“I really wish you would stop doing this to yourself.”
“We’ve been through this a million times. I know what I’m doing.”
“But this isn’t your responsibility, Miss Cleao. Putting yourself up on a pedestal like this…”
“My father said I was going to run the family in his stead when he died, remember? Let’s consider this a little test of my abilities. I get us out of this hellhole and in a way that everyone is happy.”
“Miss Cleao, I don’t doubt your abilities. I just want to be sure that you are confident that you can pull this off.”
A slow smile appeared on her seemingly delicate features that held anything but a delicate creature within. “Don’t worry, Kane. I can. And even though you don’t think so, my trump card is that sorcerer. He is our ticket out of this mess.”
He wanted to rip his hair out.
Actually, ripping her hair out would be far more satisfying. And not damaging to himself.
However, there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t inflict harm on her and he couldn’t get himself out this mess. The only thing he could to was growl and glare while he obeyed her every command. It didn’t matter if he got a little revenge by half-assing his job from time to time; for one thing, she would make him do it over again if she didn’t find it to her satisfaction. And it was still complete submission on his part no matter how one looked at it, and if there was one thing Orphen hated more than anything in this world it was being told what to do.
Next to having all his money taken away from him. Which was exactly what happened on the day Orphen finally received his payment!
Azalie was quick to confiscate the small slip of parchment that could be turned in at the bank for ten thousand soltos. Orphen had barely walked past the threshold when the paper found its way into Azalie’s hands.
“Greedy much?” Orphen grumbled.
She ignored him and instead threw herself upon Childman, who had just entered into the room drying off a newly washed plate. “Another week and we’ll have more than enough to buy this building!” she exclaimed jubilantly, hugging her fiancé tightly.
“Sure, my dear,” Childman replied calmly, still running the blue towel along the plate’s edges. “After you pay off your debts.”
Azalie pouted up at him like a child having been informed that she had to share her bag of candy with the rest of the class. Nevertheless, she didn’t argue.
“What about me!?” Orphen cried. “I’m the one doing all the work over there!”
“And I’m sure you are doing it very well,” Azalie replied, her playful grin returning. As much as Orphen loved seeing her always smiling, he was still miffed that not a coin was to be spared for his personal enjoyment. And floats were getting expensive nowadays because Bagup decided to raise his price one solto for the blissful sugary enjoyment considering Orphen was buying so many. “All in good business,” he had said with the same grin Azalie was wearing now.
Stingy bastards. All of them.
“Where is Miss Everlasting?” Childman inquired, changing the subject before his rebellious former student became obviously angry. “I was looking forward to an introduction.”
Childman was taken aback when the mentioning of the region’s little princess seemed to piss Orphen off even further. Understanding shown in his clear blue eyes when the young sorcerer hissed savagely, “Trust me, you wouldn’t want to meet her.”
The romantic couple glanced at each other as if carrying a brief and silent conversation before looking back him. “Trouble in paradise, little brother?” Azalie teased. “I thought you would be so happy living in the esteemed Everlasting mansion that you would never want to leave. I admit, I was actually surprised when you came over to visit today.”
Orphen snarled at her, not amused by her little jokes. “If you two must know, Her Highness is visiting with Majic’s father.”
Azalie’s brows shot up. “But why are you not there with her? You’re supposed to be her bodyguard, right?”
He rolled his eyes. “Puh-leeze, Azalie. Majic and his father are there. She can survive ten minutes without me. Just ten frickin’ minutes!”
“If that is so, then why are you poised as if to race out the door at any given moment?” Childman asked calmly, making a pointed look toward Orphen’s feet. Indeed, one boot was turned out the door and the other was barely touching the floor with any part but the toes.
“None of your business, okay?” It could be worse. Soon as he was out the door and in the safety of an ally, he was planning to teleport back to inn.
Everyone there thought he had just gone to use the bathroom. And he wouldn’t hold it past Cleao to bang the door down if she’d thought he was taking too long, no matter what unpleasant surprises she might encounter at the other side.
“Orphen, if you have to go back, please don’t let us keep you,” Azalie added. She was sincere, but the hint of that smile was still there in her pseudo-serious expression.
“I was planning on leaving you two love birds alone soon, anyway,” Orphen replied, screwing his nose up in disgust as Azalie was still hanging off of Childman. Childman didn’t seem to notice her clinging to him, and Azalie probably had forgotten she was doing so. Until Orphen brought it up with his latest statement, but it only made Azalie clutch her honey’s arm tighter.
“Jealous, little brother?”
“Excruciatingly so.” And, because he couldn’t hold it in any longer, his own smile broke out. “Same time next week?”
“Sure thing,” Azalie replied. “And bring that Everlasting girl with you.”
Yeah, right. Orphen nodded anyway, but the anger had returned to his eyes, if only for a flickering second this time.
Once he was gone, Azalie exchanged another look with Childman. “You sensed it, too?”
“Yes,” Childman confirmed with a sigh. “She has no idea he was here. Looks like our little Orphen has found his match.”
“A female version of himself? Oh, this is going to get interesting.”
A moment of silence, enough for Azalie to peer slyly up at Childman. “Speaking of making things interesting…”
“The dishes are not going to wash themselves, love,” Childman pointed out, secretly inside enjoying the frustrated look that crossed her features.
“Afterwards?” she prodded as the two them started back to the kitchen.
“Then there’s the living room--”
“The day is still young, my dear. Let us enjoy it while it remains upon us.”
It wasn’t the first time Azalie wondered if she had made a mistake getting involved with a master from the Tower of Fang, who had also been her teacher as well as Orphen’s, no less! Still, the only time she let go of his arm was to help put away those cursed dishes.
Cleao was pacing up and down in the lobby, and Orphen cursed to himself. The bathroom door had indeed been pounded in, meaning she already found out he had snuck off.
Explaining his absence was going to be a toughie. He didn’t want Cleao meeting Azalie and Childman. He wanted her as far away from his personal relationships as possible. They were the only aspects of Orphen’s life she hadn’t screwed over yet.
That ‘yet’ stood out more prominently in his mind than he liked.
“Where have you been?!” Cleao nearly screamed when Orphen descended the stairs. He had teleported back to his room in hopes of sneaking in, but his plans were dashed when he saw the abused bathroom door.
“Nowhere,” he snapped. He tried to brush past her, but she roughly grabbed his arm. “What!?” he snarled, snatching his arm away. Everyone else in the lobby was watching them with extreme interest.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
“Don’t touch me!”
“I can do what I please with you!”
“Like hell you can!”
“I demand you tell me where you were just now!”
“Screw you! I don’t have to tell you a damn thing!”
The rage was as clear on Cleao’s face as he felt his own burning inside, but there was no way Orphen was going to allow her to win this argument. No matter what punishment she had in store for him.
Instead of screaming even more at him, Cleao took a deep breath and said calmly, “Fine then. If you insist on being a rebellious asshole, I have no choice but to discipline you.”
He scoffed at her, darkly amused at the thought of this little wretch disciplining him. “You just try it,” he challenged.
He should’ve kept his mouth shut.
He really should’ve.
Because the next afternoon found Orphen poolside, serving to Cleao’s every wish…shirtless. And his headband had been confiscated, too. Of course, it could have been worse. Cleao had threatened she would make him strip bare if he continued to misbehave.
That’s why most of the maids in the household decided they wanted to clean the lower floors today, especially the windows from where they peered hungrily at him, eager to see this fine male specimen get naked.
Orphen now knew what it felt like to be a slab of beef in the meat market. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. He probably could’ve relished receiving such attention from his little mob of needy females, but only if it was on his terms, not because he was playing a sexually appealing lapdog to a certain rotten princess.
Said princess was reclining on a lawn chair next to the pool, her long legs stretched out before her as she tanned. Though the lavender two-piece she wore was flattering on her, Orphen still held firm to the belief that Cleao Everlasting had all the voluptuous proportions of a stick figure. Extremely sexy. Oh, yes.
“Your tea,” he announced dully, presenting the small round tray he balanced upon his open palm, a tall glass of iced tea sitting on its center.
Even through her sunglasses, Orphen could see her eyes glaring sharply at him. She didn’t say anything or even move. Just simply waited. He cringed, hesitating like he was trying to delay some excruciating punishment for as long as possible. Finally, he couldn’t stand the tension anymore and forced himself to spit out, “…Mistress.”
Now to go jump in that pool and drown. If only.
Cleao smiled sweetly up at him and it took Orphen everything he had not to beat her with this damn tray. “Just sit it on the table,” she instructed.
Though she didn’t look like it, Cleao had been watching Orphen all this time and all at once she was extremely glad for the unbearable summer heat pouring down on them. She could see the beads of perspiration upon his muscular chest, the smooth tan skin glistening with sweat. He was indeed very handsome; she couldn’t deny that even if she wanted to.
She still hadn’t thought up a proper punishment for him talking back to her earlier today. The threat to make him serve her naked had been made merely out of fun, especially when his eyes had grown wide at whatever horrifying images his mind had conjured. She probably would’ve done so anyway, if not for her own sense of modesty. That and being fully aware of the drooling group of maids gathered at the windows facing the pool. For some reason, the thought of other women looking at Orphen with the same interest she was…it just bothered her somehow.
He had nice hands.
Cleao nearly giggled out loud at how randomly that thought just popped in her head. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t so random as she was already admiring his desirable physique.
Oh, dear, where had that word come from?
If not for Orphen standing within earshot, Cleao probably would’ve burst into a fit of giggles like a schoolgirl having spotted her first crush. Still, when Orphen glanced at her, the expression he was giving her made her realize that she must’ve been grinning stupidly all the same. She didn’t feel that surprised; Cleao was the kind of girl who wore her heart on her sleeve, rarely covering her feelings.
Orphen was about to leave her alone with whatever disturbing thoughts she had going on in that demented brain of hers and help Majic clean the rest of the pool shed when Cleao stopped him by grabbing his wrist. He cringed inwardly. He really wished she would break this habit of having to touch him all the time.
“I didn’t say you were dismissed,” Cleao purred, peering slyly up at him over the rim of her sunglasses.
He was afraid of that.
Next thing Orphen knew, a bottle of lotion was being shoved into his hands. “Put it on my back,” Cleao commanded as she turned over to lay on her stomach. “After all, I can’t very well do it myself.”
With a silent, agitated groan as his only indication of defiance, Orphen flipped the lid open and squeezed a drop of lotion on the small of her back. “There. It’s on,” he grumbled. He didn’t care what the ‘fine print’ stated; he was going to fight her every step of the way.
Sunglasses having slid to the tip of her nose, the blue of Cleao’s eyes was very clear as she glared at him sharply. “You know what I mean, now do it right,” she snapped peevishly.
Scowling with disdain, Orphen placed his hands on her back and slowly, gently (as much as he could force himself to) began rubbing the lotion into her skin. For as much as she tanned, Orphen couldn’t help noting that Cleao’s skin remained as white as milk especially compared to his natural dark tan. The contrast was almost blinding.
Orphen quickly shook his head as if to clear it from this idiotic idea. Yeah, yeah, she had extremely pale but excellent skin tone; what else should he expect from a pampered bratty princess? She had been sheltered from every trial and hardship life could throw at her.
Whereas I had to scrape and crawl to get where I--
Orphen stopped that train of thought before it went down tracks he didn’t want it to go. It was the heat. That was the problem here. It had been said that today would probably be the hottest Totokanta had ever experienced. So he supposed it would only be natural if a strange thought or two seeped into his brain unawares.
He refused to have her involved in any part of his personal life, even as a mere comparison.
Perhaps it was due to the heat that the movement in Orphen’s hands became slower and more deliberately placed. He wasn’t really thinking about it, hardly conscious that he looked more like he was massaging Cleao’s back instead of simply rubbing on lotion. Cleao felt her eyes close, relaxing against his touch. She couldn’t help but think that there was something…almost sensual with his hands on her.
Now that was a silly thought. But not silly enough to be banished from her mind completely. She definitely was going to make him massage her shoulders more in the future.
It didn’t take long for Orphen to realize exactly what his hands were doing, but by this time, he had stumbled upon something that his brain absolutely refused to let him ignore. A small detail about Cleao’s body structure that was rather confusing. He ran his palms gently upon her back and sides, and while Cleao thought she was getting a rather seductive massage, he was actually further analyzing this curious detail about her.
She had a strong muscle tone. While her body looked as though he could easily break her in half, closer inspection proved otherwise. He applied a little more pressure to his hands, and while that would have made most soft girls flinch, she didn’t react except to practically purr with pleasure.
Getting braver, Orphen moved his hands down her shoulders and along her arms. There was no doubt about it. The biceps might not have been prominent but they were firm. A small part of him remembered how she slapped him yesterday, and these biceps explained how she was able to make such a feeble blow hurt.
No, spoiled princesses who had nothing better to do in their lives than sit at home eating, sleeping, and changing clothes eight times a day did not develop a physique like this. And yet, ever since he had came to the mansion, Orphen hadn’t seen Cleao do anything outside of shopping and ordering him around. So what was it that was giving her this secret strength? He vaguely recalled seeing her swim on that night when they first met (which felt like years ago), but was that it?
Just who is this girl?
Bravery and curiosity now had nothing to do with it. Eyes narrowing, one of his hands went to her legs, and, in the guise of a simple massage, began feeling the muscle structure there. He was not surprised to find the muscles just as toned as her arms. Her body was not hard, but did not cave easily under his touch.
Are you sure you’re just “analyzing” her this time?
He shoved that nagging little voice to the side as he concentrated on his task. He needed out of this situation, and he would do whatever it took to get it. Something to use to get back at her, something that would at least get him off her tight leash.
There was just one more place to check. As much as he would rather throw himself in that pool and drown, after all. What did she have that would appeal to him anyway?
Cleao shot up in her chair the moment she felt Orphen’s hand on her backside, sliding around so fast she narrowly missed kicking him in the nose. “What--what the hell are you doing!?” she shrieked, jumping to her feet. Her face was flushed beyond red, and she breathing hard from exertion. He had no idea what she was getting so freaked out about, considering he barely touched her butt at all.
“Hey, princess, you wanted me to put lotion on you, I was merely doing as I was told.” He smirked at her. “Just as my contract says.”
Cleao looked like she was about to give him the yelling of his life that would make Azalie proud, but she also seemed too freaked out to even open her mouth. “I…I…I’ll call for you later!” she finally managed to choke out before storming back into the house in a fit.
Orphen sat back on his heels and glanced over to see Majic giving him an odd look. “What the hell are you lookin’ at?” he snapped.
Majic slightly cringed against his broom, wondering if Orphen would be uncivilized enough to exert his anger with violence under the roof of such a prestigious household. Propriety was definitely not Orphen’s strong point. And what exactly did he do to make Cleao angry like that? Granted, the skilled sorcerer had the ability to piss Cleao off down to practically an art form, but this time seemed to be different. Cleao usually retaliated with a verbal beating, sometimes even just the beating, but now she had only yelled at him and walked off.
“What did you do to Cleao?” Majic asked, regardless of risking a sound punishment from his violent master.
“I just put lotion on her,” Orphen replied heatedly. “It’s what she ordered me to do.”
That was an interesting way to put lotion on somebody but Majic kept his mouth shut. His master’s twisted face had smoothed down to a smile, one of the kind that told the presence of an evil scheme at work. “In fact,” Orphen continued, more to himself than to his apprentice, “I think I will do everything she tells me to from now on.”
Oh, no, Majic did not like the way his master was smiling like that. Especially when he knew that it could only mean disaster in the end. Or worse.
Orphen wouldn’t care if Majic voiced his concerns. His mind was made up. He would play Cleao’s little game for now, but in a way that would make her regret having ever enslaved him in the first place. He would use it to find out everything he could about her. And then he would use that information to get back at her in a way that she would never be able to recover.
His smile was practically pure evil now.
He had finally found his loophole.
Oh, dear, things certainly didn’t go the way she had expected.
Cleao was standing against her closed door, hugging herself tightly. Through her clenched fists, she could feel her heart still pounding heavily and the burning sensation on her face didn’t seem to want to go away any time soon. After a few seconds, she realized that her body was shaking.
She swore to herself, she did! And she had every intention of keeping that secret vow. And then he had to come along--
They had touched once before. On the tower the first night they met. Falling into each other. But that had been an accident. At the pool…was he deliberately feeling her up!?
Cleao Everlasting received just as much attention from the opposite sex as Mariabella did, and she usually took it in stride. As long as those guys kept their distance. But that sorcerer was already too close to her for comfort, but today proved just how close to her he could really get.
She could still feel his hands on her. So large. So warm.
NO! I won’t be like them! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!!
Somebody knocked on the door, nearly making Cleao jump out of her skin. “Go away!” she shouted, fully expecting her body guard to have been the one that followed her.
“Miss Cleao,” a familiar, yet concerned, voice replied, “are you all right?”
The expression on the maid’s face was both confused and surprised when Cleao threw open the door and flung her arms around the other woman. “I’m so glad you’re here,” Cleao choked. Normally, she hid her feelings from anybody else, but there were a few people in this world that she saved her heart for, and darling Lilia was one of them. Her closest friend.
Probably her only friend in this dismal existence.
“Miss Cleao, what is it?” Lilia exclaimed, realizing that the younger girl was shivering. The handmaid held such a deep respect for the youngest Everlasting daughter, that she refused to stop addressing her formally. It was the family in whole that took her into their home, a mere pauper from the streets, but it was this princess in particular that adopted her as part of the family. Lilia had never known kinder people, and accepted Cleao’s outrageous behavior as part of her charm.
“It’s nothing,” Cleao replied quietly. “I just need a hug right now.”
Cleao would’ve confined everything to Lilia if she could. Even the maid, her best friend, didn’t know the entire story, of all that was going on.
Cleao assured herself that once she had everything taken care of, then she would throw Orphen back out to the slums where he belonged. Majic wasn’t so bad, he could stay with her if he wanted to, but that barbaric master of his--!
“Miss Cleao, this wouldn’t have anything to do with Orphen, would it?”
Cleao jerked away from Lilia like she had suddenly been turned into ice. “What?”
“Did something happen? Down at the pool?”
Cleao’s eyes turned to a dangerous steel color. “And where did you hear about that?” she growled.
Usually, Lilia was too used to Cleao by now to be phased by the girl’s temper, but today seemed to be an exception. She had never seen her mistress so tense before. “All the other maids are buzzing about it like the latest celebrity gossip. They saw Orphen…well, apparently it looked like…” Lilia paused and looked hard at Cleao. “He didn’t do anything to you, did he?”
“Of course not!”
“Not touch you oddly?”
“Then why did you get so mad at him?”
“He just said something to make me mad, that’s all!”
“What did he say?”
“Something stupid, as always. Why all the frickin’ questions?”
“Because you know how people get with gossip, and I didn’t--”
Both girls cringed when they heard the sound of Cleao’s father bellowing from clear across the house. Now, Cleao understood Lilia’s intense concern: Mr. Everlasting had found out.
Shit. She had been so caught up in punishing Orphen that she had forgotten about all the maids ogling him back at the pool. Of course, they would see and make something of him putting lotion on her back. And if they stuck around to see the lotion rub turn into a massage and then her outburst--
No, this was not happening! Not now! Not after all she had been through, all she had worked for!
Cleao retreated back into her room long enough to throw a sundress over her bikini, just to make herself presentable. Along the way to her father’s study, her brain went over every sentence possible to make it sound like the servants were merely engaged in exaggerated gossip and nothing more.
Even if she was having a hard time convincing herself that.
Coan Everlasting was as angry as Cleao had ever seen him. It didn’t help that he was imposing enough when he just stood. Coan was a large, very large, man. At six-feet-four, he was built just like a Shire stallion; all muscle.
“I don’t care what happened, I will not have scandal placed upon this house!” he was yelling. “That sorcerer is out of here!”
“I’m not letting him go, Daddy, he didn’t do anything!” Cleao yelled back.
“I’ve seen you two. Ever since he came there, that man has brought nothing but grief upon you!”
“At least he does his job efficiently!”
“He’s too young, and I’m fully aware about how a man his age thinks, especially when entrusted with watching over a young girl!”
“I am not going to be a young girl for much longer!”
Coan glared. “That’s right. You are a lady, Cleao. And it’s high time you started acting like a proper lady. Enough of this foolishness and causing worry upon myself and your mother.”
Cleao growled in her throat. “You just want me to be like Mariabella,” she hissed, unable to stop the words from coming out.
Coan’s fist slammed onto his desk with a force that actually scared Cleao. “Do not say something so foolish again, young lady,” he said savagely. “You are your own woman, always keep that in mind, Cleao. There is a time and a place to show your independence. Not doing so at the expense of your family!”
The heated argument came to an abrupt halt. Cleao felt tears threaten to form and she tried her best to hold them back. Crying would only make things worse, after all. She had never really thought about how her behavior reflected on her parents. She just thought they didn’t really care. Or had Mariabella to make up for it. She had heard the whispers made behind her back when it was assumed that she couldn’t hear:
“That Cleao is so tough, how do her parents put up with her?”
“At least they have Mariabella to show that they know how to raise a child.”
“No kidding. I feel so sorry of them, having to deal with such a troublesome daughter.”
“You know what they say: every barrel has its bad apples.”
“Thank God, Mariabella isn’t like that.”
“You said it.”
Cleao was still amazed that she actually had the control not to further embarrass her parents by reacting. Then again, reacting would have only further proven their point, anyway. She was a bad daughter. An eyesore on the Everlasting name.
“You say something, Cleao?” Coan inquired, barely hearing her whisper. Cleao shook her head, cursing herself for speaking her feelings out loud. Coan sighed, a little frustration thrown in the deep exhale. One minute, his daughter became more verbal than himself, nearly flooring him by how well she could defend herself in an argument. The next, she clammed up. He could see why she was upset. Hell, he hated yelling at her for her antics when he had really been no better when he had been her age. How many times had he and his own father played this same game? Spoken these words?
Which was precisely why he wanted her to stop misbehaving. He had made a lot of mistakes in his past; he refused to allow his youngest daughter make the same ones.
And that sorcerer was more than just a mistake. He was a regret on monstrous levels just waiting to happen. Coan had heard the gossip, he knew how exaggerated they could be, he knew his daughter was a respectable girl.
But how long would it be before the gossip stopped exaggerating? How long before Cleao started losing that respectability?
“Enough,” he said in a tone that meant there would be no room for argument. “I had my misgivings, I gave him a chance, and now I’ve made my decision. I want that sorcerer out of here by tomorrow’s sunrise.”