So you’ve finally seen fit to join the living, have you?”
Benedict rolled his eyes. “Rae, I believe I’ve told you before not to speak to me until I give you leave.”
“Which would be never if you had your way, which is why I ignore you every time you say it.”
“You’re in fine form this morning,” Benedict replied, matching his assistant’s acidic tone. “What, did you get turned down again? I suppose even money will only go so far.”
Rae slowly set down the sheaf of papers in his hand. “You are late, Highness. We were supposed to begin going over these lists at eight o’clock. It is now a quarter past nine.” His carefully polite tone abruptly dropped. “Have a hard time kicking the strumpets out of your bed?”
“No strumpets this time,” Benedict said with a yawn. “I was reading an excellent book, actually.”
Sneering contemptuously, Rae ignored him in favor of helping himself to the contents of a lavish tea tray that had been quietly brought in once the servants realized Prince Benedict was finally awake. The sugar tongs clicked faintly as he dropped two sugar cubes into his tea. “Find a book of explicit pictures in the library?”
Benedict laughed. “I wish – my father would have apoplexy. No. It was a history book, actually.” He smirked. “Too difficult for you, I’m sure. Lots of big words, no pictures.”
Instead of replying, Rae merely retrieved his papers and all but threw them across the table. “If you managed to read a history book, which I highly doubt, then you should have no trouble going over that list as your mother requested a month ago and ensuring you have no problems with the names therein.” Grimacing as Benedict yawned, Rae stood up and strode over the desk.
Quick as anything, Benedict leaned over the table, snatched up three more sugar cubes and dropped them into Rae’s pale blue china teacup.
Sitting back, he idly poured cream into his own cup as Rae stalked back toward him. He made a show of reading over the first of what must be nearly fifty pages of names. “Why am I looking over this again?”
“Because,” Rae said, pushing his spectacles up his nose – a gesture that said he was rapidly losing patience. “Your mother wants to ensure that all her sons are pleased with the guests.”
“Bloody hell, what does it matter?” Benedict said in disgust. “It’s the Masque. I’ll be as likely to take a maid or footman to the gardens as a lady or lord.”
Rae pushed up his glasses again – twice in as many minutes. Good, the bastard needed to lose his temper more often. “Be that as it may, Highness, your mother would like you to go over the list and tell her if there are any she should be certain you avoid or encounter. She could have avoided or ensured inviting them, but as per usual you are a month too late for that.”
“Oh, do be quiet. You’re insufferable.”
“Then by all means dismiss me, Highness.”
Benedict snorted and lifted his teacup, breathing in the scent of the fragrant tea – specially blended by the monks of the temple several hours north. He’d visited there as a boy and had fallen absolutely in love with their blends. He refused to drink any other. Black tea with hints of cherry and currant, the faintest touch of vanilla. Divine.
His momentary peace was shattered by Rae’s sharp, cutting voice. “If you could please focus, Highness. I know it’s difficult for you, but do try – we’re already over an hour behind on your work for the day.”
“Then I suppose there’s no reason to rush about trying to catch up. Is there anyone on this list I would especially approve or disapprove of?”
Rae picked up his own tea and took several sips, furious, dark-brown eyes never leaving Benedict’s face. “Try reading it and see for yourself, Highness. Though at a glance, I think it safe to assume that only half the list has slept with you.”
“Then by all means make certain that half is kept from my presence – and that the other half is pressed upon me.” Benedicts grinned and reached for a scone, slathering it with thick cream and biting into it with a hum of pleasure.
“Why must I be stuck with you?” Rae demanded, a complaint voiced at least once a day – often more.
Rae was strict, bossy, severe, and wholly lacking in respect for his betters. That his employer was none other than the second son of the King and Queen never seemed to strike him – he had called Benedict a perfect waste of a human being two hours into his employment.
Benedict should have dismissed him on the spot. More than once Rae had seemed close to simply walking out.
Neither of them, however, was going to be the one to lose to the other. Benedict would rather become a monk than dismiss Rae and therefore indirectly admit that the bastard was right about his being a hopeless, moral-less, lazy, good for nothing spoiled brat of a prince.
Or something along those lines. Usually he just ignored the bloody bastard.
No, he was bound and determined to see Rae offer his resignation. On his knees, begging to be set free.
Yes, that would do nicely.
Benedict shook off his thoughts and glared at his mortal enemy. “What?”
It was a pity, really, that Rae was so obnoxious and unbearable. If he’d let go of that wretched stuffiness – and the awful vaguely pine cologne he insisted on wearing, Benedict knew he did it for spite – he would be rather appealing.
Rae had the long, slender build that was so fashionable in men these days; he was nearly too skinny – no doubt he used up all his energy nagging people to death. His hair had potential, but rather than let it fall around his face and soften his sharp features, he kept the light brown strands rigorously combed back – Benedict wondered sometimes if he somehow pasted it down.
Pale skin, no doubt from all the time he spent in the dungeons casting evil curses or whatever condescending, snotty assistants did to amuse themselves at night, since the pleasures enjoyed by mere mortals was obviously beneath him.
He realized he’d completely missed what Rae had just said – and the glint in his dark brown eyes said Rae knew it. “I’m sorry, I was noticing your pallor. Did you not drink enough blood last night, my dear assistant? I told you to be generous; I wouldn’t want you starving to death.”
Rae pushed his glasses up his nose. “Highness,” he said in a carefully level tone, “I know it’s difficult for you to do anything but sleep, eat, and rut, but you are one of the highest peers of the realm. Do try to act like it from time to time.”
“Then who would you harass and insult to death? I must give you something to do, since apparently you cannot even read a list of names without my assistance.”
“Damn it, Highness!” Rae slammed his hands down on the table, making the dishes rattle and his tea splash over the side of the delicate cup and onto the fine white linen table cloth. “I am an assistant, not a nursemaid. If you are going to be useless and insufferable, then take yourself off back to your bed and whores!”
Benedict let his own temper loose, knowing his green eyes held a fury to match any Rae could summon. “I did not start this, you rude, obnoxious, insufferable servant! I was all set to bid you good morning and I am instead greeted with more of your bitter insults! If you are tired of playing the role of my assistant you are more than welcome to take yourself elsewhere!”
“Are you dismissing me, then?” Rae asked, leaning over the table, their faces just short of touching, anger all but sparking in the air between them.
“Oh, no, my dearest mortal enemy, if you leave it will be because you choose.” Benedict smiled, baring his teeth.
Rae matched the expression. “I, unlike some, do my duty no matter what. Until your Highness sees fit to dismiss me from your worthless presence, I will remain your devoted, hard working assistant.”
“Rude, pompous upstart you mean?”
“Just because I actually work is no reason to be bitter with me, Highness. If you’d spend half the time working that you do fornicating with anything that moves—”
“Oh, not anything,” Benedict said, the last remnants of his control snapping. “I would sooner take an oath of chastity than so much as kiss you.”
Rae sneered. “Highness, I would sooner die than even think of such a thing. I am not so desperate to be thought well of that I would leap into bed—”
“Good heavens, you two are starting early today,” a voice interrupted.
Benedict made a face as he turned to greet his brother. “Damn it all, Edwin, what do you want?”
Edwin sniggered. “I was coming to see if you wanted to join me for a ride this morning, distract some of the clingers…but I can see you are already enthusiastically engaged in other matters.”
“Enthusiastic?” Benedict grimaced. “I would sooner be strung up naked in the courtyard than stay in this room another moment.” Not that he particularly wanted to go with his brother either, but he hardly had a choice in the matter.
“I’m certain that can be arranged, Highness,” Rae snapped.
Benedict turned and stalked away. “Review those lists, assistant, and send them off to my mother.” He threw a taunting, sneering smile as he reached the doorway, ignoring the way his brother laughed in the hallway. “Have it done by noon, for then we must go over the reports.”
He smirked as he heard porcelain shatter against the door as he closed it.
Damn the man! The arrogant, lazy, good-for-nothing prick!
Rae picked up the sugar bowl and sent it after Prince Benedict’s teacup.
“Bastard!” he swore, and sat down heavily in his seat, glaring at the seat vacated by the prince.
The sorry excuse for royalty had certainly wasted no time in running away – no doubt to carry Lord Q or Lady K off into the woods.
Disgusted, furious that his mood was already completely soured, Rae shoved away from the table and made to move toward the desk – but at the last veered toward the massive bay window instead.
Outside he could see the crowd milling about as the horses were brought out. It was impossible to miss Prince Edwin and his worthless younger brother.
Both brothers were tall, slender though Benedict was a bit toward the broad side. Wheat-gold curls and eyes like leaves in spring. Every bit of the arrogant, lazy whore of a prince made it clear why he had no trouble keeping his bed warm.
Obviously he never talked to any of his victims, as they’d immediately dismiss him for the insufferable, selfish bastard he really was.
Snarling, Rae jerked away from the window and snatched up the papers Benedict had left on the table, then strode to the door and yanked it open.
“You!” He barked at the first footman he saw – and the lad must be new, to pale like that. The old ones were used to him. “Take this to her Majesty, tell her that what she requires is on the last page…and send a maid to clean up the mess in here.” His boots crunched on broken porcelain as he stalked to the desk.
Selfish, stupid bastard. If the bloody fool spent half as much time working as he did being worthless—
Rae buried his hands in his hair and grit his teeth, struggling valiantly to calm his temper, knowing it was a lost cause. Benedict had completely ruined his morning, probably his day.
He just wanted Benedict to tend his duties for a few hours – he’d even held off breakfast until Benedict deigned to arrive. He’d already gone over the lists, and the reports had only to be signed before he sent them off.
All for nothing. Benedict had not even wasted an hour before running off to rut in the forest while leaving him do all the work without so much as a mocking thank you. Just taunt after infuriating taunt because the prince couldn’t stand that someone in his life actually thought Benedict should tend to his duties.
He’d been to school, endured countless tutors until he knew the rules of etiquette, the politics, everything. He was the equal of anyone in knowledge. Instead of shining as the assistant he should be, however, he got to spend his days locked up in Benedict’s study, doing all the work while the stupid, spoiled, worthless, lazy prince engaged in stupid pranks with sugar cubes before running off to see how quickly he could divest someone of his or her clothing.
From the very first day – and he’d been so excited, to be hired by the King to attend his second son – Benedict had proven worthless. He’d been so determined, despite everything, to be a good assistant, to help the prince, to see Benedict shine…
Well, he’d quickly grown out of that illusion. By the end of that first week he’d realized nothing but shouting and sniping accomplished anything. Benedict was a lost cause. Rae wished bitterly he could just leave, go where his skills would be appreciated.
That, however, would be giving up. He wasn’t going anywhere until Benedict finally lost all that dignity and arrogance and threw him out. Their shouting matches were not nearly enough to force him to resign – even when he lost his temper, Benedict still had that confounded air about him. No, Rae wanted to see him lose it completely.
He wanted to see Benedict lose everything. Dignity, arrogance, all of it – someone should make the bratty prince suffer for once in his life. Humble him.
Rae let his head fall back against his seat as he closed his eyes, thoughts of seeing Benedict put in his place for once in his life soothing.
He wanted to see Benedict suffer what he made others suffer. To be the one left angry and miserable.
No, if he were honest with himself – he didn’t want to see Benedict suffer. He wanted to be the one who caused that suffering.
There just wasn’t any way to do it.
What would affect Benedict like nothing else?
There was no besting him in their sparring matches – often Benedict won those, as much as Rae hated to admit it. The closest he generally came was drawing even. No, that wasn’t the way to go about it.
Humiliating him in front of everyone? Unlikely. A prince had nothing to fear from the assistant everyone knew he hated. Rae knew for a fact his temper tantrums were often a source of amusement for the court.
Truly the only thing that might possibly affect Benedict would be some scandal or incident involving one of his lovers…former lovers, rather. No one had yet managed to capture Benedict’s interest for more than a few days. The record was Lady T, who had lasted two whole weeks.
Rae grimaced as the answer came to him. It was rather obvious, really.
I would sooner take an oath of chastity than so much as kiss you.
That was it. Nothing would humiliate and infuriate Benedict more than to realize that he’d been seduced by the person he most hated. Seduced and then immediately discarded. Yes, that had a nice ring to it.
Rae’s eyes gleamed as plans began to take shape. Benedict would never expect such a thing of him, and the Masque was so perfect an opportunity that it almost seemed he was meant to do this.
The Masque was the climax of the autumn festivities, when harvesting was finished, everything in readiness for winter, and everyone across the kingdom celebrated with banquets and fairs before the snow descended and trapped them indoors. In the city, the royal Masque was the greatest of these celebrations. The celebration lasted for three days and included all manner of festivities and entertainments – but the ultimate of these was the Masque itself. For each of the three nights, a masquerade ball was held. All manner of competitions and guessing games would be held – from the finest costume to the strangest mask. All the while the masks remained on, identities not revealed until the stroke of midnight on the last day.
It was simply too perfect.
He knew Benedict’s weaknesses like no other; what would capture his attention, hold it…enslave it.
The very thought was the sweetest of balms – except of course for the part where he actually had to seduce him. How did one seduce a man he hated? Well, he knew what Benedict would find appealing; the rest he would simply figure out.
Humming softly, Rae bent eagerly over his desk, writing out a note to his sister, a long list of what exactly he would require from her – for she would be the source of the most crucial piece, the one thing he needed to draw the prince to him rather than all the others.
Drying and sealing the letter, he strode out of the study and snagged a footman, barking out instructions on where to take it. Then he turned sharply around to see to the rest of his plan.
Benedict hated the yearly Masques as much as he loved them.
Everyone was so dreadfully predictable.
Lord H’s costume was most intriguing. To anyone else his identity was probably a mystery – except behind the feathers and silk he still wore that awful dark, spicy cologne that did not suit him at all.
Lady M was equally lovely, nearly mysterious, behind her black mask and glittering emeralds, but he would know the cinnamon and clove blend she favored anywhere.
At least Lady Q had foregone her usual scents. Unfortunate that she’d chosen a vanilla and strawberry blend that was predictable and boring.
Identifying every person he knew was too easy a feat, and none of those unknown to him held the slightest appeal. The combination of cloying perfume, thick cologne, sweat, alcohol, flowers and exotic foods was starting to sicken him. Even the three glasses of wine in which he’d indulged were not sufficient to dull his senses enough to endure the ball a moment longer. He needed some fresh air.
Benedict let out a soft sigh of relief as he stepped onto the balcony, doubly relieved to find it deserted. For a few minutes, hopefully, he could have some peace and quiet.
Thankfully he knew how to wear a costume – unlike the rest of these fools. He’d even had new colognes blended specifically for the Masque, one for each of the three nights. His men knew better than to reveal his costume or scents to another. No one knew who he was tonight, nor would they for the next two balls. He intended to relish every moment.
“Leather, lavender…amber and a hint of lemon,” a thoughtful, husky voice said from behind him. “A seductive scent. Are you hoping to be seduced?”
Benedict started, not having heard anyone come up behind him. He barely kept his eyes from widening, so completely surprised was he by the man standing before him. His nostrils flared as the wind shifted, carrying the most enthralling scents to him.
The man’s accent was the long, rough syllables of the coast – that might explain why he was definitely a stranger to Benedict. His hair was dark, either deep brown or black, he could not tell which, and the light spilling from inside caught on flecks of something in his hair, making it shimmer. Golden skin, but it held a shine – Benedict realized that part of the alluring scent was the oil the man had rubbed into his skin to give it that gleam.
That scent…Benedict wanted to strip the man of his dark clothing and find out how deep that wonderful smell went, if it was sunk all the way into his skin – for he could tell immediately this man wasn’t stupid. He’d obtained cologne that blended with him, matched him.
It was addictive…he took an unconscious step forward, breathing the man in. “If I am hoping to be seduced…you are clearly hoping to be a seducer, dark stranger.” Benedict took another step forward, obsessed and enthralled. “Musk…red rose…apple, vanilla…and teak.” Oblivious to whether he was being too forward or not, Benedict dipped his head to bury it in the man’s throat, breathing the smell in, absorbing it. “Intoxicating.”
“Impressive,” the man murmured, and the leather of his glove was warm and smooth as his hand curled around the back of Benedict’s neck, slid into his hair and gently tugged him up. “Not many would have picked all those out.”
“Not many would think to combine them all,” Benedict said, and finally realized just how forward and improper he was being – not that he particularly cared or wanted to stop, but throwing himself at someone was not his style. But that scent…so utterly perfect against the salt-sweet of his gleaming skin. Benedict wanted to taste, but forced himself to finally pull well away. “Did you create the blend yourself?”
The man nodded, his hair glittering as the light caught it. Strange, that, but rather than being silly it only intrigued Benedict further. “Yes, specifically for the Masque.” He once more reached up to wrap his hand around the back of Benedict’s neck, leather warm, supple. Gently he tugged Benedict close again, voice a murmur when he spoke. “I liked you better here, pretty bird.”
“Then here I shall remain,” Benedict replied, dipping his head into the hollow of the man’s neck, breathing in the smell of him, this time daring to taste, tongue flicking out, teeth grazing lightly when that won him a soft gasp. “Might I have some sort of name to put to you, my intoxicating stranger? What did I do to capture your attention?”
His head was tugged up and he found himself staring into the stranger’s dark eyes, wishing he could see their true color. The man’s lips curved in a faint smile. “You’ve been captivating many an eye tonight, pretty bird. I merely managed to be the first to see if I might stroke your feathers. I’m nothing but a hunter seeking his prey.”
“Hunter, then,” Benedict said with a smile of his own, and pulled away again. “You are close, Hunter, quite close – but I do not think I’ll let you stroke my feathers quite yet.”
Hunter chuckled, sounding genuinely amused. “Is that so, pretty bird? I was not aware the hunter needed permission from his prey.”
Benedict flashed a grin and moved away, leaning against the balcony railing. “Are you saying, Hunter, that I am ordinary prey? Offending me will not get you closer to my feathers…” He laughed, surprised to find he was enjoying himself. Seldom did he get to play such silly, simple games. All his other games were calculated, precise, and played on specific orders. This…this was actually fun.
“You are far from ordinary, pretty bird.” Hunter drew close, but stopped just short of actually touching. “So what would win me a touch, hmm?
“What makes you a far from ordinary Hunter?”
Hunter smirked and moved a bit closer, tilting his head up. “You are still speaking with me; you’ve not run off back to the lesser birds. I know you are intrigued, pretty bird…you have been fluttering about bored and restless all night.”
“I will concede you are not boring, Hunter,” Benedict conceded. “What else about you is not boring?”
“Let me show you.” Hunter closed the remaining space between them and reached up to take Benedict’s mouth.
Those dark, tempting lips were all they had promised to be, and Benedict moaned softly into Hunter’s mouth at the heat, the taste, sharp and immediately addictive – he’d never had another kiss like it.
Loud, raucous laughter broke the silence, and surprised by the sudden noise Benedict broke away. He glared witheringly at the three women who had come out onto the balcony, ignoring their not-so soft exclamations of ‘oh, my’ behind their lace-and-feather fans.
He took Hunter’s leather-clad hand in his own satin-covered hand and led him down the nearby stairs, away from the palace and into the gardens below.
Lamps were scattered about, flames flickering behind colored glass, offering just enough light to avoid tripping without giving away the air of mystery of the Masque. Here and there he could see movement in the shadows, the kind that would normally be found in a garden – but at the Masque, rules were meant to be broken.
He bypassed them all, determined to just get away, tired of everyone – except his Hunter.
At the last moment, upon a whim, he cut abruptly left and dragged them into the entrance to the maze – then let go of Hunter’s hand and with a laugh vanished around the first turn.
“It’s to be a game, is it?” Hunter called after him, and Benedict quicken his pace, suddenly annoyed that the wine he’d drunk was slowing his thoughts enough he had to pause before remembering which way to turn.
He drew to a halt as his memories proved false and he found himself at a dead end – one occupied by a bench and a couple making full and creative use of it. Hiding his mirth, relieved they’d not noticed him, Benedict retracted his steps and took the leftmost path, then continued on his way toward the center.
Of course, his game relied heavily on Hunter being able to find the center of the maze. Though a dead end with a convenient bench would suffice if that was where they found each other.
Benedict grinned as he passed from the maze and into its center – where several of the colored lamps had been scattered about, making the massive fountain and garden seem like something from a child’s story.
A hand closed over his wrist and Benedict found himself yanked up against a hard, warm body. “Pretty bird, am I going to have to lock you in a cage?”
“Am I not already in one?” Benedict asked, the words slipping out before he thought.
Hands tightened briefly on his arms in surprise.
Benedict forestalled any questions or remarks by bending to kiss Hunter, surprised to find that it was even better than he had dared to remember. He’d thought perhaps it was the wine, his own wishful thinking, but Hunter’s kiss was more addictive than ever. Like the most potent drug, more captivating than even the perfumes he adored.
Despite his panting, however, and the obvious pleasure he took in the kiss, Hunter still seemed determined to press him on the curious remark. “The pretty bird does not like his home?”
“A cage is a cage, be it plain as dirt or gilded fine enough for a king.” Or a prince, but that was knowledge he need not share. Let Hunter think him some spoiled noble. “Enough of this idiotic talk, Hunter.”
Hunter reached up with one gloved hand to bury his fingers in the hair at the nape of Benedict’s neck, tugging his head gently back so that Hunter could reach up to avail himself of Benedict’s throat, biting sharply and then soothing the mark with his tongue. “I have captured you, pretty bird, so you will sing the songs I say.”
“I don’t recall giving the impression that I was an obedient songbird,” Benedict retorted, grinning as the hand in his hair tightened.
“That is true,” Hunter murmured, and this time angled Benedict’s head down to take a hard kiss. “Yet it is the cage that has made you such a pretty bird.”
Benedict sighed. “You are harping on boring things, Hunter. This songbird does not wish to sing sad tunes. My cage would be less wearisome if I had someone to share it. Now come, Hunter, I would rather sing a happier tune.” He twisted away and moved toward the fountain, boots clacking on the cold marble tiles that lined most of the center of the maze. “Do not say you’re going to demand a petulant tune from me.”
He stopped just in front of the fountain, impatient but still as Hunter approached him. The colored lamps caught on the diamonds that traced the rightmost edge of Hunter’s mask. His costume was simple but effective – black from head to foot, nothing but diamonds and the shimmer in his hair to offset the stark coloring. He reached out to lightly trace the edge of Hunter’s mask before closing the space between them, once more dipping his head to Hunter’s throat to inhale the scent of him, taste the salt-sweet of his skin, trace his way up with soft kisses before finally claiming those dark lips again.
No one had ever been like this. For once in his life, Benedict had no negotiations to keep in mind, no bargains with his family to be pushing, no argument from which to distract his paramour…there was nothing here but a man he did not know, who did not know him, which meant there was nothing at stake, nothing to lose – no family or kingdom to upset if he failed to seduce the man in his arms.
He was, for once – for these brief three nights – free to do only what he wanted. “I bet you have many a songbird in your cage, my Hunter.”
“Ah, and here I was going to say you must have many seeking to stroke your feathers.”
Benedict barely kept back his grimace as he bent to reclaim the damp, swollen lips before him. “Perhaps…but few do it with my permission.” He cut off any reply with a kiss that left them both gasping for breath.
Somewhere a bell tolled, striking ten times before once more fading away, leaving only the revelry of the party and the occasional sound of pleasure to break the quiet of the night.
“Tempting as you are, pretty bird, the Masque is no fun if the prize is claimed the first night.”
“So you sought me out merely to tease, Hunter? To leave me aching and alone in the garden?”
Gloved fingers ran lightly down his chest, butterfly soft across the hard heat trapped within his breeches. “Now what would be the fun if I got the prize on the first night? I will claim it fairly on the last.” Hunter leaned in and lapped at his throat, bit down just hard enough to sting. “Your scent mingles nicely with mine, pretty bird. I’ll revel in it when I’m alone in bed tonight. Will you do the same?” Then suddenly Hunter was gone, so quick and silent it took a moment for Benedict to register that he was alone.
“Bastard,” he swore softly to the dark, questions ringing in his head, body hot and aching, and even the chill breeze that sprang up could not erase the intoxicating scent of Hunter.
Rae filled his glass and drank the brandy down in two gulps, needing the resulting burn to try and chase away the taste of the prince that lingered.
Hopefully drown his stupidity. He filled the glass half-full and immediately downed it – then hurtled the decanter across the room to shatter in the fireplace, the brandy making the flames flare wildly.
“Idiot!” he said aloud, furious and angry. He tore off his mask and dropped it to the floor as if burned. The diamonds along the right edge, the only decoration on his mask, sparkled in the light of the flames.
His clothes were next, and he hated that even free of them he still seemed to be surrounded not only by his own damnable cologne but also that of the prince.
The plan had proven to be as effective as he’d intended. Everyone knew Benedict was obsessed with the way things smelled. Nothing could make him love or hate a person more than their scent. Rae wore his own dreadful pine cologne simply because he knew Benedict hated it.
His sister had outdone herself in meeting his requests. The apple had been her idea, the perfect final touch to what he’d had in mind. The second and third were equally fine, and if tonight was anything to judge by they would be just as intriguing to the prince.
The plan had gone perfectly. Except that he was not supposed to be the one left wanting – his plan was to seduce Benedict, make him suffer. No where in his plans did it mention he would enjoy anything but the suffering.
Bloody hell, those kisses. Rae reached for his brandy to try again to erase the memory of them, the taste and feel of Benedict. Kissing him hadn’t even been in the plan – he had planned on teasing and tormenting, not actually touching, certainly not kissing. He grimaced as he remembered he’d thrown the decanter into the fire. Damn it all.
Rae groaned as the memories refused to leave him in peace, instead reminding him how surprisingly good the prince had looked in his dark gold costume, trimmed in feathers, the mask glinting with amber – a delicate songbird, simple and understated. Few, if any, would ever have thought the songbird to be Prince Benedict. No, he’d heard the murmurings even as he watched. Benedict should be grateful – if it were possible for him to feel such a thing – that his costume was so effective. Lady Q should not be allowed to say such things in public, even with a mask to hide behind.
He’d known immediately, and wondered that none of Benedict’s lovers could identify him – more than Lady Q had been trying. Behind the mask he could tell when the nose wrinkled with distaste. He knew the slow way Benedict moved, the way he only drank brandy or red wine, how impatient he became as the evening wore on.
What had surprised him was that Benedict remained alone the entire night. Not once did he flirt, dance. He barely spoke to anyone. He had looked quite lost, like a man going through the motions while looking for somewhere else to be.
Rae hadn’t expected that. He’d been certain he would have to work hard to get Benedict away from his chosen amusement for the evening.
Ruthlessly he shoved aside the other thoughts that wanted to nag him.
So he hadn’t planned on desiring Benedict; on actually enjoying the damnable prince’s kisses. That didn’t mean things had suddenly changed, just that it wouldn’t be quite as awful or difficult to seduce Benedict. He’d already put the plan in motion, he wouldn’t stop now. He’d determined to teach Benedict a lesson and he was going to do it.
Decided, Rae strode toward the fireplace and the bath waiting for him there. From a box he’d set out earlier he pulled a bar of rough, dark soap – what he would need to scrub off the oil he’d rubbed into his skin and hair to make them darker.
His hair sparkled in the light before he dunked beneath the water to begin washing out both the oil and the shining dust he’d obtained to compliment the diamonds on his mask, add a touch of uniqueness that he knew Benedict would be unable to resist.
Damn it all, he hadn’t expected Benedict to be that immediately enthralled, to draw so close so quickly – to be so intoxicating himself. The moment he’d pressed his face to Rae’s throat, though, Rae had been equally overcome.
He hadn’t expected…any of it. Not for Benedict to be so pleasant. Fun to flirt with and chase through the maze.
Warm. Bloody hell the man was warm, and that heat only enhanced the cologne he wore. Holding him hadn’t felt awkward at all…which wasn’t a thought he liked. It made no sense. Rae dismissed it impatiently.
Perhaps it was all because the masked prince had acted nothing like the Benedict he knew. There had been nothing of the lazy, insufferable prince in the man standing alone and unhappy on the balcony. Nothing of the arrogant, smug rake in the man who’d dragged him into the maze and made him dizzy with a few hungry kisses.
That didn’t fit with what he knew at all.
Rae groaned and resumed scrubbing himself clean, determined to banish all traces of Benedict from mind and body.
Perhaps he should reconsider, give the scheme up. There were other ways to make the prince suffer. When he did not appear tomorrow, Benedict would sigh at an amusement lost and move on. The matter would end.
Yet even as he thought it, nodded at the wisdom of it, Rae knew he would be going back.
Amber again. Do I sense a partiality? Combined with…vanilla and rosewood and…juniper. You have exquisite taste.”
Benedict turned from the table where he was helping himself to another glass of champagne – his third, and until he’d heard that voice he’d had no plans of stopping until he could no longer hold the champagne flutes.
“Hunter,” he said with a smile. “The hour is late; I feared your interest had strayed.” That worry was, in fact, the reason he was on his third glass of champagne. Though he wasn’t quite certain why, he was just honest enough to admit that was the reason.
“I was watching you dance. You did not do so last night, I wondered why you did so tonight.”
“Perhaps I wanted to show off my feathers,” Benedict said, taking a sip of pale champagne and then leaning down to breathe in the scent of his Hunter, blocking out the choking scents around them. “Narcissus and orange blossom, lovely.” Perfect with his new mask – identical to the first, except that it was red, trimmed in rubies.
Benedict had chosen bird costumes for all three nights of the Masque – simple, understated, nothing like what people thought Prince Benedict would and should wear. Yesterday had been browns and creams and golds…tonight he was all dark blues and grays. The black and red of his Hunter was stark and bright by comparison. Dark eyes gleamed behind the red half mask.
“Are you tired, pretty bird? Weary of showing off your feathers?”
“My toes are weary of being trod upon, and I am sick of attempts to unmask me, but otherwise no – though the champagne is perhaps making me sleepy.” Benedict smiled ruefully and held the champagne flute to his lips.
Before he could take a sip, however, Hunter snatched it neatly from him and drank it himself. Benedict watched him, more interested in the way Hunter drank the champagne than he thought he probably should be.
Finishing the champagne, Hunter set the glass down on the table and held out his hand. “Come dance with me, pretty bird, and I’ll show you off properly. Let them all be jealous at how beautifully you dance with me.”
The line should have made him laugh, but instead Benedict only smiled and placed his hand in Hunter’s, allowing himself to be escorted to the dance floor. A rarity, for usually he was the one leading others. It was nothing short of bizarre that he was content to let his Hunter take charge.
He barely noticed the people around them as the music started up, the strains of a dance that had started up north but was quickly spreading south. “So how is it that you have watched me all night yet I’ve seen not a sign of you?”
“I would be a poor hunter indeed if I allowed my prey to see me before I chose,” Hunter answered with a chuckle, then led them into the first turn and the next set of steps. “You are a pleasure to watch, songbird, but far finer to dance with.”
“Oh?” Benedict asked, pausing to turn again before they came together again to start the set over. “Have we never danced before?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Hunter replied, flashing a brief smile. “Are you trying to guess my identity?”
Benedict chuckled. “Perhaps, perhaps not. I do not believe we have though; I like to think I would remember you.”
“If you did, my disguise would be a poor one, and we cannot have that at the Masque.” Hunter spun him into another term, and brought him close enough to steal a quick, soft kiss as they moved into the next step.
“That is true,” Benedict replied once he remembered what they’d been talking about.
He glanced briefly at the people around them as he took another turn, glancing over Hunter’s shoulders as they started the last round of the dance.
“Are they watching?” Hunter asked, clearly amused.
“Yes…” Benedict said with a frown, suddenly worrying that something about their behavior had given him away.
“Jealous, no doubt, that the songbird is clearly mine.”
Benedict laughed. “I do not recall admitting that you’ve caught me quite yet, Hunter. You’ve captured the bird’s fancy, but you’ve not obtained a permanent hold.” He spun into the turn and was then neatly pulled back, and the kiss Hunter stole this time was far from soft and quick – yet still they didn’t lose the beat of the dance. “Now they are certainly staring…”
Hunter chuckled. “Jealous.” He gave a short bow as the dance ended, which Benedict returned, and stole another kiss before they left the dance floor. “Another dance, pretty bird, or would you like to rest your wings?”
“I’d like to retreat to the garden,” Benedict replied, “though not necessarily to rest.”
“I suppose we can see what amusements might find us,” Hunter said, keeping a grip on his hand and snagging a glass of champagne on their way out. He took a sip as they stepped outside.
Benedict stopped them as he lowered the glass and leaned in to steal a kiss, champagne mingling with a lingering taste of something spicy in Hunter’s mouth. Fingers sank into his hair, holding him in place as Hunter took control of the kiss.
“I thought you wanted to go to the garden,” Hunter said when he finally broke the kiss.
Snagging the champagne, Benedict twisted away and vanished down the steps into the garden.
He didn’t get far before his wrist was snagged as he was dragged close. “Trying to fly away?”
“Trying to find a place to rest,” Benedict answered. He took another sip of champagne and then let Hunter steal the flute away. “I would say the maze, but Lord V said I could find him there if I got bored.”
The hand on his arm tightened, then Hunter reached up to kiss him hard. “Not the maze then, and I hope you have never been that bored, pretty bird.”
Benedict’s mouth twisted beneath the half mask. “I kept him company for a night, once, to smooth over a particular negotiation.” Benedict stifled a sigh at the memory.
A brief pause, and Benedict wondered if he’d disgusted Hunter. “Is that why he sold his portion of the Great Forest?”
“You should be more careful…Highness.”
Benedict stiffened, then swore softly. He pulled free of Hunter’s grasp. “It seems I’ve ended the game before it truly began.” The realization was more painful than he thought it should be. How stupid and careless of him. “Good night, Hunter, and I guess farewell.”
He made it two steps before he was grabbed and all but thrown against the trunk of a tree, the breath knocked out of him.
“I do not recall giving you permission to leave, pretty bird.” Arms latched onto Benedict, and he saw the champagne flute lying in the grass just behind them.
Benedict grimaced. “The games are over, Hunter. I erred, and I do not feel like being here when you begin to see what you can get from me beyond sex.”
“What makes you think I need anything more from you, pretty bird? That’s all you are to me, after all – a bird to be chased and caught.”
“That is how it will start,” Benedict said bitterly. “It will change, eventually. Let me go.”
The hands on his upper arms tightened hard enough Benedict half-wondered if he’d find bruises later. “I’ll let you go, songbird, when I feel like it.”
“You will let me go now!” Benedict snapped. “The game is over, Hunter, and I am in no mood for a new one.”
In reply, Hunter freed one arm only to latch onto the back of his neck, forcing his head down to take a kiss that Benedict wanted to resist, tried to resist, but even as he wanted to flee he wanted to stay and pretend he had not ruined everything.
He didn’t want to stay and see simple pleasure slide into speculation as Hunter began to wonder what a pleased prince might give to his paramour…nor did he want to see, at midnight tomorrow, the face of someone he had seduced on his family’s order or might someday be told to seduce.
Why couldn’t he have kept his mouth shut? Benedict tore away from the kiss and glared at Hunter. “Let me go, Hunter.”
“The prey does not give orders, songbird.” Hunter only tightened his hold and leaned in to give a sharp nip to his throat. “What makes you think I want anything but what I’ve said so far?”
“I’ve bedded enough people to know they always want something more in the end.”
From the top of the palace the bells began to ring, tolling eleven times.
Hunter brushed a soft kiss across Benedict’s lips. “I do not want anything from you, songbird. If saying farewell will convince you…then farewell I shall say.” The grip on Benedict’s arms eased, and Hunter vanished as quickly as he had the night before.
“Damn it!” Benedict swore, slamming his fist into the tree trunk, barely noticing the pain. A moment later he strode from the garden, chased by the scent of spilled champagne and narcissus and orange blossom.
Bloody hell,” Rae said as he collapsed in a chair beside the fireplace. He tore off his mask and dropped it to the floor, then buried his face in his hands. “What’s wrong with me?”
He knew what was wrong though – the masked prince he was stalking was not the man he had thrown an inkwell at that morning. How could the two be so different? The arrogant, insufferable prince he wanted to throttle was completely unlike the man in the garden who had sounded so bitter and hurt.
Rae couldn’t bear it.
His plan had been to seduce Benedict, bewitch him, and then throw it in his face that he had been ensnared by someone he hated. Just that morning they’d tried their best to kill each other again – and as usual Benedict had run off to go hunting rather than stay and work. True to form, he’d ordered Rae to do it all, laughing as he left.
He’d been furious. Now he wondered about Benedict’s running off to seduce some lord or lady…had he been telling the truth? Benedict made it sound like…like the King and Queen…
Rae cut the thought off, unable to bear it. That they would make Benedict seduce those they wanted to cooperate, to win something from…Rae stumbled to his feet and fetched the decanter of brandy he’d ordered earlier in the day. Two gulps erased the lingering taste of champagne from his mouth, but he sensed the entire decanter would not be enough to erase Benedict. Several decanters would not erase his memories of the masked prince.
What would life be like if the Benedict in the garden was the one he always saw?
He didn’t want to think about it, but summoning up memories of their fight earlier that morning to drown out those of the garden failed abysmally.
Rae tried to fight the next inevitable question, but his head – conscience – would grant him no peace.
What if he simply hadn’t been seeing what was right in front of him?
That still didn’t excuse Benedict’s insufferable laziness…except he was nearly always dragged away by his brother. The rest of the time he simply lost his temper and stormed out. Rae realized he never really knew what it was Benedict did all day though he never failed to remark that Benedict was running off to play in the bushes.
It obviously made Benedict unhappy, if the prince was to be believed. Why didn’t Benedict simply tell them no? Rae rolled his eyes. Of course he couldn’t. Even Benedict would be hard pressed to defy his family.
Bloody hell! Why was he acting like he cared? Rae set his glass down before he gave in to the urge to pitch it into the fire, not in the mood to listen to the tsking of the maids in the morning.
He glared at the fireplace for several minutes, trying in vain to gather his thoughts.
They refused to gather. Every effort to rekindle his hatred of Benedict was put out by memories of the sad and bitter prince who’d tried to run the moment he’d realized he’d slipped up and revealed himself.
Sighing softly, Rae finally stripped out of his clothes, strode over to the bathtub, and slid into the water. He leaned his head back against the rim and closed his eyes, letting the water and fire warm and sooth him as best they could.
Slowly opening his eyes several minutes later, Rae turned his head to look at his bureau.
Propped against the mirror was a mask that in shape and style were the like of the two he’d already worn – but this one was green, trimmed with tear-drop amber. He had chosen it to match both Benedict’s eyes and the element common to all his scents, but he had a sneaking suspicion that he would match the prince’s final costume. The three most common songbirds in the palace were dark gold, bright blue, and deep green. Every fashionable lady had at least one songbird in a gold or silver cage in her room.
He wondered why Benedict had chosen such a series of costumes.
No. He refused to think about it. Rae swore softly.
He glanced again at the bureau, where three small ornate glass bottles sat in front of the green mask. The colognes his sister had made for him, one for each night of the masque.
After this was over, he was throwing the damnable things in the fire.
Never had he expected to revel in the way Benedict was drawn to him, to relish how effectively he got to the prince, to thrive on affecting him, on the kisses and touches that resulted.
His whole life had been devoted to his work, to being the best at what he did. He hated Benedict for being lazy, uncaring, for not appreciating what he had.
Now he was being torn apart wondering how badly deceived he’d been this whole time.
It didn’t matter. He’d told the prince farewell. Their games had ended; he didn’t need to go again tomorrow night, and after that he could go back to his normal, antagonistic relationship with the prince.
Why was the thought of doing so an ache in his chest?
Rae ignored it as best he could while he scrubbed the darkening oil from his skin and hair.
Benedict finished off his wine – red, dark, and potent – and refilled his glass, both pleased and disappointed that he was still sober enough he didn’t spill a drop.
He finished half the glass in one gulp and cringed – wine should never be drunk quickly.
One empty bottle lay on the ground beneath him, and as he heard a horse-like laugh from somewhere within the maze, he cringed and finished the rest of his wine.
This time he spilled a bit as he refilled his glass. He laughed bitterly as the obnoxious horse laugh again shattered the relatively silent night. This far from the palace, buried in a small nook beyond the maze that no one but he seemed aware of, the revelry was a distant sound. Only that damnable laugh – and now a shriller one joined it.
At least everyone else seemed to be having a good time.
The bells began to ring, tolling eleven times before finally falling silent.
Benedict laughed again, but he stopped before it became something pathetic. Eleven o’clock. He wondered if Hunter was looking for him…not that it mattered. He’d ensured he couldn’t do something stupid by secluding himself in his little hideaway. Nor would he leave it except when excessive drinking demanded or well after the stroke of midnight.
His family was going to flay him alive in the morning, but damn it all! The Masque was his one break, his only chance to be something other than the pretty face that did all the bedroom finessing.
They weren’t supposed to demand he work during the Masque – that was all he’d ever asked!
Yet now they’d broken that rule, demanding – though they always put on a show of leading and asking – that he charm Lord F tonight, an effort that would climax when F realized the bird seducing him was none other than Prince Benedict.
When his family realized that Lord F was buried in the maze, laughing in his horse-like fashion, with someone else entirely…Benedict felt tired thinking about it. Didn’t he do enough every other day? Could they not leave him alone these brief three?
If he were honest, however, his family was only a small part of the reason he was out here. It was to avoid the hope that Hunter might reappear that he’d run away.
They’d both said farewell. He shouldn’t be this depressed. This pathetic.
It was so much easier to seduce and be seduced when you didn’t actually care – which brought up a question he didn’t feel like facing.
No, the question he should be facing was – had he brought a third bottle? Because the second was woefully empty. Reaching down, he fumbled briefly in the dark before his fingers landed on a bottle that was heavy, full.
He struggled to get it open, and it belatedly occurred to him that perhaps he should have opened them all before he started drinking.
Warm fingers slid over his and neatly took the bottle away.
Benedict blinked at looked up, willing his eyes to see in the weak light of a few colored lanterns. He drew a sharp breath.
“It seems to me, pretty bird, that you’ve had more than enough.” Chuckling softly, Hunter let the bottle slide from his fingers to fall to the grass, then stepped close and tugged Benedict’s head to rest against his stomach, gloved hand sinking into his hair. “Why are you hiding and drinking, pretty bird?”
Benedict nuzzled into the soft velvet of Hunter’s jacket, relishing the warmth emanating from him, and even through the alcohol he could smell every essence of his cologne. “Patchouli, anise, leather, and amber. As intoxicating as ever, Hunter.”
“As talented as ever, pretty bird. You smell of dark musk, roses, and amber.”
Wishing devoutly that his head had not picked now to start spinning, Benedict settled for laughing and wrapping his arms around Hunter as best he could. “You said farewell, Hunter. I did not expect to see you again.”
“My impression was that you did not want to see me again,” Hunter replied, voice quiet, soothing, as his fingers continued to stroke through Benedict’s hair. “It took some time to find you, songbird. I was not aware this part of the garden existed…hiding away in your little nest?” He gently tugged Benedict’s head back, forcing him to look up.
“Hardly a nest,” Benedict said, chuckling. “If I went there, they’d find me.” And force him out to show his feathers to Lord F.
The world spun dizzily for a moment and then Benedict realized they were both now seated on the bench, his head on Hunter’s shoulder. “Why did you come back?”
“I meant to stay away,” Hunter replied with a sigh. “I guess you’re too fine a songbird for me to let go.” He laughed briefly. “Though it looks as though I am losing you to the wine. You are not usually so undignified, pretty bird.”
“Hmm….” Benedict closed his eyes and just enjoyed the feel, the sound, the scent of the man holding him. Who was Hunter? Why had they never met before? Would they ever meet without the masks? “I generally only do so in my nest…at this rate you will have me thinking I truly am a bird.”
Hunter laughed hard enough to shake them both.
Benedict breathed in the smell of him, moving so that he could nip the bared throat, take a taste. He heard Hunter hiss in surprise and bit harder. “I wonder who you are, Hunter, that I’ve never noticed you before. Surely I would notice the only person in the palace who seems to share my interest in colognes…”
“My identity does not matter, pretty bird. Besides, it is not yet midnight.”
Slowly, immediately regretting it, Benedict sat up. He frowned at Hunter, but before he could say anything the quiet was shattered yet again by Lord F and his horse laugh. Benedict grimaced in the general direction of the maze. No matter how hard he tried, it would seem he’d not be allowed to forget what he should be doing.
“Who is that?” Hunter asked. “I heard that hideous laugh the entire time I searched for you, and I very nearly stopped to hunt him down and bid him be silent or else.”
Benedict threw his head back and laughed, the dizziness the motion caused more than worth the image of Lord F being ordered ‘to be silent or else’. “That would be Lord F,” he said at last. He meant to stop there, but as he’d learned bitterly and painfully yesterday, something about Hunter made him want to say things he barely was able to say in his own head most days. “Currently I should be the one making him laugh…though if after two hours in the maze all his companion can get from him is laughter, I am not certain which of them I feel more sorry for.”
“The pretty bird chose to fly away instead?” Hunter asked, reaching out to cup his chin in one gloved hand, dragging Benedict close to kiss him softly.
Benedict stared at him, seeing little more than dark eyes and glinting jewels, wishing with everything he had that he knew who his Hunter was, and why he’d never met him before. “The bird does not perform during the Masque, except as he so chooses.”
Hunter flashed a pleased grin. “I like being what you chose, songbird.”
“Yes,” Benedict replied, not exactly sure what he meant but beyond caring as Hunter again took his mouth, the kiss possessive, hungry, nothing like the previous gentle touch.
In the distance, Lord F’s laughter could once again be heard – but even that was drowned out as the bells began to toll.
Benedict felt Hunter stiffen in his arms, but when he would have pulled away, Benedict clung tight and continued to kiss him, gasping in relief when Hunter stayed.
Finally the need to breathe forced them apart, but as Hunter pulled away Benedict reached up and yanked hard at his mask.
His world spun, turned upside down, as Hunter shoved him hard, sending Benedict tumbling off the bench, spilling onto the grass. He heard Hunter swear again, then rustling grass turned into boots clicking on tile before he was once more completely alone in the garden.
Benedict slowly pulled himself back up, laughing low and bitterly. He stared at the mask in his hands – green, trimmed with teardrop-shaped amber. It still carried the traces of Hunter’s cologne, a faint hint of his sweat.
“Bastard,” Benedict said softly to the air. “Who are you? Why would you run from me?” He sighed softly and wished he had the energy to resume drinking. “I’ll find you, Hunter.” He held the mask close and breathed in the lingering scents. “I will most definitely find you.”
Rae slammed his door behind him and locked it, then slid down the door to collapse on the floor, burying his face in his hands.
Several minutes later he finally stood. Stripping off his gloves, he threw them down on the small side table beside his chair and immediately poured a brandy. But the smell of alcohol reminded him of the drunken, miserable prince, and swearing loudly he hurtled the full glass into the fireplace.
Let the maids complain. He was beyond caring.
He raked a hand through his hair and then sat to pull off his boots, carefully setting them aside before he gave in to the urge to throw everything into the fire. Except his mask, of course, because he’d been stupid enough to let Benedict take it off. He should have known – a brat, even drunk and miserable, was still a brat.
He hadn’t meant to go back to the prince. He’d only gone to watch Benedict, to see him find someone else when ‘Hunter’ didn’t appear. To assure himself that he was easily forgotten by the prince.
Except Benedict had never made an appearance, and any fool could see that his poorly disguised parents were becoming increasingly annoyed by something.
Unable to help himself, he’d finally begun to hunt down Benedict. Not once, despite the way he’d seen the prince drink the first two nights, had he expected to see him curled up in some forgotten corner of the garden smelling like a vineyard.
Was Benedict that unhappy all the time? The idea didn’t fit with the daylight prince he knew.
Not that it mattered. The Masque was over. Tomorrow everything would well and truly return to normal. He could already sense that he’d be pitching something at Benedict’s foolish head, as a hung over prince was even more aggravating than he was normally.
Damn and blast. The next time he came up with a clever plan he was going to throw himself in a fire. The pain of burning alive would be, by comparison, an amusing tickle.
Rae stood and began to strip off his clothes – but the glint of glass catching the firelight stopped him and he looked toward his bureau. Three bottles sat there, almost as if mocking him. Snarling, Rae stalked across the room and snatched up the first one – then set it back down and propped his elbows on the bureau to bury his face in his hands.
What was he going to do? He couldn’t just go back to acting like everything was normal – yet what choice did he have? Benedict would only hate him more than ever.
He’d have to resign, there was no choice…but the thought of leaving was nearly a physical pain.
Rae tried to recall the last time in his life he’d felt this torn and confused. He realized he never had. “Benedict, you bloody bastard,” he said softly, wearily, as he turned back to his bath, “why couldn’t you stay despicable?”
Confound it, man,” Benedict attempted to glare at Rae. “Would you take your insufferable self off somewhere? I am in no mood to endure your presence this morning.”
Rae glared and set his teacup down with a hard clack, tea sloshing up the sides and only just barely avoiding spilling over. “If you are not ‘in the mood to endure me,’ Highness, then take yourself elsewhere. Unlike certain over-indulgent fools, I intend to see to my duties – that means I require this office. As you never use it, it would make more sense if you leave.”
“Shut up,” Benedict said with a grimace, holding his head a moment longer before finally forcing himself to move. He poured cream into his tea and lifted the delicate cup, but even the strong, revitalizing aroma of his favorite tea could not banish the effects of too much wine.
He supposed it served him right. The next time he decided to drown his pathetic sorrows, he would have to make sure he did not wake until he’d slept the after effects off. “Is it really only eight thirty?” he asked, setting his tea down after only a sip.
“Yes,” Rae said acidly. “I was certain the world was ending when I saw you awake so early. For a moment I had thought it meant you’d decided to start working.”
Benedict rolled his eyes. “For my part, I foolishly thought the pleasures of the Masque would have a calming effect on you. Get left alone in the maze, dear mortal enemy?”
This time Rae slammed his teacup down hard enough Benedict wondered that it didn’t shatter. Tea splashed over the rim, covering the saucer and dark cream tablecloth. “Go away, Highness. I am in no mood for you today!”
“I’m certain you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe this is my office and that you are my assistant and if I tell you to leave then you are to obey me and leave this instant!”
Rae sneered. “Of course, Highness, if that is your wish. However, do not try to reprimand me when your reports lie uncompleted and your correspondence goes unanswered. I do think the Duke will be most vexed when you fail to respond to his missive.”
Benedict rubbed his head. “Must you be the bane of my existence, assistant?”
“Must you be the bane of mine?”
“I do believe you started it, mortal enemy.”
“No, Highness, that was you. Obnoxious right from the start, not even a polite greeting before you ordered me to work and wandered off to waste your day!” Rae stood up fast enough he nearly knocked his chair over.
“Perhaps I’d be politer if you did not do your best to be as odious as possible! I have never encountered a man as intolerable as you!”
“Clearly you do not know yourself then!” Rae snarled, all but throwing things across the room as he poured over the desk looking for who knew what.
Benedict made a face at his back. He shouldn’t be as annoyed with Rae as he was – neither of them was any different today than they were every other day. He knew it was only his aching head and the fact that he’d lost his Hunter.
He should never have tried to take the mask. Benedict pressed fingers against his chest, his dark gold-brown waistcoat, feeling the mask tucked away inside it. Truly he felt like the greatest of fools. No doubt ‘Hunter’ was somewhere having a grand laugh at the foolish Prince Benedict. The thought made him cringe. Stupid, that’s exactly what he was.
Still, he hadn’t given up hope entirely. Whether or not Hunter wanted to be found was beside the point – Benedict would find him. Already he’d put his plan in to motion, in a few days something should come to light.
Until then, he’d just take his frustrations out on Rae – who seemed more hostile than ever, though that could be his headache talking. He glared at his assistant.
“I’m not leaving,” Rae said mutinously. “I have work to do. If you cannot bear my presence because of your stupid overindulgence in wine, that is your problem. I will not let my work fall behind because of your stupidity.”
Benedict frowned, something about Rae’s words nagging, but he could not figure out what. Drat it all, he was not in the mood for this today. “Do you ever wake up in a good mood?”
“Why should I?” Rae snapped, slamming down the ledger he’d been perusing. He swiped a stray hair from his face, and it struck Benedict that Rae’s hair was not quite as neat as usual. He hoped that meant the bastard’s night had been a particularly wretched one. “Every morning I wake knowing I have to face you – certainly that does not bring a smile to my face.”
“Then you are welcome to leave!” Benedict snapped, and he swore he could feel his temper shatter. He had enough to deal with – he did not also need someone who so clearly hated him. “Certainly neither one of us wants you here. Take yourself off, then. I’m tired of looking at you, and it’s clear you’ve never enjoyed my presence. Get out and don’t come back.”
He drew a sharp breath at the pain that flickered for the barest moment across Rae’s face – it was almost immediately replaced by a carefully blank expression. “Fine.” Without another word, Rae moved around the desk and stalked toward the door and out of the office. He did not slam the door as Benedict had expected – Rae was nothing if not volatile, part of the reason he loved riling the man – but merely closed it behind him.
Benedict frowned, somehow not feeling as pleased as he thought he should. Both he and Rae would be happier with the damnable man gone. Why did he merely feel more depressed than ever?
Confound it, why did it have to be morning? He wanted a drink; anything that would drown his misery.
He drank his tea without enthusiasm as he pondered whether or not he could sneak back to his room and just hide there for awhile.
A knock on the door rendered the point moot. “Enter,” Benedict snapped. He started as he saw who entered – the royal perfumer, a wizened old gentleman with a nose even sharper than his own. “Matthews,” he said, summoning up what remained of his manners. “I did not expect to see you this soon. Dare I hope you have good news for me?”
“Very good,” Matthews replied. He turned and beckoned to someone still outside, and Benedict stood as a young woman entered – pale blonde hair, pale blue eyes, neat and tidy, obviously middle-class but with quiet pride and confidence in her bearing. “I did not expect to find an answer so quickly, Highness, but a note came almost immediately to my queries. This young woman is Anna Cantrell, and she is an apprentice perfumer in a little shop at the edge of the city. I’ve never heard of it, and I am beginning to think that is a serious failing on my part. Child, tell the prince what you’ve told me.”
Anna nodded hesitantly but stepped forward and bobbed a curtsy. “Highness.”
“You know who created the colognes I am asking after?”
Her lips twitched, amusement sparking in those blue eyes. “I created them, Highness. My brother wrote me a most insistent letter the day before the Masque, requesting I create three blends that he’d contrived. I made a few modifications to them and sent them to him. My brother is quite knowledgeable of the craft, but he lacks the patience for the actual creating.” She laughed softly at some private memory. “I am humbled your Highness asks after them.”
“Who is your brother, sweet?”
Anna hesitated. “Highness, please, he asked me not to tell. Said it was important – neither of us thought I would even be discovered. It is only because of my husband…he dislikes secrets, you see…” She frowned unhappily at the floor.
“It is vitally important you tell me, pet. Please? I do not want to have to make it an order.”
“Yes, Highness,” Anna said quietly. “My brother is Rae Burroughs.”
Benedict distantly noted she was still speaking, but did not hear the words, his entire head ringing.
Impossible…Rae? Assistant Rae? Was Hunter?
He could not wrap his mind around it.
Standing abruptly, his tea spilling as he knocked against the table in his haste, Benedict motioned absently at Anna. “Pay her. See she’s brought here. That sort of talent should not be wasted on a shop at the edge of the city. Do whatever is necessary.” Storming from the room, ignoring the responses called after him, Benedict stormed through the hallways.
He latched onto the first high-ranking servant he saw. “Where is Master Burroughs bedroom?” When the man stuttered and fumbled, Benedict grabbed him by the collar and yanked him close. “I will ask you once more – where is Master Burroughs’s bedroom?”
“East wing, third hallway, second to last on the left, Highness.”
“Thank you,” Benedict said curtly. He strode through the hallways of the palace, ignoring everyone that called to him, snarling at those who tried to stop him. Mercifully, the number of people dwindled as he continued, and when he finally reached Rae’s room there was no one to bother him.
The door was unlocked and he threw it open – but his word died on his lips as he realized the room was empty. Rae was not here.
Benedict started to leave, but fury and curiosity drove him inside.
It was absurd. There was no way his Hunter could be his insufferable assistant. He tried to overlap the two, see where they met…and drew a sharp breath as he realized it wasn’t as inconceivable as he thought.
They were the same height – just shorter than he. The hair and skin could easily be darkened. Matching builds. Even the personalities…confidence, arrogance, a determination to do precisely what he wanted….
Benedict wandered the room. It was simply decorated – dark leathers, deep red rugs, and a few landscape paintings. He paused in front of the bureau, his attention immediately captured by three perfume bottles. They were made of dark red glass, trimmed in gold, each one with a different gold mark to differentiate the scents.
He picked up the first one and pulled the stopper. Immediately the scent of from the first night washed over him – musk, red rose, apple, vanilla, and teak. His hands trembled as he replaced the stopper and carefully put the bottle back down. He felt dizzy, lost.
Rae was Hunter. The assistant he loathed was the man he’d wanted never to let go. Pain lanced through him as he wondered why Rae had done such a thing. Had he known the entire time that the ‘pretty bird’ he’d chased was Benedict?
Where the devil was he? He’d finally dismissed the bastard, why wasn’t he here packing his belongings? Benedict frowned in thought – his head jerked up as an idea came to him. Surely not…
Striding back the way he’d come, glaring everyone down so they did not even attempt communication this time, he blazed through the halls and into the gardens, weaving his way through the winding paths, cutting off sharply to the right as he moved beyond the maze and—
—There he was. Benedict realized he was holding his breath. His chest was heavy, aching.
Rae sat on the bench where they’d both been last night; his face buried in his hands, spectacles neatly tucked away in his jacket. His hair was completely mussed, as though he’d run his hands through it at least a dozen times. He looked every bit as miserable as Benedict felt.
Except he was supposed to be angry. Yes, angry. Focus on that. “Rae.”
Rae’s head jerked up, and Benedict tried to take pleasure in the way his face went stark white. “Highness,” he said roughly, then cleared his throat. It was startling to see Rae stripped of his composure and rage. “Highness. Did you need me to sign off on my dismissal?”
“I would rather know how you came to be here…Hunter.”
He hadn’t thought it possible for Rae to get any paler, but he did. Benedict wondered if he’d pass out. “Why did you do it, Rae? Was it some sort of game?”
Rae looked at him briefly, then his eyes skittered away to focus on the grass. “It started that way. Then everything changed.”
“Changed,” Benedict repeated, voice dripping disbelief.
“Yes, damn you!” That temper he knew so well finally sparked. “I wanted to humiliate you – but then you didn’t act like you were supposed to. I half-thought I had the wrong person that first night. Why couldn’t you remain an obnoxious prick? Damn you to hell!”
Benedict frowned, rather more at a loss for words than he liked. He could not reconcile Rae with Hunter, despite the fact that they were clearly the same man.
He could see what Rae had been intending. Furious with him, and given to vindictiveness, he could see exactly how Rae would have planned the entire thing. That first night, looking back, he could see that Rae had indeed played him perfectly. It made him feel sick to think how easily he’d fallen right into Rae’s hands.
A thought distracted him. “Since when do you know anything about perfume?”
Rae laughed bitterly. “My family owns a perfumery along the coast. It’s not extremely well known, but it does well for itself. I have my father’s talent but not the patience.” He glared at Benedict. “When I was assigned to this post, Highness, part of the reason your father chose me was our common interest in such things. You, of course, never gave me a chance to say that. Too busy being lazy and insufferable!”
Benedict opened his mouth, then closed it with a snap. “So why do you wear that obnoxious pine stuff?” He knew the answer though – Rae wore it to annoy him. “I found you out through your perfume, you know. Matthews ferreted out your sister.”
“Leave Anna alone!” Rae snarled. He swore softly. “Confound that girl; she was not supposed to go blathering about it.”
“I gave her very little choice,” Benedict said. “So far as leaving her alone – too late. She’s already been hired to work here. I’m not wasting talent like that on some forgotten shop at the edge of the city.”
Rae snorted. “The shop owned by her husband?”
Benedict shrugged. “I told Matthews to handle matters.” He shook his head, realizing they’d wandered completely off topic. “That doesn’t explain you, Rae! I can’t believe—” It twisted his stomach. He’d actually thought that maybe, just a bit, Hunter had cared. He’d had no reason to return that last night, so Benedict had hoped…
“Wine,” he said suddenly. “That’s what nagged me before in the office.” He stepped closer, but stopped just short of being close enough to touch. “You knew I’d drunk too much wine. No one saw me last night – you could have guessed, but most often I drink brandy, which you also well know.”
“So were you just toying with me Rae? Was that all it was?”
“The first night, yes. Not the second…definitely not the third.” Rae stared at the ground, looking tired and worn. “I wasn’t supposed to go back the third.”
“Then why did you?” Benedict asked bitterly.
“Confound it, I don’t know!” Rae stormed to his feet, eyes blazing as he met Benedict’s stare. “We hate each other! The whole palace knows it. The servants – and no doubt the court – have been placing bets for months on whether I would leave or be dismissed. A few have declared blood would be drawn at some point. I planned to seduce you to throw it in your face, I admit it. But the man in the mask was nothing like the prince I regularly want to throttle. This entire mess is your fault!”
“My fault? I’m not the cad who decided it was all right to toy with a man for something as petty as revenge! I should wring your neck.”
Rae laughed in that snotty way that drove Benedict crazy. “So it’s all right for your family to set you to do the hunting, but it’s not all right to be hunted in your turn?”
Silence fell between them, and Benedict wasn’t certain which of them was more horrified by Rae’s words. “Do not speak of that,” Benedict hissed. Bloody hell, why hadn’t he kept his mouth shut? He knew why though – he’d always wanted someone to understand him, and he’d stupidly let himself think Hunter might be that someone.
Rae’s face clouded. “I might be a bastard, Highness, but I’m not going to spill your secrets. Anyway, to whom would I tell them? I’ve been dismissed.” He hesitated a moment, then straightened his shoulders and made to move past Benedict.
“Was it really all a farce?” Benedict asked as Rae drew even with him. He kept his eyes on the bench, unable to look at Rae. “How can you be such two different people?”
“I could ask the same of you, Highness,” Rae said cautiously. “The bastard I set out to humiliate was hardly the man I encountered.”
Benedict laughed. “It seems we excel at deceiving each other, dearest mortal enemy.”
Rae grunted. “When we are not attempting to kill one another.”
“Why do we hate each other?” Benedict asked.
“You can never be bothered to tend your duties or even thank those who tend them for you. You’re constantly late, resort to stupid, childish pranks – or did you think I never noticed the extra sugar cubes? – and enjoy making me do all your work.”
Benedict rolled his eyes. “You’re uptight and unbending and have no sense of humor. I don’t think you do anything but work, and instead of greeting me or asking how I am, you immediately start in with accusations.” His lips twitched. “You also wear that wretched pine stuff.” He stopped suddenly, and finally turned to face Rae, who was studiously examining a tree. “You’re not wearing it today.”
“It’s truly wretched,” Rae said, and turned his head to return Benedict’s wary look. “I was in no mood to deal with it today.”
He moved before he thought, dipping his head to Rae’s throat, smelling silk and linen, and beneath it all a salt-sweet scent he would never forget. “It really is you,” Benedict breathed, doubting he’d ever really be able to believe it.
Fingers sank into his hair, the gesture painfully familiar. “Highness, cease. We hate each other. It would take us mere hours to kill each other.” Despite his words, Rae’s grip did not ease.
“Hours?” Benedict laughed. “It usually only takes us minutes on a good day, mere seconds on most.” He gave in to the impulse to taste that skin, still not quite believing that Hunter was Rae.
Rae started at the sharp nip, fingers gripping Benedict’s hair painfully tight. “Highness,” he said, voice strained. “This is foolish…and I do not think your family will permit it – because I do not share.”
That they were even considering the idea made Benedict dizzy. If someone had told him four days ago that his damnable assistant would become his lover, Benedict would have laughed and ordered the speaker from his presence.
Nor would he have ever thought Rae would be the reason he started defying his family.
Fingers once more tightened in his hair, tugging his head up, and then Rae was kissing him and Benedict was really and truly convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Rae was his Hunter.
“Where did someone as uptight as you learn to kiss like that?” he asked when Rae finally let him go.
Rae rolled his eyes. “I haven’t spent my entire life trapped in offices by insufferable princes.”
“The way you behave, I’m certain much of it was spent in cells,” Benedict goaded, unable to resist.
Dark eyes flashed at him in warning, and Benedict was dumbfounded he’d not recognized them for three whole nights – but it had been dark. Surely that was a large part of the reason he’d been so stupidly oblivious. “I am beginning to learn, Highness, that the trick to keeping you bearable is keeping that mouth from speaking.”
“I could say the same of you, assistant.”
“You dismissed me.”
“Did I? I don’t recall doing so.” Benedict smirked, and ducked his head to cut off Rae’s scathing reply with a kiss. It was a bit disconcerting how easy kissing Rae was becoming.
Rae quickly took control of the kiss, and broke it only when the need to breathe took precedence. “You are insufferable.”
“You are unbearable.”
“So long as we’re agreed, Highness, that this is a bad idea.”
Benedict nodded. “We’re definitely going to kill each other – especially if you’re still calling me ‘Highness’ after all this. You’re stuffy to a fault.”
Rae glared at the insult, but then his lips curved in a familiar smirk. “If you insist, pretty bird.”
Shivers ran down Benedict’s spine, to so blatantly see Hunter in Rae. He wrapped his arms tightly around Rae’s waist, pulling the man flush against him, loving the way Rae’s hands sank possessively into his hair and pulled his head down for another kiss.