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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. All person(s) depicted on the cover are model(s) used for illustrative purposes only.

In His Majesty’s Service

Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Silver and Jenny Urban

Smashwords Edition

Cover art: Lou Harper, louharper.com/Design.html

Editor: Carole-ann Galloway

Layout: L.C. Chase, lcchase.com/design.htm

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ISBN: 978-1-62649-648-4

First edition

September, 2017

Also available in paperback:

ISBN: 978-1-62649-649-1

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Everyone in the Drion Collective knows that finding your match—the one person in existence with the same soul mark as yours—is the best thing that could ever happen. But the last thing Lord Anders Hawthorne is thinking about when he boards a ship to Drion for the king’s funeral is finding his soul mate.

Captain Zachary O’Connell has the perfect life—his ship, the stars, and no emotional entanglements. When heat sparks between him and Lord Hawthorne, Zach gleefully dives into a no-strings arrangement. He doesn't expect it to last beyond arrival at Drion, any more than he expects trouble along the way.

Trouble quickly finds them, however, and it soon becomes clear that Lord Hawthorne is not only not who he says he is, but also that he's the target of a deadly plot. With danger all around them, Zach and Anders must work together to save the Collective. Meanwhile, Zach must come to grips with losing everything he always thought he wanted, to have the one thing he never dreamed he needed.

Here’s to us. We never could have done it alone

and

for Steve, who pushed me to keep writing even when I didn’t have the words.

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

—Emily Brontë

About In His Majesty’s Service

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Epilogue

Dear Reader

Acknowledgments

Also by Elizabeth Silver and Jenny Urban

About the Authors

More like this

In celebration of the Great Compromise, Dryos Cycle 3046 was renamed Drion Cycle 1, in honor of King Drion Ands, the first and greatest king of our people, Unifier of the System, Protector of Our Way of Life, and Father to a long line of great kings and queens, beginning with his firstborn son and general of his armies . . .

“My lord.”

Anders ignored the intrusion, gloved fingers tracing the lines of faded text, moving on to the next passage.

Ciebos declined to be renamed, passing on the honor of bearing the name Gloria after King Drion’s first wife, she who had first proposed the Great Compromise, and she from whence peace had forever radiated. It was at Queen Gloria’s tomb where the final signature was added to the Compromise and the first five-cycle rotation began . . .

“Anders.”

He scowled, hunching his shoulders. This dialect was just old enough that translating as he went was no small feat. Still, Anders was up to the task, if only people would stop interrupting him.

The first rotation held many challenges. Laws and gods from twelve planets needed reconciling after three hundred cycles apart. It was only through the steady guidance of King Drion, he for whom our great planet is called, that those difficult cycles were navigated. King Drion was the one to establish the first Temple of the Many, and it was he who also drafted the first law of the Collective, establishing the law of succession and ensuring his line’s right to the throne from that day onward . . .

“Ground Command to Lord Hawthorne, your signal’s scrambled. Anders!”

Anders glanced up from the dusty pages of the ancient tome, blinking rapidly as his eyes adjusted. Bern, one of his loyal guards, cocked a blond eyebrow and gave him his best and flattest look. Anders smiled back; Bern was more bark than bite, regardless of how long he’d been trying to get Anders’s attention.

“Sorry,” Anders said, carefully slipping a piece of silk between the pages to mark his spot. “Sometimes the family history can be a bit hypnotic, if obnoxiously redundant.”

Bern, as ever, was entirely unmoved. “You’re the one writing a book about your own genealogy,” he said. “Don’t even try to tell me it doesn’t get you going to read about how great your ancestors were.”

Anders laughed. “Maybe a little,” he admitted. He lifted the tome with gentle, gloved hands, and secured it in the preservation box. There were digital copies on the network, of course, but there was something about holding a book in his hands that settled a part of Anders like nothing else. Book safely tucked away, he turned back to Bern.

“What can I do for you?” he asked. “Or did you just come in to admire my work?”

Bern huffed a laugh through his nose. “Not precisely. I wanted to let you know that Daniel is in your office and is asking to see you right away.”

Daniel. Anders couldn’t help the little thrill in his stomach at the thought of his friend. They hadn’t spoken in weeks, and a part of Anders couldn’t help wondering now if that meant their friendly arrangement of convenient sex and welcome companionship had run its course. He hoped not; it wasn’t love, but he was quite fond of Daniel and had been considering possibly deepening their relationship.

They had met at the library two years earlier and had been friends ever since. The sex, a relatively recent addition, had only started when Anders had flat-out propositioned Daniel, half curious to see what his buttoned-up history-professor friend would say to a blatant come-on. It wasn’t the most spectacular sex in the Collective, sure, but it was certainly better than going home alone every night without fail.

Anders smiled over his shoulder at his guard. “Why don’t we call it a day? You can contact Jackson and tell him our change in schedule while I talk to Daniel, and then we can all get out of here.”

“Sounds like a solid plan to me, my lord,” Bern said, smoothing his close-cropped blond hair. Being a military man down to the core, just like his partner Jackson, Bern hated when it was his turn to watch over Anders at work. He also had far less patience than Jackson, so Anders was careful to take pity on him whenever possible.

Anders tidied up his workspace, wanting to have everything in its place when he came back in the morning. As much of an absentminded academic some people might think him at times, Anders strictly enforced neatness and order in his offices. It was one of the many things he’d learned from his father, though not the most important.

Finally satisfied, Anders headed down the hall. Bern trailed after him as usual, but didn’t follow him into his office; fortunately for everyone’s sanity, Daniel had been cleared for private interactions a long time ago.

“Daniel,” Anders said warmly, the office door shutting behind him.

Daniel jumped up out of his chair and swept Anders into his arms, kissing him firmly. When Anders tried to deepen the kiss, however, Daniel pulled back. His tanned face shone bright with excitement and barely-contained happiness.

“The most amazing thing has happened, Anders,” he said. “And you’re the first person I want to know.”

“Does this have anything to do with why you’ve been off the grid for three weeks?” Anders asked with a laugh, catching Daniel’s hand and guiding them both to the sofa.

Daniel flushed. “I’m truly sorry about that. Time just got away from me.” He outright giggled; solid, staid Daniel had giggled, and Anders blinked at him for several seconds.

“This must be one incredible story,” he said at last. “So tell me, what’s your fantastic news?”

“I matched!” Daniel flung himself back on the couch, arms wide as he nearly shouted. “I went to that dreadful staff party because my supervisor all but ordered me there, and I came out with my match!”

“You . . . matched?”

Daniel pulled up his sleeve to show off his soul mark, nestled in the crook of his elbow. Anders had teased him once that the plain black square was a book, a terribly unhelpful indicator of who his match would be, academia being Daniel’s whole world and all.

“Jane’s is on her chest.” He touched his own collarbone, a distant look in his pale eyes. “I’d never have seen it if she weren’t wearing a dress for the party.”

Anders rubbed his own mark, hidden under a privacy patch firmly affixed to his left wrist. No one but Anders, his parents, and a very few physicians had even seen his mark. It made the possibility of matching much more remote, but it was standard practice for members of the royal family to hide their marks in order to prevent attempts at fraud. The last thing a person of Anders’s standing needed was to be tricked into an unnecessary and unmatched bonding. Anders had never considered that anyone around him might do something as random as meet their match at a staff party. His chest ached, and he wasn’t sure if it was disappointment or jealousy.

“And the past few weeks?” Anders prompted, because clearly he was a glutton for punishment.

“Getting to know each other and using up as much personal time as we dared.” Daniel sighed happily and leaned back again. “I’ve never met someone I meshed with so perfectly, Anders. I get it’s largely biology, complementary hormones and all that, but she makes me laugh. That’s something more than science, you know? Now I understand why they call them soul marks; because we really do match, right down to our souls. Also,” he added, a wicked grin spreading across his face, “the sex is unbelievable.”

“Always good,” Anders said quietly.

“We’re bonding next week,” Daniel said suddenly. “I recognize it might be a bit awkward, all things considered, but I’d really like to have you there.” He sobered. “It would mean a lot to me to have my friend with us. And Jane wants to meet you.”

Anders arched an eyebrow. “I take it you haven’t told her how you and I spent the entire weekend of the last staff function, then?” The words were a little bitter, but Anders deserved to be a touch petty, if only for a few moments. It wasn’t every day someone like him got dumped, after all.

Daniel flushed. “Not yet, no,” he admitted. “Although she knows about our arrangement. She’s had her own fair share of arrangements in the past too, so she’s fine with knowing you and I used to . . .”

“Fuck on a semiregular basis?”

He coughed. “Yes. That.”

Used to. Well, this wasn’t unexpected, all things considered. It was rare that people would match and not immediately enter into an exclusive, monogamous relationship, and virtually unheard of for bonded couples to see other people. Likely it had to do with the empathic connection activated by the bonding ceremony, one that often deepened into a telepathic connection, allowing bonded matches to communicate with each other over great distances. Jackson and Bern had such a connection. It was part of why they’d been recruited right out from under the Navy and into the Royal Guard.

Still, it stung to be so summarily dismissed by a lover as a used to.

“Will you?” Daniel was asking. “Will you come?”

Anders couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do less. But. “You couldn’t keep me away,” he said instead. Certainly he’d be able to find a solid excuse within a week.

Daniel laughed again, pulling him in for a hug. “Thank you, friend,” he said in Anders’s ear. “Thank you for being so understanding.”

Anders returned the hug, but only for a handful of seconds. Then he gently pushed Daniel back, careful to keep his smile as close to real as possible. “Now go back to your match and let me work,” he said. “I was in the middle of a particularly difficult translation before you and your love life interrupted.”

With a snort, Daniel stood and snatched up his coat. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you to dinner?” he asked. “Jane and I have reservations at that café you showed me. We can easily add a third.”

“Tempting, but no,” Anders said, manfully resisting the urge to shudder at how terrifically awkward that meal would be. “So much work, so little time.”

He could have done without the look of obvious pity, but at least Daniel finally left, giving Anders a moment alone.

This wasn’t a heartbreak, Anders decided. More like a bruise. Honestly, matching caused more problems for people on the periphery than the supposed benefits to the pair. Why people went so absolutely mad over finding someone with the same birthmark, Anders would never know. Besides, it wasn’t as though most people didn’t bond with imperfect matches. As a people, they were so spread out across the stars, it was unrealistic to wait for that one special person. From not-quite exact matches to outright mismatching, bonding had never truly been just for matches, even if it was supposedly best that way. Why, Anders’s own ancestor, King Drion Ands, had bonded and buried a total of three wives in his lifetime.

Someone knocked on the doorframe, and Anders looked up to see both Jackson and Bern standing there, with identical somber expressions. Speaking of matching pairs.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Daniel matched.” He took a great lungful of air and released it all at once. “Maybe I should go home for a while. Spend some time with Father. He didn’t seem very well in our last video call.”

Their faces went more troubled. “Anders,” Bern said, stepping into the room. “My lord . . .” Jackson followed him, carefully closing the door behind him.

Something similar to anxiety started brewing low in Anders’s stomach. “What’s wrong?”

Jackson knelt at his feet and gently took both of Anders’s hands in his own meaty ones. “Your father,” he said at last. “We’ve just received word from home.”

“What about him?” The anxiety was rising up and into his throat, threatening to become full-blown hysteria.

“Anders,” Jackson said, still in that gentle voice of his, “Anders, your father is dead.”

Anders rolled his shoulders back, sighed, then adjusted his cuffs to stop himself from checking his wrist chrono for the third time in under five minutes. The chair, curved in the wrong places for anything resembling comfort, pressed awkwardly against Anders’s back and legs like a plastic torture device. There had to be some explanation, at the very least, for why he had yet to find a single chair worth sitting on in the entire space station.

The media screen overhead kept reporting the same news over and over. King James, the leader of the Drion Collective, was dead after a brief but fierce illness. Some commentators were debating if he might have had a fighting chance if his bonded hadn’t died so many years ago, but it was more of a passing mention than anything else while the media streams continually fussed over the transition period. A transition period that was currently full of far too many questions for anyone’s peace of mind; according to tradition, the king was supposed to pass on the crown to his appointed successor, but no one had seen Crown Prince Philip since long before his father’s death.

“He’s in mourning,” the liberal commentator pointed out. “I’d be concerned if he went about business as usual.”

“He has a job to do,” the conservative shot back. “The Collective is without leadership right now for the first time in nearly two hundred years. He can grieve on his own time. Besides, it’s high time Prince Philip came back to the public eye. He’s been hiding for fifteen years, and it’s time to man up. The market is unsteady with the recent flood of substandard black market goods, not to mention the recent wave of recalls all across the technical sector. We need a leader who will step up and do something. Stop hiding in the shadows like a child.”

“You know it’s protocol to protect the crown prince’s identity when there are no other royal children. For someone so fond of tradition, you’re sure quick to dismiss it when it’s inconvenient for you.”

Anders shifted, tugging at the chin-high collar of his new jacket. Dressed all in black, like the rest of the royal family would until the new king was crowned, Anders couldn’t help wondering if those damn talking heads had ever lost someone they cared about, and then been told they were supposed to grieve, but only a little and only so it didn’t inconvenience everyone else.

Beside him, Jackson stilled Anders with a light touch to the knee. “The ship will be here soon, my lord,” he said, never once pausing in his constant scan over all the comings and goings of the room.

Just then, Bern returned from securing their luggage. “The RDC Pallas is on final approach now,” he said without preamble. “They’re waiting on docking clearance; it should only be a few minutes more.”

“It’s about time,” Anders huffed. To be honest, the Pallas had made remarkable time, considering what little notice she’d been given to change course. But knowing that didn’t help Anders get home any faster. The sight of the Royal Navy ship docking right outside the window made him tremble with anxiety merely thinking about where it would take him and why. Still, he made a better effort to contain himself for the next few minutes. Just get home. Worry about the rest later.

The RDC Pallas was a war-class vessel, imposing even against the sizeable space port. Her sleek main body gleamed in the station lights, and the modular sections for guest quarters, cargo, and additional weaponry only added to her massive bulk. Some people were intimidated by the rare ships of the Pallas’s caliber, but Anders had spent enough of his life in space to know there were few places safer for him to be, surrounded by the best and brightest of the king’s Navy.

Still, by the time Anders and his guards were allowed down the gangway to the airlock, it was all he could do not to blow right past the brown-haired officer sent to greet them. Dimly, Anders registered that the man had not only been sporting a crisp uniform with the traditional high-waisted black trousers and the short, open-front jacket of an officer, he also had three blue jeweled pips on his bright-white collar, indicating he was the first officer. Anders didn’t care. All he could think about was getting onboard without letting anyone see how his hands were shaking and that he was perilously close to losing the meager lunch he’d managed to choke down earlier.

Anders heard Jackson greeting the first officer and accepting an offer to show them to their quarters. It was enough of a reminder of where he was—aboard one of His Majesty’s finest ships, detoured specifically to collect a single royal cousin and his two guards—to slow Anders’s stride and allow the others to catch up. His mother would have been appalled at her only son’s behavior, had she lived to see it, but Anders couldn’t let himself relax. He didn’t dare, not yet and certainly not in the open.

At the door to his quarters, Anders at last remembered his manners. “Thank you,” he said, turning to the officer by his side. “And thank your captain for me, as well. I know it can’t have been easy to delay your journey on such short notice.”

The first officer—a young man a few years older than Anders, though not by much—sketched a vaguely formal bow. “You’ll be able to tell him yourself over dinner, my lord,” he said, not quite making eye contact and posture at full attention. “Captain O’Connell asked me to extend an invitation to you and your party to join him at his private table tonight, as is customary.”

Anders acknowledged the offer with a nod of his head, cringing inwardly at the notion of eating shipside rations and making small talk. “Until tonight, then,” he said instead, and swept into his quarters.

Door closed behind him, Anders wasted little time in crossing the small sitting room to the equally cramped bedroom, pulling off his boots and collapsing on the comfortable bed nestled in the corner. Maybe he’d get lucky and Jackson and Bern would forget to wake him until they landed in Drion.

Anders snorted to himself. Dare to dream.

Zach turned as the door to the bridge shh-ed open behind him. “We good to go yet?” he asked Oliver. His first officer gave him a wry look.

“They’re settled in, if that’s what you mean.” Oliver shook his head. “Not terribly friendly, and there’s only three of them.”

“Well, we were told it would be,” Zach said. He gave the ensign a nod, and the young man began preparations to detach from the station. “That seems like a small entourage for a royal cousin.”

Oliver nodded. “And I got the distinct impression that they had been waiting for a while.”

Zach smirked. “So, what you’re saying is that the guy was a dick and you just didn’t want to actually say that about royalty, however distant the cousin.”

“I didn’t say that,” Oliver said mildly. “Sir.” He crossed to his chair and sat.

The ensign looked at Zach, who walked to the captain’s seat and settled in. “We’re ready, Peters, lift off.”

With a growl of the engines, the Pallas slowly detached and turned, then smoothly pushed free of Gloria Station’s orbit. Zach watched the planet fall away, subtly relaxing as they moved farther and farther into space.

“I invited them to eat at the captain’s table tonight,” Oliver said suddenly.

“Fucking hell, Oliver—”

“You know it’s protocol, Zach. Even if he is just a cousin. Royal family and dignitaries are always afforded the opportunity to dine with the captain their first night on board.”

Zach grumbled under his breath and then sighed. “That means I have to eat at the captain’s table.”

The ensign snorted a laugh and tried to cover it up with a cough. Zach shot him a dirty look but didn’t say anything to the kid. He’d have laughed too, and as he thought it, a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.

“I know,” Oliver said somberly. “It’s tragic that you can’t eat in your quarters tonight.”

“Oh, shut up,” Zach said.

Zach strode into the formal dining area. He’d briefly debated wearing his dress uniform, just to be obnoxious, but decided it wasn’t worth the discomfort. Of course, dressing up would be required for an immediate member of the royal family, but a cousin didn’t warrant the honor, especially since he’d been rude to Zach’s people and delayed their mission—they needed to reach Drion in time for the royal funeral, and Zach still had another stop to make on the way. There were too many high-ranking assholes that had to attend, and they all needed a ride.

Glancing over to the slightly raised area where the captain’s table sat, Zach was relieved to see it still empty. He really should be there to welcome his guests whether he wanted to or not. Settling into his seat, Zach ordered a drink from the in-table menu and told himself to relax. He could make up the time on the way to Ciebos, and he could deal with this cousin for the length of a short dinner.

There was a slight commotion at the door, and Zach looked up to see a seriously hot guy with a seriously disgruntled expression on his face. There were two mountain-sized men with him, all three in solid black. The hot guy had a sharp, straight jaw with only the faintest of clefts in his chin, and his mouth might have been soft and kissable when he wasn’t scowling so hard. His skin was the same golden-brown as the late king’s, and his dark hair was slicked back and still damp enough that Zach couldn’t quite tell what color it was. His snug trousers were tucked into knee-high boots, and his high-collared black jacket hit midthigh. Zach was vaguely disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to see the guy’s ass, not while he was wearing that jacket.

He stood and pasted a smile on his face. Yeah, the guy was hot, but between what Oliver hadn’t said and the sour expression spoiling the beauty of that face, Zach was sure the evening was already headed straight downhill, and it hadn’t even started yet.

The taller of the two guards flanking the hot guy stepped forward. Broad-shouldered and as fair as his partner was dark, he executed a crisp salute before speaking. “Captain O’Connell, might I present Lord Anders Hawthorne of Gloria, tenth in line.”

“Thank you, Bern,” Lord Anders murmured, his face finally smoothing in a loose approximation of a polite smile. He stepped forward and gave a shallow nod. “Captain.”

“Zachary O’Connell, at your service. Welcome on board the Pallas, my lord,” Zach said with a bow. “I am deeply sorry for your loss, and shall endeavor to see you safely to Drion.” He gestured at the seats nearest the three. “Please, sit.”

“Thank you,” Lord Anders said, sitting on the very edge of his chair, as though he planned to leave at a moment’s notice. The two guards followed suit, their military-short haircuts giving Zach a clear view of the matching bond marks behind their right ears. A quick glance to Lord Anders’s neck gave nothing away; his hair, only now starting to dry into thick curls, was barely long enough to theoretically hide a bond mark.

They sat in near-perfect silence for several minutes after ordering, Lord Anders barely lifting his eyes from the table. The guards shifted, tense and awkward and obviously having a better grasp of manners than the royal brat.

Zach eventually cleared his throat. “I have heard good things of Gloria,” he finally said into the stilted atmosphere. “How did you find your time there? I hope you enjoyed yourself.”

Lord Anders started, blinking at Zach as though he’d forgotten he was here. “I was in university until recently,” he said. “It was educational.” Another long pause, and then he added, “Will your bonded be joining us tonight?”

“I have yet to find a match,” Zach said, not explaining that he had no intention of matching anytime soon. He’d heard people talk of the advantages of bonding their match, but nothing he’d heard sounded worth the hassle of being attached to one person for the rest of his life. “And you? Will your bonded be waiting for you on Drion?”

“I also have no match.” Lord Anders’s smooth expression crumpled back into that scowl. “Frankly, I have no desire to find them. Or to bond without a match, either. It’s an archaic institution that rarely yields happy results in my experience.” His guilty gaze slid sideways to his guards, and snapped back to Zach. “Though I suppose it’s a positive experience for some.”

Zach raised an eyebrow at the outburst but said nothing in response. Instead he looked at the guards. “I noticed your marks,” he said to them. “Have you been together long?”

The fair guard smiled ever-so-slightly and nodded. “We met on our first posting as ensigns,” he said. “Somehow I never ran into Jackson at the academy.”

“Probably because you were on KP more often than not,” Jackson said, also cracking a smile. “I never gave much thought to bonding before I met Bern, but somehow we were bonded within a month of matching.”

Bern snorted. “Somehow, he says. I’m pretty sure our CO started planning the ceremony the day we matched.”

“Did you have a big ceremony?” Zach couldn’t imagine the aggravation of a big bonding ceremony. His own mom would laugh at him and then leave it to him to plan, which would actually be a little frightening. He accidentally met Lord Anders’s eyes and thought he saw a shadow of the same kind of fear.

“No, thank goodness,” Bern said. “There are some advantages to being nobodies from families no one cares about—” He stopped short at a pointed look from his partner. “Well, let’s just say we’re better off being in the background of more important lives.”

Right. Guards for a royal cousin. Lord Anders’s family had probably been planning his bonding ceremony since the day he was born. It was almost enough to make Zach feel sorry for him. Almost.

“Is your kitchen always this slow?” Lord Anders put in suddenly. “Honestly, this is bordering on ridiculous.”

“I don’t actually know,” Zach admitted. “I don’t usually eat in here.” Just then, the table shifted, and their plates slid into place. “Well, they must have heard you,” he said, grinning at Anders.

He took a bite of his steak and almost moaned. He might have to eat in here more often, because as good as the burgers in the other dining areas were, they were nothing compared to the steak on his plate now. The vegetables were crisp and full of flavor, cooked to perfection. Swallowing, Zach turned to his guests. “I hope your meal tastes as good as mine does.”

Anders took a neat bite of his steak, and managed what might have been an honest smile. “It’s excellent,” he conceded. “Much better than I expected. My compliments.”

Zach was glad he didn’t have any food in his mouth when Anders smiled like that, because he almost swallowed his tongue. The smile lit up Anders’s face, dark-brown eyes crinkling slightly at the corners, and Zach smiled back without thinking about it. “I’m glad,” he said. Then his eyes narrowed. “What were you expecting?”

“Well.” Anders blushed, a faint pink staining his sepia complexion. “To be honest, I was dreading ship rations.” He laughed softly and glanced away for a second. “This is much better than that. My apologies.”

“We’re a star cruiser war-class ship,” Zach said. “I haven’t had rations since I came on board.” He forced himself to stop staring at the pink in Anders’s cheeks. “I’ve been lucky.”

Anders hummed, a nonspecific response in and of itself, but immediately tucked into his meal. The rest of dinner passed in a much more comfortable silence, and before long all the plates were cleared away.

“My lord,” Jackson murmured, placing a velvet-wrapped bottle on the table.

“Thank you.” Anders touched his bodyguard’s forearm lightly before turning and offering the bottle to Zach. “A small token of gratitude for opening your ship to us. Glorianna Fire Wine, from the finest winery on all of Gloria. This particular bottle comes from my personal collection, with my compliments.”

Zach started at the reminder that Anders was Lord Anders, thinking even as he accepted the bottle that he hadn’t really had a choice about opening his ship to them. “Thank you,” he said, then heard himself add, “Would you care to share a glass with me?”

“I would, thank you,” Anders said. A shadow passed over his face. “If nothing else, I’ve earned it the past two days.”

“You have, and I’m sorry for it.” Zach smiled faintly at the guards. “You’re invited too, of course. However, I suggest we adjourn to my quarters. My rooms have a stunning view of the stars.”

As one, Bern and Jackson shook their heads. “Thank you, but no,” Jackson said. “We don’t drink when we’re working.”

Lord Anders stood; his shadows followed suit, looming over him protectively. “Why don’t the two of you head back to your quarters, then?” he offered. When they hesitated, he pushed harder, clearly having had practice. “We’re on a royal vessel in the middle of deep space. I couldn’t be safer if I were in the middle of the king’s palace.”

Finally, Bern relented. “If my lord insists,” he said, though he seemed more than a little relieved. If he had to follow Lord Anders around all day, Zach could hardly blame him. Then Zach imagined what the view might be from behind Lord Anders, and reconsidered.

The guards accompanied them as far as Zach’s quarters, and quickly checked the rooms, before wishing them good night. As the door slid shut behind them, Zach gestured to the low table near the wall of stars. “I love that I have full windows instead of just viewports.”

Lord Anders stared out at the stars for a long moment before turning back to Zach and smiling that real smile once more. “Ever since I was a boy, I’ve loved the stars. If I’d had my choice, I’d have joined the Navy. Father . . . well, let’s say he didn’t approve.” Again, his face darkened for a moment before he turned away, shrugging out of his dinner jacket and draping it over the nearest chair. “It’s a lovely view.”

Zach was momentarily stunned by the way Anders’s pants clung to his ass. His imagination hadn’t done the other man justice. “Yes, it really is a lovely view.”

He shook the sudden flare of desire off even as Anders shot him a knowing look, a hint of a smirk tugging at his full lips. Zach crossed the room, bottle in hand, to get glasses. He opened the bottle and poured them each a healthy swallow. “What did your father want you to do instead of joining the Navy?”

“Study law,” Anders said, his smile going a bit frayed at the edges. “Who we are is the family business, so to speak, but he wanted me to do well at it.” He sipped his drink and took a seat at one end of the couch, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. “He passed away recently.”

“So you’ve lost your father and the king in a short amount of time,” Zach said. He sat down a little closer to Anders than he’d meant to. “I’m sorry.”

Anders nodded and buried himself in his glass, finishing off the drink swiftly. “How long have you been with the Navy? You seem a bit young to have the helm of one of His Majesty’s finest ships.”

Zach flashed him a quick grin. “I joined the academy right after I graduated school, so about twenty cycles, I guess? Time sure flies.”

“Still,” Anders reached to refill his glass, then offered the same to Zach with an arched brow, “you must have been quite the prodigy. I feel like an underachiever next to you with my two graduate degrees, and I must be nearly ten cycles younger.”

“I worked hard and have an aptitude for flying.” Zach shrugged. “You don’t look old enough for two graduate degrees; then again, you must be a little older than you look. I’d’ve pegged you for a few cycles younger than that.”

“I’ll be thirty next cycle,” Anders said. His smirk returned in full force as he licked his upper lip. “I’m all grown-up, I assure you.”

Zach let his eyes travel slowly over Anders’s body. “Trust me, I’ve noticed,” he said, voice dropping into a deep murmur.

Anders reached out again, this time to set his glass on the table. Sitting back, he slid his arm along the back of the sofa, fingers brushing the small strip of bare skin above Zach’s shirt collar. His eyes fell to Zach’s mouth for a long second. “I’m glad I’m not the only observant one here.”

“Are you flirting with me, my lord?” Zach turned his body toward Anders and slid closer, leaning across Anders to put his own glass down.

“I most certainly am.” Anders followed Zach as he straightened, and in a heartbeat, was up and straddling Zach, settling his firm ass right on Zach’s lap. “Are you objecting, Zachary?”

Zach stroked up Anders’s back. “Absolutely not, Anders.” His hand slid into Anders’s hair, fingers tangling in the thick black curls. Holding Anders’s head still, Zach took his mouth in a rough kiss, biting Anders’s lip, soothing the sting with his tongue, tasting the liquor in Anders’s mouth as he laid claim.

Anders opened for him immediately, groaning softly as he cupped Zach’s jaw in one hand, kissing back as good as he got. The other hand slid around Zach’s waist, hot even through the layers of fabric. Anders broke the kiss at last, but only to mouth his way to Zach’s ear and nip the lobe. “I want to taste you all over,” he whispered, then licked behind Zach’s ear. “Every. Last. Inch.”

Zach tilted his head to give Anders plenty of room. “I think that can be arranged.” Keeping one hand fisted in Anders’s hair, Zach slid the other down to cup and squeeze his ass. “As long as you let me return the favor.”

“Gladly.” Anders made quick work of the fastenings along the side of Zach’s trousers, pulling the front panel aside to reach in and wrap long, smooth fingers around his cock.

“Oh fuck,” Zach gasped. His hips lifted into Anders’s touch. “God, that’s— God.” He slammed his head back against the sofa, making a last-ditch effort not to lose his fucking mind. He hadn’t had someone else’s hand on his dick for far too long, but Anders had seemed almost fragile for a moment there and Zach didn’t want to take advantage of his grief. “We’re moving pretty fast, here. You sure—”

“Yes.” Anders tightened his grip, stroking relentlessly, wrist twisting. At the same time, he was hovering just above Zach’s mouth, panting wetly against his lips. “Come on. Let me see what you’ve got for me.”

Zach surged up and took Anders’s mouth again, tongue thrusting between his lips in rhythm with his hand. He maneuvered Anders onto his back and braced himself on one forearm so he could reach down and rub a hand hard against Anders’s cock. “How much do you want?”

“Your—your hand,” Anders gasped, throwing his head back and exposing the long column of his neck. “Or your mouth. Either.” He swallowed heavily, hands flailing until he found Zach’s back, pulling his shirt up to touch skin. “I’m not picky right now.”

“You said you wanted to taste me,” Zach growled. “Me first.” With a last bite at Anders’s lips, Zach moved between Anders’s legs and opened his pants, freeing his cock and swallowing him down. God. Zach moaned around the thick length, savoring the taste and smell and feel as he licked and sucked, alternating hard suction with teasing swipes of tongue, pulling away to lick his balls.

Above Zach’s head, Anders was outright whimpering, his fingers knotted in the stiff fabric of Zach’s uniform jacket. He kept squirming, back arching as though he was trying to resist the urge to thrust, and every so often one of his whimpers formed a broken and desperate sob of Zach’s name.

Zach began rolling his hips, rubbing his dick against the sofa. He sucked kisses along the shaft of Anders’s cock. “C’mon,” he breathed over the leaking tip, “c’mon. You know you want to, Anders, just let go.”

Anders gasped, lifting his hips and pushing deeper into Zach’s mouth as Zach took him back down. “Your mouth,” he finally managed. “Fucking . . . your mouth. I can’t hold off much longer. I can’t—”

“Do it.” Zach took Anders even deeper than before, into his throat, and swallowed around the head of his cock. He grabbed Anders’s ass and dug his fingers into the flesh, vaguely wishing the pants were completely gone. He wanted to feel skin, wanted to pull Anders’s cheeks apart and push his fingers inside. Wanted more than just his fingers in there. He swallowed again and then again as Anders came, spilling down his throat.

He kept sucking as he pulled back slowly, tongue moving over Anders’s dick until Anders twitched away.

“Too much,” he groaned.

“Your turn,” Zach rasped, voice harsh and jaw sore. “Make me come.”

Surprisingly smooth, Anders shifted them so Zach was sitting up, with Anders back in his lap. This time, he licked a filthy strip up his own palm before grasping Zach’s shaft in a sure grip. He didn’t bother with teasing, jerking Zach at a steady pace as he leaned in, growling in Zach’s ear.

“I wanted to fuck you all through dinner. Bend you right over the table, door wide open and half the ship walking by. I wanted to spread you out and fuck myself on you again and again. See what your face looks like when you come with my name on your lips.”

“Yeah?” Zach was breathing hard. “You sure hid it well.” He rolled his head on the back of the sofa, then tangled both hands in Anders’s hair to pull him into a kiss that was rough, teeth and tongues clashing until Zach couldn’t keep it together anymore, pressing his forehead to Anders’s and panting against his mouth. “C’mon, faster, squeeze me harder, I won’t break.”

And Anders gave him exactly what he wanted, grip going to just the right side of punishing. “Let me have it, Zach,” he ordered. “Let go for me and maybe I’ll let you fuck me later.”

Zach fought a moment more, desperate to ride the edge of pleasure as long as he could, but Anders’s hand was perfect, almost too much, and he cried out as his body arched up hard enough to lift Anders briefly before he curled in. His forehead fell to Anders’s shoulder, and his hips kept jerking as he spilled over Anders’s hand and Anders kept tugging, milking him dry until it was too much. “Stop, fuck.”

“I’ve got you.” Anders ran his clean hand soothingly down Zach’s back, easing his shaking. “I’ve got you.”

Somehow, they managed to lie down on the sofa together, Anders wiping his hand clean on the hem of his shirt. It was quiet for a moment or two, and then Anders laughed softly, his face tucked against Zach’s neck. “I hope you don’t expect me to leave right away. I don’t think I could walk if my life depended on it.”

Zach laughed. “That would be really rude, my lord. Besides,” he smirked, “you still owe me a blowjob. Maybe we can get out of our clothes next time too.”

Anders yawned and curled even closer. “Maybe,” he said, voice drifting as sleep pulled him under.

Anders woke gradually, aware first that his arm was asleep, and second that this was because it was pinned by a trim but muscular body beneath him on the bed. No, not a bed: the couch in Zach’s quarters. With that observation came all the memories of the night before, and Anders bit back a groan as he buried his face against Zach’s bare shoulder. Dimly, Anders remembered them struggling out of their clothes at some point in the night, and now they were wearing nothing more than their undershorts.

Jackson was going to have his head when he found out. Not only had Zach not been cleared for this kind of interaction with Anders’s royal person, but Anders no longer had the luxury of indulging in casual sexual encounters like normal people. Several years ago, when his responsibilities had been little more than a vague notion on a distant horizon, Anders had been able to get away with falling into bed with the odd stranger. But now, with his obligations to the crown coming to bear at full force, Anders was obliged to admit that his sex life was far from his own business any more.

Still. As a distraction from what Anders had lost as well as what he was facing, Zach was probably the best Anders could have hoped for. There would be time enough for facing reality once they reached Drion, but in the meantime, Anders couldn’t help but wonder if Zach would be interested in that promised repeat performance right away—this time without the Glorianna Fire Wine.

Zach shifted under Anders, stiffening briefly before relaxing into the sofa and running a hand down Anders’s back. “Hey,” he rasped. “You awake?”

“I am.” Anders kissed Zach’s shoulder, a lazy press of lips. “Just drafting a letter to the Navy, insisting they provide their captains with bigger beds.”

“Trust me, I have a big bed.” Zach laughed softly. “Would you like to see it?”

Anders chuckled. “I’m pretty sure that’s a line, Captain.”

“You have a filthy mind, my lord.” Zach’s hand drifted down over Anders’s ass.

“You have no idea.” Anders grinned and lifted his head enough to kiss Zach properly.

Zach kissed Anders again, then again, pulling him into a harder embrace, tangling their legs together. “C’mon then,” he murmured against Anders’s lips, “let’s go look at it.”

“In a minute.” Anders surrendered himself to Zach’s kisses, enjoying himself far too much to consider stopping. And judging by the way Zach was firming up against his hip, Anders was willing to bet he wasn’t the only one. “Just another minute.”

A sharp knock sounded at the door, startling them both as the door intercom buzzed. “My lord,” Bern said through the speaker. “The crew will be changing shifts soon, and the halls will be quite busy. Now would be the best time to retire to the correct quarters.”

Zach’s arms tightened reflexively, then relaxed. He lifted his arm to check his wrist unit. “He’s right, unless you want to be seen wearing the same clothes you wore last night. And at least some of the crew will notice; it’s not often we have royalty on board.”

Anders sighed. “I know.” Still, he couldn’t help admiring the flex of Zach’s arm, the firm muscles of his chest, the way his torso narrowed down in a perfect vee—a black mark on Zach’s torso, just under his left nipple, caught Anders’s eye, and he froze in recognition. It can’t be.

“My lord?” Bern’s voice was a bit louder, and as far from amused as he had ever been.

“Yes,” Anders said, his voice not nearly as steady as he wanted it to be. “Give me a moment, please.”

Careful not to elbow or knee Zach anywhere tender, Anders climbed up and off the sofa with as much grace as he could muster. Their clothes were in a heap on the floor, and Anders fumbled with them for a moment, trying to buy time to get his act together.

“We need to do this again,” Zach said, rustling behind Anders as he rose, before his hand reached in to help separate their clothes. His voice was amused as he added, “You still owe me a blowjob.”

Anders laughed as he slipped on his shirt, the tail stiff with spunk. “I didn’t realize we were keeping score,” he said, forcing his voice to stay light. It took a moment to determine whose black pants were whose, but Anders’s were, of course, made of much finer material. He stepped into them and stood, pulling them up quickly before tugging on his boots with smooth, practiced motions.

Dressed very nearly decently, Anders chanced a look at Zach. Still mostly naked, the captain was gathering his own clothes into a neat bundle. Despite everything, despite knowing it was in all of their best interests if Anders were to walk away and never look back, he couldn’t help giving Zach a long, slow once-over, followed by a promising smile. Zach really was a gorgeous man, his black hair mussed from a night of sleep and the faint wrinkles at the corners of his vibrant blue eyes deepening with his wide, kissable smile.

“Still,” Anders said, stepping in and kissing Zach softly, “we wouldn’t want anyone to say the royal family doesn’t pay their debts.”

“And you can be sure I’ll collect.” Zach’s kiss was slow but firm. “Plus, you haven’t seen my bed yet.”

“Wouldn’t want to miss that,” Anders whispered against Zach’s mouth. Bern knocked on the door again, two sharp raps, and Anders knew they were out of time. He sighed. “You’ll have to show me later.”

“Until then, my lord.” Zach’s somber voice held no hint of the lazy smirk on his face.

“Good day, Captain,” Anders said, sketching a full and formal bow, with an added wink at the end for flourish. Then he slipped out the door and back under Bern’s watchful gaze.

Jackson was standing across the hall, face dark and thunderous. Anders held up one tired hand and sighed. “I know. I know everything you’re going to say, because you’re right. I need to start acting like a man with responsibilities and not like an oversexed teenager. But it’s a bit late to start behaving now, so let’s go back to my rooms so I can shower and sleep, and you can yell at me later.”

Bern curled one solid hand over Anders’s shoulder with a supportive squeeze. For a moment, Bern and Jackson stared at each other, clearly having a private conversation across their bond. Then Jackson deflated, nodding slightly.

“We worry about you,” he said as Bern steered all three of them down the hall and back toward their respective quarters. “After losing your father like that, we don’t want to see you get your heart broken on top of everything else.”

Anders stifled an inappropriate laugh, right hand wrapping around his left wrist, worrying at the edges of the privacy patch. Marks were supposed to give you a clue as to how you might meet your match; Anders’s was a crown with a single star cut out of the front.

Just like the mark he’d seen on Zach moments before.

Swallowing down the hysteria threatening in the back of his throat, Anders smiled and nodded to whatever Bern was saying until he could slip away into the blessed isolation of his own room.

He was so completely fucked.

Zach scratched absently at his mark as the door slid shut behind Anders. That had been unexpected but definitely not unwelcome. He wished Oliver had told him how hot the royal cousin was instead of how rude he’d been, because one, Anders was tired and grieving which put his behavior in a different light, and two, Zach would have liked to have had some warning before being confronted with the gorgeous Lord Anders. Then again, he wasn’t sure he would have believed Oliver anyway.

He wandered through his bedroom and into the shower, dropping his clothes on the floor along the way. Nude, he stepped under the spray and groaned as the water pounded his shoulders and back. Anders had been hot, all right, hot like burning, and Zach still felt a little singed.

The water sluiced over his body, rinsing the suds away as he washed himself. He left his cock for last, because Anders still owed him a blowjob and Zach’s body didn’t seem to realize it wasn’t happening right away. Zach wrapped his hand around himself and closed his eyes, letting his head fall back as he remembered exactly what it had been like to have Anders’s dick in his mouth, to look up Anders’s body and see his face as he came. Zach’s hand slowly stroked over his cock, the other sliding down to cup his balls. He let the feeling, the need, build as long as he could, but he couldn’t hold out for long. His hand started moving faster, up and down, thumb rubbing over the head on each upward stroke. He was panting now too, a soft hitch in his breath every time his thumb brushed his leaking slit. His other hand pushed lower, between his legs, and he widened his stance enough that he could press his fingers against his hole, work two inside, and that was all he could take. His body arched and stiffened as he came, spurting again and again until he was left shaking, propped up against the shower wall.

Eventually he turned off the water and dried himself, profoundly grateful that he wasn’t needed on the bridge for a while. Orgasms always wiped him out, but the two Anders-induced orgasms seemed to have hit him harder than usual.

He wasn’t complaining.

Zach found Anders in one of the viewing areas that night, Jackson and Bern standing guard in the hallway. He was at the window, staring out at the stars, and Zach wanted to walk up behind him and wrap both arms around him. The urge didn’t surprise him—he wasn’t a relationship guy, not really, but when he was with somebody, he had the tendency to be a cuddler. But it wasn’t appropriate, not here and not with Anders. He could stand next to him, though.

Anders glanced at Zach briefly, his dark eyes sad for a moment before a neat, blank mask covered his features. “Captain,” he said turning back to the stars. “I trust you are well?”

Moving closer than was strictly proper, Zach whispered in Anders’s ear, “I was well when I had your dick in my mouth. Now I’m hungry.” He stood straight and continued in a normal voice, “I’ve been looking for you. I wanted to ask if you would care to dine at the captain’s table tonight.”

“Did you now?” Anders put his hands behind his back, one wrist grasped lightly in the other hand.

Zach took a small step back, both amused and a little confused. Anders certainly hadn’t seemed to have any problem with last night. Now, though, there was something a little stiff in his attitude, and not the kind of stiff that Zach was hoping for.

“I’m curious what you’re hoping for, Captain.” Anders still didn’t look away from the stars, his shoulders rigid and pulled back to parade rest.

“Dinner, to start.” Zach’s voice was slightly more formal as he straightened to match Anders’s posture.

There was a pause, just a few moments while Anders seemed to be working over whatever was bothering him, and then he relaxed by fractions. “Will there be drinks in your quarters again after?” he finally asked, voice as smooth as glass. “I’d hate to miss out on any of the experience now that I’ve had quite the royal treatment.”

Zach raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment, willing to go with the flow if it meant Anders in his quarters. “I expect so,” he said instead, “as I meant my actual table in my rooms.”

Anders laughed softly. “I don’t recall there being enough room for four at that particular table,” he said, and turned. The move caused the backs of their hands to brush together, fingers nearly tangling.

“No, there isn’t.” Zach stroked his finger between two of Anders’s as their hands touched. “But, then again, I wasn’t planning on four people.”

“Well then,” Anders said, voice low and intimate. “How could I refuse? Besides, I believe we have an account to settle.”

Zach took a deep breath in an attempt to keep from grabbing Anders right there. Damn it, he had more control than this! The deep breath only made things worse; it filled his lungs with the rich scent of Anders’s cologne and that small something that was just Anders. He curled his hands into fists and then slowly, deliberately, relaxed them. He gestured back toward the door. “Shall we?”

They walked side by side all the way to Zach’s quarters, shoulders bumping innocently now and then. Anders kept his hands clasped behind his back and his expression politely blank the whole way, but never once raised his voice above the quietest murmur, giving Zach the perfect excuse to be far closer than would normally be considered appropriate.

The instant the door shut behind them in Zach’s cabin, Anders spun, pushing him against the door. “Dinner can wait,” he purred, and pulled Zach down into a hard, demanding kiss.

Zach willingly opened to Anders’s tongue, kissing him back just as hard. He shoved his leg between Anders’s and pressed up, rubbing his thigh against Anders’s dick. Anders rocked into him, hands pushing into the open front of his uniform jacket to grab his shoulders from behind.

They kissed like that for a while, grinding and nipping at each other. It was slower than the night before, but somehow hotter. Probably because they both knew where this was leading, and how fucking amazing it was going to be. Then Anders shifted, hands sliding down, lips kissing what little of Zach’s neck was left exposed by his collar.


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