Copyright © 2011 Chandra Ryan
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“There you two are,” Aster cried, sending a group of workers scattering in all directions.

Sara had to bite her tongue to contain a laugh as the short, stocky man came charging toward them. The normally calm, impeccably dressed cook looked one mishap from a complete breakdown.

“I swear, I don’t know where Lady Drake scraped up the extra help, but if it were up to me they would all be rotting in the Black Woods.” He wiped his hands on his once white apron, adding yet another streak of color to it. “Liv, I need you to run to the butcher and tell him to add thirty pounds of venison to tonight’s order. Sara, you’ve a guest. I would tell you to make it quick, but I don’t think he’d appreciate it. And I’ve come to enjoy the simple things, like breathing, too much to upset one such as him.”

Sara’s heart raced and her stomach churned at the announcement. Why would he want to see her?

A number of possibilities sprang to mind, each worse than the last. The worse by far, though, was the thought of him offering her a job at Hunter’s Keep. Wouldn’t that be an experience? To serve at the keep she was once to be the lady of.

“Where?”

“Right here, chickadee,” a deep voice answered behind her. Turning toward the man, she was momentarily stunned. “Not the Hunter you were expecting?” he asked dryly.

“Kavin?” He was Devin’s older brother, although none would guess it if they saw the two standing next to each other. They were almost polar opposites. Devin had been blessed with the graceful beauty of refinement. But Kavin, she looked him over quickly, he was handsome in a more rugged—more natural way. “Gods, no one told me you were here.” No one had even thought it.

“King’s guards do pride themselves on stealth,” he quipped. “You don’t seem very excited to see me.” He gave her one of his signature smiles. The very same smile that had made her knees weak as a young girl.

“Oh, sorry, no, it’s not that. I’ve just been under a lot of…” She stopped to take a breath. “Gods, Kavin,” she started again, “it’s great to see you.”

“That’s more like it.”

Staring at him was like staring into her past. He seemed untouched by age. With the exception of a sprinkling of gray in his black hair and a few lines at the corners of his eyes, he looked almost exactly as she remembered him. Well, that and an angry red streak that raced from behind his ear and down his neck. “You haven’t been very careful, have you?” Absently, she traced the scar with her fingertips.

He deftly stepped away from her touch before gesturing at his uniform. “Hazard of wearing black, I’m afraid.” The solid black leather was broken only by a small golden King’s Crest that sat on his right shoulder and a golden pin of rank that rested on the collar. She’d always loved the way he looked in the uniform, not that she remembered him in much else. “Can we talk, Sara, someplace quiet?”

“The library’s about the quietest place around here.” She looked at Aster for permission as she said the words. The slight nod he gave her was all she needed.

“Then lead the way.”

Walking past him, she smiled at the aroma of sandalwood mixed with fresh earth that greeted her. It was a comforting smell that took her back to her childhood when he’d spend days drilling her on swordplay or horsemanship.

But tonight wasn’t for dwelling on the past. Pushing the memories aside, she forced herself to focus as they made their way through the maze of stone-walled corridors. “It looks like guard life is still treating you well—for the most part.”

“I’ve got no complaints. You look like you’ve lost too much weight, however.”

She gasped at the bluntness of the statement, but then hid her reaction quickly. “I see your social skills haven’t improved. It’s no wonder you haven’t swept some young damsel off her feet.”

His footsteps stopped for a second, leaving her to wonder if she’d overstepped. But the familiar echo returned before she became too worried. “Still haven’t learned to respect your elders.” His voice was dry, but his soft chuckle set her at ease. “What a relief.”

“A few gray hairs don’t exactly make you my elder.” Stopping in front of the large wooden doors to the library, she turned to study him. “So tell me, why have you ventured this far from civilization?” she asked, using her back to push open the door. “Business or did you finally miss me?”

There was a touch of sadness around him, but it disappeared so quickly she wondered if she had imagined it.

“Come on, Sara, you should know me well enough to answer that.”

“Business it is then.” The admission stung a bit, but she dismissed it quickly. He wouldn’t be Kavin if he didn’t commit one hundred percent to everything—especially the guard.

“It’s not that I haven’t missed you, but I’ve been—”

“Busy,” she answered for him. Turning abruptly, she walked into the book-lined room.

As it always did, the calm of the room swept through her instantly. And before he could intrude on the peace, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, relishing the smell of worn leather and dust.

“I have been busy,” he argued as he stepped through the doorway.

Smiling at his indignant tone, she realized she didn’t want to fight—not with him at least. Of all the people she’d had to leave behind in her life, he was one of the few she genuinely missed. “It’s okay, Kavin, I’m just glad you made time to see me now.”

He looked at her solemnly as he sat down in one of the overstuffed leather chairs. “Actually, you are my business.”

She managed to hold a stiff smile even as her heart skipped a beat in terror. “That’s not funny.” There were very few things that made someone the business of the King’s Guard and none of them were good.

“And I’m not joking. Sit.” He pointed to the chair opposite him as he gave the command.

“I’m a big girl, Kavin, I don’t need to sit to hear bad news.” Despite her argument, she sank into one of the soft leather chairs.

“You may be of age, but I doubt you’re as big as you think you are.”

A spark of irritation flickered in her stomach but it wasn’t enough to compete with the fear racing through her veins. “Fine, out with it then.” The sooner he talked, the sooner she could figure out how much trouble she was in.

“Sara, the king has asked me to recruit you for the guard.” His gaze caught hers, something akin to sympathy shadowing it.

“Why? I have nothing the king would want or need,” she lied. “I’m nothing, Kavin. A penniless lady, forced to serve at another’s keep in order to survive.”

“We’ve never played games, you and I. I don’t want to start now.” “He knows, little one,” he thought, his gaze still holding hers captive.

The intimacy of the intrusion was startling. She’d caught stray thoughts here and there over the past week, but had never had anyone speak directly to her mind.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but you had to know the king would find out. He had us on our way to collect you before the sun set on your birthday.” This time he softened his tone and his thoughts flowed over her like the gentle breeze after a storm.

“And if I decline?” She was stalling as the room closed in around her. “What then? Would I be executed or imprisoned?” There had to be some consequence for refusing a direct order from the king. And since those two seemed to be the favored punishments, it was a logical leap.

“There’s no need for drama, Sara. No one’s going to die or be imprisoned over this. If you decline, you would simply drink some Royalsbane and I would be on my way.”

Thinking of the poison that would strip her of her gift permanently only made her fear grow. “Oh, just drink Royalsbane? Is that all?” She mustered up a disappointed glared for his benefit. “I would never drink it and you know it.”

It had nothing to do with her gift being telepathy specifically. But the magic was the only thing she had left of her Raven ancestry. The last tie she had to her family. If she gave it up, it’d be like giving them up—again.

“Well then, we have your answer, don’t we?”