A former pleasure hound falls in love with an upper-class woman he can never have. When her fiance approaches him for training in the arts of the marriage bed, he cannot refuse anything that will bring her happiness -even as it crushes his heart. The two rivals set aside their differences for a common goal and, unexpectedly, come to enjoy each other. When Lady Merlyn uncovers their secret, she is torn between the hound she’s loved since she was a young girl and the man who would do anything to rule her heart.
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Merlyn withdrew her finger. The tiny dots of blood welled from her thumb, bright red against her brown skin. She looked down at the rodent who bared its teeth.
“My apologies, Darwin 16,” she said. “I am aware that you are a mouse, but biting is the type of behavior that I attribute to rats. So the insult will stand.”
Merlyn reached into the side table and withdrew a plaster. Before placing the pink bandage on her finger, she marveled at the veins in her wrist where she spied her blood, the vibrant color of green, beneath her skin. At the puncture wounds where it hit oxygen, the blood pooled red. The inner workings of the body never ceased to amaze her. From the time she could sit up and peer into a microscope, Merlyn had been on a mission to understand as much of those internal processes as she could.
She wrapped the pink bandage around the angry marks on her thumb. She held no ill will toward Darwin 16. It wasn’t his fault that her experiment had failed. At just twelve years old, Merlyn was consumed with the sciences and the Scientific Method. Her mother often reminded her that her second word as a child was hypothesis, followed closely by quantify.
Merlyn watched the small brown mouse scamper away to join the other mice in Habitat Three. Darwin’s family resembled her own. There were mice with coats the color of tan, brown, and white running around the glass cage.
Merlyn had been trying to breed a spotted mouse, like a leopard. At school, one of the girls had freckles all over her face. The anomaly fascinated Merlyn, and she wanted to understand how the girl’s parents had done it. Merlyn knew that parents affected the genetic makeup of their children. Merlyn’s own mother had ensured that both she and her sister were conceived with the highest probability to be female, after all. She assumed that manipulating skin color was far simpler than manipulating the gender of a fetus.
In three of her four habitats, Merlyn managed to breed at least one mouse whose coat gradated from brown to white. But none of those minor successes had birthed spotted coats. Habitat Two had been a total failure. Specimens Hawking 10 and Curie 7, both with white coats, had only produced offspring of pure white. A litter of six tiny white mice ran around the cage as its father tried to sleep.
“Really, Hawking 10, you could have shown some effort and produced at least one offspring of a different colored coat.” That mouse had been a disappointment lately. Having little interest in food or breeding.
“Maybe you just don’t have it in you.”
Like a solar panel raising its awning toward the rising sun, an idea lit up inside Merlyn’s head.
“Alyss,” Merlyn turned her head but not her eyes. They stayed focused on the dozing white mouse whose countenance had sparked Merlyn’s new hypothesis. “Alyss, look. It’s white.”
When her sister didn’t respond, Merlyn turned all the way around to look behind her.
Merlyn’s younger sister, Alyss, sat amidst a pile of papers. Crayons sprawled all around her, some broken and meshed into two. Alyss held three crayons over a candle in an attempt to merge those colors together. The paper before her was a mix of a bright color that was not seen anywhere in nature. The conglomerate caught Merlyn’s eyes for a moment before she remembered her own work of art.
Alyss peered up from her drawing. Brown-gold eyes, the same as Merlyn’s, met her own. It was hard to see Alyss’ eyes beneath the riot of copper curls that sprang from her head. There was a frown on Alyss’ olive-toned face.
“By the Goddess, Merlyn, what is it now?”
Alyss’ admonishment took Merlyn aback and she was momentarily shamed. Young girls were not meant to raise their voices, especially young girls of their household. Bursts of emotion were frowned upon. At twelve Merlyn was often thrown into fits of excitement over her work. At ten years old, Alyss had the countenance of a woman grown. At the moment, Merlyn’s younger sister reminded her of their mother.
Merlyn took a deep breath to calm herself. “I conducted an experiment—”
“You’re always conducting an experiment.”
Merlyn took another breath at the sight of her younger sister’s pouting lips. Alyss would turn into the ten year old that she was at the most inopportune times. She turned her attention back to her crayons, pressing the colors together. Red, orange and blue; an odd, unattractive combination, Merlyn thought.
“Alyss, I conducted an experiment because I was curious to find out how animals produce spots and stripes, like freckles—”
“Oh, I think I should like to have spots,” Alyss said between blows on the newly formed triad of colors. “A light shade of orange for me. Deep purple stripes would look lovely with your skin tone, Merlyn.”
“Unfortunately, that won’t happen.”
“You didn’t figure out how to make humans have stripes?” Alyss frowned.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Then why are we having this conversation?”
Merlyn sighed again. Her sister had little patience for science. Alyss’ eyes were drawn to the arts, an endeavor that was not looked on kindly by their household, which was why Alyss always volunteered to assist Merlyn in her experiments.
Merlyn’s little assistant turned her back to the lab table, where Merlyn’s new find skittered around its cage, and pressed the conglomeration of colors to the paper. Merlyn had to admit the combination made one interesting new color. Alyss smiled at her work. Merlyn knew she only had half her sister’s attention if any, but she pressed on.
“Spots and stripes don’t currently appear anywhere in the human genetic code so that information can’t be passed down.” This, Merlyn now knew, was the reason her experiment had failed.
“A code? Is that similar to a pattern?”
“Yes,” Merlyn said. Trust Alyss to break science down into artistic terms. “The pattern of spots and strips didn’t work because it’s not present in this genus of linnaeus,” Merlyn indicated the mouse. “But I found a different pattern.”
Merlyn pointed to the four glass cages containing an array of mice. There was one adult male and four females to each of the four cages. One month after she’d put them all in the cages they’d produced an array of baby mice. And that was the exciting part.
“Alyss don’t you see it? I used one male to breed four females in each cage—”
“Doesn’t that make more sense?” Alyss interrupted again. “Using one male to breed women instead of two. Why doesn’t our society simply find the best male and use him to breed?”
Merlyn gave up. “That’s a very good idea, Alyss.” Merlyn gathered Habitat Two in her arms and stood. “And that’s a very pretty picture.”
Alyss raised the colorful sheet of paper and smiled. It truly was a pretty picture. Alyss had a way with color like nothing Merlyn had ever seen, but Merlyn didn’t pay much attention to art. If it wasn’t numerical or quantifiable, Merlyn didn’t truly understand it.
Alyss took no notice as Merlyn slipped out the door. Cage in hand, Merlyn made her way down the long hall away from the nursery. Merlyn had once visited another family and saw that their nursery was painted green, the color reserved for young girls, and filled with toys. Not so in Merlyn’s household. Their nursery resembled a classroom when she and Alyss were younger. These days it looked like a science lab. Long tables filled with beakers, burners and microscopes. Anatomy and chemical depictions decorated the walls.
Merlyn continued down the hall. On the walls were pictures of strong women throughout the centuries. Among them were some of Merlyn’s favorites, the Nobel Physic Marie Curie, Anthropologist Dian Fossey, and Astronaut Mae Jemison.
“Oh good, Merlyn, there you are.” Merlyn’s Grand Mother, Regyn, sat upon her throne at the center of the room, a high backed chair of gold, covered in jewels. This morning she’d covered her pale skin in purple fabrics.
Merlyn came into the room, cage of rodents in hand. No one questioned it.
“Merlyn, we have good news,” said Merlyn’s Mother, Angyla. “After a vast search we have found your first bondmate.” Her Mother’s coarse hair was arranged in intricate plaits around the crown of her brown head.
“Oh.” Merlyn’s elation deflated a bit as she set the cage down on the table. She knew this day was coming. She was nearly thirteen after all. Many young females had bondmate agreements before birth. One great family bonding with another, using their child’s matrimony to keep wealth and power consolidated.
Merlyn’s Mother and Grand Mother didn’t trust a family’s name. They were more interested in the contents of a boy’s mind and body. They would only look at the boys whose genealogy showed a proclivity to produce female children.
Years ago, Lady Regyn put forth a controversial theory that it was males who determined the sex of babies. Lady Regyn had yet to prove it conclusively, but the fruits of her labors carried a lot of weight.
Lady Regyn had two daughters. Merlyn had never met her aunt Celia but she knew Celia had produced a girl child. And then there was Merlyn and Alyss. A family of all females; a remarkable achievement.
Whoever this boy was, he’d obviously passed the genetics test. Now he must have passed their second test. Her Mother and Grand Mother would have put the remaining candidate through extensive aptitude tests at various ages.
“He shows a great aptitude for the sciences,” Lady Angyla said. “He will make a great assistant to you in your work as you get older.”
“Thank you, Mother. That was very thoughtful of you to consider for me.”
“Well, of course I considered it. Do you think I’d leave my child and her future progeny strapped to some witless fool?”
“No, of course not, Mother. Speaking of my work. I would like to present to you my latest find.”
Lady Angyla came to stand behind Lady Regyn’s chair, both rapt with attention. Merlyn suddenly felt her throat go dry. She rubbed her damp hands down her pale, gray frock. From the corner of her eye she spied a figure moving. She turned and saw one of the manservants cleaning, though this one was not a man. He was a boy. The boy set about dusting the paintings of the women of the family that hung on the walls. The rag in his hand was cleaner than the clothes on his back. His eyes focused on the portraits.
Merlyn turned back to her audience. “I was testing the dissemination of traits amongst mice, attempting to introduce a new pattern.” Merlyn neglected to state which pattern. She was certain her Mother and Grand Mother would find the pursuit of freckles trivial. “What I found was that if the father is albino he cannot produce children of another color. But if the father is a mouse of color, he can produce children of any color regardless of what color fur the mother has. I bred two albino mice and the entire litter was colorless.”
Merlyn reached into the cage and plucked out proof; one of the tiny, pale offspring of the still resting Hawking 10. She looked to the adults in the room for praise. Their faces were expressionless. Well, her Mother’s face was expressionless as always. Her Grand Mother looked at her wearily.
“This is a known area of research, child,” her Grand Mother said.
“There have been many studies in the area of gene dominance,” said her Mother.
“Oh,” Merlyn’s shoulders deflated. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time.”
The two women turned back to each other and began talking. Merlyn was, effectively, dismissed.
Merlyn dropped the baby Hawking back into the cage. A prickle of blood oozed from her knuckle.
Immediately warm hands were on hers.
“Are you hurt, my lady?”
Merlyn looked up into dark eyes set in a deeply tanned face. A dark curl fell over one of those eyes in a rakish fashion. Merlyn caught her breath.
No, actually. That wasn’t her breath. It was both her Mother and Grand Mother who gasped.
“You filthy boy!”
“How dare you put your hands on my child!”
The boy dropped Merlyn’s hand. He then dropped his body to the ground in prostration. “My apologies, great ladies. I saw that the young lady was hurt and my base instinct was to protect.”
“Your instinct should be to know your place, you little turd.” Lady Regyn leaned so far forward that she nearly stood up out of her seat. “You have no rights to touch a female. Get out of my house and back into the fields where you belong.”
“Yes, my lady.” The boy rose, keeping his head bowed. He walked backwards out of the room and disappeared.
“Merlyn go and wash your hands,” her Mother instructed. “Who knows what diseases that third might carry. And take your rodents with you.”
Merlyn grabbed the glass cage, blood smearing on its sides. She made haste down the halls. Once inside her laboratory, she deposited the cage on the lab table and grabbed another plaster.
“Did they like it?” Alyss barely spared her a glance from her newest creation of purple, green, and yellow.
“No,” Merlyn admitted as she washed and bandaged her hand.
“They would have if you’d figured out how to make stripped humans.”
Merlyn pressed the bandage to her hand and slipped out the nursery’s door. She walked towards the back of the house and slipped out the back door. Once outside she headed away from the house towards the gardens. Before she made it a few steps, a hand reached out to her.
“Let me see it?”
Merlyn nearly jumped out of her skin, but she quickly settled when she looked into those dark eyes once more. “Jaspir, you startled me. I nearly screamed.”
Jaspir took her hand in his. He unwrapped the bandage she’d just put on. His fingers were warm pressed against hers, and he stood so close that his thigh brushed hers. Merlyn knew she should back away. He’d been tossed out of the house for daring to touch her wounded finger. He’d likely be thrown into jail for standing close enough to touch her thigh.
She held still.
Jaspir’s head was bent over, examining her finger. Merlyn saw the dirt under his fingernails. She always used gloves in her lab when handling materials. Grime underneath the nails was hard to remove and carried microscopic diseases.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” he announced, but he didn’t let her hand go. “Those rats were sterile?”
“Of course.” Merlyn felt indignant at the thought of running a messy lab. “And they weren’t rats, they were mice.”
“Does it hurt still?”
Just a slight twinge, nothing painful. Merlyn shook her head in answer to his question.
“Don’t lie, Merlyn. I know it hurts.”
“How could you know?”
“Because when you hurt, I hurt too.”
“That’s not possible, Jaspir. There have been studies done on telepathy, and the science is not sound.”
“Then how do I know you’re still hurting?”
There were a number of logical answers. He’d seen her bitten. He’d likely been bitten by sharp teeth before and knew of its lasting effects.
“I could kiss it better for you,” Jaspir said.
“A kiss?” Merlyn frowned. “There’s no medicinal value in the lips. In fact human mouths contain an array of germs—”
The impact was soft, like crashing into her pillow at night after a long day behind her microscope. Jaspir pressed his lips into hers. Warmth flooded through her, like when she pulled her blankets over herself on a cold night. Merlyn felt the oddest impulse to snuggle into Jaspir as she did into her mattress when the sun peeked through her bedroom window when she wasn’t yet ready to rise. It was with that defiance in mind that she stayed in his embrace longer than she should. In the end, it was Jaspir who pulled away.
He should have looked shamed, taking such a liberty with a female, but he didn’t. He looked weary, resigned. His dark eyes burned into her. “I know,” he said.
Merlyn blinked. “You know what?” Her voice came out a hoarse whisper.
“I know that we would never be allowed to bond,” he said. “But it’s already happened.”
It had? Merlyn’s fingers came to her mouth. Bonding ceremonies were the exchange of words, a contract on paper signed by the female, and vows spoken aloud by males. There was no such contract written between them.
“My heart is yours, Merlyn,” Jaspir vowed. “It was yours the first moment I saw you. Do you remember the first moment I saw you?”
Merlyn’s mind took a moment to clear and call up the memory. “You were here in the garden, covered in mud. You’d just planted this bush.” Merlyn indicated the plant. In the center was a starburst of red seeds. The petals were green and the stem purple. It was a hybrid. Their master gardener had been teaching Jaspir to graft plants, taking two separate plants and joining them to make something new, something rare, something stronger. Merlyn found the science behind it fascinating.
“You looked at the plant with such disdain,” Jaspir said. “You were certain it wouldn’t survive the coming winter. Then you turned to me and asked that I report on its state, come spring. It was as though the world shifted off its axis that day, and everything revolved around you. This plant shouldn’t have survived, but I wouldn’t let it die because I wanted to come and tell you that it thrived. I wanted to see your face when you looked at it in the spring.”
And he had. Jaspir had sought Merlyn out to tell her about the plant. She hadn’t believed that it survived, so she went with him to see for herself. She’d been sneaking into the gardens nearly every day afterwards to watch its progress for the past three months.
Jaspir twined his fingers around her wounded hand. Merlyn noticed that all pain, all twinges, were gone.
“I knew I loved you on that first day,” Jaspir said. “But all these months later I realize something else. That I would serve you all my days, and wait an eternity of winters, just for the privilege of looking upon you. One day, I’m going to buy a piece of land and graft you a field of impossible flowers. You’ll see.”
The sound of someone clearing their throat made Jaspir and Merlyn spring apart.
Before them stood a young boy about their age. His skin was pale and his hair the color of red, a paler shade than Alyss’. His green eyes glared at Jaspir who, though standing apart from her, still held Merlyn’s hand in his own.
“Lady Merlyn,” the newcomer said. “My name is Liam. I was granted the pleasure of becoming your bondmate.”
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