Darling opened the door to his sister’s dorm room and smiled as he saw her sitting on her bed with pink earphones set deep into her ears while she studied for her finals. He could hear the bass from her music even at his distance. Unaware of his presence and completely lost to her blissful youth, she bobbed her head and kept time to the raucous beat with her stylus. She didn’t appear to have a worry in the universe—a state of existence he’d fought hard to give her.
Thank the gods she was still untouched and happy. That alone was worth every degradation and beating he’d ever suffered.
With her long red hair in pigtails that fell to her waist, Lise was beautiful —an exact duplicate of their mother, except for the hazel green eyes she’d inherited from their father. She was extremely tall for a woman. Barely an inch shorter than he was, she towered over their petite mother and most other women.
Sitting on the frilly pink bed in a blue tank top and shorts, surrounded by primitive print textbooks and her e-reader and note ledger, she was all skinny arms and legs.
How he wished he’d been able to study for his exams in such peace and security.
Unlike his brother and sister, Darling had been brought home from school the moment his father had died—two days before his brother and sister had even been notified of the murder. A lovely task his mother and uncle had delegated to him. There were some things a twelve-year-old shouldn’t have to do and telling your little brother and sister they wouldn’t see their father again was one of them.
After the funeral, Arturo had demanded he stay at the palace to be tutored, supposedly for his own protection. But Darling knew the truth. It was another way for his uncle to keep him under control and make sure Darling didn’t try to find another relative to pose as Grand Counsel until his majority.
From that day forward, he’d scarcely had a moment of freedom from his uncle’s overbearing presence or fists—not unless he’d somehow managed to run away for it. But that had changed when he was seventeen, and his uncle had made the unfortunate mistake of hiring Nykyrian to guard Darling for public functions. Thinking the fierce Andarion would intimidate him into behaving, his uncle had never dreamed they would become close friends.
His uncle’s second biggest mistake.
Because of his own battered past, Nykyrian had welcomed Darling in like a brother. Rather than ride herd on him as his uncle wanted, Nykyrian had given him a cover story so that Darling could finally live like he was almost normal, and have days of freedom at a stretch.
At least until his uncle got nervous about his whereabouts and sicced his dogs on him. Then Darling was dragged back to his cell and kept there until something else distracted Arturo.
When Nykyrian had founded the Sentella to protect innocent victims from the League and her allies, Darling had gladly signed on as their youngest member, and one of the five leaders.
To this day, his uncle had no idea about the other life Darling had been living for years.
But he was about to meet Kere. And there would be no mercy for him.
First though, Darling had to make sure his family was safe.
Annalise and her roommate, who was on the bed next to hers, finally looked up from their work to see him in the doorway.
Lise smiled brightly as she turned her music off. “Sashi? What are you doing here?” Her smile turned into a look of sheer astonishment as she skimmed Darling’s body from the high collar of the black battlesuit he wore, all the way to the shining tips of his flight boots. She arched her brow. “And dressed like that, no less. Wow. You almost look straight, shilo.”
Darling didn’t respond to her term of endearment that meant “adored brother.”
“I need you to come with me.”
All the blood left her beautiful face as her jaw went slack. “Momair?”
He felt like a total ass as he realized what he’d done to her. The last time he’d spoken to her in a tone like that had been the night he’d told her their father was dead. “She’s fine. Drake’s fine. I’m fine. I just need you to come with me.”
Fury darkened her hazel green eyes. “You dick! Don’t you dare scare me like that. You know better. I can’t believe you’d do that to me. Asshole!” Letting out an irritated breath, she gestured to the electronics and books around her. “And I can’t just leave. I have exams tomorrow.”
“They can wait.”
Her roommate snorted. “He hasn’t met your instructors, has he?”
Darling ignored her. “Lise. Move it. Now.”
This time she arched both brows at his military-issued orders. “What has gotten into you? You been drinking testosterone from Drake’s cup? No offense, but I want my sweet, gay brother back. Please go find him and take this one away. I don’t like him at all.”
Darling cursed in Phrixian under his breath. He hated whenever Lise dug her heels in over something. Spoiled by everyone around her, even her own guards, she’d always been the most impossible creature in the universe. Second only to their mother, anyway. “Do I have to stun you and carry you out?”
Her eyes dared him to try it. “You do and I’ll tell Momair on you.”
Scoffing at her threat, he’d pay money to see his mother take him to task. Ladling him with guilt, though, was another matter entirely…
“Oh wait,” he said in a fearful tone, “that would mean she’d actually have to speak to me.” He made a sound of utter shock. “Maybe even acknowledge my existence. Gods forbid! Kere’s fire throne would freeze over from the shock of it.”
Honestly, he couldn’t remember the last time his mother had said anything to him at all. Even a single syllable. Must have been at least three or four years ago. Maybe more. Whenever she found herself in his presence, she’d quickly walk out the closest door. In the beginning, he’d taken it personally. Now, he strangely considered it amusing.
“Forget it, sis. It’ll never happen.” He tapped his watch. “You have five minutes to get dressed in something a little more appropriate before I stun you and carry you out of here. Naked if I have to.”
She jerked her earphones out in a royal huff. “Gah, I swear you’ve been hanging out with that barbarian Syn too long. You’re starting to sound like him.” She finally got up and began cramming her materials into a pink tote. “Where are we going and how long will I be gone?”
“A few days.”
“Does Momair know?”
“I’m taking you to her and Drake.”
Lise straightened up with a frown. “Do I need to pack clothes?”
“No. I don’t want you to take anything too personal. I want it to look like you’ll be back any second.”
She glanced at her roommate before she looked back at him. “Now you are starting to scare me.”
He didn’t respond to that as he met her roommate’s gaze. “Can you tell her instructors that we had a family emergency?”
As soon as Lise had pulled on a pair of acceptable pants over her shorts, and a large shirt and shoes, he took her arm to guide her from her room, and down the hallway of her dorm.
She looked around with a frown. “Where are my guards?”
“Out of commission for a while.” Making sure they couldn’t see him, he’d stunned them unconscious and stashed them in a back room down the hallway.
She slowed her pace. “Sashi, you have to tell me what’s going on. Are we running from Arturo?”
Only Lise called him sashi. It was the Caronese word for “beloved.” An epithet she’d given him when she was four years old and he’d taught her to catch glow flies in their back garden.
Even though she was twenty now, he still saw her as that adorable toddler who would run to him, laughing the whole way.
Because he’d been forced to grow up so young while his siblings had been able to have a fairly normal childhood, he had a hard time thinking of them as adults. Something that seriously pissed them both off.
But he couldn’t help it. He was too used to taking fire for them. Besides, he felt more like their father than their brother.
Darling eased his grip on her arm. “Yes, we’re running from Arturo.”
“Why didn’t you say something in my room?”
“I didn’t want your roommate to know. I have to make sure all of you are safe for a few days.”
She scowled at him. “You’re really scaring me. I know something’s wrong. What is it?”
“I’m going to get us out from under his fist.”
She stopped so abruptly that he lost his grip on her. “What are you going to do? Is it dangerous? It better not be dangerous…Is it dangerous?”
He had to clamp down on the urge to strangle her for holding them up. While Arturo didn’t care about Drake or their mother, he did check up on Annalise from time to time—a virgin princess was worth a lot more on the marriage market than a used one. And the guards he’d knocked out would wake up soon and find her gone.
They had to be off planet before that happened or they’d never make it.
“Lise, I don’t have time to explain, okay? I need you to trust me and cooperate.”
“All right.” She lifted her hand to touch the scarred side of his face. “But please don’t get hurt, sashi. Not for me or for anything. You’re the only father I’ve ever known, and you’re the only person in this entire universe I know I can call if I need something. I can’t lose you, you know? You’re all I have.”
Touched by her heartfelt words, Darling kissed her on the forehead. “It’ll be fine. Now we need to get moving.”
She nodded before she finally picked up the pace.
He led her through campus and out toward the landing bay where he’d left his unmarked fighter.
They were almost home free.
Just a few minutes more.
If they could make it to launch, no one would be able to stop them. He’d have her safely tucked away with Nykyrian, and everything would change for the better.
Tomorrow, they would be free to live the lives they should have been living all along.
C’mon, fate, don’t screw me in this.
Inside the hangar, Darling glanced over at a small group of six men dressed as college engineers, but he paid them no heed as he led his sister toward his ship on the left.
Not until he overheard one of them speaking to the others in Caronese- a language that wasn’t common here in the Garvon sector. Fearing assassins were after him, he listened to their conversation intently. “Hey, isn’t that the princess we’re after?”
Those words registered at the same time he saw the group rushing toward them, reaching for weapons.
What the hell? They weren’t Caronese soldiers or guards his uncle might have sent. They were dressed as civs.
But their weapons were military grade…
Shit. It was an attack.
When their leader ducked out from the corner in front of them, Darling’s blood ran cold.
It was Clarion Lubomir. Zarya’s right hand…and his ally.
No, not Darling’s ally.
Double shit. Clarion would never believe that Kere was also the Caronese heir they fought against and hated. None of them would. All they saw was a royal-blooded enemy who stood for everything that had ever repressed them. Every failure in their lives. Every disappointment from not having a better job to being saddled with a spouse who nagged them to distraction.
It was all his family’s fault.
Not one of those men knew how many shots he’d taken to protect their backs. How many times he’d fought by their side against his uncle’s soldiers.
How many times he’d carried them to safety when they were wounded or under fire. And right now, even if they did, they most likely wouldn’t care anyway. You wear the uniform, you’re judged by the banner on the sleeve- the same banner we’ll wrap around your body for your burial.
They opened fire.
Darling moved to cover his sister. “Run, Lise! Get to my ship.”
Without questioning him, she dropped her tote, and for once, obeyed. Running backward, Darling tried to protect her as best he could.
He mentally reviewed the weapons he had on him. They were all designed to kill. If he used even a single one, it’d tear his allies apart. That was the last thing he wanted. They were good men with families he knew in some cases on an intimate level. They didn’t deserve to die over a stupid mistake.
Think, Darling, think. The last thing he’d anticipated was his own allies assaulting him.
Damn it! Why hadn’t he even considered it?
’Cause the bastards were supposed to be in Caronese territory, not Garvon.
Oh yeah, there was that…
Not to mention, they’d never gone after his family before. Arturo, his wife and daughters, yes. But Darling’s immediate family had always been off limits.
He growled in frustration. He’d only had the two stun blasts he’d used on Lise’s guards. Why hadn’t he brought more?
’Cause who would have thought of this?
Darling kept himself between Lise and their fire as he went with her, toward the ship. Blasts of color ricocheted everywhere. Thank the gods they weren’t better shots. Over the past years, he’d often laughed at Clarion for his lousy aim and had even tried to teach him how to shoot better.
Thank the gods Clarion was a slow learner.
One blast came within millimeters of Lise. Had she not put her head down a second earlier to run faster, she’d have lost it.
His blood boiled. So this was Clarion’s great plan? To kidnap his sister and what? Hold her for ransom? Was he out of his idiotarian mind? Arturo wouldn’t pay to get her back. He’d assume her raped and then she would be useless to him. The only value she had to their uncle was as a virgin bride. Shit, shit, shit…
Lise made it to the ship, then hesitated as she glanced at Darling and the men on their heels. If she went up the ladder, she’d be an easy target even with their limited abilities.
Turning around, Darling pulled out his blaster and opened cover fire, trying to buy her enough time to get into the cockpit. He had no intention of wounding them. All he aimed for was the space between Clarion and the man on his left.
But it didn’t work that way.
The moment he pulled the trigger, his blast was absorbed as if the Resistance fighters were protected by a force field. An instant later, pulses of energy shot out in all directions.
It was a distinctive pattern he knew all too well, since it was one he’d designed and created.
One of the blasts struck him hard in the chest, knocking him off his feet forcefully enough to skid him across the concrete floor. Had he not been wearing his armor, it would have killed him. But worse than his wound, the pulses split into a whole round of volleys that bounced through the hangar—just like he’d built them to do.
He watched in horror as one of the pulses went straight into his little sister’s back. “Sashi! Help me!” she screamed before she was paralyzed by the blast. It knocked her away from the ladder to land beside his ship.
Her cry for him tore him apart. But not as much as the fact that he couldn’t get to the little sister he’d sworn over and over again to protect from all harm.
Terrified, he stared at her as a pool of red spread across the concrete, bleeding out from under her body.
There was so much blood. It soaked her clothes and covered her outstretched hand. Darling wanted to go to her and protect her. But he couldn’t move at all.
And he knew exactly why. The tricom—the weapon he’d built solely for Zarya to protect her from enemies. Instead, it’d been used against him and Lise.
I killed my baby sister…
Tears filled his eyes as the truth kicked his teeth in and struck him harder than the blast that had paralyzed him. Grief and agony shredded his conscience.
By trying to save Lise, he’d caused her death. How could he have been so stupid? How could fate have done this to him?
The Resistance members came forward with cocky strides, laughing at their success. Two went over to Lise while the rest surrounded Darling.
One of them kicked his shoulder with the toe of his boot. “Look at that. The bastard can’t move at all.”
Another one clapped hands with Clarion. “I can’t believe it worked! Man, we need to send Kere flowers or a woman or something to say thank you for this.”
Clarion smiled as he pulled the tricom off his belt and kissed it. “I can’t wait to tell Zarya how well this worked. She’s not going to believe it.”
The rebel who’d bent over his sister stood up. “I got bad news, guys. The bitch here is dead.”
Darling felt a single tear sliding from the corner of his eye as the rebel confirmed his worst fear.
His precious baby sister was dead.
Because of me.
Because of something he’d invented…
Over and over, he saw images of Lise reaching for him to hold or protect her. Saw the smile in her eyes and heard her laughter as she hugged him tight, and told him how much she loved her big brother. He’d been eight when she was born, and from the moment he’d first seen her bald head and those huge hazel green eyes staring at him, and she’d wrapped her tiny, baby fingers around his pinkie before gumming it, she’d owned his heart.
No matter their fights. No matter their differences. She had meant everything to him.
How could she be gone?
How could I have killed her?
The soldier closest to him cursed. “Are you sure?”
“See for yourself. The blast left a huge hole in her. What a waste, too. We could have definitely had fun with her while we waited for payment.”
Unmitigated fury, agony, and grief tore through Darling’s blackened soul.
How could he ever face his mother and brother after this?
How could he ever face himself?
Why couldn’t it have killed me, too?
One of the soldiers kicked him in the ribs. “Stupid son of a whore! Damn you, for screwing this up.” Aiming his blaster at Darling’s head, he looked over to Clarion. “You want me to kill this one, too?”
Snarling in anger, Clarion approached Darling. With the toe of his boot, he lifted Darling’s face so that he could see his features. The moment he did, a wide smile curved his lips. “Oh no, Davon. This…this is much better than even the princess.”
Clarion laughed again as he kicked Darling’s head. “What we have here, gentlemen, is the lovely royal fag himself. Darling Cruel. Caronese heir to the throne and future governor of our worthless empire. We just hit the mother lode of good fortune.” He clapped hands with Davon. “Get him on board before someone else sees him. He’ll be worth ten times what the princess was.”