The castle’s cupolas and towers rose like a quaint tea set in the center of the city, its sweet melodies drifting into the night from arched windows lit up with welcoming radiance.
In its moonlit gardens, however, the princess of the seven cities had become quarry.
While the lilting melodies of the orchestra waltzed onto the terrace, she tiptoed between night-blooming lilies, a prisoner within the labyrinth of orchards, small forests, and stone paths because her father’s wizard had magically cursed her not to roam beyond the palace’s outer wall.
Pebbles scuffed and crunched under her silken slippers, her voluminous ivory and gold skirts rustling over her knees with every step. Quiet! Silence! she admonished them in vain, for the material was too shimmery, too fluffy, too whispery, too princessly. Not attire for one hunted through lush vegetation by highborn men who’d tracked from the ball in their quest for vengeance.
Ha! That made them sound dangerous.
Her bare fingers swept aside a low-hanging tree branch, the bark scraping her bare skin. She’d discarded her gloves somewhere in the vicinity of the terrace, and the balminess of the evening slicked her palms with perspiration.
She peered through the leaves, and there they strutted in their colorful waistcoats down a graveled lane lined with ornate iron lanterns. Pat pat pat; here come the rats.
Hurano’s glossy golden waistcoat manned their forefront over his dark violet knee breeches, his brown hair limned with golden torchlight and his heavy-lidded eyes scanning the trees. His cronies slumped behind him, resembling two rather unfortunately cut gemstones of ruby and sapphire.
All three slunk unaware of the gloveless princess hankering for a sharp point just a few meters from their milksop skin.
Fates. If only she had a dagger. Even a finger-flick of one, nothing too grand, just one that could, say, pop out an eyeball.
You are a shame to your demesne, her mother’s shrill voice reverberated in her mind. A princess does not jab out guts and gall bladders.
Seriah had grown immune to her mother’s jeers, though, having endured the sneering comment gritted from her mother’s smile every day: It should have been you who died.
The queen would never forgive Seriah for being born instead of the destined septuplets.
Fates, Seriah was fed up.
She strode onto the path and halted Hurano and his two cronies quite literally in their tracks, their buckled shoes and white-hosed calves comically half-raised for their next step.
“Looking for me?” She smiled brilliantly, crystal bright but wielding a core of steel.
Hurano’s lackies exchanged baffled glances, one scratching his ear and the other rubbing the side of his nose.
In the trees behind her, a night bird called to its mate.
Hurano’s slightly drink-bleared eyes scrutinized her challenging stance. “You know why I’m here. Your father can pay the weirs’ ransom.”
Yes, he can—could, but he won’t.
The image of the royal council chamber resurfaced: the emaciated weir-panther that had infiltrated her father’s meeting. Transforming mid-leap, the panther had lunged at her and she’d fought, ferocious but only sixteen. She’d lost her sword and—
Evander had thrown himself between her and the beast.
He’d clambered up, panting, bare-handed, bloodied, weaponless. Don’t you look at her, he’d growled full into the panther’s too-sentient snarl. You have to go through me first.
Stupid, futile pang in her heart. Wasted regret, thinking of when he’d been her staunch defender.
No, she was deluding herself. He’d never been her protector—aside from keeping her alive as the crowning pawn in his vengeance.
She pushed the thought away. What mattered was that ever since the day that weir had infiltrated the castle, her father harbored an especial place of aversion in his governing policies for shape-changers.
Now Hurano wanted the impossible, and he knew it.
“You can convince him.” He leaned unsteadily forward, his cheeks liquor-flushed, and pushed back longish strands of dark hair escaped from the ribbon at the base of his neck. His sleepy eyes peered closely at her. “You—”
“Ask my mother.”
“I already have.” He bit back a choice expletive. “Now I’m asking you.”
The sounds of night drifted in: soft, drowsy chirps; the burble of a nearby fountain. Its serenity echoed in Seriah’s fixed expression if not in her heart. “My father won’t listen to me.”
The lantern glow outlined the frustrated twist to Hurano’s lips. “If you refuse to help me, you show every noble in the Demesnes that you would turn your back on any of us.”
Again the night bird’s call threaded through the garden. A feathery breeze carried past the scent of roses and steel. The steel was out of place.
Seriah tried reason. “It won’t help. He won’t budge on the matter of the weirs.”
“You mean you won’t try!” Tension drew the corners of his droopy eyes taut. “If you want the nobility to support you, you have to behave like someone worth following. Someone who can lead us, not merely plot for your own selfish wants against your father.”
“Petty? Selfish?” The edges of her mouth curved in a mirthless smile gone razor-sharp. “Keeping myself independent and unshackled to a weak man is petty?”
Hurano’s return smile proved just as brittle. “Making him refuse my petition for your hand was undoubtedly petty.”
Seriah hesitated. In part, he was right. Marrying Hurano would gain her the support of the nobles… but only in the First Demesne.
There were six other courts of vultures she had to fend off. Hurano’s benefits only extended as far as the First Demesne’s walls.
And his patience didn’t even extend that far, judging by the frustrated rake of his hand over his pants.
Surreptitiously, she surveyed the black shadows pooling like tar between the tree trunks around the path, assessing her chances of navigating thorny bushes with her encumbering skirts while fleeing three men garbed in more maneuverable attire. “You know my requirement for marriage,” she hedged. “Any man wanting to marry me must—”
“First defeat you in combat. I know. I also know I can’t defeat you in that, but—” he gestured at the two awkward men behind him, the grim turn of his mouth conceding that they were hardly admirable specimens of proving his point, but also that the point he made was irrefutable “—the nobles are on my side. You want a united regime. You can have it if you marry me. I’m a good match.”
“And the very instant we wed, you’d either empty our coffers or attempt to dispatch an army outside the walls just to retrieve a single man from the weirs.”
He blanched, and desperation leaked through his darting eyes, baring the truth of what he was: a son who only wanted his father back alive. “Seriah…” His agitated hands almost seemed to want to reach for her, to shake her acquiescence from her, but they stopped themselves at the last instant. “Please…”
She wiped her damp palms against her skirts. “I’ve told you, Father won’t listen to me.”
“But…” His expression turned utterly inscrutable. After a moment, he suddenly smiled, drunken but also sly. “You know… I think you’re right.”
Fates, he’s going to do something idiotic.
Behind him, Pollard and Fiordin shuffled their spindly legs to and fro, little noble doggies unsure of what their master was planning.
Her fingers bunched in her frothy skirts. Hold your ground.
Hurano’s careful, almost smug steps closed the distance between them, crunching pebbles like peasants under his boot. “I’m going about this the wrong way, aren’t I? You really can’t do anything. You are only a woman, after all, and as a woman…” Hurano took hold of her chin, his fingers sweaty, trembling slightly and tightening as if to compensate for it. His other hand touched one of the pale curls escaped from her combs. “You can be compromised. If they catch us naked, together, we’ll have to marry.”
Her muscles coiled inside her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t want to do this, but I’ll be gentle. Pollard, Fiordin, get her arms.”
Her knee hit his groin—cushioned by too many skirts and impeded by their heaviness, but fierce enough to bend him over double, keening. She shoved him at his cronies, who leaped apart and out of the way in colorful whisks of padded waistcoat.
Seriah veered in front of them and plunged into the greenery, her skirts hiked up, plants mashed down and pebbles flying underfoot.
Damn the dress! Her skirts snagged on thorny bushes and frothed around her ankles like eddies in a stream.
She ducked under a branch and her slippered foot jammed under an unseen rock. She went catapulting forward, a yelp strangled in her throat. Her hands thrust out to catch her balance—but strong fingers on her waist lifted her completely off the ground. Air rushed up her stockinged calves and perspiring thighs.
She landed roughly on a dirt plot past a scraggy tree and next to a marble bench in a moonlit clearing.
Deposited there by a figure in black boots and pants and tunic, his scent of leather vest, sharpened steel and spicy soap from a recent bath. She sucked in a breath of him in the smoky autumn air and met the dark eyes and angular features of their owner, his hard, handsome mouth firmed by vengeance under high cheekbones framed by an uneven fall of black hair.
Her blood ran cold and hot at once. “Let me go!” She scrambled backward, fingers hefting up her skirts to break away from him and sprint back into the trees, but Evander’s quiet voice froze her in place.
“I wouldn’t advise that.”
Hurano’s invectives spat from the shadows, coming closer.
Panicked, she nevertheless stayed in place while Evander’s hands slipped from her hips. She squinted into the obsidian shadows between the trees, knowing he wouldn’t warn her of the approaching noblemen. Something more lurked in those shadows. She risked a glance at him, but his eyes were trained on the three men crowding into the small clearing to her left.
Seriah stood locked between the bench, the trees, the noblemen with a vile scheme in mind and a commoner who one day planned to kill her.
Hurano and his cronies skidded to a halt a meter and a half away, brows hiked up, Pollard and Fiordin’s frowns fidgety.
Hurano recovered first and hissed, his critical gaze sizing Evander up. “What are you doing here, commoner?”
A corner of Evander’s mouth curved upward and he crossed his arms. “What are you doing here, nobly man?”
Hurano’s hand flew to his sword hilt, his lips white. “I told you not to call me no…”
Evander tendered a cocky lift of an eyebrow, waiting to be chastised.
Hurano’s words clipped out. “If you leave now, I’ll let your infraction pass.”
Evander smiled. “Oh, nobly man, you’re much mistaken if you think I’m leaving when things are about to get interesting.”
Hurano’s chin quivered—his entire body quivered actually.
Seriah kept her eyes on all four of her adversaries, gauging their weakest point and plotting her escape.
Hurano sneered, regrouping. “If you call your demise interesting, commoner, so be it.”
“Actually, I meant you curled up in a pathetic, moaning ball on the ground.”
Hurano swiped a hand over his ruffly collar, loosening it. “You’re too lowly to be worthy of my time.”
“Did I say it would be my hand inflicting your just deserts upon you? How remiss of me.”
Hurano’s cheeks paled even in the wan moonlight. His gaze flicked to the impenetrable abysses between the bushes and trees. “You’ve ensconced a band of rebels in there, have you?”
A branch cracked, making Seriah flinch and Hurano jump. She felt beads of sweat prick in her armpits.
Evander laughed without a single drop of cheer. “I’m talking about her. Your princess.” He drew his sword and presented it to Seriah hilt-first. “She certainly isn’t too lowly for you to fight, is she, nobly man?”
Seriah forced her fingers to relent their chokehold on her gown but didn’t reach for the bait—the trick, or whatever it was he was playing at.
Hurano swallowed, his own sword lowering a bit. “Why would I fight my princess?”
“Because that’s her rule if you want her body, isn’t it? Defeat her in combat and win the hand of an heiress. Giving her a sword evens the odds a bit more.”
He knew—knew what Hurano had tried.
Unbidden, a foolish thrill streaked through her that Evander was acting her ally, again.
Also unbidden, her hand reached out and gripped the sword’s hilt.
He relinquished it with the faintest hint of amusement twitching his lips before coolness replaced it and he looked back at Hurano. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid to attack a woman in a skirt.”
Hurano shifted his attention between Evander and Seriah, perhaps surmising—incorrectly—that they’d somehow colluded in this and lured him into their snare. He licked his bottom lip.
Evander gestured almost crudely. “You’ve the advantage nobly man. She can hardly maneuver in all those fripperies they’ve tied her up with. The sword is too heavy for her, not balanced right, and she’s no time to accustom herself to it.”
Untrue. From the moment she’d clenched her fingers around it, she’d been adjusting her plan, her grip, her stance, compensating for its heavier weight and glad that Thorn had taught her to make allowances for heavier weapons, lighter weapons, even incorrectly balanced ones.
Hurano’s flunkies slunk in closer behind him, seeking shelter from their comrade with steel. He scowled.
“We could report him,” Pollard ventured from their cowardly cluster.
Evander flung out a taunting laugh. “Yes, run off to the pansy party because someone gave your prey something to bite back with.”
Hurano lowered his hand from his still-sheathed sword. “I’m not fighting my princess.”
“Wise choice, nobly man.”
Hurano’s jaw clenched but he nonetheless retreated a step, forcing his lackies back, as well. “If you’re still here when I return, you’re going into the dungeons, sewage scum. Come, Seriah, I’ll escort you back to the ballroom.”
“Not her.” One swift step brought Evander’s arm snaking around her waist in a jolt of familiarity. “The princess and I have unfinished business.”
“No.” She twisted out of his hold and shimmied backward, leveling his own sword at him. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
Hurano’s own sword rasped from its sheath, his defiance emboldened by hers, and he strode toward her. “Leave her be, commoner.”
Another branch snapped in the trees around them, succeeded by the muted thuds of numerous pairs of feet hitting the ground.
Hurano froze. Pollard hunched his shoulders and whimpered. Fiordin squeaked and took to gnawing on a fingernail and groping for Pollard’s hand as if he hadn’t outgrown childhood ten years before.
The undeniable pitter-patter of feet through vegetation carried into the night.
The rustles and cracks of crushed foliage ceased only when the unseen foes poised just at the edge of the clearing.
The air echoed with their eager breathing, a warning of more to come at their leader’s word.
Evander pitched his voice so only she could hear. “If you want your noblemen to live, Seriah, you’ll come with me. Refuse and…” He lifted a black-clad shoulder in a callous shrug. “Noble blood holds little meaning for starving commoners, and once you’ve had men murdered before your eyes for your refusal to obey me, I don’t think you’ll be forgetting it soon.”
Her nerves slumped, the sword point thudding to the soil. She bowed her head. “Hurano, go.”
“Go!” She took a single threatening step toward him.
He cringed but held his ground. “I won’t leave you.”
“If you don’t, I swear I’ll write to the weirs myself and tell them your father can rot in the blue hell for all we care, that his ransom will never be paid.”
His jaw clenched. “You wouldn’t.”
“After your threat to rape me tonight? Gladly. Get out of here.”
“You’d dare…” Pure vitriol poured from his eyes. His fingers clamped around his sword and he stepped toward her.
Guttural snickers from the shadows halted him. For a single instant he held his course, about to continue forward, then his bravado deflated. He took a step back, throat jumping, his focus on her. “I thought we might have been becoming friends, but I guess I misplaced my confidence in a girl incapable of anything at all.” He sheathed his sword. “Come on, Pollard, Fiordin. Let the sewage scum deal with her as she deserves.”
He stalked off, his twittering, quivering friends scuttling behind him.
Once they vanished from sight, Evander plucked his sword from Seriah’s limp grip and sheathed it. “Still sacrificing yourself for those who aren’t worth it, Princess?”
“Am I sacrificing myself tonight?” She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the empty hand he’d taken the weapon from.
For a moment he didn’t say anything. Only the thump of her heartbeat in her ears and the emptiness of her hands offered succor.
“Not tonight,” he said.
“Do you hate me?”
The quiet question had come uninvited from her lips, but she did not rescind it because it had fretted inside her this whole month she’d not seen him. Since the day Iminique had told her what her tragic attempt at charity had wrought. Since the day Quentyn had cursed her not to leave the palace grounds, preventing her from taking a single step into the city itself.
Now her words hovered like a plea, a worthless plea for exoneration Evander might decide she didn’t deserve.
She curled her fingers into a fist at his silence. A breeze ruffled her hair, fanning the scent of honeysuckle over her cheek.
“I despise what you are, Seriah.”
His words spurred in her the defiance to raise her head and face him full-on while his dark gaze stripped her down to her naked soul.
“And I despise whose you are, and what he did, and because of that, I will one day abduct you, take you to my bed, and kill you. But if you’re asking if I think you’re a murderer, if I think you responsible for what happened a month ago, then no.”
An invisible weight toppled from her shoulders.
Fates. Her knees wobbled.
Locking them together, she molded her posture back into dignity and offered him a single nod.
He set his palm at the base of her back and guided her through the dark alleyway of trees, the sky above miserly with pinpricks of starlight like gems it was loath to share.
She sensed more than saw the bulky figures of Evander’s men darting through the trees to keep pace with them, but she kept her breathing even, her steps sturdy, her reign tight on her trepidation.
For nine years, she’d known he wanted to use her to get back at her father, and for nine years, she had tried to make him her ally. She had thought their interactions—their swordplay, their discussions, their closeness—might be softening him, making him her friend… but then came the massacre a month ago.
She’d given up all hope of making him her ally after that.
After being blamed for hundreds of lives and imprisoned in a magic curse that would not let her take a single step from the castle grounds into the city.
But Evander didn’t believe her responsible for the slaughter.
She had that, at least. And as for tonight… he would seduce her before he killed her, and he hadn’t done that yet.
Which meant for what it was worth, for now, she was safe.
They emerged from nighttime forest into a flagstone clearing circled by a waist-high stone wall. On one side it abutted a white pavilion whose latticework was twined with honeysuckle, with only one entryway.
Forsaking the entrance, Evander vaulted onto the wall bordering the rear of the pavilion. He extended his hand and she raised hers before conscious thought bade her to refuse.
He was already pulling her up. Her slippers pattered on stone and stumbled, her skirts swishing and her hands gripping his shoulders. For a moment they went motionless, together. Seriah met the intensity of his eyes, her skirts brushing his legs. His fingers stroked her hips through the silk.
Then his grasp tightened on her waist. “Up you go.” He hefted her onto the pavilion’s sloped roof.
Seriah gasped and fumbled for handholds, the ridges of tiles digging into her kneecaps and shins. She was sure she looked ridiculous, scrabbling on a sloped roof in a ball gown, but Evander clambered up right behind her, and his hands around her waist whisked her higher. Her slippers barely skimmed the tiles, then he was situating her on the flat square at the roof’s peak and settling himself beside her. His black-clad thigh mashed against hers, the silken material of her dress whispering a faux protest, and his arm wrapped in an almost embrace around her back, his palm resting lightly on the roof but not quite touching her hip.
“They’ll not find us here,” he purred, his tone satisfied as a tomcat’s. “Though we’ll have fair warning if they get close.”
He would have fair warning, he meant. She had nothing to run from in her own gardens… barring him.
But to speak the words would wedge their enmity into the moment, and her goal had always been to make him forget that.
Not that she could ever make him forget who her father was, or what he’d done, or what she meant to the man Evander wanted to suffer above all others, but still she hoped. Hoped one day this feeling between them would be real and all that mattered to him.
It felt real. Too real sometimes for her to resist because she longed for it so much.
Even now, despite his vow to butcher her the same way her father had ordered Evander’s pregnant aunt be butchered, here Seriah sat with him, in this almost lover’s embrace, dragged out of one danger and dumped into possibly a greater one, and she felt almost… happy.
The world resided at peace around them. The expanse of sky stretched above, the diamond perfection of its stars and its thin crescent moon unmarred by clouds. The scents of honeysuckle and lilac merged in heady thickness, and Evander’s heat and companionable silence gave the impression of concord and solace. The fingers he’d left idle by her hip slipped over the hand she’d propped herself up with, his fingertips running languidly over her knuckles.
That soft, probably unconscious caress had her eyelids fluttering shut, and for a few blissful moments Seriah let the silence bide. Wishing it could last forever. Wishing he were doing it intentionally. Wishing her own father hadn’t twisted Evander into a vengeance-driven foe who could never love her.
Her eyelids yanked open.
Suddenly she wanted this farce over with.
“Why did you come tonight?” she forced out.
His fingertips stilled on her knuckles; his dark eyes flicked toward her. “I was stalking you. You’ve been hiding away.”
“Hidden away,” she muttered, tilting her head up to the sky again because it was easier to imagine floating away than imagining she could ever find happiness here.
“I missed your swordplay.” His hand still rested on her fingers, his own now carefully dipping in between hers. “No one else can come close. It’s boring.”
She snorted, head tilted upward where a star streaked across the heavens. “You’re better than I am.”
“That’s never been proven.”
“Because you throw our matches.”
Her sneaking glance showed her the faint smile he permitted himself. “Maybe I want to save face and would rather have everyone think I might be better than you than prove beyond the shadow of a doubt I’m not.”
“Ha! You know you’re better.”
“Do I?” His fingers curled between hers, his fingertips stroking softly across her palm.
Seriah’s entire body reacted and she leaned her head back again. Two stars fell in unison, side by side, vanishing together on the horizon as if beckoning her and Evander to follow.
She almost wished he would kill her now so she wouldn’t have to wait for him to reduce her to this reckless, imprudent wanting, so she wouldn’t have to feel herself fall apart with his every touch, with her breath serrated, her heart divided, her mind torn, because she wanted this and she also didn’t.
“Thorn is better than me,” he said, bringing her some respite and distraction, “and she trained you, so you could be better than me. But she’s not around anymore. What happened to her?”
Seriah frowned, momentarily returned to that horrible day. “She almost killed Imi, so Imi and Quentyn broke the enslavement and sent Thorn to the Seventh Demesne.”
Silence fell, leaving Seriah’s anxiety twisting inside her like an angry second soul. He wouldn’t let her go today without finding out the truth. He had to mention it, had to ask, and it would be now.
“Seriah… why did you never attempt to prove your innocence?”
Bitterness bit hard into her. She flattened her palm on her knee, curling her fingers and feeling the pressure around her kneecap. “Who would believe me innocent?”
“Since when have you been one to give up?” His voice came hard, a demand for her to look up, to look him in the eye.
She focused on the pale white knuckles of her hand, the ashen shimmer of silk beneath. “My father threatened to force me to marry if I kept trying to defy him.”
A tremor passed through the hand still covering hers, the contempt that drove it audible in his voice. “And because of this silly fear he might force you to take a husband, you let your people believe you massacred them?”
“Silly fear?” Her voice emerged bitter and low, her eyes watching the dark foliage below infested with men loyal to Evander, men who would drive her back to him again and again until he was finished with her. Rage wove into her words. “I don’t want a man to destroy everything. Almost every ruler in the entire line of magnates before me has been so intent on exile and bloodshed and pandering to the affluent that they don’t look for other options. Options that would give people a chance to live and breathe in a world where everyone can grasp a life they love. I want to change that! I want to let the exiles who want to return back in. I want to let those who want to leave out. I want them to taste freedom, to have the chance to build new lives on open land, where they’re not crowded into dungeons and cramped in small confines where illness festers and hope warps. I—”
“You have a poetic way of lying.”
“You think I don’t care about the poor?” She jerked her hand to pull it from under his, but his grip hardened and kept it imprisoned. Her other hand moved but he caught it, too, and pushed it back against her shins. Her fingers curled like claws around her rage.
His scornful mouth and hot breath came close enough to make her flinch. “What do you know about the poor, Princess? Do you have any idea how bad it is in the lower districts? You haven’t seen anything even remotely close to what I have. And you won’t dare venture out of your cozy, safe castle to see the truth.”
“Because of a spe—” Pain lanced through her, choking off the word, and she cursed Quentyn a thousand times over as she shut her eyes on the pain throbbing behind her eyes until it subsided. “You don’t know what I’m fighting. You haven’t experienced my father’s threats, threats to have Quentyn wipe my memory of all my plans to make a better world! You don’t have the fate of seven demesnes hanging on your shoulders. You aren’t the possible sole heiress to a realm on the brink of civil war. You don’t have to contend with the hostility of six uncles, the loathing of your own mother, the indifference of your own father to his people’s plight, and the hatred of an entire kingdom just because you were born a pathetic girl instead of seven jagging male septuplets!”
“Oh, shall I pity you now?” Evander pushed against her hand, pressing his weight into her like a bully. “Poor little rich girl in silks and satins?”
“Poor little rich girl with a responsibility to rule and the need to keep myself alive if I don’t want the Demesnes to tear themselves apart with no heir! I can’t just traipse into the poor quarter and put myself in danger!”
“Danger? Then why are you here now—with me?”
She dislodged him and half sprang up, scooting herself down the roof.
“Jag it, Seriah!” He gripped her under the armpits and hauled her back up again in a kicking rustle of skirts and expletives. This time, he pushed her down flat, his leg thrown over hers and his weight pinning her under him. The edge of the roof where the sloping side met the flat top dug into the backs of her thighs.
“Do you want to break your neck?” he seethed.
Seriah barked laughter, her loose hair catching on roof tiles. “Break my neck. Poisoned by foes. Cut down by your sword. What does it matter how I die? It’s going to happen eventually. Why did you drag me up here if not to kill me?”
“Why won’t you leave me alone?” She shoved at his chest, but cared for him too foolishly much to summon enough strength to knock him off the roof.
She slumped back, sucking in such deep breaths that the honeysuckle and Evander’s scent made her ill and her eyes verged on the periphery of scornful tears. “What do you want me to do? What do I have to do to make you stop tormenting me?”
“Help them.” His thumb smeared an escaped tear across her cheek. “Help them, Seriah,” he repeated, softer, his gaze fastened on hers, his fall of black hair casting spiky shadows across his cheeks. “If you’re to be the next ruler of the Demesnes, then stop acting helpless and start wielding your power now. Don’t let stupid fears stop you.”
“Stupid?” Her eyes sought the freedom of the sky over his shoulders as the moonlight from the thin crescent moon filtered down over them both. “My father is still the magnate. He can still stop me.”
“And when he dies, you will only fight someone else, someone who won’t be as lenient on you as your father is.”
“Lenient? He’s hardly lenient!”
“Then you don’t know what hard is.”
“It’s not that simple!”
“And you’re being a jagging coward.”
“Just leave me alone!”
“I can’t do that, Seriah.” His thumbs brushed across her trembling lips, sweeping away her words with a single stroke.
“Evander…” His name emerged from inside her on a verbal caress, caught in between yearning and torment, just as she was. So many years she’d wanted him to want this more than his vengeance, to want her alive and his and not just part of his revenge. Now she was getting tired of fighting it all, of fighting him.
And he felt it, heard it in her tone, the surrender, and it awakened something in him—no, only fed it and freed it. His hips pressed harder into her; his glittering black gaze fixed on her mouth.
His head blotted out the starlight as it lowered for a kiss.
Panic accomplished what she could not—she heaved him off her and half-slid, half-skidded down the slope of the roof. Her toes sank into the gutter at its edge and tumbled her off in an ungainly, sprawling fall, head first and arms flailing. The trees and pavilion and sky all merged in a blur, her shriek—then her palms hit the stone wall and the bones in her wrist crumpled and cracked and her knees hit next and agony ripped through her body. The force spun her off the edge and she plummeted to pebbly dirt, winded and sucked into a world of pain.
Fates, it hurt! Like spikes driven into her back and knees.
Evander landed beside her in a crouch. “Can’t bear to touch me, can you?” he snarled, gripping her chin. “I’m coming for you soon, Seriah, and then you’ll have no choice but to have me touching you—everywhere.”
She gritted her teeth on choking sobs. “It’s not that,” she gasped, her knees and wrists throbbing in excruciating agony.
“Since when did you start being so afraid?” he growled, bending even lower. “You claim innocence in the massacre but hide behind your castle walls like someone guilty. Are you guilty, Seriah?” He halted a hairsbreadth from her lips, his scent filling her lungs, his breath warming her lips, his disdainful eyes raking over her pain-filled ones. “Or have you just lost your courage?”
Flattening his palms on his knees, he pushed to his feet.
The scent of honeysuckle rushed in, then he was gone.
“No,” she mumbled, wanting to summon him back.
Then something cracked nearby and she turned her head.
Pebbles scraped her cheek and shadows teemed at the edges of her vision, a swarming mass blacking out the sky and the pavilion curving above her.
Not living beings, but the creeping phantoms of her own nightmares, beckoning her to come revisit their horror.