Barren Vows

Fates of the Bound #3
Barron Vows


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Chief Lila Randolph has always managed her love life as a proper highborn should—indulging in multiple partners while refusing to let any of them into her heart. But somehow, Tristan DeLauncey has broken through.

Due to his past, Tristan has kept well away from the highborn. Unfortunately, he can’t keep away from Lila. Not until she admits she must return to her family’s estate and bear an heir for her matron—an heir who must be born to a highborn male.

Can the pair set aside her duty to finish an investigation into a corrupt puppet master who threatens Saxony?

Or will an ultimatum from Tristan tear them apart and put the future of Saxony at risk?

Barren Vows
Chapter 1


Lila hoped it would be one of those mornings.

She yawned under the covers in the dim room, lit by a neon-blue Vacancy sign several buildings over. The chill of mid-November coursed over her bare shoulders. The whirl of the space heater hung in the air, far too loud for the meager heat it offered. Glints of steel twinkled around her like stars, the light reflecting off a dozen knives, a tranq gun, and a mace pegged to the wall. A string of bottle caps hung silently in the window.

She turned to her companion and snuggled deeper in his arms.

“Stay,” Tristan mumbled sleepily, his grip tightening around her. His brown eyes opened, and his long eyelashes fluttered against her cheek, tickling her skin.

“I am. I have no intention of getting out bed. Ever.”

“Oh, really?” Tristan offered a deep, satisfied mmm and rolled atop her, his purring growl transferring from his chest to hers. Soft fingers brushed a few stray brown locks from her face while his arm snaked under her back. Closing his eyes, he dipped his head. His mouth worked at hers, lazily sucking upon her lips as his hand drifted southward.

She tasted whiskey.

He probably tasted her wine.

She breathed in the scent of his shampoo and thumbed his cheek, exploring his mouth. Stubble brushed her palm, a palm broken by pink, healing scars.

Velvet tongues tangled.

Tristan broke away first.

He moved to her neck and nibbled the spot that made her jump and giggle, chuckling when she did. “I claim this spot for Tristonia.”

“Last night, it was Tristopolis.”

“It was?” he asked, pulling away. “Damn the natives. They’re too fickle.”

He tugged her closer, grasping her thigh firmly, sparking an ache and an itch for more. “I like another spot, too. I like it so much that I’ll have to visit it again.”

The bed shook under his shifting weight. Feather kisses brushed her skin, their trail snaking lower and lower across her belly.

Oh, thank the gods!

It would be one of those mornings.

She needed it after the dream she’d just had. She needed his arms, his promises, his closeness.

She needed to forget.

Lila sucked in a breath as his mouth drifted ever lower, as she arched her back and reached for the headboard.

The spark he started grew into a fire, catching, swelling, waking every cell in her body from her toes to her fingertips.

She heard a pop as Tristan’s breath warmed her skin.

As he stopped.

“Damn it, Lila, you broke the headboard again.”

Lila looked back, wincing at the pinkie-thin dowel rods he’d cut and stained to look as though they belonged.

The dowel rods she’d just broken.

Again.

“Stop trying to fix them. I’ll buy you a new headboard, a stronger one. One that can take our tugging and pulling. One that’s Lila and Tristan proof.”

“That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

“Dixon laughs at it enough already. If I carry it to the dumpster and bring up a new one, do you know how many of my people will drop to the floor in fits?”

“They’ll drop to the floor weeping. We’re getting quality sex, and they aren’t.” Lila grinned smugly and sat up. She threw a leg over Tristan’s waist and straddled him. “By the way, you broke it the first time.”

“I did not break it the first time,” he muttered.

“Did too.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

“Did not.” He intertwined their fingers. “You’re not going anywhere, Lila Randolph, you know that? I intend to stay near Tristanville for a while. I enjoy its scenic paths and—”

“I thought it was Tristonia.”

“You’re right. Damn those fickle natives. Something really must be done.”

Her palm computer vibrated on the bedside table, the thin, flexible sheet of plastic and circuits traveling across the scuffed wood.

“Don’t answer it,” he said, squeezing her fingers, not letting them go.

“It might be work.”

“You’re on vacation, and I have work for you here.” He sat up and kissed her deeply, wrapping his arms around her like a vise. “I have lots and lots of work.”

“I’m sure you do.” Lila wiggled from his arms and snatched up her palm, the bright screen bathing the room in light and shadow. A name blinked on and off.

Beatrice Randolph.

Lila sighed at the interruption. The chairwoman of Wolf Industries had left her a message. The matron of the Randolph family. Her boss.

Her mother.

She tapped the screen, and the light grew brighter.

Breakfast at eight.

Lila fell back onto her pillow, dropping the cold device between her breasts. She hadn’t seen her mother in a week and a half, and not just because she was on a forced vacation.

She had screwed up. A hacker had found out that she’d snuck into a government network and taken data, writing up the event as though it were a newspaper article. After the hacker sent it to her matron, her mother had summoned her immediately to explain.

Lila had not done well. Though the story was true, the details had been far more complicated. She had paid one hundred thousand credits for a temporary silence, all so that she would have more time to trace the hacker’s location. After all, she was the Randolph militia chief, charged with protecting every Randolph family compound. It wouldn’t do for some half-wit to bribe her, just as it wouldn’t do for Bullstow to arrest her.

Of course, she couldn’t tell her matron that Bullstow had given their permission for the hack, just so she could find and plug a leak in their system. Bullstow didn’t hire highborn militia chiefs as consults, and a matron wouldn’t have allowed it. No chairwoman would risk the press and a scandal.

“What were you thinking?” her mother had snapped after Lila fumbled her excuse. The chairwoman had paced restlessly through the parlor, her silver-dyed hair spiraling around her silken robe of the same hue, both messy in their disarray. Her mother had always been put together in times of crisis, but not that evening. That evening, she was as frantic as she was angry. “Why on earth did you need access to the BIRD?”

“There was a situation.”

“A situation?”

“A security situation.” Lila had refused to explain any further. It wasn’t her situation, after all. Someone had laid a trap in the Birth Identity Records Database, also known as the BIRD, ensnaring all who tried to barge in and look around. Her father, the prime minister, had seen one too many highborn blackmailed to believe it was a coincidence. When Bullstow failed to find the culprit, he and the chief of the Saxon militia had hired Lila to investigate.

She’d thought that she’d found the hacker, Tristan’s associate, but she knew the man had a partner. That partner continued the ruse after Reaper’s death, blackmailing her, treating her like another nosy, corrupt highborn.

She hadn’t the time to deal with it then, for she had been busy with other things. So she had paid, and the blackmailer had squealed to her matron.

And Lila couldn’t explain any of it.

“You and your little secrets,” her mother had said after a long silence. “Fix it, Elizabeth. Don’t you dare come back to this estate until you have. I mean it. Not one toe!”

Lila had bowed, packed a bag, and left the compound for Tristan’s shop. Unfortunately, she hadn’t fixed it, not yet, and not for lack of trying.

But at least the blackmailer had not contacted her since.

“What does your mother want now?” Tristan stroked her belly with his thumb. His head tilted to the side as he studied her face.

“How’d you know it was her?”

“How could I not?” He pointed between her eyes. “You only get this furrow when you mention her.”

“She wants me to have breakfast with her in an hour. No reason given. Cryptic, isn’t it?”

“Your vacation doesn’t end until Monday.”

“Perhaps she wants an update. And when I don’t have my blackmailer’s identity, she’ll kick me out of the Randolph compound for good. I’ll be exiled like Natalie Holguín. I’m guessing that’s why my father messaged me last night.”

Her father had cleared his schedule, all so he could return early to New Bristol, the capital of the southern state of Saxony. He wouldn’t say why, but she could guess. Prime ministers didn’t do such things days before the legislative session closed, not unless they had a damn good reason.

“You think he came back because of you?”

“The timing is awfully convenient, don’t you think? He made a point of making lunch plans with me for this afternoon. He knows what my mother has in store for me, and he’ll try to soften the blow.”

“Maybe he wants to hire you for another job.”

“Doubtful. I was less than cooperative the last time we spoke.”

“He’d gone behind your back to put you on a forced vacation, and you were trying to protect secrets that weren’t yours to tell. You were exhausted, angry, and you still had a blackmailer to find.”

“I still do.”

“What if he asks you to find Oskar and Maria?”

“Then I’ll say no,” she said, sitting up and scratching at her tangled hair. “He won’t ask me, though. He and Chief Shaw still believe that the Holguíns set up the hit on Natalie and sold Oskar and Maria Kruger to the Germans. So does the Allied press.”

“Maybe the family will fall.”

“They won’t fall. They’re handling it, despite the protests. They’ve cooperated with Bullstow and proven the deal they had set up, a perfectly legal deal with a family in England, if what I saw in Shaw’s files is correct. One of my spies informed me yesterday that Chairwoman Holguín might even volunteer to go under the truth serum to prove it. If she’s reached that level of desperation, then she might demand every highborn and servant in her compound submit to the serum. She won’t let her family fall over this.”

He stroked her back. “Do you think your father found out about the warehouse?”

Lila shook him off.

They hadn’t talked about what happened at the warehouse since the day it happened, the day they recovered Oskar and entrusted him and his sister to the oracles for safekeeping, the day she helped kill a dozen Italian mercenaries, the day the oracle had taken the survivors to her compound so that she might gain more information about the empire’s plans.

Tristan did not cause the silence. Lila merely walked out of the room whenever he brought it up.

If only she could pull the same trick with her memories. If only she could wake before the dreams started, long before the bullets flew and the blood pooled upon the ground. If only she could slam that door behind her for good, keeping it shut and locked and forgotten.

But the door would not stay closed, and it would not stay forgotten. Like a monster beating its club upon the heavy wood, it demanded attention.

It demanded again, but Lila ignored it.

The club struck once more.

“The oracle has kept silent,” Lila said at last. “Your people too. From what I can tell, no one knows.”

“Lila—”

She stood up, but he lunged, caught her hand, and tugged her back to the bed.

Lila tensed, wanting to bolt.

“Do you really you think your mother might kick you out of your family?”

“She caught me hacking a government database, Tristan. I’m surprised she gave me time to fix it. If she can’t use my vacation to explain away my absence, she’ll be forced to do damage control, separating the cancer from the rest of the family. She can’t have a member of her militia, much less its chief, hacking into government databases, and she can’t allow Bullstow to hang me for treason while I’m part of the family. People will talk.”

Lila shivered. Perhaps the thought of exile triggered it. She wouldn’t just lose her home and her job. She’d lose everyone she loved, everyone she cared about, every friend and relation.

She’d be dead to them all.

A third of all highborn exiles killed themselves within five years. The rest survived as workborn or lowborn, usually moving far away to escape the shadow of their family’s tower.

And Wolf Tower stood so very tall.

“You only hacked into the BIRD because your father asked you to. Even Chief Shaw gave his permission. Surely that—”

“Would put both their heads in the hangman’s noose. At best, it would ruin my father’s political career, and Bullstow would cast Shaw from the militia. They won’t save me from my mother’s wrath, Tristan. It would give her too much ammo. Besides, she’d likely exile me anyway.”

“Why?”

“It would affect our family’s stock price too much if I was dragged before the press. The only way that doesn’t happen is if the chairwoman of Wolf Industries has already restored her family’s honor by culling the problem before the story goes public. It sends a message that the Randolphs don’t tolerate that nonsense among its own members, that they police themselves.”

“I can’t believe she’d exile her own daughter just to make a little extra money.”

“It’s not just a little extra money, and it’s not even the highborn who would be most affected. We have thousands upon thousands of workborn who hold contracts with us. Would you rather see our workforce slashed and jobless just because I made a mistake? Do you know how many people that would affect?”

“She’s your mother, Lila.”

“She’s a matron first. Those are the sorts of decisions you have to make when you take the job. Now you know why I didn’t want it.”

Tristan sat up behind her put his chin on her shoulder, pulling her body to his. “You should reconsider my suggestion. We’ll go to Bullstow tonight and break in. This time for real, not as a favor to Shaw and not to test their defenses. We’ll see what else Reaper and his little friend did in BullNet. You’ll have all the data you need to figure it out. They can’t have just laid traps in the BIRD.”

Lila thumbed her palm. Every day, Tristan and his half-brother Dixon suggested breaking into BullNet. Every day, Lila said no. She didn’t want to risk waking the blackmailer without good reason.

“No,” she said again.

Tristan tightened his arms. “If she kicks you out, you’ll always have a place here. No matter what. You don’t have to share my bed, though I wouldn’t complain if you did. I’d even put a few pegs on the wall for your Colt and boot knife.”

Tristan had said as much before. With the exception of one dinner party she’d attended at the Masson winery and a visit to Randolph General to have her stitches removed, she’d spent most of the last two weeks in Tristan’s apartment, too busy studying the data from the BIRD to do much else. She’d also dug through a few wiped computers and star drives from Reaper’s apartment, as well as a few devices he’d left behind at the shop.

But no matter how hard she’d looked, she hadn’t found any leads.

While she worked, Tristan pulled her away for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner. At night, he pulled her away for eight hours of sleep and a prelude to dreams.

And nightmares.

Lila squeezed her eyes shut.

“Did you call the oracle back?” Tristan asked.

“No.” Lila had no desire for the lilac-robed woman to mess with her mind again. The oracle had an entire compound full of private militia. She and her purplecoats could deal with whatever crisis had come upon them.

They could reap the nightmares that followed.

Damn the gods and damn the oracles. Lila didn’t even know what she believed about them anymore, and she had grown tired of thinking about the question and its implications.

“I’ve seen her name on your palm nearly every day,” Tristan pressed. “She’s even started calling me now.”

“So block her ID.”

“She wants to see you. I think she wants to help.”

“I don’t need her help.” Lila stood and slipped into Tristan’s shirt from the night before.

“Maybe you do. Maybe you should consider it.”

“When she has one of her so-called visions about Reaper’s partner, then I’ll consider it. That’s the only useful thing she can offer me right now.”

“I don’t think that’s the kind of help she’s offering.”

“I told you. I don’t need help, not from her.”

“Lila—”

“I need a shower.”

Lila turned to go. The bed creaked. Tristan grabbed her arm once more. “If you don’t want that kind of help, fine. But if something happens at breakfast, if your mother tries anything, I want you to go to the oracle’s compound. I don’t care if you’re an outsider. That woman owes you. She owes both of us.”

Lila slipped from his grasp. “My mother won’t send her blood squad after me, Tristan. I didn’t mess up that badly.”

She left the bedroom, easing into the dark apartment beyond before sliding into the bathroom and switching on the light. The sudden, apathetic brightness burned her eyes, and the tile chilled the soles of her feet. She closed the door with a quick little snick, careful not to wake Dixon in the room next door. She strode quickly to the shower and turned on the water. A loud growl thundered down the pipes, then faded as the plumbing shuddered to life.

As the water rushed and warmed, Lila bent over the cracked sink and stared at her image in the mirror. Her vacation had taken away the dark circles under her eyes, but her dreams had left their mark upon them. They’d grown darker, grown harder, grown…

Different.

She turned away from the mirror and ran her fingers through her curls. Stepping into the shower, she warmed herself underneath the water and reached for her shampoo, perched beside Tristan’s as if it had lived there all along.

As if she had lived there all along.

A month ago, she wouldn’t have believed that a bottle of shampoo could freak her out so completely. But highborns didn’t live with one another, and they never focused on one lover.

Being with Tristan in the shop?

Only the poorer classes did such things.

At some point, she’d stopped caring, only understanding that she didn’t want to slip into anyone else’s bed. Tristan had gotten under her skin, and she didn’t know what to do about it. Maybe she didn’t even want to do anything about it. It didn’t help that she’d enjoyed every minute of her time with Tristan, at least when she wasn’t panicking. Panicking about him, her blackmailer, the eventual loss of her job and place among the highborn, about everything she’d worked for her entire life turning to shit.

She stepped out of the shower and blew her hair dry quickly. Then she returned to Tristan’s room, dropping her damp towel before his watchful eyes. She pulled on a pair of scratchy black trousers, a long-sleeved gray t-shirt, and a black sweater—servant’s clothes, for colors weren’t allowed among the workborn unless you had a contract with a highborn family. A pair of cheap, worn boots completed the look. She tucked her boot knife into a sheath near her calf.

She shoved her mesh hood in her front pocket, something she’d need as soon as she stepped outside the apartment, for few of Tristan’s people knew her face or her identity. So far they’d stayed quiet, but Lila didn’t want to risk any more of them finding out.

Just another risk. Just one more thing that could result in exile.

She stared at her canvas bag in the corner of Tristan’s bedroom, filled with a few other similar outfits and toiletries. She wondered if she should even bother taking it along.

Where would she go after her mother kicked her out?

Would she flee to Burgundy like so many exiled highborns, just in case her blackmailer leaked her story? The country refused extradition orders. She’d be safe there. Then again, perhaps she’d stay in New Bristol, continuing this thing with Tristan until it eventually faded, staying until her blackmailer got her arrested.

She deserved the arrest, didn’t she?

Perhaps not for her hack, but what had happened in the warehouse.

“Leave it,” Tristan said, following her gaze. His fingers trailed down her back, soft against the knit of her sweater. His arms closed around her waist.

She snuggled back into his warmth, stealing a few more precious moments. “I should take it with me.”

Should is one of the most insidious and hateful words in the English language,” he said, kissing her neck. “You can always take it back to the compound later. It will be fine here.”

“I have to go.”

“I know.”

She gave him a long kiss. Then she picked up her satchel and left the damn bag behind.

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