DG sighed at the doorway of the cozy dining room. Glitch and Az were discussing something in detail while Raw watched with a smile. No Cain. Cain had always seen them for breakfast. But he hadn't in the two weeks since he and DG had returned from Kansas.
She sat next to Raw. He patted her hand. "Cain will leave search soon."
"I know." Lackey 1, 2, and 4 had escaped. Cain wasn't stopping until they were in custody. But he had turned down her help, had stopped coming to breakfast, and had become an unseen presence in Finaqua. The kitchen staff swore he was eating, so she wasn't afraid he was brooding over vengeance.
"Oh, DG, before I forget." Glitch waved a butter knife. "Duke Herku is arriving today to visit you." He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"Can't you get rid of him?"
"I would if I could, but he made your mother think it was all set up already so she said sure, come visit."
"This one might have potential if he's willing to trick his way into your company." Azkadellia sipped her tea.
DG swore that someone created the courting ritual of the O.Z. to torment her fears of strange men. If she could just get to know them in a neutral setting like a book club or rescuing them, but no, in the O.Z., she was on display fully-clothed and the conversations were practically negotiations. "Could someone tell Cain I'd appreciate him close-by in case this Duke gets handsy?"
"Will do," Glitch answered.
Cain sent two guards to shadow her instead. She recognized the darker version of Pete as his older brother, Charles.
Duke Herku was polite enough around other people, but DG's suspicion wasn't fooled. It wore her down though, so when Herku invited her into his suite's parlor with a strong hint to leave the guards in the hall, she did just that to see what would happen.
The Duke smiled as DG perched in an easy chair close to the door. "I believe I have attained a record for the longest time spent in your presence, your Highness."
"I didn't realize it was a contest. Are you expecting a prize?"
"Actually, I have a gift for you." He moved out of sight but she heard him shift through his luggage. "You will find that I understand you better than the rest of your suitors." His arms circled the armchair, holding a band in his hands, and guided it towards her neck. "I know what you need," his hot breath caressed her cheek, "Gutterdoxy."
DG grabbed the choker as she bolted upright, shoving the chair into Duke Herku. He stumbled back and her blast of energy sent him to the floor. "GUARDS!"
They burst into the room, blinking at her and the Duke prone on the floor.
"Charles, if he moves, shoot him. You," she pointed to the one she couldn't name, "go get Wyatt Cain. And if he gives you any gruff, tell him it's an order!"
He saluted and ran while Charles, with a hand on his holstered gun, stared down at the Duke.
The Duke glared at her. "You stupid whore! You have no idea what you're doing. You don't know anything about ruling a country. You need me to correct you." He smirked. "The very idea excites you, doesn't it?"
"Save your breath, you asshole." The gemstones in the collar cut into her palm.
"When the people find out your dirty little secret," the Duke tsked. "You frightened the Longcoats with how you enjoyed torture."
She sent a blast past Charles and the Duke's head hit the floor again. "I said save your breath, you asshole!"
Cain entered with a small brigade of guards. "Restrain him." His stride didn't stop until he guided her across the room, where they could have a little privacy. "What happened?"
"I found out where your missing Longcoats went." His eyes widened. "He called me gutterdoxy and tried to collar me." She opened her hand and looked at the collar. Anyone else would see an emerald and diamond encrusted choker. All she saw was the lock without a keyhole for the clasp.
Cain's nostrils flared. He scooped the jewelry out of her hand. "You shouldn't be here for this. Go back to your rooms." Her expression must have finally achieved regal pissiness, because Cain went into soothing mode. "You'll be told what's going on, but right now you have to let me do my job."
"All right." She went back to her rooms, and promptly lost herself in a daydream of bruising embraces, righteous fury, and unyielding flesh. How dare he try to collar what belongs to me!
The knock on the door woke her from it rudely, but it also signaled that maybe it would come true. The blond man in the hall was Ahamo. "You were expecting someone else?" he asked with a grin.
"Yes. Sorry, I'm fine."
Ahamo grinned as he sat down on the couch. "Fred was agitated that you took care of it before he could. Cain sent me to tell you what's going on."
"Oh." DG put on her listening expression while Ahamo explained how the Duke admitted to his ill intentions, how he would lose his title and lands, and how they wanted her to go to his lands and find the rest of Zero's lackeys with a full battalion of soldiers. She said she had no problems with those plans while Cain sent me echoed in her mind.
After Ahamo left, she focused on what had happened. Cain had kept her in the loop, but without seeing her. He had been avoiding her since they returned from Kansas.
Her stomach knotted. She thought he had forgiven her. Perhaps he had, but still couldn't face the reminder of what Zero had done. What she had allowed Zero to do.
That explained so much. Her hands shook as she paced. She didn't blame him; she knew how it felt. She wished he had trusted her enough to tell her. Then she wouldn't have this bitter rejection in her mouth. She would have forgotten how his body had made hers sing.
But why should he trust her when she was just as guilty?
Tears filled her eyes. She had hoped too hard for understanding. The rooms grew smaller. She needed fresh air. The doors of her rooms slammed open. She had to get out. The run to the gazebo was a blur but no one stopped her. DG didn't stop until her hand circled one of the graceful roof supports. She panted in the cool night air.
Wyatt Cain didn't want her.
Why should he want a pathetic girl who was fool enough to swoon for piercing blue eyes that saw through nearly all defenses, a husky voice that barked orders more often than not, and stance that oozed discipline that she didn't have. She clutched the column to keep the sob inside.
There was a footstep behind her. DG whirled. Charles' savage face filled her view. His swinging arm ended with the butt of his gun. Sharp pain in her head and all went black.