The headache woke me up before I could fully seize control of my senses—a throbbing, violent kind of pain that turned my vision black and had me wincing. I gripped the bedsheets and stifled the scream as it pounded at me. It was always like this—always that mind-numbing feeling right after the transformation, followed by a hunger that was insane.
Before it could take complete control of me and have me doing things I would just end up regretting, I blindly reached around until my hand found the hard object and wrapped around it. I shook the bottle around, then squinted to look when it just made a faint sloshing sound. It only had a quarter left.
Without a care, I placed the tip to my mouth and leaned back, taking a swig—correction, taking long, deep gulps that emptied the bottle on the spot. It burned my throat and spread heat all over my body, and I felt my heart palpitate, and my mind become dizzy for a while. I kept lying down, trying to catch my breath and calm myself down. Somewhere deep inside me, I knew alcohol wasn’t the solution to this long-standing problem I had.
But I just didn’t give a damn anymore.
Eventually, the headache subsided enough for me to sit up and open my eyes. I looked around blearily and found that two more bottles littered the floor. Right. I forgot I downed those last night too.
I kicked off the covers and stood up, stretching my body and looking down at it. There were some fresh cuts on the chest area, so I quickly made do with whatever first aid kit I had and patched them up, ignoring any sting. I could handle stings fine, so long as they were just stings.
So long as I still woke up human every morning.
A paper slid from the space below the door, making me pause. I walked over and reached down for it, then opened the folded note with the precise handwriting from the queen herself.
It was a summon.
A glance at the clock determined it was past nine in the morning—surprisingly early, if I did say so myself. I wondered what the queen wanted now, then decided that I wasn’t going to get any answers if I stayed wondering.
With a sigh, I tossed the note in the nearest trash.
Then I headed for the bathroom for a long, hot shower.
* * *
The queen was in the dining room by the time I was showered and dressed, finishing up her breakfast of oatmeal and orange juice. Her healthy lifestyle was to her benefit because she looked like she just stepped out of a fashion magazine and she hadn’t aged in a decade. Laverna Edwards was loved by the people of Osmerol, and her often strict ways and iron rule were what made the small city what it was today.
Of course, the same strict ways and iron rule were applied to her sons—or son, really, because I was just a stepson and not really blood-related.
She looked up at my arrival, and I leaned over and kissed her cheek before sitting down. Maids scurried about, arranging plates and a stack of waffles in front of me. I asked for some Earl Gray tea and was given a cup of it instantly, which I downed quickly along with the orange juice. The queen eyed me quietly as I delved into my waffles, giving me time for a few bites before she finally spoke.
“The coronation date is set in a few months,” she began, taking a splash of milk and stirring it into her tea. “Four months, to be exact.”
I paused from eating my food, lifting my head to look at her in disbelief. Last I knew, the coronation wasn’t until next year, which was…well, almost twelve months from now. As if she was expecting my reaction, Laverna nodded.
“It must be done, firstly because I think it’s time for me to let go of the crown and give it to my son…your brother. He’s old enough to handle the politics and responsibilities, don’t you think?”
Of course, my brother was old enough to be the king, but this was just too sudden. I was never the type to hold back an opinion, I gave her an intense stare. “Sure he is, but why the sudden change in plans? What are you really planning, mother?”
Laverna calmly took a sip of tea. The maids had gone, and there was no one around us, not until the queen rang her special bell again. “Benjamin needs to marry a pure royal blood. We both know that.”
“And I decided there was no point in delaying it. I’m the queen, and I can make it happen as soon as I want. This is why I’ve invited every eligible female from the continent to come to a ball I’ll be holding—a ball in honor of Benjamin.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
It was a plan because there were definitely lots of eligible females around—and by eligible, that meant with pure royal blood and able to stand by my brother when he became king. Since our father’s death when we were kids, it had been instilled in us that Benjamin would take the throne in the future and I would be there to support him. I looked at Laverna now. “Is this why you summoned me?”
The queen shook her head. “You’ve been summoned because you have a special task.”
She met my gaze. “Make sure Benjamin chooses right. It needs to be a proper princess, and we can’t settle for less. You know why.”
“I know why,” I agreed. I already expected to be beside Benjamin during his choosing process, so this wasn’t a surprise.
What was a surprise, though, was what the queen said next.
“I’m giving you the responsibility to protect our family secret. The chosen princess must not know until after the wedding. Do what you must to keep it safe at all costs.”
Her blond hair gleamed, and her gray eyes were as serene as ever. You’d think she was talking about the weather and not potentially murdering someone.
But Laverna hadn’t asked me for any favors before—not when she found out my now-deceased mother was having an affair with the now-deceased king, not when she took me in after and gave me the status I had today: a prince in my own right. This was her asking one favor now, and I knew it took a lot for her even to ask.
Or to mention our secret, which she’d always tried to sweep under the rug.
So I nodded my head and replied, “Consider it done.”
* * *
My headache didn’t come back as I finished breakfast and excused myself from the queen, proving the alcohol did wonders in that regard, despite it slowly destroying my organs. I knew Benjamin didn’t drink alcohol and probably had the same splitting headache as I did earlier. I started my search for him around the palace, already knowing how he was going to get rid of his headache but not knowing where. Our palace was a huge space located in the middle of an ever-larger lawn, and that didn’t even include the back portion, which led into a forest that was made private by the late king’s ancestors. Looking aimlessly would take me the whole day, I thought hard about what location Benjamin would possibly use so he wouldn’t be caught.
I made my mental list and began my search, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.
I finally found Benjamin at the fifth place on the list: one of the guest room’s large closets. I wouldn’t have known he was inside if not for the sound of his voice—along with the sound of female moans that accompanied it.
Because the closet was half-open, I was able to get a glimpse of my brother’s blond head—one that was currently buried in between a woman’s bosom. He had her against the closet wall and was pounding into her as if there was no tomorrow. She seemed to be enjoying it, clinging on to him with her eyes closed and head thrown back in rapture.
“You’re so tight…moan louder for me, sweetheart…”
“Yes, Prince Ben…yes…”
I inwardly sighed at the sight. Then, before they could notice me, I got out of there as quietly as I came in, closing the door and standing guard at the side. Not that anyone really came in this particular wing of the palace, but you never knew. The queen most certainly didn’t come here, though I was pretty sure she was well aware of her son’s antics and was just turning a blind eye. As for the maids…well, considering how Benjamin was notorious for choosing whomever he pleased among them, and considering how they all probably wanted an experience with him, it was a secret well kept.
Fifteen minutes later, the door opened, and the maid stepped out first. She took one look at me, her eyes widening. Then she bowed, mumbled a greeting and frantically scurried out of there with her hair a mess and her feather duster in hand. Less than a minute later, Benjamin came out, zipping his pants up and looking completely satisfied.
He looked surprised to see me, but not embarrassed. Instead, he grinned.
“Good morning, Lucas.”
“Good morning,” I greeted back.
“Are you stalking me?”
“Not particularly. How’s the headache?”
He nodded, obviously pleased with himself. “It was pretty bad this morning, but that certainly hit the spot. How’s yours?”
“You know what hits my spot.”
Benjamin frowned, and the expression made him look so much like the queen, it was uncanny. “All that alcohol intake is bound to destroy your organs one day.”
“And all that sex is bound to get one of those maids pregnant.”
He shrugged, then grinned again, dimples showing. “You know I’m very careful.”
I grimaced, not even wanting to know how careful he was. Remembering what I was here for, I got to the point. “Your coronation has been moved to this year. It will happen in a few months.”
I gave him the exact dates and watched as the grin froze, then slowly slid from his face. It was fascinating how a single change in date would give his whole demeanor a quick turnaround—from cheerful and satisfied to broody and completely miserable. When it didn’t look like he was going to respond anytime soon, I quickly used the opportunity to explain why the coronation was early and what exactly our roles were. He listened without commenting, crossing his arms and leaning on the other side of the wall beside the door.
“Don’t make trouble,” I warned lightly at the end.
A displeased snort came out of his mouth. “Me, make trouble? I think that’s your job.”
Normally it was, but Benjamin had been surprisingly upping his antics lately—the latest being an incident where he destroyed his entire bedroom in a rage. What wasn’t discussed between us was the hunger along with the pain—a hunger that we both knew was growing but we just couldn’t seem to face.
I looked up and met his gaze. “We both need this, Ben.”
Benjamin sighed, a look of defeat crossing his face. “Is it so bad to want adventure before taking the throne first?”
“It’s not bad,” I replied. “But we don’t have time.”
We definitely didn’t, and I understood the other reason why the queen had to ask me for a favor—it was because I needed to make my brother realize that time was of the essence. We needed to get him married as soon as possible.
We needed it done before it was too late.