My name is Octavius Septimus Stalk, but my friends call me Oss. I live in the City of Keys, a town of gears, keys, locks, and wonder. Our forefathers banished magic long ago, bolted the doors and locked everything up tight to keep people out and the town’s secrets in. Four Lock Lords control what information is left, and everyone else is left struggling to survive.
Despite what Thorne, my naïve lover, thinks, I was an orphan, but not a victim. When I walked the streets at the age of twelve, I learned fast where to steal the best food, how to use my daggers, and where to hide my would-be attackers’ bodies. No one suspected me of such violence. No one knew then or now that I have magic inside me.
Now, power-hungry men intend to release the magic for their own benefit—at the expense of the rest of the city. We will stop them, even if Thorne must battle his own kin, even if I must reveal my hidden talents and the role I seem destined to play.
“FOR ALL the locks in the world, there is just one key, and with his will, he can free the world.”
High Prophet Thomas H. Locksten—Prophecy of Keys
The clamoring bell from the Lock Tower filtered into my dreams, a loud, obnoxious nudge reminding me to wake up and begin my day. My name is Octavius Septimus Stalk. My friends call me Oss, and my enemies hide from my blades. Stab one key keeper for grabbing your ass and you never live down a violent reputation.
The brush of warm lips across my bare shoulder pulled my attention to my bedmate. I always go from slumber to full alert with little space for sluggish-headedness in between. Growing up a street rat gave me certain habits I doubt I’ll ever be able to break. My instant alert ability, the most minor of my infractions, came in handy when Thorne wished to give me a proper send-off for the day.
“Morning, love.” Hawthorne Smith, Thorne to me, had a deep voice that shivered down my spine like vibrations from the tolling of the Tower bell. I’d stood next to it once while it rang, hiding out from guards. They’d stopped their pursuit at the bottom of the stairs—wiser than me I suspect, and happy to keep their hearing. Two days later my eardrums were still ringing.
Thorne had a similar effect on me. I could still feel his hands roaming my body days after we’ve made love. He’s lasted the longest of any of my partners, if rushed gropings in a dark alley counted as partners. Thorne has assured me it doesn’t. He’s certain I need no one else and is determined to keep me sated enough I seek no others.
“Morning.” I don’t repeat the endearment. I’ve grown fond of Thorne in the three months we’ve been warming each other’s beds, but love took longer than that, or it should. I don’t know anyone in love, so it is only guesswork on my part. Growing up on the streets didn’t lend itself to being a trusting, loving person. My cold nature has scared off more than one potential lover before we’d even reached a properly dark bit of street to relieve some tension.
Thorne traced a finger down my back. My body jerked like a marionette dancing along a string. Thorne knew how to be a proper puppet master. Groaning, I pushed back into his touch. I craved my man. Deep down I hoped to keep him, but I buried that ambition in the darkest corner of my mind along with all my other dreams and expectations. The Lord of the Keys didn’t easily grant scrubby key keepers their heart’s desire. If Thorne stayed mine until the next quarter cycle, I’d consider myself blessed.
“Hey, did you go back to sleep?” Thorne rolled me onto my back. I smiled at the vision above me.
I dare anyone to wake up to that face and not feel their heart hiccup at the sight. Thorne had the golden tan of a city guard. The sun didn’t just kiss Thorne, it used its tongue and devoured him in its shiny embrace. Thorne’s skin had the burnished glow only a man working outdoors could acquire and hard, thick muscles from pulling himself up rope ladders to reach the dirigible ships.
Becoming a guard took dedication, and Thorne had only one more level before he reached Master of the Guard. Pride for him had my lips parting in a smile.
“I was thinking of you.” I winced over my words. They sounded far more foolish aloud than drifting through my head.
“Good. I want you to always think about me.” Thorne’s green eyes sparkled down at me like the rare glass in the church windows. He grabbed my hips and dragged me closer as if he couldn’t stand the two inches of space between us.
I melted a bit at his show of strength. I had always prized my smaller form for my ability to squeeze through tiny spaces, but I didn’t wish the same shape for my lover. I preferred my bedmates big and strong. The green eyes and cocky smile were optional but greatly appreciated. Inhaling deeply, I breathed in his scent of cinnamon and sunshine, an odd combination but one I always thought of when near Thorne.
“Does your ego weigh you down when you climb up the ladders?” I asked, sliding my hand across his furred chest. Thorne had the body of a man, not like my smooth skin that refused to sprout more than a few random hairs.
Thorne flexed an arm. “My muscles compensate.”
He cupped my cheek with his callused fingers. “You don’t do that enough.”
Thorne nodded. “You’re a solemn fellow, my sweet Oss. I worry you’ll leave me for my own good one day.”
“Don’t be an idiot.” My heart sped up at his words. “I’ll keep you around to suffer with me.”
Thorne kissed my forehead. “I hope you will. I’ve searched a long time for you, and I’m reluctant to let you out of my sight. You are like smoke, forever slipping through my fingers.”
I rubbed Thorne’s chest again, knowing he relished my touch like a cat enjoying a good pet. I tried for the truth. Unlike the smooth courtiers Thorne dated before me, promises and compliments didn’t spill off my lips in an easy flow. My rough and ready behavior had captured Thorne’s attention, and I had no plans to change it now. Time would tell if I could keep him captivated or lose him to our differences. I’ve never met Thorne’s family, but from his fine townhouse and quality clothing, he’d never been a beggar rat. “I don’t mean to be difficult.”
“I know.” Thorne rolled on top of me, pressing his hard body against mine. I spread my legs, giving him more room to settle. Sighing, I rubbed my cheek against his. Silent affection offered more communication than I could convey with words. Uneducated and barely able to string together a quality sentence on a good day, on a bad one I was a tiny step away from a mute.
Thorne understood me. He put up with my quiet moments and pulled me out of my morose times.
“Focus on me!” Thorne demanded.
“Sorry. You know my mind tends to drift.”
“I know.” Thorne kissed me, a fast brush of lips I missed as soon as they left.
I smiled. “What did you want to talk about?”
Bucking my hips I pressed my erection against his. Neither of us ever wore anything to bed: Thorne because he became too hot in his sleep, and me because I didn’t waste money on bedclothes. Although I now had a job and a place to live, I couldn’t easily dismiss the lessons from a childhood of poverty. I kept a tight fist around my coins and bit like a viper at anyone who thought to take a copper from me.
“I want you to come back tonight,” Thorne whispered in my ear.
I froze. The teasing air vanished, and tension crackled between us.
“Why?” We’d kept things casual, meeting up two or three times a fortnight, feeling each other out for compatibility. Seeing me more often would expose my flaws and perhaps convince Thorne he’d be better off with a more polished companion. No, better he enjoy the concept of me than learn the hard facts of my unsuitability.
“I like you in my bed.” Thorne kissed me again, swiping his tongue inside my parted lips.
There were many reasons against going along with Thorne’s idea. With Thorne kissing me, I couldn’t think of a single one. Moaning, I sucked on his tongue. Even first thing in the morning he tasted like everything I wanted and needed in life.
He lifted his mouth, and I couldn’t think of a thing to say. “Wouldn’t you like to wake up with me tomorrow?”
“Yes.” I didn’t bother to hide the truth. Thorne wouldn’t believe my denial anyway.
“Then come back tonight.”
I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t force the words out.
Disappointment crossed Thorne’s handsome features. “I won’t push, Oss. I just want you to know what I want. I’m yours. I don’t want anyone else in my bed.”
“Good. I’m yours too.” Relief brought a smile to my lips. I hadn’t dared ask if Thorne was seeing anyone else. I could handle being his only bedroom companion even if I couldn’t commit to more time together.
“I know.” Thorne smiled, displaying his dimples. “You aren’t good at hiding things.”
If only he knew. I’d perfected the skill of suppressing my nature. I didn’t dare reveal it to anyone, not even the man I needed more than a lantern in the darkest tunnels.
I slid my fingers through his hair, tugged at his dark curls, and pulled him down until we were pressed together toe to chest. He rested his weight on his forearms, always considerate of his heavier build.
“Fuck me,” I growled.
“What if I want you to fuck me?” Thorne bit at my bottom lip, tugging at it with his teeth before releasing me.
“Anything you want.” I preferred to be on the bottom, but I would give Thorne whatever he wished. My will evaporated beneath his skilled touch.
Thorne’s next hard kiss almost split my lip, but he stopped before he harmed me. Even at his most passionate, Thorne took care of me.
“Maybe next time. Turn over. I want to fuck you hard. I’ll get the oil.” Thorne rolled away, letting me up.
I promptly moved to my knees, rested my elbows on the mattress, and put myself on display while he rummaged around in his drawer.
Thorne groaned. “Oh, yeah. You are so beautiful spread out for me. I can’t believe you’re mine.” He kissed my back. “I love your tattoo even if you won’t tell me where you got it done.”
I almost lost my erection over his words. I couldn’t tell him because that mark had appeared on my eighteenth birthday fully formed. The image of an elegant key spread across the middle of my back wrapped in a flowering vine. A beautiful picture but one I worried would out my abilities one day. So far everyone had bought my tattoo story and believed I just wanted to keep the talented tattooist to myself.
“I’m glad you like it.” I focused on Thorne’s touch and the kisses he sprinkled across my back and soon grew hard again.
“Say you’re mine!” Thorne demanded.
“I’m yours.” The words spilled out with an easy confidence. I might not be ready for a full commitment, but never would I plant doubts in his head over my devotion. I might have an itchy set of feet, but if I chose anyone to keep, it would be this beautiful man with his bright green eyes and big open heart.
Thorne’s slick fingers spread me open, a gentle probing that had me clutching at the blankets. My hands would ache later, but the memories would be worth every twinge.
“I’m ready.” Impatient, I pushed against his fingers, trying to take more of him inside. Thorne took too much care. Slow, thoughtful, and aggravating when I wished for a good hard morning fuck.
“Not yet. I won’t hurt you.”
Again I pushed back onto his fingers until he accepted my unsubtle hint as truth and replaced his hand with his thick erection.
“I love being inside you,” Thorne muttered against my shoulder. “Becoming part of you is better than with anyone else.”
“It is.” I couldn’t deny Thorne’s statement. I relaxed my body as Thorne entered. The discomfort vanished beneath his warm hands.
“So good,” Thorne muttered against my back. His cock nudged the sensitive spot inside me.
“Oh!” No matter how many times we had sex, I still had a moment of surprise over Thorne’s unerring ability to discover the exact angle to bring me off.
“Found it.” Satisfaction coated his tone, and a low growl underlay his voice. “Don’t touch yourself.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
I braced my hands to prevent from slamming my skull into the headboard. Thorne might prep me with care, but once I was ready, he released all his inhibitions. I’d had more than one bump on my head from our vigorous bed play.
“Can’t get enough of you. You’re an addiction,” Thorne gasped out between pants. Wrapping a warm hand around my shaft, he squeezed tight. My dodgy focus snapped into alignment with Thorne’s touch. When he didn’t do anything more with his hand, I pushed back against his cock, hoping to get some friction. I needed more. If he wouldn’t give it to me, I’d happily take it for myself.
“Do something!” It wasn’t quite begging—but it was close.
“I am doing something.” I could hear the amusement in his voice.
I knew without turning that his eyes were glowing, and a smile tilted his lips just a bit. He loved to play in the bedroom.
I growled my discontent. “Pump my cock. Bring me off!”
“Oh, that something.” Thorne kissed my shoulder before sliding his bristly cheek along the back of my neck.
I dipped my head down seeking more contact. I loved Thorne’s morning scruff. He tended to be tidily groomed for his job at the guards, but he’d had the last few days off and remained unshaven for me.
I gasped my appreciation. “More.”
“Someone likes that.” A playful bite landed at the nape of my neck.
I whined, sounding a bit like the town dogs when they hovered around the butcher shop. “Don’t tease. I need to get to work.”
“And that’s the only reason I’m taking pity on you. One day I’m going to spend a week in bed with you without jobs or chores or anything but you and me naked.”
“It’s a date.” I would’ve promised anything at that point, but the image he built in my head painted a beautiful picture of some day.
As if my words were the magical key, Thorne began to snap his hips and slide his fist up and down my erection. “Come when you’re ready.”
“Are you kidding? You’re touching me. I’m ready.” To prove my point I poured my seed across Thorne’s bedsheets. Squeezing my ass, I pulled Thorne along with me.
“You have amazing muscles.” I don’t think he was referring to the ones on my arms.
After a moment of gasping and breathing hot air against my neck, Thorne pulled out of me with the same amount of care that he’d entered. “Let’s get you to the bath. I don’t want you going to work smelling of my seed.”
“Yeah, me either.” No one cared if I had sex with Thorne, but to go to work smelling like sex would encourage teasing. I hated to be teased, and I didn’t wish to be fired when I stabbed the first person who said anything.
Thorne’s family had money, so instead of going to the public bathing pools, he had his own bathing chamber. If I weren’t so nutty about him, I could easily be accused of wanting him for his tub. The big copper monstrosity took up an incredible amount of space and had room for more water than I’d ever seen accessed privately. It took little persuasion to get me to agree to a bath. I suspect Thorne offered it to keep me away from the public baths. Little did he know, I snuck into the public baths after hours. I had an agreement with one of the attendants whose life I saved when we were both on the streets. Still, I preferred his bath to a public one. The river that fed the baths below didn’t warm as well as the water flowing through Thorne’s steam-heated pipes. They rumbled ominously while filling up the tub.
Bath time turned into a sexy combination of soapy suds and Thorne’s touch. I rubbed against Thorne, claiming it saved him money on soap.
“I think I can afford another bar,” Thorne protested.
“I’m trying to conserve. Whenever we bathe together, your soap usage doubles. It’s only fair I try to help you save some money.” I tried for the innocent expression I’d perfected when begging. Unfortunately I couldn’t hold the look with Thorne’s amused gaze seeing right through me.
“That’s very kind of you.” His lush mouth curled up at the corners as he examined me through his thick lashes, a predator watching his prey.
I nodded, pretending not to notice his expression. “I thought so. Not all lovers are as cost conscious as me.”
“No, I don’t think they are. I see there are many advantages to bathing with you. I should do it every day.” He leaned forward and grabbed my waist to spin me around until my back nestled against his chest.
I rubbed against the warm thick erection poking at me. Having this every morning might make me constantly late. My stomach swirled. Why was I even thinking that? Thorne hadn’t asked me to move in, just to stay an extra night. I’d never thought of someone long-term before. Now my mind jumped around, imagining waking up to the sight of Thorne every morning.
I couldn’t breathe.
Thorne wrapped his arms around me, tight. “Everything is okay, Oss. Stop panicking. I was just talking. I know you aren’t ready for anything permanent. Relax.”
“Just talking,” I agreed. I took slow deep breaths, just now aware of how close I was to panicking. “I can talk.”
“You can, you just don’t tend to.” Thorne kissed the top of my head. “Don’t worry, my love. I talk enough for both of us.”
I didn’t comment on that fact. We both knew it was true. My sweet man was a chatterbox. Few soldiers were as happy talking about anything and everything as Thorne.
“Sorry, you just caught me by surprise.” Honesty worked best. Thorne forgave most anything as long as I told the truth.
The mood had been broken, though, and we abandoned the bath without any more sex.
I left Thorne with a kiss, telling him I’d see him later. He forced me to agree to dinner. He always worried I didn’t eat enough. Sometimes I wondered if Thorne handled me the same way he would a feral cat. Feed me, love me, and provide a warm shelter with the hope I’d return.
On my way out, I gave a cheery wave to Thorne’s butler, Brenson. The man detested me. I suspect he thought I sullied Thorne’s family name. He was probably right. I resisted the urge to steal his pocket watch or his coin purse.
See, I could behave.