Being a bride is a state of mind, not of body.
The Kingdom of Moorcondia and the Marshlands have been warring for years. Now a treaty has been negotiated, but it needs to be sealed by a marriage between the ruling families. But the bride has bolted, leaving her brother, Taryn, to fill the role. There is nothing in the law of either country that says a bride has to be female.
Forced to dress in his sister’s gown and marry Soren, Taryn faces his fate with anger, resolve and frightening anticipation. While the Moorcondians are flexible in their sexuality, the Marshers are more prudish, plus Taryn has learned the hard lesson that an attraction to men is unnatural and wrong. His desire for Soren frightens him.
As a prince, Soren knows his duty and executes it without hesitation. As a widower, he looks forward to a new marriage, and his unexpected bride is very fetching. If only he can convince Taryn to put aside his fears and accept the pleasures of the marriage bed.
Taryn struggles to fill the role of a wife in the royal family, even as everyone else tries to adjust to the notion of a male bride. As the days pass, Soren comes to appreciate his bride more, and Taryn tries embrace his new role with enthusiasm instead of resignation. But politics is a treacherous place to navigate, putting their blossoming love in jeopardy.
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of dubious consent, homophobia and attempted suicide.
General Release Date: 3rd May 2022
“I won’t do it!”
The slap was delivered with less force than typical. Taryn didn’t even try to avoid it. He’d learned long ago that any show of fear only fed his brother’s cruel streak. Nor did he back away as Hobart leaned into his face.
“You will do as you are told.” Flecks of spit flew from Hobart’s mouth, the smell of beer wafting on his breath. Fury showed in his expression, testament to how desperate he must be.
Taryn tried to maintain his resolve over this order being suddenly thrust upon him, even as he knew he had no control over his own fate. “I can’t marry that man.” It was hard to believe he had to even say those words.
“You can and you will. It’s the only way the treaty can go forward. If our sister hadn’t run away to the nunnery, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.” Hobart’s gaze shifted to a spot somewhere in the distance, and his lip curled in a sneer. “She’d already taken her vows by the time I’d caught up to her.” He refocused his attention on Taryn. “A child of the chieftain has been promised to the Moorcondian prince. With Alissa gone, it’s down to you, as you are well past being a child.”
Taryn balled his hands in frustration. “My age is not the issue. He was promised a bride, not another man.”
Hobart huffed. “You do yourself too much credit. Truth be told, you’re more of a girl than Alissa ever was. Prettier, too.” His brother didn’t mean those words to be a compliment, and after years of such taunting, Taryn let them roll off his back.
“Tell that to the prince. You can’t hide my sex from him. He’ll see me for what I am even before he takes that frock off me.” He flung his arm in the direction of the maid who stood awkwardly with what should have been his sister’s wedding gown.
“Those fucking Moorcondians are a decadent lot. Men lie with each other all the time, I hear. The fuckers probably bed their horses, for all I know. And the wiseman has looked at their laws and ours. There is nothing that says a bride has to be female. I imagine the stupid princeling will find plowing your ass just as sweet as Alissa’s dried-up cunt—more so, likely. And I’m sure it’s a dream come true for you,” he added with a look of disgust.
Taryn again ignored the baiting and struggled to contain the tears that threatened to leak out. He was angry and scared in equal measure. The whole idea of his marrying the age-old enemy of his people was intolerable. He couldn’t blame his sister for seeking sanctuary from her fate. He was merely the unlucky victim of her self-preservation. She couldn’t have known what it would mean for him and probably wouldn’t have cared if she had. Their father hadn’t raised them to be generous with each other.
Taryn also had to admit that his brother was probably right about the Moorcondian prince. It was a very different society than his own—decadent, as Hobart had aptly put it. Their prince had ridden in with a colorful retinue and much fanfare. They were nothing like the earthier and frankly poor people of the Marshlands. Taryn couldn’t imagine how he was supposed to fit into such a world. Being the child of a Marsher chieftain mostly meant he had cleaner clothes and more to eat. His presence among the Moorcondians would be like a reed finch flitting around peacocks. If he’d been reviled by his own people, the Moorcondians would undoubtedly treat him with even more contempt.
This is so unfair! Railing against his fate out loud was worse than useless. If he put up any more of a fight, he’d be going to his own wedding with a black eye and split lip. Hobart was being restrained at the moment, likely so that Taryn would be as appealing to his groom as possible. Testing his brother’s patience would only end one way, however. He knew he was powerless in this, as with all other things. He’d learned to survive his family’s brutality, and he could cope with anything these foreigners threw at him. Besides, he’d heard that the opulent Moorcondian palace contained a vast library. If he were lucky, his new husband would give him the freedom to explore it.
That’s more like it. Finding some silver lining in any situation was what kept him sane. He would survive this misery as he had so many others. There was also some deep part of him that dared to be intrigued by the idea of being bedded by the prince, lending credence to Hobart’s taunt, though Taryn had snuffed that spark as soon as he’d become aware of it. Those kinds of thoughts weren’t to be tolerated. He didn’t want sex of any kind. Before Alissa had beat him to it, he’d been considering taking his own vows and living his life at the monastery. Anything would have been more appealing than living under the harsh judgment of his father and brother, plus he would have had time for scholarly pursuits. Now his future would be held by another powerful man—and one he knew nothing about.
There was no hope for it. Squaring his shoulders, he stared his brother down. “Very well. I will don that gown and greet my groom to be. If he rejects me, it won’t be my fault.”
Hobart’s expression turned as nasty as it got. “You’d better hope he doesn’t. The ceremony has already been delayed because you were off wasting the day away. If this treaty fails, I’ll stake you to the execution hill myself and revel in your slow death.”
His brother strode out of the tiny room Taryn had managed to call his own. Then he turned to the poor maid, who obviously wished she were anywhere else. He recognized the woman as the one who had served his sister. No doubt she was already frightened that she would be punished for her mistress’ escape. Certainly the guard who’d let her flee must have known tremendous regret the moment before Hobart had severed the man’s head from his neck. Taryn wouldn’t be the cause of trouble for her.
“Will that even fit me?” The pale green dress was trimmed with lace, luxurious for his people. But Anissa was a voluptuous woman. He lacked the essential shape to wear such a thing.
The maid gave him a shy smile. “I took it in this afternoon.”
So, others in our tribe knew my fate before I did. No surprise there. His father and brother treated him like a piece of furniture—and a useless one at that. It must have enraged them to realize that they needed him to seal the treaty, and bringing him into the discussion would never have occurred to them. He pushed back the hurt and took what little control he could. “I’ll need a quick bath.” He’d spent the day riding, mostly to stay clear of the Moorcondians, but he couldn’t go to his groom smelling like horse.
“Of course, sir. Leave it all to me.”
With his heart still lodged in his throat, and his stomach churning, he was happy for someone else to take command of the situation. The story of my life. I should never have been born to a powerful family.
* * * *
“More wine, Vostguard?”
Soren turned his attention from the juggler entertaining the hall to shoot his host a gracious smile. “No thank you, my lord. It is excellent and strong, but I need to keep my wits about me for the night to come.”
That earned him a round of raucous laughter from the chieftain and his men. Soren was careful to keep his expression jovial, even as he mentally rolled his eyes. The wine tasted like what he imagined horse piss would, the juggler kept dropping his balls and the greasy meal he’d been served sat heavily in his stomach. If he dared to consume more, he might vomit on his unfortunate bride. She was obviously not looking forward to sealing the treaty with a marriage any more than he was. It was the only reason for such a long delay in the ceremony. From what he’d observed of Hogard, disobedience would be a dangerous effort. Only fear of marrying a dreaded Moorcondian could explain someone taking that risk.
Rolf leaned in from his place behind him to whisper in his ear. “The tension is mounting on the Marsher side.”
“I have observed. My bride seems reluctant to join me.”
“Either that or she is fussy about her appearance. Many women are. I believe I’ve spent my whole life waiting for females to be presentable to their own exacting standards.”
“She must be vain indeed to risk Hogard’s fury. If he gets any angrier, the blood vessel in his forehead will burst.”
“The men stand ready to whisk you out of here if matters go south.”
Soren opened his mouth to assure his right-hand man that he was confident in their protection. He snapped it shut again when the chieftain’s odious son and heir entered the great hall, tugging Soren’s bride with him. His first impression was favorable, seeing a slender form encased in a frothy pale green gown with a lacy veil covering long hair, a darker shade of brown than his own. As his bride came closer, however, his brain registered that something was off. Before he could figure out what it was, Rolf spoke.
“Your Grace, unless the fumes from the local wine have somehow scrambled my senses, your bride is a…”
“Male.” Soren stood and shifted his gaze toward Hogard, even as his eyes tried to stay focused on the vision coming toward him. “My lord, is this meant to be some form of amusing entertainment?”
Hogard stood as well, and his expression made it clear that it was no such thing. “Prince Soren, our treaty promised you marriage to my child.” He flung one hand in the direction of the boy who now stood before the dais, held in place by Hobart’s grip. “This is my youngest, Taryn.”
“Indeed?” Years of training with diplomats helped Soren remain outwardly sanguine, despite the turmoil going on inside his head as he tried to make sense of it all. “I was under the impression that you had a…daughter.”
“The Gods called her to their service. She has taken her vows and is no longer available to seal our treaty. Taryn, however, is entirely unencumbered and, I can assure you, just as chaste and biddable.”
The boy, Taryn, stared vacantly in his father’s direction. The young man’s expression remained passive, but his cheeks pinked at the stark assessment of his desirability. If he was a willing replacement for his sister, Soren would drink a vat of his host’s disgusting wine. Then again, his brother the king hadn’t exactly asked him if he was willing to wed a Marsher woman to seal the treaty that had taken over a year to hammer out. Being a member of a ruling family meant doing one’s duty. Political marriages were the norm, notwithstanding his own love match. His widowed state had meant he had no reason to refuse his sovereign’s command, even though he was a powerful man in his own right. This boy surely didn’t have any choice, and they were going to have to make the best of it.
Still, he did try to point out a potential flaw in the plan. “Your son is very fetching, my lord, to be sure. I’m not entirely certain, however, about what the law is concerning a male bride.”
The officious wiseman who was on tap to perform the ceremony stepped forward and looked down his very thin nose. “There is nothing in the laws of either the Marshers or the Moorcondians that dictate that a bride must be female. I believe that among your people, men lie with other men routinely, so Chieftain Hogard is certain this arrangement will be to your liking.” The guy bared his teeth in mimicry of a smile.
“Well, he’s got us there,” Rolf intoned under his breath.
“Right by our short hairs,” Soren agreed. Then, more loudly, he said, “Thank you for that clarification, your honor.” He focused his attention on the boy in question and his heart squeezed a bit in sympathy. However Soren might feel about the situation, Taryn clearly wasn’t looking forward to his future. But it hadn’t been mere flattery when he’d said the boy was attractive. He was exceedingly lovely. Being married to him wasn’t going to be a hardship, at least in one regard. His cock hardened at the thought of the night to come, and if only that one part of him was eager, it would have to be enough.
Soren moved around the dais to stand by his bride’s side and held out his hand. “Shall we?”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then a soft gasp. Hobart’s grip had tightened on Taryn’s arm. Soren gave the man the kind of look he reserved for his men who disappointed him during training. It had the desired effect. With a grimace, Hobart dropped his hold and stomped off to join his father. Soren kept his hand out.
“It won’t get any better for the waiting,” he advised in a low voice meant only for Taryn.
Another second ticked by before the boy placed his hand in Soren’s. It was small and soft, confirming the obvious. Taryn was no warrior or laborer. Just as well… As Soren’s new wife, he wouldn’t be doing any of that. Hopefully, the boy would adjust easily to a pampered life of being married to a Moorcondian prince. As to whether Soren could accept the Marsher as such remained to be seen, but the boy raised all kinds of protective feelings in him. He would do all in his power to make their union a happy one. When he escorted his bride to take their vows, he didn’t feel the trepidation that he would have expected only a few minutes before.