Author: Cheryl Headford
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Cover Artist: Garrett Leigh
Length: 328 Pages
Release Date: September 17, 2015
Blurb: Astrin Raphael wakes up in a strange place, frightened and confused. He is told to trust someone who seems to hate him, and he tries—he really tries. However, things change rapidly when he discovers his friend is actually his archenemy, Rowan Gabriel, whose abusive behavior stems from a deeply ingrained, if unwarranted, hatred over something that happened many years before, and simply wasn’t Astrin’s fault.
When Rowan's uncle and Astrin's father are kidnapped by Strebo Michael, the two crown princes are catapulted into an adventure that forces them to work together, and along the way their feelings for each other grow. Rowan is quick to let his hate go, but Astrin can’t release his inhibitions. It takes Astrin almost dying from a poisoned dagger before he finally accepts Rowan's love.
ROWAN WASN’T smiling. He was simmering gently and muttering to himself under his breath. He’d understood and fully appreciated everything his uncle said to him, but it changed nothing. He hated Astrin Raphael, hated him with a vengeance—vengeance for his parents, to be exact. When Astrin’s father had given the order to attack the armored convoy carrying Rowan’s parents back to the capital, he had shattered Rowan’s world. At four years old, the young prince had hardly known his parents, but he could remember the soft touch of his mother’s lips on his hair, the strong arms of his father cradling him and making him feel safer than he ever had since.
That was all gone now, wiped out in one round of intensive fire and a couple of old-fashioned rocket grenades. Gritting his teeth, Rowan pressed his thumb against a panel that checked his DNA. As Crown Prince, there was no security level for which he was not cleared, and almost instantly the panel changed from red to green, letting out a soft hiss as the seal around the door released.
Quite apart from his feelings for Astrin, Rowan hated coming to the infirmary wing. It was thankfully small, as it catered only for those who lived and worked in the Palace Complex. The door opened into a central lobby from which other doors led in three different directions. One led to the administrative center, another to the main body of the hospital, which was more often accessed through the main entrance at the other side of the building, and the third to the private royal apartment. This was used and accessed only by members of the royal family, their personal physicians, and retainers.
As usual a senior administrator sat behind the desk, working before a bank of computers. Because of the unusual circumstances, soldiers stood on either side of the door into the royal suite. They were elite bodyguards, eternally alert and ready to act in a heartbeat should the need arise.
Nodding to the soldiers but ignoring the administrator, Rowan again pressed his thumb against a panel and was admitted to a dimly lit corridor.
At the end of the corridor was an administration chamber similar to the one he’d just left. This was manned predominantly by nurses, as it dealt with only a fraction of the information handled by the mainframe.
Today there were three nurses at the station. One was working hard on a keyboard in front of the monitor screens, apparently updating paperwork.
The other two nurses were lounging. They snapped to attention as Rowan entered. He ignored them.
Crossing the floor, he activated another thumb pad and pushed the door open when it hissed.
His first thoughts when he passed through the door were of utter contempt and disgust. If he hadn’t retained some sense of honor and decency, he would have spat on the sleeping prince. Fortunately, despite his complaints to his uncle, he realized it was necessary to treat the other prince with a degree of respect. It was vital the negotiations with his father were a success. Rowan therefore swallowed his feelings and went to work.
The boy was unconscious and completely helpless. As a Class One Prisoner, it was too dangerous to allow him any kind of freedom, even the freedom of consciousness.
For normal Class One Prisoners the overcrowded prisons had, over the years, developed containment chambers. Here, many men and women could be economically housed in pods, kept in a comatose state for however long their sentence might be, constantly played audio messages designed to precipitate rehabilitation. They were roused from their coma only during the last months of their sentence, when they had regular consultations with clinical therapists who assessed whether their minds had developed sufficient conscience to allow them to be released back into society.
Some prisoners had committed crimes so severe it was unlikely they would ever be roused. Their pods occupied a room all of their own, which was entered only to install a new pod or to remove that of a prisoner who had died.
However, no one was going to put Astrin, Crown Prince of House Raphael and The Western Kingdoms, in a stasis pod. Although he was a prisoner, he was still a member of the royal family of a major ruling House, and therefore deserving of special treatment.
Instead of a pod, he was reclining on a state-of-the-art bed, his head and shoulders propped up on white pillows. Although it was not possible to see from casual examination, his body was suspended from the shoulders down within an electrically generated field. No part of it was touching either the bed or the covering sheets, thereby preventing bed sores. In addition the field provided constant deep stimulation to his muscles, preventing atrophy and circulation issues.
Tubes inserted into the veins in his arms fed him a regular mixture of drugs, which maintained his perpetual coma, and another tube inserted into his stomach through his abdomen was used to feed him daily with a concentrated, thick liquid that contained all the nutrients needed to keep him alive.
It was Rowan’s duty to feed the sleeping prince, then disengage the force field and wash his body, making sure he stayed clean and there was no infection or irritation of the skin. Rowan hated it. He hated Astrin, and touching him repulsed him. Also the mixture of sedative drugs and the soupy liquid diet produced an absolutely foul waste that made him ponder at times whether it was deliberately engineered by his uncle as a rather basic lesson in humility.
It never occurred to Rowan that, if he found the whole thing demeaning and sickening, had Astrin been conscious enough to be aware of what was happening to his body, he would, no doubt, have found it even more so.
Astrin laughed and spun the car around a hairpin turn, then slowed down to a more reasonable pace as a small blue car coming the other way slammed on its brakes, skidded, and ended up half in the hedge.
“What the—you’re dangerous,” Rowan gasped as he looked over his shoulder at the spinning wheels of the other car, which were off the ground.
“Sorry. Maybe I was a bit—”
Astrin glared at him. “Overenthusiastic.”
“You were trying to prove a point, and all you achieved was almost killing someone. You’re being a complete idiot, and you can stop now or let me out. I’ll meet you there.”
“If I knew how to get there, I might just take you up on that. It would be better than sitting here listening to your bitching.”
Rowan growled and sat back in his seat. “Just try not to kill anyone, especially us.”
“I’ll do my best, but I’m not going to promise anything about you.”
“You are such hard work, Raphael.”
Astrin slammed on the brakes, so hard that Rowan’s head would have hit the windshield if it hadn’t been for the seat belt.
“What the—are you completely insane? What do you think you’re doing?”
Astrin didn’t answer. He was frozen, staring out of the windshield with a black look on his face.
“Astrin. I’m talking to you. Astrin!” Fuming, Rowan tugged on his arm, and eventually Astrin turned stunned eyes on him.
“You said that before.”
“What?” Rowan snapped. “What did I say before? When? What are you talking about?”
“‘You’re hard work, Raphael.’ You said that to me when… when….” Astrin frowned. “You were horrible to me. You pushed me on the floor in the shower and left me there. You laughed at me when I was sick. You tormented me and told me I couldn’t remember because I’d done something bad. You hurt me.” He stopped, looking sick. “They hurt me. I….” He rubbed at his temple. “Damn!” Turning forward, he slammed his hand down on the steering wheel.
“You had to remember that, didn’t you?” Rowan said softly, bowing his head. “You couldn’t remember playing in the park when you were five or anything like that.”
“They could have killed me… and you wouldn’t have cared.”
“Look,” Rowan said carefully. “I told you that in the beginning I hated you. I know it was stupid. Now I know, but it was the only thing that kept me going all these years. When I almost lost my mind, it was only that hatred—the belief that somehow, somewhen I was going to get even with you—that brought me through. It’s a powerful thing, hatred. And I won’t lie to you, that first day I did hate you. I hated having to spend time with you, and I hated everything and everyone who put me in that situation.
“They weren’t there, but you were, so I took it out on you. I was cruel and heartless and cold. I tormented you and hurt you, and there is no excuse I could possibly give for that.
“If it helps, I feel really bad about it, all of it. That first day I… I had a dream. It was the dream about my parents again. I hadn’t had it for years, and it was a bad one. I…. You were there, in the dream, and by the time I woke up, everything was different. I didn’t hate you anymore, and I didn’t feel right about what I’d done to you… what any of us had done to you.
“I went straight to your room, but you weren’t there. I found Ragnor, and he told me things had gone wrong and you—that you’d almost—” Rowan sighed, still with his eyes fixed on his hands. “I felt awful that something like that had happened and it was my fault. And it was my fault, no one else’s. I’d been consumed by hatred for so long, if they hadn’t done something, I’d have wrecked everything eventually.
“My uncle did everything he could think of to bring me to my senses, and in the end he did the only thing he could, but it all went wrong. Well… except in one way. It achieved what it was meant to achieve. I don’t hate you anymore.”
Astrin bit his lip. His fingers were white on the steering wheel. “Do you know how frightened I was? It’s like a dream now, but I remember that. I was alone. I didn’t know who I was or where I was. I was told to trust you, and I did, but you kept hurting me. I didn’t understand what I’d done to you to make you hate me so much, and you had me believing I was a bad person, that I’d done something terribly wrong. After that, the fear was overwhelming. I was terrified of everything.
“And then…. Then….” He stopped and stared at Rowan, his eyes huge and shadowed. “I woke up. When they were… I woke up and… I was so scared. I was surrounded by strangers and in so much pain. They were talking. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew it wasn’t good, and then… then the pain…. It was… it was….” He winced at the memory and pressed one hand to his chest, the other to his head. “And for what? To teach you a lesson? To make you stop hating me? It’s just… it’s so….”
With a huge sigh and a shake of the head, Astrin started the car. He stared straight ahead as he drove. Rowan remained silent. He didn’t know what to say.
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