her naked.”
Aiden didn’t see why not; she was a little girl. It might not be acceptable for her to go unclothed, but it would look much worse for Aiden to go around disheveled. Not that he particularly cared, but Father would have his hide if he caused a scandal. Aiden nearly scoffed at the thought. How many times had he heard and discarded the rules of propriety? Just going out unchaperoned would result in a scandal if he were caught. “Fine. Colton, hold this.” Handing off his screen to his brother, Aiden untied his cravat and tossed it to Payton.
“Thank you. Now take her so I can take off my own.” Payton passed the naked sprite to Aiden and proceeded to unknot his cravat.
Grabbing Aiden’s cheeks with her chubby little hands, Muffin planted a big sloppy kiss right on his lips. “I like to play outside.”
“Would you three hurry?” Colton hissed over his shoulder, already several yards ahead of them.
They jogged to catch up, with Muffin clinging to Aiden’s neck and Payton stripping as he followed. When they made it to the side of the garden, directly across from the stables and carriage house, they stopped for a breath, and Aiden set Muffin on her feet.
Payton wrapped the neckcloths around her, fashioning a sort of toga. It was an interesting ensemble, but Muffin didn’t seem to mind.
She preened for them. “Is it pretty?”
Aiden chuckled. “Yes, Muffin, you’re pretty.”
Groaning, Colton handed Aiden his sketchscreen. “Rexley will throttle all of us if he sees her dressed like that.”
“Well, it’s certainly better than her going in the buff,” Payton said, and he picked Muffin back up.
“I suppose that’s true.” Looking back toward the castle, Colton cocked his head to the side. “Now we have to sneak to the stables. I need to get Apollo if I’m going to ride to the creek.”
“Why are you wasting your free time riding by the creek?” Aiden asked. “You can do that with a chaperone.”
Grinning, Colton raised a brow. “Yes, but if I run into Wentworth on his day off with a chaperone, I can’t—”
Payton started shaking his head before Colton ever finished his sentence. “No. You are not to go near Lord Wentworth without a chaperone. Sebastian Hastings may be the head of the Royal Guards, but he’s a widower and single, not to mention a known rake. You’ll be compromised. Then what? Father and Cony will blame me because I shut off The Spy.”
Aiden nodded his agreement. Payton would be in as much trouble as Colton, but Colton would be forced into a nuptial ceremony with Wentworth. Knowing Colton, that was probably his goal. Unlike Aiden and Payton, Colton actually enjoyed being out in society and seeking a consort. “You’ll get us all caught! Wentworth will just bring you right back here,” Aiden warned. “Come on.” He nudged Colton. “I want to get one of the lifts and go to the docks before someone catches us. I’ve been dying to sketch the hydro-space freighters and the water ships.” Brothers really were such a pain sometimes.