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Noel Thistleborn had thought his life had ended when he lost his mate and daughter. Left with nothing but a broken heart he accepted the job as the king’s assistant to give his life new meaning. When King Kylen insisted Noel attend the dragon shifter ball he had no idea his life was about to change.
Hartmut was tired of watching his best friend cuddle with his two mates. He wasn’t greedy he’d take a single partner. In fact his greatest worry was having to deal with a fae double mating.
When the pair meets Noel doesn’t exactly greet the dragon shifter with open arms. Still traumatized by his loss, Noel is hesitant to put his heart out there again. However Hart wins him over and the pair agrees to dinner.
An old enemy comes forward and Noel will need the strength of his dragon mate to help him through.
“What are you wearing to the ball?”
Waylen Sorn leaned against the buffet table ignoring Noel Thistleborn’s attempts to set things to rights.
Noel flicked the corner of the tablecloth, determined to straighten out the stubborn wrinkle. He didn’t turn to face his friend when he responded. There were too many words he didn’t want to say, and Waylen knew him well enough to know when he was hiding something.
“You could help me instead of getting in the way.”
Way snorted. “I’m a guard, not a party organizer. I’d only mess things up. Besides, you hate it when anyone fusses with your plans.”
Noel wished he could argue, but his friend made a good point. Drunken bacchanals were more civilized than Way’s parties and the promised dragon-mating ball had to be perfect. Once King Kylen promised to help match the dragon shifters, he’d put his reputation at risk. After the issues with the coronation ball, Kylen had promised the dragons their own separate mating party. A poor showing would reflect badly on the king. Noel had to make sure nothing went wrong. He took his position as the king’s secretary seriously. He’d worked hard to earn the king’s trust, and he wouldn’t let Kylen down.
Way cleared his throat. “Don’t think ignoring me will make me leave. I’m more stubborn than you are. Now, what are you wearing?”
“Don’t you have guard duty right now?” Noel turned to face his friend. The offensive wouldn’t last for long. Way didn’t give up easily.
Way shook his head. “Good try, but I’ve got an hour before my shift starts. You can’t get rid of me that easily. What are you wearing? It’s not a complicated question.”
“Why, so we can wear matching outfits?” Noel raised his right eyebrow. “I’m. Not. Going.” He enunciated each word in a sharp, precise tone so there could be no mistake. For once, he wouldn’t let anyone change his mind. He didn’t need a mate. He’d already lost one; to lose a second mate would be too much. His plans included a bottle of wine and a secluded corner. If he hid well enough, the king would never know he didn’t attend.
“You have to go.” Way moved to block Noel from adjusting the already perfectly positioned silverware, putting his body between the table and the door. “Your second mate might be there. Don’t you want to find him? I’d give anything to locate even one of my mates.” Way’s wistful tone stabbed Noel with bittersweet memories.
Once, he’d been that optimistic soul, eager to find his life partners. Noel’s eyes filled with tears over that bit of innocence lost, but he refused to let them fall. He’d cried enough for sixty lifetimes.
“I just can’t go through that again, Way. I just can’t.” The pain he’d endured at the death of Paryis had almost killed him. It would have destroyed him if Way hadn’t found him before he bled out.
Despite the hardiness of the fae, slitting his wrists had almost worked. He would’ve died if Way hadn’t found him and used his minimal healing skills to close up Noel’s cuts. Some days, he still resented his friend for it. He’d really wanted to join Paryis and their daughter Sansha in the afterlife. What did he have to live for?
“Fuck. I’m an unfeeling bastard.” Way wrapped his arms around Noel and squeezed him tight. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”
For once, Noel let his friend soothe him. Nothing would take away the hole in his heart and even a second mate wouldn’t ease the pain. Nothing could. Some sorrows didn’t fade away with time or distance. They festered and grew like an open wound across his soul.
Noel pulled free of Way, then turned back to the linens. There were a million details to organize for the party, and he couldn’t afford any slipups. King Kylen still hadn’t quite forgiven Noel for saying Kylen could replace his wolf mate, Farro, with a pair of fae. It had been a foolish statement and one he regretted, but he couldn’t take it back. Hurtful words couldn’t be sucked back into the bottle like a genie once spoken.
“I’m not going to the party,” Noel repeated as he counted out the correct amount of linens for the buffet. Searching for a second mate didn’t appeal to him in the slightest. Maybe if he repeated it enough times he’d come to believe it as truth. Noel gave the tablecloth a vicious twitch.
“How can you not go? If nothing else, you can get laid. You don’t have to seek out a mate bond. Hot sex with a gorgeous dragon shifter can be good too. I hear shifters are amazing lovers.”
Noel blushed. He made a shooing motion at Way, hoping his friend would take the hint. “I’m fine. Go and enjoy the party. I’ll be too busy organizing it anyway.”
Noel closed his eyes and struggled to find his calm. Sex with a dragon shifter did sound good. He missed another man’s touch. But giving himself to someone other than his mate felt too much like a betrayal of his dead lover. Noel grabbed a napkin and focused his energy on the wrinkles in the fabric instead of on Way.
“I’m sorry, Noel, but you have to attend the mating ball. I gave my word to the dragons that anyone not bonded would attend,” King Kylen said.
Noel spun around. He hadn’t noticed Kylen entering during his conversation with Way. The king pinned Noel with his powerful gaze. Even though Noel had been friends with Kylen for years, he could still get Noel to spill all his secrets with one pointed look. He stepped closer to Way as if one small step could hide him from the king’s disapproval.
He revised his evening plans. The dragons were powerful allies, and the king needed all the support he could gather, especially since he’d recruited many of the dragon shifters to be part of his new security force.
The light and dark fae hadn’t quite come together in beautiful harmony since King Kylen’s rule. Too many years of animosity lay between the two factions to make combining the two kingdoms a smooth process. Kylen needed the dragons as much as they wanted the fae.
Noel twisted the napkin, strangling it into a crease-filled knot. “I-I don’t want a mate.”
Kylen narrowed his eyes. “What do you have against mates?”
“I lost my mate many years ago. He died along with our daughter.”
“You never said anything.” The pained expression on Kylen’s face had Noel rushing to explain.
“Because when I left the light fae kingdom and came here I was trying to leave it all behind me.” Talking about his loss made it more real somehow. Even discussing their death years later stabbed tiny arrows of agony into Noel’s heart.
Kylen examined him with sad eyes. “When I left Farro, it tore me apart, and I knew he was safe and sound at home. I can’t imagine what you went through over the death of your family. However, I did promise the dragons every unmatched fae would be there. I don’t care how long you stay, but you need to show up even if it’s only to have one drink then leave.”
Noel rubbed the spot over his heart. “I don’t think I can survive that kind of loss again,” he choked out.
Way wrapped a sympathetic arm around him. Despite brushing his friend away earlier, Noel sank into Way’s embrace. There were few people he considered close enough to show his vulnerability to.
King Kylen sighed. “Did you ever consider that if you didn’t have another mate you wouldn’t have survived the death of your first one?”
Noel shivered at Kylen’s words. Why hadn’t that idea ever occurred to him? He’d always been too focused on the mate he lost instead of the mate he might meet one day. “I’ll come. I can’t promise anything, though.”
“Fair enough.” Kylen squeezed Noel’s shoulder on his way out of the room. The king had a packed schedule for the rest of the day. Noel should know, he set it. A tear dripped down Noel’s face. He wiped away the moisture with the napkin in his hand, then stuffed it into his pocket.
“We’ll get you through this and into a hot dragon shifter’s arms.” Way squeezed Noel before releasing him.
“Thanks, Way. I’ll be fine.” He’d get through this one night, then go lick his wounds.
“I’ll see you later. Send for me if you need wardrobe advice.” Way laughed on his way out the door.
Brutally shoving his memories back into the box they belonged in, Noel returned to counting silverware. He could’ve handed the job over to one of the many palace workers, but today he needed a mindless task to calm his nerves. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. He definitely wasn’t as flashy as some of his fellow fae. The dragons might not even notice his presence.
He could only hope.