Just for one heartbeat.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
He’d accepted that a long time ago. Darling would always be heterosexual. Nothing would ever change that, and his best friend would die before sleeping with him.
Why can’t I walk away from Darling?
Honestly, he’d tried. He’d gone from one man to another, hoping, aching that one of them would find a way into his jaded heart.
And every one of them had disappointed him, and left him with scars that were deeper and uglier than the ones marring his body.
But as he breathed Ture in, that part of him that he hated most surged forward. Hope was a fickle whore, and he hated the fact that he was her bitch.
You’ve walked this path a million times, Mari.
Only Darling was Darling. Everyone else was a poor substitution.
Clenching his teeth against the wave of pain, Maris pulled back and got up. He wouldn’t mourn something he couldn’t change. Forget hope.
He was, and would forever be, Darling’s bitch.
Ture scowled as he watched Maris clean up the food he’d brought. There was a darkness to him now that Ture didn’t understand. A thick wall of sadness.
Zarya’s stories of Maris went through his head. Like him, Zarya didn’t trust easily. She was extremely suspicious and cautious.
Yet Maris had won her over with little effort. She idolized this man. Originally, Ture had dismissed all her stories as hero worship and delusions. He’d never dreamed that a man like Maris actually existed.
A king among princes.
Someone who wouldn’t hesitate to protect what he loved. A man capable of putting the needs of others above his own. Such beasts were as rare as the fabled iksen that was said to only come out of its cave once every thousand years.
Now that Ture had found one, he wanted to hold on to it for awhile. But even as that thought went through him, he knew the truth.
Love never lasted. People betrayed. And lovers inevitably disappointed each other.
What if they didn’t?
Ture tried to squelch that treacherous thought. He didn’t want to have hope. Hope had never been kind to him.
Still, he couldn’t help but wonder if Maris could ever be as loyal to him as he’d been to Zarya and Darling. If Maris could hold his heart in his hand and not shatter it.
Maris froze as he heard a knock on the door that connected his room to Ture’s. In the last two weeks while Ture had been here, he’d never once knocked. Had something happened?
More frightened by that thought than he should be, he crossed the room and opened the door. Ture stood on the other side, looking gorgeous, but sheepish. “Is something wrong?”
“I can’t believe I’m admitting this . . . I can’t sleep and I’m lonely.”
Maris smiled in understanding. He often suffered from that, too. Before Zarya, he’d always had Darling to console him on those nights. They’d stay up for hours, gaming and joking.
Now, he had Hauk for an opponent, but only so long as Hauk wasn’t with a woman. Though lately, Hauk had been in a dry spell that would rival Maris’s.
“You want to come in?”
A blush spread over Ture’s face.
Maris smiled. “I don’t expect you to get nak*d, hon. We’re friends.”
He snorted. “I don’t have many of those.”
“Well, you have one in me.” Maris stepped back so that he could enter.
Ture was still hesitant. For the last two weeks, he’d purposefully kept a large distance between him and Maris. He knew better than to be attracted to the friend of a friend, especially one who was as beloved as Maris was to Zarya. If they were to become involved and it didn’t work out, it would be awkward for all of them.
That was the last thing he wanted.
But tonight was the anniversary of his sister’s death, and he couldn’t breathe from the memories and pain of her loss. He just needed something to distract his thoughts for a little while.
Biting his lip, he headed for the small settee that was in the center of Mari’s sitting room. “Wow,” he breathed, looking around at the elegant and spacious area. “And I thought my room was huge.”
Maris smiled. “This is the queen’s chambers. Rather fitting, all things considered.”
Ture laughed as he sat down. “How did you end up here?”
“When Darling took power, he had me moved from my small room on the guest wing to this one so that I’d be closer to his chambers, which are just down the hall now.”
“I’ll bet that raised a few eyebrows.”
Maris went to the breakfast bar on the far wall and poured him a cup of tea then brought it to him. There was an adorable twinkle in his eyes as he wrinkled his nose. “Still does. Even with him married, half the staff and most of the CDS still believe he’s really g*y and just pretending to be Zarya’s husband.”
Ture took the cup from his hand. “So if you have the queen’s chambers, where does Zarya stay?”
“In Darling’s room. Before the League kidnapped you two, he was bad about letting her out of his sight. Now . . . I’m not sure he allows her to go to the bathroom without him.”
“Yes, but I like that about him.”
Maris sat down on the other side of the coffee table, on a comfortable stuffed chair. He reached for his own cup of tea. “Do you want to talk about what’s on your mind?”
Ture glanced away as he felt tears pricking his eyes. “My little sister died of cancer when I was a teen, and. . . .” He broke off, unable to finish the sentence. “I still can’t believe she’s gone.”
Maris moved to kneel next to him. He placed a kind hand on Ture’s knee. “I’m very sorry.”
Ture swallowed against the painful lump in his throat. “It’s so hard, you know? She was the only member of my family who really loved me. The only one who didn’t judge me.”
“Was she your only sibling?”
“No, I have an ass**le brother who comes around whenever he needs a favor or money.”
Maris scoffed. “Asshole brothers I know a lot about.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you do. Do any of them ever contact you?”
“Safir. But it’s very dangerous for him to do it. I’m lucky he loves me enough to be stupid.”
Ture laughed. “I adore the way you describe things. It’s unique.”
Maris winked at him. “Far be it from me to ever be normal. I don’t like doing what’s expected of me.” He gave a squeeze to Ture’s knee then returned to his chair and tea. “What about you?”
“Definitely not normal.”
“Normality is overrated.”
“Some day’s so is sanity.”
Maris laughed. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Ture stirred cream into his tea as he watched the elegant way Maris moved. He held so much grace and dignity. Regal refinement bled from every part of him and at times it left Ture feeling inadequate. Like a bumbling hick. Yet Maris never seemed to mind the fact that he was lowborn. “So what’s it like being a prince?”
“It’s no different from any other life, except you have to watch your back more carefully. Enemies and desperate news reporters abound. It makes one extremely paranoid.”
“You seem to handle it well.”
“Mostly because I don’t care. What are they going to do to me? Call me names? Oh, the horror! Someone save me from hearing the opinion of someone I couldn’t care less about.”
Ture shook his head. “I respect that about you. I hate to be criticized. It’s like a knife in my heart.”
Maris toyed with the handle on his cup. “I guess it comes from my childhood where I was insulted so much that I honestly thought my name was Idiot and Dumbass.”
“You did not.”
“Oh, I assure, I did. Darling is the only one whoever called me by name.”
“I’m sorry, Mari.”
He shrugged with a nonchalance that Ture was beginning to suspect was a front. “Nothing for you to be sorry over. We all have our burdens. Just some of us have the ones that strive to kill us vindictively.”
“You joke about things that floor me.”
“Yes, well, I tried seriousness once and found it rather depressing. Who wants to live like that?”
In that moment, the urge to kiss Maris was so strong, he wasn’t sure how he refrained. All he could think about was peeling off the layers of clothing until he had him nak*d in his arms. If Maris was one tenth as animated in bed as he was in casual conversation, he’d be an incredible lover.
Maris’s link buzzed. He pulled it out and checked it, then smiled. “Please excuse me for a second.” He flipped it open. “Hey, Hauk. How’s my luscious Andarion tonight?”
Ture swallowed against the weird stab of jealousy that he couldn’t fathom. He had no right to be possessive of Maris, and yet. . . .
He wanted to have the right to complain when Mari flirted with other men.
“No, sweetie. I actually have company tonight.” Maris laughed. “You keep talking to me like that and you’ll have more of me than you can handle.”
Feeling suddenly awkward, Ture was about to excuse himself when Maris ended the call.
“Sure. I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up.
Ture knew he should keep his mouth shut, but he couldn’t resist asking the one question foremost on his mind. “Boyfriend?”
Maris flashed him an adorable grin. “You can stop asking me that. I don’t have one and have no interest in being tied down to any one man.”
That stung like a slap. “Ah. You’re one of those.”
Maris arched a brow. “Those?”
Maris laughed so hard, he choked. “Hardly. I assure you, I never play the field. My only problem is the man I love is currently in bed with your best friend.”
“So you and he—”
“Have never touched.”
“Not even a kiss?”
“Not even.” Maris sighed. “I am forever drawn to what I can’t have. It’s extremely irritating.”
Ture knew the feeling. “You think you’ll ever find someone?”
“Honestly? I stopped looking. There’s only so many dreams a man can have shattered in one lifetime. I think I exceeded my quota when I was three.” Maris took a sip of his tea. “What about you?”
“My work is my love. No man has ever been as seductive or as rewarding. It’s the only thing worth my time.”
“So you love your kitchen.”
Ture nodded. “I’m as married to it as Zarya is to Darling. It’s where I spend almost all my waking hours.”
“Are you nervous about having been gone from it for so long?”
“I was. But Anachelle said that she’s been staying on top of everything for me while I’ve been away.”
Ture smiled. “Like Zarya, I rather adopted her. She was a waitress in the restaurant where I work and when she became pregnant, she lost everything. So I offered her a bed and she’s been with me for the last few months.”
Maris was impressed with his kindness. “What made you trust her?”
“If you ever meet her, you’ll understand. She’s a lot like Zarya. Guarded and wounded. Yet there’s a hope inside her that all her hardships have yet to extinguish. Not to mention, she’s precious and kind.”
“I like her already.” Maris got up to refresh their teas then returned to converse with Ture until the sun came up.
Yawning, Maris gaped as he realized what time it was. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d stayed up all night talking to anyone.
“Did you know it’s seven already?”
Ture’s jaw dropped as he turned to look at the windows. “Where did the night go?”
“It turned into daylight.”
Ture duplicated Maris’s yawn. “No wonder I’m so tired.” Getting up, he groaned.
“Are you all right?”
Yawning again, Ture nodded. They had spent the entire night talking about everything and nothing. Maris had definitely kept his promise to distract Ture’s thoughts from his sister. “Thank you, Mari.”
He inclined his head to him. “Any time.”
Ture kissed his cheek then he headed to his own room.
Maris didn’t move as his cheek tingled from those lips. Lips he wanted to taste with a madness that made no sense.
Why am I always attracted to what I can’t have?
And he had no idea what it was about Ture that fascinated him so. Well, not entirely true. There was something about him that Maris found easy to talk to. He didn’t feel like Ture judged him. Rather he seemed to be fine with all of Maris’s quirks.
It was enough to make him reconsider his vow of solitude. But dreams were for fools.
And Maris was through being hurt.