Ryder stiffened and closed his eyes at the soft, pleading voice behind him. He had come to the stables to escape the madness that he was starting to remember as family life. From what felt like a lifetime of solitude he had now found himself in the middle of a close knit family that believed in including everyone in everything and that included him.
“Tia,” he began, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice. For the past three days his sister had been following him to ask this one favour of him. A small favour, she had said. Nothing major, nothing complicated, just a simple request from one family member to another. He was starting to realise that her ‘small favours’ were not small at all.
“Please, Ryder, it’s just a small favour, for me.” She placed a delicate hand upon his forearm, her skin so pale against the black of his shirt.
Ryder turned to face her in the close confines of Storm’s stall. Behind him, the grey stallion stood watching them with what Ryder took to be an amused twinkle in his liquid eyes. No doubt it would seem amusing to the stallion to see his firm master being undone by a slip of a girl.
“I don’t think that I am the one you want for this ‘favour’ of yours, Tia. I’m sure that there are plenty of other people who would be able to offer their assistance.” He tried to keep his voice even to keep the sting from his words but knew that he had hurt her from the dip of her golden head and the brief flash of pain in her blue eyes.
“You’re the only one that I trust with this, though. You’re my brother, Ryder, and I cannot think of anyone else who would be suitable for this role. Please, Ryder, for me.” The blue eyes met his own, pleading with him to accept her request.
Ryder stared down at his sister, wondering how it could be that he felt once more like the boy he had once been, standing before his little sister as she had pleaded with him to take her with him on his boyhood adventures. She had stared up at him, just as she was doing now, with those big blue eyes begging him to do whatever she had wanted.
Back then he had been powerless to resist to innocent feminine wiles but he was older, wiser now and had seen and done things that would have her racing out of the stable door if she had even the slightest inkling. Against the soothing background of snuffling horses in their stalls and the familiar, sweet scent of fresh hay, he opened his mouth to once more deny her request … and found himself accepting instead!
“That is a very nice suit of clothes.”
Kyr chuckled as he watched as Ryder was measured for a new tunic, trousers and overcoat. Fabric of the finest quality had been measured, cut and sewn into the new clothes that now graced Ryder’s broad frame. The tailor was just making the final adjustments before the garments would be passed to a finisher to complete ready to be worn. From the tight expression on Ryder’s face, Kyr guessed that he was not enjoying this experience.
“Do I take it that you will be going to the reception this evening?” Kyr teased as he picked up a sample of fabric and felt the high quality of the material. Whatever Ryder’s feelings were towards the reception no expense was being spared on his outfit.
“Do you think I would be doing this if I wasn’t?” Ryder growled back, his pale blue eyes like icy glaciers as they glared at him.
“The ties of family, bindings stronger than any steel chain,” Kyr commented with a wry smile. His own mind drifted back to his own family and the requests he had received and been compelled to obey because of those ties.
“It is just a small favour,” Ryder countered, biting back a sigh of relief when the tailor indicated that he had finished marking the final adjustments. With jerky, yet careful movements, he stripped off the stiff new clothes and pulled on his own worn, comfortable clothing. Feeling more at ease in his familiar ‘armour’ he turned an faced the other man, scowling at the grin stretched across Kyr’s bronze features. “She said there was no one else who could help her.”
“Funny, I don’t remember her asking me for my help with this problem,” he said, a slight frown creasing his forehead as he made an effort of trying to remember whether or not Tia had approached him.
“Maybe you weren’t suitable for what she wanted,” Ryder bit out as he pulled on his batter leather boots, stamping his feet down into them before grabbing his jacket.
“Maybe. Although, being the escort to her sister in law is perhaps too much of a responsibility that I would want to take. She looks like someone who can give a man a hard time if she wants to.”
Ryder froze in the act of reaching for the door handle. He turned slowly to face Kyr, his face expressionless as he fought to quell the rising anger within him. “Escorting who?” he asked, his voice revealing nothing of his inner turmoil.
“The sister-in-law, Leah. She didn’t tell you?” At Ryder’s stern expression Kyr bit back a smile. “Oh, my. Looks like she’s got you figured out.”
Ryder scowled and flung open the door, stepping out onto the bustling street. Escort Leah to the reception tonight? No way. Tia had begged and pleaded for him to take a friend this evening. A young woman who had no one to escort her and did not want to be a burden to her hosts, Tia and Aaron. No mention had been made of Leah, no mention at all. Damn his sister!
Long, angry strides ate up the dusty walkway as he headed towards Tia’s new home. If he had known that Leah was his intended partner this evening he would never have agreed to it. Escorting Leah was an honour that would be given to a trusted, well known family member, not a man who had just rediscovered his family a couple of weeks ago.
He was going to strangle his sister, slowly, very slowly. He had fallen for her old trick of big blue eyes threatening tears just as he had so many times as a child. She still knew how to play him but she did not know him. She did not know the man he had become. The boy she had worshipped had long since disappeared beneath the horrors he had witnessed on that fateful day and so many days that had followed.
Leah deserved someone better than himself for this evening. Someone like Kyr, perhaps? A growl rose in his throat at the thought of Kyr being the one to escort Leah. Kyr was too experienced to be around Leah. He would break her heart without even being aware of it.
He gave himself a mental shake to rid himself of that train of thought. He had no business of heading down such a road. The life he had chosen for himself did not allow for thoughts of settling down and having his own family. Family? Where the hell had that come from? Since when did thoughts of escorting Leah lead to having a family? Being around Tia was driving him crazy. The sooner he could leave and get back to what he was originally doing the better, he decided as he entered Tia’s home.
“Ryder, you’re back early.” Tia’s welcoming smile tempered some of the anger he was feeling towards her request. “Did Emir manage to make you some clothes?”
“He did. Why did you not tell me the truth? About tonight,” he added as he stood in front of her. From the way her eyes fell he knew that she knew what he meant. He watched as her hands fidgeted nervously with the flower arrangement on the large dining table.
“If I had told you the truth you would not have accepted,” she replied in a quiet voice that tore at him. “I know that you and Leah have not gotten off to a good start but I could not think of anyone else that I would like to escort Leah this evening.”
“I’m not the one you want, Tia. I cannot be the perfect gentlemen you want me to be.”
“You can, I know you can. I have faith in you, Ryder.” She placed her hand lightly upon his cheek, her fingers resting against the angry scar that cut across his features. “The brother I know would not do anything to hurt me or my sister.” Brushing a kiss against his cheek she smiled before turning and heading towards the kitchen to check on the preparations for the evening.
Ryder sighed as he watched her leave. The brother she knew no longer existed. The school of life had ripped the innocence from him and left nothing of his old life behind. He could not do what she wanted of him but neither could he hurt her by refusing. Hurting her had never been an option for him when he had been a child and it still was not an option for him now as an adult.
He remembered what Kyr had said to him earlier ‘the ties of family, bindings stronger than any steel chain’. How true those words were, he thought as he lifted up a small card from the table. Elegant gold lettering announced the reception that Tia and Aaron would be holding that evening, their first as a married couple. Those ties had him bound to his sister and the new family that she was a part of. Bound so tightly that he did not think he could break free from them without hurting Tia.
He placed the card back onto the polished wooden surface. His instincts screamed at him to leave but his heart told him to stay, to try and reclaim something of the boy he had once been and the man he could have grown into. Whether he could do it, though, was another matter. He would find that out later in the evening.