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Mountain of Masks (Shrouded Thrones Book 2) by Jeanne Hardt (1)

Chapter 1

The crashing waves that had eventually lulled Sebastian to sleep startled him awake.

He and Olivia had spent most of the night entwined together. Whenever they stopped to catch their breaths, a light touch or simple exchange of looks enticed them to begin again. Her skin felt softer than the petal of a rose, yet she displayed an anything-but-delicate fiery passion.

Sunlight filtered in through the thin walls of the tent and allowed him to fully see her. He happily took advantage. The sight of her uncovered, bare body once again stirred his desire. Her bosom slowly rose and fell with every sleep-laden breath.

God had created a masterpiece when He formed her in her mother’s womb, and as she grew, molded her into the perfect woman. Sebastian had seen fertility god statues displayed in Issa—both male and female—which supposedly represented perfection.

Olivia alone proved their gods false.

He glided his fingers down her side, unable to keep from touching her. She stirred slightly and let out a sensual moan, then rolled onto her side and put her back to him. Obviously, her need for sleep currently outweighed all others.

He stared at her ample bottom, and his heart beat harder. It would be wrong to wake her. Even so . . .

An odd noise caught his ear. He sat up straight and tipped his head.

Jonah?

Sebastian grabbed his trousers and yanked them on. Though he could be mistaken, he swore Jonah had whimpered. What would cause a grown man to make such a sound?

Before stepping out of the tent, he glanced a final time at his sleeping bride. Once he discovered what troubled Jonah, he would return to her. Perhaps by then, she would be awake and agreeable to more lovemaking.

Odd how he had managed to endure so many years without intimately bonding, yet now that he had experienced it, he found himself insatiable. It gave him a better understanding of Jonah’s frustrations, having to wait for Allana.

Sebastian reluctantly left Olivia’s enticing presence, only to find his friend pacing beside the tent, mumbling.

“Jonah?” Sebastian hurried toward him. “Is there trouble?” He quickly scanned the shoreline and saw no one but Severin, the carriage driver, who stood at the ocean’s edge pitching stones.

Jonah scowled and fisted his hands on his hips. “Trouble?” He pointed a stiff finger at Sebastian’s chest. “You come out half-dressed after a night of almost no sleep, and you want to know if there is trouble?” Every word came forth with spite.

“Why are you angry?”

Jonah folded his arms and gazed upward. “Forgive me, Highness. I tried as best I could to attune my ears elsewhere, but . . .” He huffed a breath and looked Sebastian in the eyes. “You and your new bride were far from quiet. Though I have never been subjected to torture, last night nearly put me in the grave.”

Had Jonah said this before, Sebastian would not have been so understanding. Then again, at his age, Jonah should not behave as a child, whimpering about something he could not have.

Sebastian glanced back at the tent, then took Jonah by the arm and moved him farther away. “Once I was in her arms, I thought only of her. While we are here, my bride’s pleasure is all that matters to me. I expect you to refrain from whining like a child and start behaving as a man.”

“I am a man. That is why I find this so difficult.” Jonah retained his defensive stance.

No doubt, Sebastian had insulted him, but it had been important to speak his mind. He expected much more than immature sniveling from his friend and mentor. “Difficult? Do you recall how many tales you shared of your escapades? I had to suffer countless recantations of detailed dalliances, all the while being forced to keep myself chaste.”

“They were tales told after the fact. Had you been outside my chamber during . . .” He wiggled his finger at the tent. “You would understand the torment. I cannot bear another night.”

“Can you not put your mind elsewhere? I promised Olivia three full days at the ocean’s shore.”

Three?” He squeaked the word. “And, with those days, come nights.”

“Yes.” Sebastian jerked his head toward Severin. “Why not have him stand watch? Then you could put yourself away from hearing and spare yourself the agony.” He emphasized the term, hoping Jonah would come to realize the ridiculousness of his behavior.

Jonah stood tall and his brows dipped together. “Though it pains me to do so, I care too much to have someone other than myself look after you. If Donovan were to strike—”

“Shh!” Sebastian held up his hand. “Speak not of him. Not with Olivia so close. I will not have her joy spoiled by fears of that tyrant.”

Jonah silently nodded. “I am ashamed of my momentary lapse in judgment,” he whispered. “It shall not happen again. Your safety is my utmost concern.” He blew out a long breath. “Far more so than my loins.”

“It pleases me to hear you say it.” He braced his hand on Jonah’s shoulder. “Even so, I promise to make a conscious effort to quiet myself. However, gagging my bride is not an option.”

Jonah swallowed hard and looked skyward.

“Forgive me.” No matter what Sebastian said, he could not change the circumstances. Surely, Jonah understood. “You are a faithful friend and honorable man. I will gladly go to my father and request that he allow Allana to wed at sixteen. She shall be fourteen in two short months. Do you believe you can quell your desires for a little more than two years?”

Expecting at least a hint of a smile, Sebastian instead received a defeated frown. “Two years? Even then, she may not have me and waiting would be for naught. And have you forgotten the issue of my knighthood? Until I prove myself, I cannot claim her. With my lack of good fortune, a lord shall step forward and put his stakes on her before I am able.”

“Then I shall see to it you are dubbed into knighthood upon our return to Basilia. Once your status is secured, you can approach my father in regard to Allana. I assure you, no noble has come forth to request her.” He studied Jonah carefully, hoping his words had lifted his spirits, but his expression remained dour. “This does not please you?”

“What if she will not have me?”

No wonder he frowned. It appeared he had lost his confidence. “Would you rather forget her and return to your old ways? I am certain the wenches at Toad’s Tavern would relish your company once again.”

“Bite your tongue!” Jonah whipped around in the opposite direction, then let out a long sigh. “Forgive me, Highness.” Huffing, he slowly shifted and faced him again. “I want no other. Allana holds my heart, young though she may be. I shall do all I can to win her affections.”

“Good. For a moment, it looked as if every trace of your self-assuredness had vanished.” He put an arm over his shoulder and decided to ease his friend by taking his thoughts elsewhere. “I want the best for all my sisters. Estelle will soon marry Prince Eural of Oros. It is a fine pairing, but I worry for Becca and would like to ask your thoughts in regard to her pledge to Prince Talman of Thanwine.”

“Of course. What is it that troubles you?” All worry vanished from Jonah’s brow, substituted by concern.

The very thing Sebastian had hoped for. He needed Jonah to put his mind in the proper place. “Talman is more than twice her age. At one and forty, I find it hard to believe he has remained chaste. Unlike a woman whose virtue can be affirmed by the mere evidence of blood on a sheet, it is quite difficult to prove in a man. And since no prince may lay with a woman prior to marriage—”

“You speak as if I am unaware. Honestly, Sebastian, if he has taken a woman to his bed, does it truly matter? You assure me it matters not where lords and knights are concerned—something to which I am eternally grateful. However, it disturbs me that princes are set to such unreasonable standards. You never should have had to endure years of stifling your desires, simply to prove your worthiness as an heir to the throne.”

Maybe Jonah was trying to justify his own behavior, but he seemed genuinely bothered by their discussion. “The royal bloodline must be preserved, with no question as to legal claim. Had I lain with anyone I wished, I could have sired a son. One whose mother might attempt to raise into power, believing it his just position. By waiting for my intended, there is no question of legitimacy. My son with Olivia will one day sit on the high throne.”

Jonah’s brows lifted. “A son not yet conceived.”

“Perhaps.” Sebastian smiled, recalling the numerous times throughout the night that he had released his seed within her. A son could possibly have been formed. The thought broadened his smile.

Jonah cast a sly eye and rubbed his chin. “I often wonder if I have sired sons, or even daughters. But as of yet, I have not come upon a child who bears my likeness.”

Sebastian laughed. “If you encounter a boy with uncontrollable, bobbing yellow curls, it would do you well to inquire as to his mother.” When Jonah failed to join in his humor, Sebastian sobered. “I shall hope your seed is someday planted in my sister alone.”

“Damn you, Sebastian. I had finally removed my thoughts from Allana, but your words bring them once again to the forefront of my mind.”

“You call me by name. It seems I have discovered a means to embolden you, which pleases me. I do not care for you to whimper like a boy. To claim Allana, you must prove you have the ability to care for her in all aspects. You shall have to provide for her every need, not only those in the bedchamber.”

Jonah’s head dropped and he dug his foot into the sand. “You have seen my cottage. How can I ask the daughter of a king to live in such simplicity?”

“A woman in love cares not where she lays her head at night. Win her heart, and all else will be well. When you are knighted, you will be required to offer greater service to my father. Granted, we are not at war, but he may ask that you train more of his men in swordplay and archery. Much of your time will be taken, but doing this will bring you wealth and the prospect of erecting a finer abode. Perhaps even a small castle.”

“Sebastian?” Jonah’s tone completely changed. “As much as I complained about your nights’ activities, I am truly happy for you.” He lifted his head, looking genuinely apologetic. “I confess, I want what you have. True love.”

“Thank you, Jonah. Olivia has made every day I waited worthwhile.”

Jonah smiled and nodded. “May I speak openly?”

“Of course.”

“You pleased her. Nary a woman I have known has made such intense pleasure-filled sounds. You should take pride in your accomplishment.”

Though tempted to scold him again, Sebastian held back. After all, he had allowed Jonah to share his thoughts. As inappropriate as his words seemed, Sebastian trusted he had spoken with heartfelt sincerity. “Pride never came to mind while making love to her. I merely desired her happiness. More than anything, I wanted to wash away every wretched memory she had of Donovan.”

Jonah patted him on the back. “I believe you succeeded, sire.”

“Sebastian!”

He whipped his head toward the tent. “Olivia?”

Jonah had already broken into a sprint, but Sebastian easily overtook him and stopped him before he opened the flap. “I shall see to my wife. You stand guard.”

“Yes, sire.” Jonah lifted the canvas, and Sebastian rushed in.

His beautiful wife sat upright with a sheet clutched to her bare body. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

He took the place beside her and drew her close. “Shh . . . I am here.”

She grasped onto him tighter than he thought possible. “I saw him.” Sobbing, she burrowed her face into his neck. “Dressed in black, as before.”

Sebastian’s heart thumped. “Who?”

“Donovan.” Her shoulders jerked, and her heart-wrenching sobs grew by the moment.

“But . . .” How should he say this? “He is not here, my love. How could you have seen him?”

Her head gradually lifted, chin quivering. “He invaded my dreams . . .” She sucked in staggered breaths. “Yet he was as real as if standing here.”

She had told Sebastian of similar dreams. Ones that had come true. She had displayed signs that she could very well have the sight. It could prove to be a welcomed gift, yet he hated to see her tormented by disturbing premonitions.

He stroked her long dark hair. “You may find it difficult, but you must tell me all you remember.”

“Why?” Her cloudy eyes searched his. “Donovan is dead, so it matters not.” She sniffled, then dabbed at her nose with the sheet.

Though she was rightfully confused, he could not tell her his suspicions. “If you share your vision, it may help calm you.” He lay back and gently pulled her to his chest.

She wasted no time wrapping herself around him, as if no level of closeness could quell her fears. She pressed her head firmly to his chest and took long, labored breaths.

He would be patient and not push her, but he hoped she would share the dream in its totality. He threaded his fingers through her hair and did all he could to soothe her. “Know that I love you. I shall allow no one to harm you.”

She gazed up at him and moistened her lips. “I have not seen where we will reside in your castle.” Her eyes closed. “Is there a bed with a blood-red coverlet and white silk pillows?”

“My chamber has no such things.” He had never seen those amenities anywhere in the castle. “Why do you ask?”

The tension in her body diminished. “I thought . . .” She sighed and wiped her eyes with her fingertips. “Donovan stood in a room overlooking such a bed. I feared . . .” Her body lurched and she cuddled down once again.

“Please, Olivia, fear nothing.” He lightly rubbed her bare back. “Are you able to tell me more?”

She tentatively nodded, sending droplets of tears onto his bare chest. “I was lying in the bed, trembling and crying, as I am now. Donovan laughed and leered with so much hate, I can still feel it in my bones.”

“Did he speak?” As much as Sebastian wanted to comfort her, he could not settle his own pounding heart.

Several long moments passed, and he feared she would reveal nothing more.

“When I woke,” she whispered, “his voice resounded through my mind, hissing out the words, you shall never find her.

Olivia’s serpentine grasp constricted. “I know not to whom he spoke.” Her head arose. “What if he lives and intends to take me from you? He swore to make us suffer. What better way than by separating us?”

The fear in her damp eyes tore into Sebastian’s soul. “He lives not. Nothing shall divide us.” He would tell her anything to ease her torment.

She inched upward and kissed him. It started simply, then grew in intensity. “Love me, Sebastian.” Even through her tears, she eagerly tugged at his trousers, fumbling with their binding. “Please?”

“Yes, my love.” He covered her mouth with his, his own need surging.

Somehow, he managed to separate from her long enough to cast his clothing aside, his fears along with it. They both craved comfort, but he would never reveal the magnitude of their potential danger. It might be necessary to return to Basilia sooner than he had planned, but for now, they needed this.

He joined with her—body and mind—and for the moment, forgot all else.

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