“Can I go, too, Daddy?”
He looked at Sumi. “Are you okay with that?”
She nodded. “Don’t be long, though, and stay with everyone.”
He set Kalea down so that she could take Lillya’s hand and skip along with the rest to her new room. Then he knelt down by Sumi’s side.
She cupped his cheek in her hand. “Thank you.”
He inclined his head to her. “Did they please her?”
“You should have been here. She was deliriously happy.” But there was a strange shadow haunting his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
Dancer offered her a kind smile. “Nothing. I should keep an eye on Kalea. I’ll be back in a few.”
“He spoke to his mother,” Fain said as soon as Dancer was gone. Sitting down next to her, he handed her a glass of juice.
Sumi tried to understand why a talk with his mother would hurt Dancer so much. And she didn’t miss the fact that even though the female had birthed them both, Fain didn’t claim her. “Why’s he upset?”
“Both she and his father are planning to sit with Dariana’s family tomorrow. And Dancer’s furious and hurt about it.”
Sumi snorted at their mother’s stupidity. “He shouldn’t let that upset him. I don’t care where they sit.”
Fain swallowed his drink before he sighed. “Easier said than done, Sumi. It’s another slap in his face that he really didn’t need. They know he loves you, and yet they’re supporting a female who has done nothing but insult and humiliate him since he was a boy.”
A furious tic beat a steady rhythm in his jaw as he watched the boys and Vik playing at war in their sandbox. “You’ve never seen an Andarion unification ceremony. The bride and groom are practically nak*d when they make their Disclosures. The male comes out and kneels so that the bride can inspect him.”
A chill went down her spine at what he described. “Inspect him, how?”
“She walks around his body and looks him over. If he’s acceptable, she nods to the priest to continue the proceedings…” His voice trailed off as his tic picked up its rhythm. “Dancer was only eighteen the first time he went before Dariana, in good faith. You’ve seen his body. You know how scarred up he was, and those scars were still fresh, then. There he stood and knelt, just a kid, in front of his entire family and hers with his whole body visible for all to see – including the marks his mother had given him as chastisement. It was the last thing he wanted to do. He knew Dariana hated him, and that everyone would sneer over the condition of his body. Yet he went forward with it so that he wouldn’t shame his parents. A decent female would have simply shaken her head no, and been done with him. Instead, Dariana sliced open his back, leaving him to bleed at the altar, and walked out in the middle of the ceremony.”
Sumi ground her teeth as rage clouded her vision. “What did your parents do?”
“They left him, too.” Fain set his drink aside. “Alone, he went and dressed, while his back bled, and returned home to find himself locked out.”
Stunned at that, she gaped incredulously. “What?”
He nodded. “Because they were embarrassed that Dariana had denied his pledge, his parents refused him access to his own home. He didn’t even have his wallet on him. All he had were the clothes on his back.”
“Did he call you?”
“He was too ashamed. He didn’t call anyone. The worst part was that his parents didn’t tell anyone he was missing. They went on with their lives like nothing had happened. Almost a week went by before Nykyrian contacted me, asking if I’d seen him.”
“Are you serious?”
Bitterness burned in his eyes as he nodded. “Nyk had been out on assignment and when he got back, he’d tried to call Dancer to congratulate him on unification. When he kept getting voicemail without Dancer returning it, he became concerned and learned what had happened. It took us a day and a half to find him.”
“Where was he?”
“Comatose, in a hospital.”
Her stomach lurched to the point she feared she’d be ill. “What?”
Fain took a deep breath before he continued. “The Enforcers had found him passed out on a bench, in the park where we used to play as kids. They’d said that he must have been there for several days before they saw him. Between exposure and Dariana’s wounds, he was barely alive. Since he had no ID on him or credits, they had taken him to a charity ward and left him there to basically die.”
Tears choked her. No wonder he loved Nykyrian so. And Fain. They were really the only family he’d had as a boy. “What’d you do?”
“We had him moved to a real hospital, and flew in the best doctor on Andaria. But I will never forget the look in his eyes when he finally woke up. It was worse than when Keris had died, or when he’d been burned. He looked devastated and broken. Defeated. And he was just a kid.”
She knew that feeling of having everything in your world tragically taken. Of being lost and angry, and wondering why you were still alive when it was obvious no one gave a single shit about you. It broke her heart that they had put him through that. “What did he say about it?”
“Nothing. You know Dancer. He’s never spoken about it to anyone. And he never went back to his parents’ house. Not even for a single pair of shoes. He hasn’t stepped foot in it since the day he left for that first unification.”
“Where did he go?”
“Since Nyk was in The League and couldn’t have visitors, he stayed with me until he had a job and a small apartment of his own. And every f**king year since then, his parents have demanded that he return to face Dariana again and again, and be put through the humiliation of public rejection.”
And that cruelty, she understood least of all. “Why?”
“Penance for Keris’s death, and the fact that his mother has been quite vocal about how no other female will have him because of his hideousness. As far as his parents are concerned, Dancer has basically been an orphan since Nyk pulled him out of that burning pod.”
“Is that why you’re so protective of him?”
Fain nodded. “My brother’s a strong male. He’s had to be to survive. And he’s not the kind of male to let others see his pain… physical or emotional. Dancer holds everything in. But I know him better than anyone, and I’ve seen the longing he’s had every time he’s around his friends and their spouses, and children. All the times he’s been sneered at by an Andarion female. It’s why he built Eleron.”
“I don’t follow.”
“He wanted to have a female who could look at him without curling her lip in distaste.”
Sumi swallowed against the pain she felt over those words. “Andarion females are morons. Any woman —”
“Sees only an Andarion male. Trust me, Sumi. I know. While they might smile at first glance, the moment they see our eyes or teeth, they cringe and run. It’s really hard on the ego, and much worse than how Andarion females behave. I, at least, have the memory of being sought after by eager females. Dancer never knew that. Not until you.”
She still couldn’t believe that, given how incredibly handsome he was. But then, she knew exactly how superficial and judgmental some people were. While she hated that Dancer had been forced to be alone for so long, she was more than grateful that she was the lucky one who’d won his heart.
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked Fain.
“I wanted you to understand exactly who you’re fighting for tomorrow. How important you and Kalea are to him, and why his parents are f**king dipshits. And while they may sit with the enemy, we will be there for you.”
She placed her hand over his and squeezed. “I love you, Fain.”
“I hope, by that, you mean in a purely platonic kind of way,” a voice growled from behind them.
Laughing, she turned toward Dancer, who eyed them suspiciously. “And how else would I mean that?”
“Good, ’cause I’d really hate to have to kill my brother.”
Fain snorted. “And I’d really hate to die, especially since you still owe me money.”
“I paid you back… didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you did, but I like the doubt in that tone.”
Dancer rolled his eyes before he faced her. “I have been sent by Her Fae Highness to retrieve her mother so that she can show you her room. She has very specific ideas on how she wants it decorated, and Mari and Ture aren’t helping. They want you to knock out a portion of the roof and grow a tree or some weird shit like that.”
She laughed at his baffled expression. “Oh joy. I can’t wait.”
“Hmm… and she wants her own Vik, too.”
“Lovely. Let me go mitigate the damage before Eleron short-circuits.”
He picked Sumi up and carried her toward the stairs.
Sighing, she laid her head down on his shoulder and buried her hand in his braids, while she savored the scent of his warm skin. Her other arm was wrapped around his back so that she could draw circles against his spine.
Hauk slowed as he relished the tenderness of being held like this. Gods, it was incredible.
“Is something wrong?”
He tightened his arms around her. “No, mia.” He placed a kiss to her forehead as he carried her upstairs.
She trailed her hand from his hair to his jaw and then to his goatee that she fingered before she moved to trace his lips. “How can such a fierce, sexy beast be so incredibly sweet?”
“My enemies would beg to differ on the topic of my sweetness.”
“Then I’m glad I’m not your enemy, for I would hate to miss seeing this side of you.”
The redness of his eyes deepened before he dipped his head to kiss her.
Sumi moaned at the taste of him as he slowly lowered her legs and pulled her against him. She fisted her hands in his hair and shivered at the sensation of his fangs brushing against her tongue. He was always so careful not to hurt her.
His breathing ragged, he cupped her head in his hands and explored every inch of her mouth. Every hormone inside her fired as she ached to strip him nak*d.
“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! You have to come see this.”
Pulling back, she looked up to see Dancer pouting.
He placed a tender kiss to the tip of her nose. “Our daughter is summoning you, munatara.” He stepped back and released her to Kalea’s custody.
When she reached the door to Kalea’s room, she glanced back to see Dancer watching them. Eleron appeared by his side and whispered something to him.
He tilted his head as anger sparked in his eyes. Without a word, he spun on his heels and headed back to the stairs with a furious stride.
Sumi had no idea what had just happened, but she could tell it wasn’t good. She was dying to follow after him, but Kalea was insistent she join her.
Hauk paced his comm room as he listened to the report from the senior officer in charge of the Bromese Sentella base. All of them in the room – Nykyrian, Nero, Bastien, Safir, Chayden, Fain, Madai, Darling, Jayne, Ryn, Caillen, and Drake – were silent.
“We lost over a hundred members in the attack. The central bay is down and we have almost a thousand wounded. For now, I’ve closed the base and have evaced everything we could move to the base on Altira.”
“Is the Porturnum giving air support?” Ryn asked.
The commander nodded. “The Tavali have been a godsend to us, Ambassador. We’d have lost everyone had they not mobilized to our aid.”
Ryn glanced to Fain and Chayden. “Do either of you know Venik personally?” Venik was the Porturnum leader, and a vicious pirate bastard.
But if you wore a Tavali uniform, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for you.
Fain nodded. “I’ve known him for years. You?”
Chayden shook his head.
“Fain,” Nykyrian said. “Can you contact him and convey our gratitude? Tell him we’re in his debt. Send him a crate of the best Tondarion Fire you can find.”
Madai met Saf’s gaze before he spoke. “We will need to lead a retaliatory strike for this.”
“No.” Nero folded his arms over his chest. “Kyr did this to get back at us for taking Kalea from his custody. Another strike will only cost more innocent lives.”
Madai scoffed. “I’m good with that. They’re our enemies. The fewer of them who live, the better.”
Fain nodded. “You don the uniform, you know the hazards.”
“But they don’t all wear them by choice,” Saf reminded them. “And I was one of those.”
Madai said something to him that caused Saf to cup his hand and gesture at him.
While Hauk had no idea what that meant, the murderous expression on Madai’s face said it wasn’t a gesture for health or well-being. He passed a quirked brow at Saf. “Should I ask?”