Excerpt: The Duke’s Deception

The corridor was quiet, empty, and absolutely perfect for sneaking back to his rooms. Larkin stumbled along, forcing himself to stay alert for any sound. He couldn’t afford to get caught, not given the shape he was in. There was no way to explain any of his injuries that wouldn’t bring more attention than Larkin could afford to have focused on him.

If he could reach his room, he could take the healing potion he had tucked away. This wasn’t the emergency he’d thought he’d need it for, but given his choices were take it or go to the healers…

Larkin froze, listening carefully. Had he imagined that soft scuff of a footstep? He shuffled sideways, into the shadows of a slightly protruding support beam. It wouldn’t stand up to more than a cursory look, but anyone sneaking around this late would hopefully, like him, be more inclined to secrecy than finding out who else lurked in the palace hallways.

Unfortunately, it appeared he really had run out of luck. Larkin bit back a curse as Prince Garnett Beringer appeared out of the connecting corridor a few doors down the hallway. Between his unyielding, stiff posture and the slightly out-of-fashion, high-collared jackets he preferred, he was unmistakable even in the low light provided by the mage lights lining the corridors. Garnett glanced to the left, away from where Larkin stood, and then, of course, looked down towards where Larkin leaned against the wall, half-hidden behind the corridor.

If it had been anyone else, they would have taken Larkin’s attempt to conceal himself as the hint that it was. Anyone else should have been sneaking around as much as Larkin was. Not Garnett, however. He was as straight-laced and boring as the position of Chief Financier to the Crown suggested. He was also annoyingly persistent, even in the face of dozens of brush offs.

He was heading straight for Larkin, swift, sure steps closing the space between them. A frown marred his face, as though he already disapproved of whomever lurked in the hallway. Normally Larkin wouldn’t hesitate to tease and play at where Garnett had been and why he was sneaking around, but he didn’t have the time tonight. His arm was going numb, which Larkin was fairly certain was a bad sign. At least his jacket seemed to be absorbing most of the blood and the low light should conceal the stains.

Rallying what little energy he had left, Larkin pasted a smile on his face as Garnett reached him. “Good evening, your highness.”

“Are you all right?” Garnett asked. He made an aborted movement, as though he wanted to physically reassure himself that Larkin was, in fact, whole.

“I’m more than all right, highness,” Larkin said. “I had a lovely evening with a lovely woman—”

Garnett cut him off with a frustrated noise, and Larkin fell silent, startled by the uncharacteristic display of emotion. Garnett was usually much more collected even when he dealt with Larkin, who went out of his way to annoy Garnett. He couldn’t have Garnett getting too close, after all. That would ruin everything he was working for.

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Garnett said. His voice was quiet, but it sounded far too loud in the dark, silent hallway. “Are you all right?”

Larkin swallowed because the answer was no, but he couldn’t say it. Garnett would ruin everything. “I’m fine, highness. I appreciate the ill-placed concern. If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with my bed.”

Steeling himself, Larkin forced himself into motion. He couldn’t afford to show weakness, but affecting his normal stride nearly took all the energy he had left. Garnett stepped forward, reaching towards him again. Larkin tried to sidestep, but not only did he not manage it, Garnett succeeded in grabbing his injured arm.

Pain lanced up his arm, white-hot and sharp, almost as terrible as the spell that had inflicted the injury. A cry of pain slipped free before Larkin could smother it, and Garnett let go as if he’d been burned.

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