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YOU MUSTN’T be caught.
Toka chanted the words in his head, his heart beating wildly as he attempted to ease his ragged breaths. The rustling of leaves sent him diving behind an enormous tree, and he flattened himself against the trunk as he crouched. For a moment he feared he’d been seen.
A fiery orange leaf floated down and tickled his nose as it made its descent, making Toka smile. Autumn in the Soldati Realm was Toka’s favorite time of year, next to winter. What foxling didn’t love pouncing into a tantalizing mound of crisp autumn leaves or freshly fallen snow? Unfortunately leaves crackled underfoot, giving away his position—well, nearly. He worried his bottom lip with his teeth, wondering if he should risk changing into his fox form. If he did, and his pursuer was near, he would catch Toka’s heady scent. But in his fox form, Toka was quicker, more agile, and smaller. He could easily squeeze into a rabbit burrow. His pursuer would be lucky to fit a paw in there.
Blasted! Stop being such a coward!
Breaking into a run, Toka leaped and landed on his paws, his transformation complete in the blink of an eye. His clothes were like a second skin, becoming one with his body when he shifted. He couldn’t imagine having to remove clothes every time he wished to change form. How terribly cumbersome. A roar frightened him, and he let out a cry as he took off. Wonderful. If he hadn’t given himself away when he’d shifted, he certainly had now. Just as the thought crossed his mind, a flash of white caught his eye, and he skidded as he made a sharp turn to avoid getting pounced on by the massive tiger. Toka used his brush to help his balance as he rounded a large tree, the fiend on his heels.
“Give up, little fox!”
The husky voice spoke to Toka in his mind, and Toka barked before replying.
Toka leaped over fallen trees, ducked under low branches, and took sharp turns in the hopes of losing the tiger hunting him. The wind whipped against his fur, and he paid no mind to the pebbles and acorns he treaded on as he pounced through the wild grass of the dense forest. All he needed was to find a small enough place to hide in. A paw swiped at his brush, and Toka jumped, releasing a startled bark. He could hear his pursuer’s voice laughing softly in his head.
“Your capture is inevitable, my little fox. Why prolong it?”
Toka would have rolled his eyes if he could. Someone was rather sure of themselves. Inevitable? He’d see about that.
Spotting a hollow log inclined against a large tree, Toka dashed toward it. He sped through the inside of the log and emerged at the other end. The hollow log was sturdy and lodged tightly against the tree it had fallen against. Toka hopped on the corner, and sprang up just as the log was knocked away. He landed on the nearest branch, then hopped from branch to branch, smiling inwardly.
“Clever little fox,” the voice said in Toka’s head.
Toka wiggled his butt and made the leap onto a branch of the next tree, ignoring the tiger jumping and swiping at him. As expected, Toka soon ran out of branches, and he soared through the air and landed gracefully in a pile of leaves. They fluttered up in the air before cascading down, and Toka darted away.
“When I catch you, you’ll have to give me anything I desire.”
Toka wasn’t prepared for the silky words, and he faltered, his paw catching on a rock, sending him tumbling. Oh sugar! He changed to his human form and sat up, eyes narrowed when a familiar shadow stretched over him. A hand appeared before his face, and with a groan, Toka accepted and slipped his hand into the fairer one on offer. Unlike the Soldati, who had the appearance of larger, stronger humans, foxlings wore much of their animal features in their human form. Toka’s hands and feet were a smoky color that traveled up his forearms and calves to fade into his bronze-colored skin, whereas Rayner was fair all over. Toka had never known a more handsome Soldati. Rayner’s hand was large and warm, enveloping Toka’s. Cheeks flushed, Toka was pulled to his feet.
“You cheated,” Toka mumbled pitifully.
Rayner’s amber eyes sparkled with mischief, his husky laugh sending a shiver through Toka. Why did the man have to be so darned handsome?
“Perhaps,” Rayner admitted, placing his hands on Toka’s waist as he edged closer, and then he walked Toka back against a tree. Rayner smelled wonderful. Of sandalwood, juniper, and cedar with something else mixed in, along with a scent unique to Rayner, one Toka would know anywhere.
“What… is it that you desire?” Toka’s breath hitched as the black of Rayner’s eyes spread, leaving slivers of molten amber. Rayner’s proximity was doing awfully naughty things to Toka’s body, especially when Rayner eliminated the distance between them, his knee between Toka’s legs.
“You’re trembling,” Rayner said, his sinful lips inches from Toka’s temple and his breath hot against Toka’s skin. He brushed the back of his fingers down Toka’s bare arm before bringing them to rest under his chin, tilting his head back.
Oh goodness. Toka swallowed hard. His eyes widened slightly, and his lips parted when Rayner dropped his gaze to Toka’s lips.
“What I desire, my little fox, is a kiss from those sweet lips.”
“Anything,” Toka breathed, curling his fingers into Rayner’s sleeves. He loved the way Rayner eclipsed Toka’s slighter frame. The breadth of his shoulders was impressive, leading to an expansive chest with muscular arms hidden under the billowy black sleeves of the shirt he wore beneath the chestnut-colored jerkin. His thighs were powerful, his calves strong and sheathed in black leather boots. Rayner exuded more than strength, power, and confidence. He radiated an inescapable sensuality, one others couldn’t help but gravitate toward when he was close.
“You shouldn’t make such promises.” Rayner brushed his lips over Toka’s. “I have a very wicked imagination.”
Toka whimpered, making Rayner chuckle. “You’re teasing me,” Toka said with a huff, turning his head away. Rayner took hold of his chin and turned his head back to meet his gaze.
“Oh, but I’m very serious, my little fox.”
“I… I am your little fox, Rayner. Only yours, should you wish to have me.” Toka dropped his gaze to his fingers, his cheeks burning. He was uncertain where this forwardness had come from. He supposed Rayner’s own boldness toward Toka as of late spurred him on. “I’ve not allowed anyone else to… touch me in such an… intimate manner.”
Rayner appeared stunned. “You’ve been saving yourself for me?”
Toka nodded. “From the moment I met your gaze, I knew there would be no other.” The day Toka stood before Khalon, the newly crowned Soldati king, Toka’s life changed, and not for the reasons he’d expected. The previous king and his court departed the Soldati Realm, and Khalon and his court were presented with their new servants. Toka was one of the many foxlings who would be serving Khalon and his court. As Rayner stood proudly beside his king, Toka’s heart and body were seized by the unspoken promise in Rayner’s amber eyes—a promise that Toka would one day be his.
“Your words humble me,” Rayner whispered as he leaned in and brushed his lips over Toka’s before he poked out his tongue to lick at Toka’s bottom lip, drawing a gasp from him. “They also stoke the embers of desire within me. You are the most beautiful creature I have ever laid eyes on. I have never felt envious of my king until the day your mother presented you to him. Deep in my heart, I knew Khalon would never lay a finger on you, yet a secret part of me feared he might lose himself in your beauty. I wanted you for myself, even if we could not mate. I yearned to have you.” With his lips parted, Rayner laid siege to Toka’s mouth, his tongue plundering, dueling with Toka’s own.
Toka surrendered himself without question. Whatever Rayner desired of him, Toka would give freely and eagerly. Rayner’s heat enveloped Toka, and he closed his fingers around fistfuls of Rayner’s sleeves, fearing Rayner might slip away. It wasn’t his first kiss from Rayner, but it was the most heated by far. Toka lived for those moments when Rayner sought him out, stealing a kiss when no one was looking. The kisses were sweet, affectionate, and took Toka’s breath away each time. This kiss threatened to send him to the stars. It lit a spark inside him, and he foolishly wanted more. Rayner’s mouth was warm, and he tasted of the sweet wine he’d had earlier.
The feel of Rayner’s hand sliding down Toka’s side made him shiver, and he brought his legs together as tight as he could around Rayner’s knee in the hopes of easing the rapidly growing desire in his groin. Rayner moved his hand underneath Toka’s knee-length tunic to cup him through his undergarments, and Toka had never been more grateful for his bare-legged servant’s attire. He gasped, throwing his head back, and Rayner took advantage, nipping at Toka’s exposed neck.
“Oh heavens.” Toka whimpered as Rayner caressed him through his clothing.
“Is that a yes?” Rayner whispered in Toka’s ear, and Toka gasped.
“Yes,” Toka replied through his panting breaths. Never had he expected to be treated as an equal. Rayner stole kisses, but now as he freed Toka’s shaft from his undergarments before removing his own from his trousers, he had asked tenderly, as he would a lover. Rayner palmed both their erections, and Toka feared he might spill his seed all too quickly. They were both already leaking, and Rayner used the pearly drops in place of lubricant.
“Rayner,” Toka breathed, the pressure and friction of Rayner’s hand as he pumped their shafts together was blissful torture. Fiery heat flared through Toka’s body, his muscles aching in the most delicious way. Never had he yearned for anything or anyone the way he yearned for Rayner. Rayner trailed kisses up Toka’s skin to his jawline, his husky voice low and gravelly when he spoke.
“You are a gift, Toka. A beautiful, precious gift.”
Toka cupped Rayner’s face, and brought him down for another scorching kiss. Rayner moaned into Toka’s mouth, and Toka arched his back, thrusting into Rayner’s hand as the pleasure rolled through him like a storm. Rayner quickened his pace, and Toka sucked on Rayner’s tongue. He gave in to his wicked desire and nipped at Rayner’s bottom lip before licking at it.
“Sweet goddess above,” Rayner said through a groan. He crushed Toka between himself and the tree, his hand losing all rhythm as he gasped and panted. “Toka, will you forgive me… for being… selfish?” he panted.
“Yes. Anything,” Toka promised.
“Don’t let anyone else touch you like this. Don’t give yourself to anyone but me.”
Toka’s release thundered through him, and he dug his fingers into Rayner’s shoulders, his strangled cry muffled by Rayner’s lips. As the heavenly pleasure racked him, Toka feared his body wasn’t strong enough to contain the blinding white light that flared inside him, desperate to break free. Rayner’s own release quickly followed, and he groaned into Toka’s mouth. Toka’s body trembled from his release, and when he moved his lips from Rayner’s, his reply was a mere whisper, but loud enough for Rayner to hear. “I promise.”
Rayner let his head rest against Toka’s, and Toka used the underside of his tunic to gently clean Rayner’s hand. He tucked Rayner into his trousers before tucking himself away, his cheeks burning at the knowledge of what they’d done. Toka couldn’t help his smile, and when he looked up, he found Rayner watching him, his eyes sparkling brighter than any diamond. His smile was wide and just for Toka.
“Thank you.” Rayner brushed his lips over Toka’s. “Would you—”
A fierce roar echoed through the woods, and Toka gave a start, his heart beating wildly. It was Khalon. He giggled at Rayner’s deadpan expression when he spoke.
“I swear it’s as if he knows I’m enjoying myself.”
Toka gave Rayner a playful shove. “Go on. Your king summons you.”
“Oh, I see how it is,” Rayner teased, drawing Toka into his strong arms. “When he’s being a pain in the backside, he’s my king, but when he’s being magnanimous, he’s our king.” Rayner growled and nipped at Toka’s neck. The scoundrel.
Toka couldn’t help his laugh. “You are a rogue of the worst kind, sir. Charming foxlings with that handsome face and naughty smile. Having your wicked way with them in forests only to leave them pining for your touch.”
Rayner paused. He looked worried as he studied Toka. “You don’t really believe that, do you? That I have my wicked way with other foxlings?” He brushed his fingers down Toka’s jaw. “I promise you, you’re the only foxling I desire.”
Toka smiled sweetly, and he cupped Rayner’s cheek. He stood on his toes to give Rayner’s lips a tender kiss. “I know I’m the only foxling you desire.” His smile turned mischievous. “However, the rest is true. You’re handsome, have a naughty smile, you’ve had your wicked way with me, and I’ll most certainly be pining for your touch the moment you step away.”
Rayner licked his bottom lip, his amber eyes glowing with a familiar fire. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to make certain I don’t leave you without my touch for very long.”
Toka pressed himself against Rayner, took Rayner’s hand, and placed it to his backside. “I’ll be waiting.”
“Oh, but I see I’m not the only one who’s wicked,” Rayner said with a groan. Another roar resounded through the woods, and Rayner sighed. Their king was not the most patient man. Rayner took Toka’s hand and brought it to his lips for a kiss. “Until our next encounter, my foxling.”
Toka nodded, watching Rayner turn, then break into a run, as sleek and graceful in his human form as he was in his feline body. Rayner changed into his tiger form and stopped to look over his shoulder with a chuff before running off. Toka placed a hand to his rapidly beating heart, unable to believe what had happened. He could barely contain his grin. For the first time in centuries, he felt… so wonderfully happy. It was foolish to think he and Rayner could have a future together, and yet his heart was filled with so much hope.
Rayner was a Soldati warrior, second to the king in position and power. He was known for his loyalty, fierceness, and bravery. Yet many were surprised when they encountered him, taken aback by his roguish nature. Toka’s heart soared at the mere thought of Rayner. He was kind, warm, and playful. Never arrogant or spiteful. Rayner was great in stature, nearly as tall and strong as their king, though not as muscular. He had a leanness to him. A catlike quality befitting a Soldati warrior. Few refrained from swooning at his feet when he smiled. He was clever, sharp, and quick-witted.
As one of Khalon King’s trusted council and part of his Soldati court, Rayner was respected and desired. He was also notorious for his dalliances. Toka paid no mind to Rayner’s liaisons, for he could never allow himself to fall into false hopes. Their fiery passion may have burned bright from the moment they laid eyes on each other, but he and Rayner could never be. Toka learned to accept Rayner’s many admirers. Rayner was always honest, and his guests never stayed the night. Toka had seen plenty of them leaving Rayner’s bedchamber before dawn, never to revisit again. Toka was not so naïve to believe Rayner did not have certain needs. He was filled with such passion.
Yet when Rayner flirted with a potential bedmate, it was different from when he flirted with Toka. His smile never reached his eyes like it did when Rayner smiled at Toka. He never brushed his fingers down their jaw when he whispered in their ear, or slipped a hand around their waist as he nuzzled their temple. He never inhaled their scent, never took his time touching, caressing, murmuring sweet words. They were never called “his.” So much had changed around them in the last year since their prince’s arrival. Was it possible Rayner felt more for Toka than lust?
As Toka strolled through the forest on the outskirts of the castle gardens, he warned his heart not to get carried away. Rayner was a Soldati warrior, and a powerful one at that. Born with wealth and prestige. Toka was a servant. Not that Toka was ungrateful. He knew how lucky he was to be serving the Soldati king. It meant he was protected by Soldati law. He would never be mistreated, struck, or taken advantage of.
Throughout the realm, Toka was treated with respect, as not doing so would be a slight against the king himself. Being a servant of the Soldati was an honor and privilege, one either passed down from generation to generation or personally granted by the Soldati king. Toka’s mother had served Khalon’s mother, and now as a male foxling, Toka served Khalon. It was why Toka’s word was above those of the other servants. His position had been further elevated when Khalon gifted Toka’s services to Riley Murrough, the Soldati prince. Riley was the only one of his kind in the Soldati Realm, not merely for being a prince, but having golden-blond hair—now with a black streak, thanks to his mate’s claiming. He was also a Saugur, a Soldati prophet. There had only been one other in the history of the Soldati.
Speaking of his prince, Toka smiled when he saw Riley in the garden, beneath a tree, reading a book. Toka had quickly fallen for Riley in the short time since his arrival. Not in the same way Toka had fallen for Rayner, but much like Rayner, Riley brought out a fierce loyalty and sense of protection in Toka that few others had. Toka cared deeply for his prince, and next to Rayner, he was the only one Toka showed affection toward.
Having been raised human, Riley had some peculiarities, but they only made him all the more endearing. Riley knew what Toka felt for Rayner. He also believed the Soldati law concerning Soldati and servants was antiquated, and he never failed to let his husband, Khalon, know as much. Although the relationship between servants and nobility in the Soldati Realm was not as rigid as it was in some other kingdoms, each knew their place. Dalliances with the servants was highly frowned upon by the king, but provided a servant consented and the tryst was kept quiet, the king was willing to turn a blind eye. He had far more important matters to deal with and expected everyone to behave with honor and dignity, or they would answer to him. No one dared try the man’s patience. Except for Rayner. He seemed the exception to every rule. Yet not even Rayner could challenge Soldati law.
Toka shifted and pounced through the grass as he made his way over to Riley. His prince smiled from behind his book, undoubtedly catching Toka’s scent. With cheerful barks, Toka approached Riley. When he reached his prince, he perked his ears and rose on his hind legs in play. Riley laughed, his golden eyes sparkling as he playfully shoved Toka over. Toka rolled onto his back, and Riley scratched his belly. With joyous panting, Toka knocked his brush against the grass in happiness.
“You’re too adorable. Change back so we can talk.”
Toka did as asked, shifting swiftly and then sitting up. “Isn’t it a most beautiful day, Your Highness?”
Riley smiled knowingly. “I wonder if it has anything to do with a certain suave and sexy individual who emerged from the same part of the forest you just came from.”
Heat rose in Toka’s cheeks, and he bit down on his bottom lip, averting his gaze.
“I knew it!” Riley cackled as he dropped onto his side. He looked up at Toka, who dared peek at him. Riley waggled his eyebrows, and Toka couldn’t stop his giggle. “You two are so stinking adorable.” Riley sat up, his golden-amber eyes intense and his expression determined. “I’m not giving up, you know. That law is ancient, and it needs to be changed. Why shouldn’t you and Rayner be allowed to be together? It’s ridiculous.”
Toka let out a sigh. “It’s how it’s always been.”
“Doesn’t mean that’s how it should stay. Believe me. I know a thing or two about shitty laws.” Riley slumped back against the tree. “Khalon’s just so damn stubborn when it comes to tradition. I might not understand all the rules and laws of the Soldati Realm just yet, but I know this whole ‘can’t mate with someone below your rank’ nonsense is bullshit. If two consenting adults fall in love and want to be together, why the hell shouldn’t they be?”
Toka stifled a laugh. Riley wasn’t one to mince words. Toka admired that about him. Because Riley had been raised in the human world—his true nature only being revealed a little over a year ago when Khalon found him, and only after his death—he had a certain way about him that differed from anyone else in the realm. He said what he felt, refusing to hold his tongue, propriety be damned. Especially when it concerned something he felt passionately about. Like the fact he believed Toka and Rayner should be together.
“Even if the law was to change,” Toka said, his heart aching at the thought, “who’s to say Rayner wishes to keep me?”
Riley blinked at him, as if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. “Why wouldn’t he keep you? I’ve seen the way he looks at you. Rayner might joke around, but when it comes to you, he’s different. Believe me. The first time I even said your name, I thought he was going to skewer me.”
Toka was surprised by that. “Really?”
Riley nodded, his eyes wide. “Yeah, the dude can be scary. I was commenting on how quick Tura, his tailor, was, and Rayner said something about foxlings being captivating creatures. I thought I might get a little out of him, so I said, ‘Like Toka?’ And you should have seen his eyes. They were almost black. I don’t know if he thought I was interested, but when I said you were very sweet and I felt calm around you, his expression changed. He was… soft again. He agreed. Said you had a way about you.”
Toka’s heart skipped a beat, and he couldn’t stop from smiling like a loon. Was it possible Rayner cared more for him than he’d originally believed? One thing was for certain. He couldn’t wait to find out.