Syn grimaced as he took Darling’s chin in his hand to study the bruises. “What the hell happened to you?”
Darling gave him a droll stare. “What do you think?” Syn cursed. “I swear I’m going to kill that bastard someday.”
“Get in line.”
Syn sighed as he released him. “What was it over this time?”
“Dumbass thinks I’m dating the manwhore of all time.”
Syn scowled in incredulous disbelief. “Dagan?”
“Yeah,” Darling said with a sarcastic laugh. “You know anyone else who can compete with his record?”
Syn shook his head. “I’d pay good money to see you hook up with him.”
“I would too, but then Caillen would have my ass in a sling and I’d be dead so it wouldn’t do me any good.”
Syn returned for his whisky. “Why would he think that anyway?”
“Private fu—” he broke his word off as he looked at Kiara, “investigator. Caught me at a bar with Caillen while he was trolling for his nightly concubine and I was trying to relax. The photo he took was of Caillen leaning over to whisper something to me and I have to admit, it’s pretty damning to anyone unaware of the fact that I don’t have the proper anatomy to entice him. Of course, Arturo wouldn’t believe it was innocent so here you go.” He gestured at his face.
Syn lifted his hair to look at the other side of his face. “Did you see a doctor?”
“Yeah. It’ll heal.”
“Did your mom say anything?”
“Clean the blood out of the carpet before it sets.” Darling cleared his throat. “What could she say? Better me than her.”
Kiara was horrified by what he described and, by his face, she could tell he wasn’t exaggerating.
“Anyway, Nyk sent me here to get those files you’ve been working on for him.”
Syn’s scowl deepened. “Why?”
“As if he’d tell me? I don’t even know what I’m getting. All he said was to grab and upload the data since you weren’t supposed to be here.”
“Then why did you knock?”
“Just in case you were home. I don’t want to get hit again and my peripheral vision is seriously compromised right now. So if you copped one of your notorious right hooks at me, I wouldn’t see it coming in time to duck.”
Syn let out a tired breath. “I’d never hit you, Cruel. I only fantasize about strangling you.”
“You’re a sick bastard to waste a perfectly good fantasy on that.”
Syn laughed. “It’s in the safe in my room. The red drive.” He met Kiara’s eyes. “And on that note, I hate to be rude, but I’ve got to get her highness”—he sneered the word—“to safety before you know who figures out where I live. Unlike Kip, my address isn’t that hard to find. Lock the door and don’t forget to reactivate the scanner.”
Syn held his hand out to her. “Are you staying with us, your queenship?”
Kiara hesitated. She was terrified of them, but they had saved her three times now when her father’s people hadn’t. No matter what her personal opinions about them, this did seem the safest course of action.
At least as long as she wanted to stay alive.
Please don’t let me regret this . . .
Swallowing the lump of fear in her throat, she took his hand, not really sure if what she did was for the best. “For now.”
Syn pulled her to her feet and they headed toward the door. He led the way through the building and to his ship. His hand stayed on the grip of his weapon, ready to pull it out in a heartbeat. He kept his head low as if listening and watching.
Something that made her more aware herself and drove home to her exactly how tenuous her safety was. She’d never seen Syn this nervous—not even when they were about to be blown to pieces.
Unwilling to distract him, Kiara didn’t speak again until they were safely tucked inside Syn’s two-seated fighter and out of the planet’s orbit.
“What happened to Darling’s face?”
His voice dripped sarcasm as it echoed from the speakers in her helmet. “It got hit. Repeatedly.”
She rolled her eyes. “By whom? His boyfriend?”
He scoffed. “Cruel isn’t stupid enough to hook up with someone who’d beat him and if anyone ever made that mistake, he’d hand their heart to them. You know . . . Nykyrian style.”
She cringed at his cruelty in reminding her of what Nykyrian had done. “Then what happened to him?”
He flipped a switch, then banked. “You know anything about the Caronese?”
“Yeah, well, they’re a strange race. Their male children aren’t considered adults until they’re thirty. Four more years for Darling. In the meantime, he falls under the guardianship of his uncle, who can’t stand the fact that Darling isn’t interested in women. Anytime he catches Darling associating with men, Darling gets a visit from his fists.”
She winced at that. “Why does he tolerate it?”
“His uncle happens to be their Grand Counsel. Darling causes any trouble or pisses him off and he can have him put in jail or a mental facility, which he’s done in the past, or have him executed. If he tries to leave, Arturo has him dragged back in chains. Believe me, we’ve tried to extract him from there many times. It always backfires on Darling.”
Kiara sighed. Syn had been right. She couldn’t fathom their backgrounds. The brutality and horror.
Her mother had died trying to keep her safe and her father wouldn’t hesitate to do the same. The worst thing her parents had ever done was yell at her. “What about his mother? Can’t she do something?”
“On Caron, women have no authority and are considered perpetual children. While she loves Darling, there’s nothing she can do, and so long as she stays out of it, Darling’s younger sister and brother are left alone. If she interferes, it goes worse on Darling. Not to mention, she then becomes the one abused. So Darling has told her to do nothing and let the beatings fall as they may. As he said, better him than his frail mother.”
She ground her teeth at the injustice of that. “So he pays the price for all of them?”
“Yep. The world sucks, doesn’t it?”
But that knowledge made her even more curious about Darling’s friendship with them. “If his uncle is so controlling, how is it he works for The Sentella?”
“His uncle doesn’t know that. The man’s a bit thick. He thinks he’s hired Kip to guard Darling and that we’re keeping him out of trouble.”
“But if he’s hired private investigators—”
“They report what they find, and if there’s one thing we’re all good at, it’s manipulating things. No one knows what goes on inside The Sentella.”
“You mean falsifying documents?”
“You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll report this?”
“You have to live first, and even if you do, you have to find the real files to prove the existing ones are false. Trust me, you won’t.”
She stared at the back of his head. “What about Nemesis?”
“What about him?”
“How does he figure into all of this?”
“Do you really think I’m going to answer that?”
No, she didn’t. So she switched to something she might have more luck with. “Where are you taking me?”
Kiara couldn’t have been more shocked had Syn turned around and shot her. “I’m surprised he’d allow me near it.”
“Me, too.” Syn shifted in the seat.
She frowned in confusion. “Then why are you taking me there?”
“Because he told me to.”
“You always do what he tells you to?”
With that simple statement of loyalty, she remained quiet and watched the stars zoom past outside as she thought about everything she’d seen and learned today.
It wasn’t even noon yet and she felt battered and weary. How could so much happen in such a short period of time?
And how much worse would it get? She was almost afraid to ask that question even in her head for fear of the powers that be dumping more down on her.
But in spite of it all, she found herself relaxing a bit as she tried to come to terms with the two polar extremes of the men around her.
Fierce protectors and vicious killers.
How could they be both?
It didn’t take long to reach Nykyrian’s planet. Kiara stared at the swirling orange and yellow mists. It seemed so peaceful and isolated. An untouched piece of heaven.
Syn landed outside a floating house that was almost as large as her entire housing building. He docked in the bay and pressed a button.
“We have to wait for the bay to pressurize and a breathable atmosphere to mix.”
She didn’t say anything as she glanced about the bay where another fighter was parked. The engine to it was in pieces around it. From the condition of the fighter and the way everything was laid out, she figured it must be a long-term project of Nykyrian’s and it made her wonder if he’d restored the fighter he flew, too.
The bay itself was large enough to accommodate six ships and, aside from that organized mess where he was working on the other ship, everything was sparkling clean and unbelievably orderly.
After a couple of minutes, Syn lifted the hatch and helped her down.
As soon as he reached the door and gave a palm scan, he held her back. “Careful.” He opened the door.
Expecting a booby trap or alarm, she was stunned as they were bombarded by a huge lorina. The animal jumped up on her, licking her cheek with its large, rough tongue. Three more danced around them.
“I hate these things.” Syn pushed them away from him. “They think they’re lap pets. Down, Ilyse.” He extricated himself from the smallest one. “Down!”
Kiara smiled, petting the one licking her arm. “Are there just the four?”
“Yeah. Believe me, four’s plenty. Come on in and make yourself at home. There’s no telling when Kip’ll return.”
Syn walked through the house, switching on lights with a hand control. “This is the kitchen,” he said, showing her the huge, gleaming white area to the right of the door. It was a chef’s dream, with an industrial steel stove, huge cooling unit, and a full array of gourmet pots and pans hanging from hooks in the ceiling. His knives were lined in perfect symmetry along the wall on a magnetic strip.
Syn moved toward the shining black staircase. “Kip’s room is up those stairs.” He held up his remote to show the controls to her. “Everything in the house is wired to this. You can lighten the ceiling to see the sky, and the same for the upstairs wall where Nykyrian sleeps.” He held down a button and, sure enough, the ceiling became transparent to let her see the bright stars twinkling in the heavens.
How absolutely beautiful.
Syn led her through the main room that was flanked by a media room on one side and an exercise room on the other. A study and computer rooms were in the back, along with two bathrooms, two more bedrooms, a massive library, a weapons room, and a tribal court. Everything was pristine and top of the line. No expense had been spared in building or maintaining the house.
“This is an impressive place,” she breathed, awed by the heated marble floors and gold-leaf trim. “I didn’t realize he had so much money.”
Syn shrugged. “Murder’s a profitable business.”
Kiara stiffened at his obvious dig at her. “Why are you being so cruel?”
“Honestly? Because I believed your bullshit lies when you spewed them and I don’t often make that mistake. I should have listened to myself and known that in the end, you’re just like every other sanctimonious ass out there who dares to call us callous and unfeeling.”
She felt struck by his unwarranted condemnation. “I never lied to you.”
“Of course you did—you said you could see the real us—that we weren’t as bad as we claimed. But you didn’t and, just like everyone else, so long as we risk our lives to protect and save you, we’re okay. But the moment we have to make a choice not ours, the moment you see what our pasts have made us, you’re horrified by the truth and hate us for it like we had some kind of choice in what we are.”
“Everyone has a choice.”
He scoffed coldly. “No, princess, they don’t. Choices aren’t always up to us. Life and circumstances can shred even the stoutest soul. No matter how pure and untainted you think you are, I promise you that you, too, can be shoved into the darkness just like we were.”
She didn’t buy his excuses. Everyone had control of what they did. It was the one principal her father had raised her on. All choices were those of the people who made them and the least they could do was be men enough to accept responsibility for the monsters they’d become. “Nykyrian left The League. He could stop killing any time he wanted to.”