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The first time a blade pressed menacingly against my throat, I experienced the obligatory life-flashing-before-my-eyes panic reaction. The hundredth time, as my back hit the wall and the cold edge of the dagger pressed against my skin, all I felt was annoyed. And exhausted.
"Yield," I said, huffing out the word and letting my own dagger drop to my side as I tried to catch my breath.
The man wielding the offending dagger frowned at me, his icy blue eyes narrowing in displeasure. "You can't yield, Alex."
I glared at him. He didn't even have the decency to look winded, and there wasn't a single white-blond hair out of place under the thin shimmering circlet on his brow. I, on the other hand, was a hot mess after spending the last hour getting my ass handed to me. This had not been what I'd been expecting for the evening. Which was why the little black dress I'd worn was currently riding up to an almost indecent level on my thighs. Not that my date had noticed. He was far too busy kicking my butt. Sorry, I mean teaching me self-defense.
My name is Alex Craft, and my specialty is raising shades, not hand-to-hand combat. Or any kind of combat, for that matter. For most of my life, that fact hadn't been an issue. I was a private investigator, but until about seven months ago, most of my clients needed nothing more than a graveside conversation with the deceased. Since then? Well, life had been considerably more dangerous, and I was set to start my probationary trial as lead investigator for the local Fae Investigation Bureau, so I needed more than mere self-defense sparring. But come on, I'd worn pantyhose for this date.
"I'm exhausted. Yield."
"If this were a true fight, you'd be dead. Now get your dagger up and figure out how to get out of this position."
I sighed. It was my own fault. I'd been the one who'd agreed to date a Faerie king. Currently that relationship was on the down low because in Faerie, the strongest took what they wanted and being perceived as standing between some other fae and the potential affection of a king? That could be deadly.
I gave a disparaging glance at the dagger in my hand. Like the one at my throat, the blade was dull, the tip rounded. Then I sucked in one more deep breath and kicked out, aiming for my opponent's knee as I angled the dagger toward his ribs. I missed both strikes when he stepped to the side. The pressure of the blade at my throat increased.
"And your throat has been slashed. Again."
Of course it had.
Falin Andrews, formerly the Winter Knight and quite newly the king of the winter court, stepped back, shaking his head as he withdrew the dull dagger. I blew air through my lips hard enough to dislodge the curls that had slipped in front of my eyes. Despite the ice coating the walls and floor around us, and the snow that fell above us, vanishing before it ever reached me, sweat beaded on my skin, making the already clingy black dress stick to me. My arms were sore, my legs aching, and even though I knew Falin was holding back, I would have bruises on top of bruises tomorrow.
Falin took several steps backward, ending with his legs slightly spread, his weight distributed evenly as he lifted his dagger. "Again."
"How long are we going to keep this up?"
"Until you score a hit."
One hit. It didn't sound like much. Except that it was.
"We'll die of old age first," I muttered, earning another downward twitch of his mouth. Of course, we were both fae so were theoretically slotted to live a very long time, but with him being Faerie's youngest ruler and me being, well, me with my propensity for near-death experiences, either one of us would do well to live to something fae considered middle age.
"This is totally not why I shaved my legs."
That statement made him pause. His eyes raked down my body, finally noticing how high our sparring had lifted my skirt. A wicked smile that did funny things to my stomach crossed his face, and he lifted an eyebrow. "And I will make sure to show my appreciation for that selfless act later. But first," he said, lifting his free hand and flexing his fingers in a come at me motion, "you need to score one hit."
Damn. I slunk forward, practice dagger raised. My own dagger would have served me better-I might have even stood a chance as the enchanted blade possessed an intelligence that guided my hand. But Falin had insisted I learn to duel without the enchanted dagger. I'd increase my chances of surviving if I had skill to back up the blade's magic, or so he claimed. The problem was, I had absolutely no skill at combat.
Falin's foot shot out in a sweeping blow. I was expecting it; the move was one of the attacks we'd been practicing all night. I leapt to the side, but not fast enough. My feet flew out from under me and my ass slammed into the ground, the air bursting from my lungs. Before I could blink, Falin followed me down, and my back hit the ice, his knee planted in my sternum. Not hard-he avoided knocking the air out of me a second time-but the move effectively pinned me to the ice. I jerked my arm up, trying to block the blade I knew was coming next.
The rasp and clang of metal colliding filled the air, and for an elated moment, I thought I'd actually succeeded in stopping his dagger. Then the bite of dull steel pressed at my throat.
Falin lifted one pale eyebrow. "Better."
"But I'm still dead," I said with a huff as he removed the tip of his dagger from the hollow of my throat.
"Yes, but you're getting faster. You got your dagger up in time to try to defend. That's progress."
"Try" being the key word in that sentence. Yay me. Not.
"Again," he said as he stood with effortless grace. I just glared from where I was sprawled on the floor. He didn't even have the decency to look abashed, but at least he held out a hand to help me up.
I accepted, letting him haul me to my feet, but as I straightened, I feigned a stumble. He, of course, didn't let me fall. Knock my ass to the floor while training? Not an issue. But he wouldn't let me trip. Keeper, right?
As he caught my arm, I moved into him. The fingers of my empty hand skittered up the front of his shirt, and I felt him tense, as if trying to determine if this was an attack. I flashed him a smile, and then took a very deliberate gaze down his body. While I was out of breath, sweaty, and likely flushed from sparring, he looked amazing. The top few buttons of his shirt were open, flashing the lean muscles of his chest. The lightest glimmer of perspiration dusted that exposed skin, making it look absolutely lickable. My eyes continued their wandering perusal, taking in his perfectly chiseled features, full lips, sharp cheekbones, and intense blue eyes.
I let my appreciation show in my face as I looked back up at him and bit my bottom lip. His gaze shot to my mouth, and the tension in his body changed. His arms slid around me, drawing me even closer. Then his mouth met mine.
Our history was complicated. We slept together months ago in a coupling that was probably more emotional than it should have been for how short we'd known each other at the time and for how many secrets we'd both been holding. But it had been a one-time event. Circumstances-and by that, I mostly mean the fact that Falin had been sworn to obey an insane queen-had prevented any further exploration of a relationship. Well, that and the fact that I'd briefly dated Death, a soul collector whose real name I still didn't know. Death and I broke up nearly two months ago, and the Winter Queen was dead, so theoretically nothing stood between Falin and me. But we seemed to be taking things slow. Frustratingly slow, even for someone with my commitment issues. Not that we were doing it intentionally. In the two weeks since the doors to Faerie had reopened, we hadn't managed to secure much uninterrupted time together.
The sexual tension had been building, and it was palpable on our lips, on the thrust of his tongue as my mouth parted for him. I wrapped my arms around the back of his neck and his hands slid a warm line up my back, pulling me closer. I was even more out of breath by the time we broke apart.
"You were supposed to score a hit before we took a break," Falin said, his voice amused and his lips so close they brushed against mine as he spoke.
I lifted a shoulder, but changed the angle of my hand that held the practice dagger. We were so close. The cheap shot should have been simple, a bend of my wrist to tap my blade on his throat and claim a win. Instead my blade clinked against metal, his hand suddenly not on my waist, but blocking his throat instead.
He cocked an eyebrow. "That's cheating. And that distraction is unlikely to work on most opponents."
"Didn't exactly work on you either." Not that I was sparing much thought for the hit I needed to stop this sparring match. My lips were still tingling from the bruising kiss we'd just shared, and Falin's blue eyes held enough heat to melt the ice around us.
I opened my fist and let the dagger fall harmlessly to the floor. It thunked against the frosted floor. "Yield," I whispered, dropping my hand to touch the flesh exposed in the opening of his shirt.
"You can't yield." But there was no weight to the words this time, his attention clearly no longer on training. His fingers trailed along my jaw before tangling in the hair at the base of my head.
He leaned forward, and our lips met again. A sparring of a very different sort began. One of tongues and breath, and hands that roamed. I had most of the buttons of his shirt undone when the sound of a distinctly feminine throat cleared behind us.
"Your Majesty," she said, and from her tone, I guessed it was the second time she had said it.
Falin broke the kiss with an almost inaudible groan. My huff of annoyance was considerably louder.
"A moment," he barked at the visitor where she waited on the other side of the privacy screen that cordoned the doorway and blocked the view of the rest of the room. I tugged my dress back into place while Falin rebuttoned his shirt. Once I was sure I wasn't indecent, I snatched my dagger from the ground, as if it would explain any remaining disarray of my clothing. Falin gave me a knowing look before turning toward the screen and saying, "Enter."
A willowy woman in a moss-green dress swept into the main part of the room. Her lips pressed into a disapproving line as her gaze took us in, but she hid it quickly by dipping low into a curtsy, her head bowed so that all I could see was her brown hair tied up elaborately with mistletoe vines.
"Rise," Falin said, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back slightly, as if her presence was of little concern beyond an annoyance.
Maeve stood from her curtsy gracefully, her features carefully pleasant, lacking any of the censure I'd caught when she'd entered. "My king, the delegates from spring and fall have arrived. They await your pleasure in the great hall." Her smile turned sharper, her gaze flickering to me for a moment before she continued by saying, "Between them, they brought three consort prospects. One can be dismissed out of hand, but two are very good candidates, either of whom would shore up your power base nicely."
My fingers clenched around my practice dagger, but I worked to keep my expression neutral. Maeve had made it clear she thought Falin needed to take a strong consort-if not a full queen-if he wanted to hold the winter court. He had a fearsome reputation as well as a significant amount of skill and lethal knowledge that had been passed to him, along with the blood on his hands, from his former job as knight, enforcer, and assassin. Both served him well as king and made him far more powerful than other fae his age, but he lacked the centuries of other court rulers-or even most of the courtiers.
Falin had appointed no knight of his own, so he fought every challenge brought to his throne. As the former queen's knight, he'd been fighting her challengers for years, but she'd been old. Powerful. There hadn't been that many challengers until her deceitful nephew's poisons had sent her into a spiral of madness. Falin was young, and though he'd proven he was deadly in a dueling circle, he was untested as a ruler, and the winter court was still recovering from the damage the former queen had caused as her sanity slipped. If the other courts thought him weak, how many duels could he fight before they wore him down? Or a challenger got lucky?
I wanted him safe. Strong alliances and more power behind the winter throne would help him stay that way. Maeve had lectured ad nauseam on the importance of a political union. So far he'd refused to consider any candidates. He wanted me to take the role. He'd told me as much, though he hadn't actually asked me to be his consort. I had commitment issues. I was still adjusting to terms like "boyfriend" and "dating," so "consort" was not on the table-not that I was powerful or fearsome enough to add anything to his claim on the throne. In the meantime, though, he'd been fighting duels every few days since the doors to winter reopened. The idea of him taking one of Maeve's suggested unions made me sick to my stomach, but him dying was worse, so I remained quiet, my features schooled as neutral as I could manage.
For his part, Falin glowered at Maeve. "I've told you before that I will not entertain consort prospects."
Maeve bowed her head but made the smallest shrug as if this was all out of her control. "Of course, my king. I have spread the word that you are not accepting offers, but that has done little to stop the applicants. I have offered you my advice as the head of your council. I'm afraid the other courts have noted the deficit in your court. They will continue to send prospects in hopes of securing the position. Or they will send challengers."