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Vania was never one for lady friends.

It was simply a matter of preference. So few of the ladies at court understood the true meaning of what it was to be bold and beautiful and young. And those that did hardly knew how to use those assets to their advantage. It was a man's company in which she liked to amuse herself, because they were so much more appreciative of what she brought. Older men, especially, enjoyed the attentions of a young woman like her.

Captain Flyndan Whiteford was not the kind of man she generally sought. If he had been a courtier, she probably would have paid him scant attention. But he was a military man, coarse and rough and appealing in his raw masculinity. She had come to him with a polite smile and flirty eyes, not really interested until he firmly rebuffed her. Then it became a challenge.

"Are you sure you're not cold, Your Highness?"

Vania turned and glanced up at him through long lashes. She was amused at his flustered look, how he acted like he had little idea how to treat her.

"Of course not, Captain," she said demurely. "This walk in the gardens is so refreshing. The flowers just look so much prettier at night."

"Indeed," he said awkwardly.

She leaned slightly into his side, a subtle gesture that caused him to move his arm back and around her to accommodate her. He tentatively rested his hand on her waist, and she ducked her head so that he wouldn't see her smile at his shyness.

She spotted a bench partially hidden by a rose bush and said, "Let's rest a moment, shall we?"

"I—uh, well, if you wish, Your Highness."

"Please, Captain," she said, spreading her skirts to sit daintily on the cold bench, "just call me Vania."

"You may call me Flyn, then."

"Flyn." She smiled. "I like that."

He flushed. "Vania," he began, "I'm not sure why we're here—I have a feeling, but—look, you're a princess, and you're so young—"

Flyndan continued with this, but Vania was not paying attention. It was the same thing she heard over and over again, until she proved that yes, she was a princess, and she was young, but that meant little in the games she played.

She was more interested in what was going on a little further away, glimpses of which she could see through the brambles. Disregarding Flyndan, who continued to inanely chatter without looking at her, she shifted to the side to peer further through the bush. There were two other people—but she couldn't make out their faces at all—they were just too far away.

No, they were moving down the path toward them, and they way they were moving suggested they were very much absorbed with each other. One was monstrously big and broad, and with a start of recognition she realized it was Raoul. His partner, nearly as big as he was, was definitely not Buri, and her curiosity was piqued. But any closer and they would hear Flyndan yapping away—

Vania grabbed his face and pulled him in for a passionate kiss. He fought her for all of two seconds, and then submitted when she parted her mouth and let her tongue persuade him. Without breaking the kiss, she straddled him, tilted her head, and opened an eye to peek.

She was delighted to find that she was staring directly through a huge gap in the bush and could see clear to the other side. The path she and Flyndan were walking on continued further down before looping around the thick column of roses and leading to a large fountain. As she watched, the biggest one—and she definitely knew it was Raoul now—pulled the other close to him as they stumbled into view. She was very curious, now; Raoul was a man worth pursuing, but she had never gone further than a casual flirtation. He was too close to her father, and too noble.

The unidentified figure was busy yanking at Raoul's breeches, trying to pull them down. He ripped off the shirt with a breathless curse (and here Flyndan pulled away, alarmed, until Vania distracted him again) and she could see the small breasts exposed to his roaming hands and mouth.

They were gasping loud and hot—Vania was able to cover them up with clever tricks that had Flyndan too wild to notice, or care—and Raoul pushed his female companion down on the edge of the fountain. Finally, when the woman turned her head toward Vania to allow Raoul better access to her tender neck, Vania knew who she was.

It was none other than the noble, valiant, oh so chaste Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan. Funny, how often their lives had crossed, though the other wouldn't know it—Vania had endured Kalasin's endless tears about how she stole her dream, had secretly observed Roald secretly observing her with hungry eyes, had rolled her eyes as Lianne made snide comments about her reputation.

And here she was, Keladry herself, wrapped up in the attentions of a much older married man, and her former knight-master no less. She was not a beautiful girl, and she was really quieter than she was bold, but there was something about her that had captured the attentions of a loyal man like Raoul.

That's when Vania decided that she had found a woman worth befriending.