Sometimes the truth can be the hardest thing to find—especially when it comes from within.
Despite the recent loss of his parents, Ash Woodhart is content living with his siblings, deep in the southern countryside of his family’s domain. Ren, an aloof boy with no home and no family, is an intrusion forced on Ash by his eldest brother. Ash dislikes Ren on sight, but as the years pass and the two come to understand each other, his feelings for Ren gradually morph into something more. However, Ren shows no sign of reciprocating those feelings—and as Ash’s recklessness leads him into danger, the truth may come too late.
“Well met, my lord.”
Ren’s tone was deferential, his expression bland. Ash looked him over and was not impressed—mostly because if his brother was going to force a bodyguard on him no matter his objections, he had at least expected someone more bodyguard-like.
He had envisioned somebody large and intimidating, a man heavily muscled and bristling with weapons, perhaps even with a great prickly beard like the famed mercenaries he had heard of from far to the east. Yet this boy—and he was, unmistakably, a boy—stood several inches shorter than Ash himself. To add insult to injury, even if there had been a single weapon in sight, Ash doubted Ren would have known how to wield it. Everything about him was neat, nondescript and entirely non-threatening, from his plain dark riding clothes to his cropped brown hair with not a strand out of place. Even his eyes were closer to gray than blue.
Ash already knew he was going to dislike him.
“I thought you said bodyguard, not playmate.” He turned his glare back to Lelande. “No offense to little Ren here, but I’m pretty sure I’d be the one getting him out of trouble.”
“Would you have preferred to be followed about by a full-grown warrior rather than someone closer to you in age?” Lelande’s tone was mild in the face of Ash’s obvious disdain. “At the very least, I’ll rest better knowing you won’t be clambering about the mountainside alone from now on.” His gaze lingered over Ash’s tangled hair before moving pointedly down to his arms, bare below the elbow, taking in the dozen fresh scuffs and scratches amid the two dozen old ones. “Incidentally, you might keep in mind that little Ren here is a full two summers older than you, and in many matters far more experienced. Indeed, I believe you could learn much from him.”
Ash scowled and rolled the sleeves of his shirt back down—a habit for which he was frequently being reprimanded. He was constantly being told it was not befitting for a gentleman to push up his sleeves—not even when it was very hot outside. “I can take care of myself just fine. Just because my Gift—”
Lelande held up a hand, forestalling his brother’s protest. “Rest assured, your Gift has nothing to do with it. This is not a punishment, Ash. I am simply thinking of your safety.”
That his last words were probably true did nothing to assuage Ash’s temper. “So I’m to be followed around for the rest of my life then?” The thought of having his personal space permanently invaded by anyone, least of all this whey-faced boy, was intolerable.
“You’ll have your privacy. Ren is to have his own bedchamber, and much of his time will be occupied in training with the men while you take your lessons. But in every other way, Ren is to be treated as a member of this family. You will accept his presence and allow him to accompany you wherever you may go outside this house. In this, you have no choice. After you come of age, I may rethink the matter.” Lelande stared levelly at him. “Trouble finds you, Ash, even when you’re not seeking it out, and your well-being is more important to me than your pride. So for my sake, if not for your own…please?”
Ash could tell his brother was serious, because Lelande was calm and self-possessed and rarely begged for anything. He was begging now.
Ash turned his scowl to the floor. “Fine,” he snapped with ill grace. “I’ll put up with it.” For now. “But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Lelande sighed but did not scold Ash for his rudeness. “I suppose that’s the best I’ll get from you for the time being.” He turned to the boy still standing beside him. “Ren, if you have need of anything, I will be speaking with Luck in the stables. My brother will see to it that you’re shown around the manor. Isn’t that right, Ash?” He waited for Ash’s reluctant nod of agreement before turning to leave, and then Ash was left alone with the still silent Ren.
Ren looked at him. Ash looked back. The silence stretched out.
“Come on then,” he huffed when it became painfully clear that Ren would not speak for himself. “I’ll show you around.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Ash was already leaving the room before Ren had opened his mouth to reply. He walked quickly, forcing Ren to scamper to catch up. “And don’t call me that,” he added impatiently, not looking behind him. “My name is Ash.”
“Yes, my lord.”