Selinda awoke to the gentle sensation of something stroking along the side of her face. It reminded her of what it felt like when Dethan touched her like that.
Selinda awoke suddenly and sat up like a shot, so that Dethan had to quickly dodge her to keep them from cracking their skulls together.
“Easy, little juquil. No need to be so startled. It is only me.”
And that was what had her so startled, Selinda thought worriedly. She came awake enough to run her eyes over him and she realized with no little shock that he was healed over again, only white scarring in some places to mark where he’d been burned the worst. She knew this because he was entirely bare chested and bare legged and bare … everything! Before, when he had been so severely wounded, it had not mattered to her that he was naked. Indeed he had been so badly burned it was almost as though he weren’t even a male. But he was very much a naked male now. The huge expanse of his chest, the thick strength of his thighs, the flexed musculature of his abdomen all told her very clearly that not only was he male, he was a powerful one. He had been very gentle with her so far, but there was no mistaking the potential for brute force should he so desire it.
And then her eyes drifted to the narrowing of his hips and the sturdy hanging flesh of his penis. In fact, it was very sturdy. Very hard and sturdy.
She cringed away from him, scuttling back toward the wall. But he was having none of that. He locked a hand around her wrist, clamped another on her hip, and drew her closer to him.
“No,” he scolded her. “You need not be afraid of me. We’ve talked about this.”
“B-but … I did not expect you to be so … so … healthy,” she finished lamely.
Dethan followed her wide eyes to where they were fixated on his body. He found himself laughing before he could help himself.
“Know you nothing of men?” he asked her. “No, of course you do not. But trust me when I tell you that even your own brothers awakened in this state, without any provocation. It is only nature that makes it so, all things natural and good.”
“Good for you,” she said dryly.
“And for you,” he promised her. “But not until you are ready. I am not going to force you, Selinda.”
“S-so if I say I don’t want to make sex with you … you won’t push me?”
“I did not say that,” he said, his low voice dropping an octave lower. His hand drifted up her arm and his fingers caressed the bareness of her shoulder where the shift had fallen off it. “I am going to do everything in my power to push you, to coax you, into letting me inside you.”
His frankness made her gasp and she tried to pull away again, but again he held her where he wanted her.
“This is for you,” he reminded her, “not for me. And while I get great benefit from it, this is for you to see if we are compatible as lovers. And I promise you if you do not find pleasure in my arms, I will let you out of our agreement. I will do away with Grannish and let you be free of us both.” At her wide eyes he continued. “But if you do find pleasure, then you will make me yours. Are we agreed on that much?”
It seemed like a more than fair agreement, Selinda thought. In fact, she could pretend not to feel anything at all and she could potentially be rid of both men entirely! Oh, what would she do with such freedom, she wondered, her body going soft with the wistful idea. To be free of all the men who sought to control her would be the answer to all her prayers.
But that was never to be. Not as long as her father was alive and in control of her fate. And as difficult as that was, she wouldn’t wish him gone for anything in the world. She had already lost too many of her family. She couldn’t bear losing any more.
But in the short term, it would not be so hard to act as though she felt no pleasure. Honestly, she did not understand how the act, described to her by her mother shortly before her death, could in any way be considered pleasurable. Though her mother had assured her that it was … with the right person.
The idea of Grannish doing that to get his children on her had horrified her no end. Had her mother lived, she would have put a stop to her father’s blind plans for her. But her mother had died two years earlier in childbirth.
Oh, why couldn’t Selinda have been taken by the plague like her sisters? Then none of this would worry her. She would have gone to the fields of glory, chosen one of the eight heavens, and broken bread with Kitari, and all this would have meant nothing … would never have happened.
“I know what you are thinking,” he said, jerking her back into the present moment with anxiety. He couldn’t possibly know! “You are thinking you will not feel anything of great import,” he said, that touch on her face once more. “But I am here to prove otherwise, and I will.” His touch fell onto her lips, brushed there briefly, and continued down to her chin. Then, using his fingertips under her chin, he tipped her head back and made her look into his eyes. “You are so beautiful,” he remarked with something almost like awe in his tone. “And you were made for loving.”
“H-how so?” she wanted to know, trying for all she was worth to break the spell his deep voice and soft words were weaving. She felt herself being drawn to him, and it frightened her how strong a sensation it was.
“The beauty of your face is meant to please the eyes. The beauty of your body is meant to please another body,” he said simply.
“Oh,” she whispered. The truth was she was not used to being called beautiful by anyone other than Hanit, and she dismissed Hanit’s praises as loyalty. There was something comforting in hearing it from the lips of another. Something compelling.
“You do not believe me,” he said knowingly.
“I believe you have an agenda,” she said, her voice more than a little bitter.
“I do, but that does not change the degree of your beauty. Think you I would want this throne so badly if it meant having an ugly wife? There are other thrones, other heiresses out there in the world who could be much easier to obtain. Easier, yes … prettier … no. I do not think so.”
“There are. Prettier and unflawed,” she said, with more bitterness in her words and the hard brush of her fingertips over the scar on her face. “My sister was much more beautiful than I ever could hope to be. She would have been an example of a potentially more beautiful heiress.”
“Since I never met her, I cannot agree or disagree. But you forget I have been married for power twice before … Ask me how beautiful my wives were.”
“Were they very?” she asked, unable to prevent herself from doing so. Her curiosity was too great.
“Quite. I would not have married them otherwise. So you see, I will not marry an ugly woman; therefore, you must be stunning.”
She couldn’t help but laugh at his reverse logic. “I still think you have an agenda,” she said, only this time with a smile.
“You already know that I do. But that agenda does not include lying to you. I can achieve my ends without any pretty talk. So any pretty talk you receive you can be assured is truthfully meant. But do not get too used to it,” he warned playfully. “I am a coarse man with no manners and very little prettiness to my talk. You may never hear me say such things again.”
“Oh, but that would not do at all. If you wish to please me, you will have to talk prettily to me constantly.”
Dethan laughed at her sly remark. “So that’s the way of it, then? Well, good thing that I find you beautiful.”
She smiled at him, the expression lighting her features and making her so much more attractive. In fact, it made him realize how unhappy her expressions truly were throughout the day. But he would be unhappy in her situation as well.
He found his gaze drawn to her smiling lips. She had colored them for him and the color still held, even after sleeping. It made them seem a darker, richer magenta color against the backdrop of her white teeth. Her breath smelled sweet, he thought. A scent he knew and yet could not place. Yes, she had endeavored to attract him to her tonight, and she had succeeded famously. The very idea that she had engineered herself to please him was something he found lighting a fire in his blood.
He used his touch on her chin to tip her head a little farther back, and he fixated on those lush berry lips. She looked as though she would taste as delicious as she looked, and he was determined to test the theory.
His mouth moved to only an inch away from hers, their breath mingling, his slow and deep, hers fast and short. He could see the anxiety crawling through her, so he did not drag it out any longer than need be. The longer he waited, the longer she had to make mountains of fear inside of herself.
His mouth touched hers.
He was infinitely gentle. Letting her adapt to the feel of his lips. At least he was at the start of it. He had not intended to overwhelm her, had had the very best of intentions, but it had been so long since he had known the taste of a woman.
So very damn long.
And the taste he’d had of her before, he found, was not even close to enough. Remembering how she had reacted so hotly to their first kiss had him dragging her even tighter into this one, his arms wrapping around her in fervent bands of need. She resisted him, her hands flattening against his chest and pushing against him for a very long moment. But then, after that moment, she softened, relaxed … welcomed.
She was his first woman in a very long time, for almost ten times as long as she had been alive. He told himself that this was the reason why he felt so suddenly impatient.
She was warm against him, so very warm. Without her outer clothes, she was soft and supple. He had felt her against him before, but the rigidity of her corset had kept him at a distance. He wondered then if it wasn’t so much a fashion statement as a method of men keeping their women all the more chaste. For who would want to be intimate with the feel of metal rods?
But here and now she was lush and young, and it made him crave so many things all at once. He hardly knew what to do first. He was struggling with himself, trying to keep a rein on his arousal. She was fresh and innocent. He could feel it … smell it on her. She positively reeked of it. And somehow that made her even more desirable to him. He marveled at the craving. He had never wanted innocents before. He had found them trying. He preferred skill and experience far and above the idea of being the first one there.
Oh, but there was something intriguing about the idea of no one having touched her before this. Of no one having kissed her. Yes. Intriguing and delightful and oh so delicious.
That was nothing compared to the actual flavor of her, however. A flavor he dove more deeply for the next instant. With the touch of two fingers on her chin, Dethan coaxed Selinda’s mouth open.
Nervousness clenched around her heart. They had kissed like this before, but they had not been closed away in a room … she had not been lying beneath him in a bed. He could do anything he wanted to. Anything at all, and there would be nothing she could do to gainsay him. He had it over her in sheer size and in more than obvious strength, not to mention that he, who had been penniless in the mud a mere day ago, had far and away more power over his fate than she did. And that was saying something, seeing as how he was cursed by the gods.
She wanted to worry about that. Wanted to tell herself she should be afraid to throw her lot in with someone who had the gods’ swords at his throat. Life was difficult enough for her as the powerless female heir to a country … Would she really wish to incite the wrath of the gods as well?
It was better to give herself to this man, like this, in the face of all those gods, than the alternative. At least this way it made it her choice. In this she would wholeheartedly defy that tyrant who held her in such a viselike grip.
That didn’t change the fact, however, that she didn’t really know what to do next. She found herself cursing the chastity she had previously been so proud of. She knew other women of the court gave their favors freely, to one man and the next, but she had kept herself above that … above even the most pious mem. Selinda had remained perfectly chaste. She, the first lady of the court, had set a perfect example. A reputation she had used as a shield from the advances of others … including Grannish. Before he had shown his true colors he had tried to coax her into kissing him or letting him hug and pet her, but she had kindly rebuffed him, using her honor as her guard and chaperone.
Now she feared there was nothing she could do if he decided one day to come after her in earnest. Luckily he thought her so repulsive that the idea apparently wasn’t crossing his mind.
Thanks be to Hella.
Selinda drew in a soft breath right before Dethan’s tongue slipped inside her mouth. The sensation, the invasion, was still so strange that she pushed away from him, breaking their mouths apart. His response was to give her a reproaching expression, then he gently wrapped his hand around her head, his big palms engulfing her and making her feel so small as he pulled her mouth back against his and reintroduced the feel of his warm tongue in her mouth. It was a gentle invasion. A dip, just far enough to touch their tongues together, then he pulled his tongue back so only their lips clung together. He did it again. And again. Until she was moaning softly from the steady growth in the heat of the kiss. She could feel it, the energy of his leashed desires, just a little below the surface. It was like a beast in a powerful cage. But he was the strongest cage there was and he would not let the beast get to her, she thought.
She jerked away from him with a gasp.
“Please!” she cried, the word jolting out of her purely on instinct. He seemed to know that was the case, for he smiled at her, the expression lightening the darkness of his features. She liked it when he smiled. She had come to understand that he had so much weight on his shoulders, so many things trying to press him down. She liked the idea that when she made him smile it was almost like pushing that darkness aside. Lifting the weight off him.
“Please? Go on. Tell me what you please. Tell me what pleases you, little juquil.”
“I … I wish … I-if it is all right … I should like this to stop. F-for now.”
She was testing him, Dethan realized. She was testing him to see if he would grant her request or if he would grow angry with her for thwarting his attempts to be passionate with her.
“Do you wish to stop?” he asked her, turning it back on her. “Or are you afraid to continue? There is a difference between the two.”
“I-I do not understand,” she said, clearly casting about for what would both fulfill her wishes and keep him from becoming incensed. She was so used to volatility that it did not occur to her that it should be absent. “Do not be angry with me. I am just not used to such familiarity.”
“I am not angry,” he assured her in a low, steady tone. “Nor will I ever be with you. I am not a man prone to temper. No, wait. That is untrue. I can have a great deal of anger within me. But as long as you are honest with me and keep faith with me, I will never direct that anger toward you. Do you understand?”
“Keep faith?” she asked shakily.
“I understand what it must take for you to trust me or anyone right now, but I will prove myself to you. Once I do, I expect your true loyalty to me. Unquestioning. Putting no other desires before those that you know would best represent and please me. That does not mean I do not want you to have your own voice, for you are of no use to me without a voice and thoughts of your own. I can get a womb anywhere; what I need is a mother and wife and political ruler. That is why I have chosen you. Just as you have chosen me to be a warlord, a husband, a provider, and a protector. If we keep faith with each other, we can become an unstoppable force together. I will be able to leave you in charge of the city while I conquer other lands in Weysa’s name. I must know that you can be trusted to fill that role.”
After a long moment of staring up into his eyes, a long enough moment to make him question whether or not she had heard him, she looked away, shook her head gently, and laughed.
“There must be something wrong with you,” she insisted before looking back into his eyes. “My fortunes are not this good as a rule. There must be something wrong with you.”
He chuckled at her. “There are a great many things wrong with me. Do you forget I am cursed?”
Her frown was instantaneous. “Is there no way to cure you from this curse?”
“None,” he assured her. “My only goal is to fulfill Weysa’s demands of me.”
“Perhaps if you perform well she will forgive you your crimes entirely and set you free.”
“I would not presume such a thing. It serves no purpose to exercise false hopes, so please, I wish you to stop thinking on it. All I need from you is to come be by my side each night and help ease me.”
She lowered her lashes at that remark, color spotting her cheeks. “I will do whatever I can. Whatever you ask.”
“Little juquil, you are not a slave to me,” he said sternly, lifting her chin up with his hand and making her look into his eyes. “Do you understand? I have seen the fire in you. The defiance you show. I want to cultivate that fire, build it until it burns so brightly others will have to look away from its powerful beauty. Do you understand?”
“Are you certain that’s what you want?” she asked cautiously. “Most men prefer their wives cowed and dutiful.”
“Dutiful, yes. Cowed, no. Feel free to test me. In time, you will understand. Now it grows light. You need to get back to your bed lest you are caught.”
Dethan rose from the bed and she flushed furiously, looking away from him as he stood gloriously nude and held out a hand to her.
She scooted out of the bed, lurching to her feet. She hastily slid on her corset, adjusting herself and trying to reach her own laces. She jumped a little when she felt his hands settle over hers and then push them away. He took the ties into his hands and slowly, learning how to do it with a few queries, he laced her into her corset just as well as Hanit would have done, if taking a little longer in the doing of it. His hands kept drifting along the length of her torso. Caresses she did not feel through the stiffness of the corset yet was still very aware of.
Next, she stepped into her dress and pulled it over her arms. He helped her lace this together as well where it was needed. Then he reached for her cloak as she stepped into her slippers. He cloaked her and then turned her to face him. There she was, fully dressed in contrast to his utter nudity, and she still felt as though she were nude with him. She felt far more exposed than he was as he tipped up her chin and gave her one more gentle kiss on the lips before sending her out into the hallway.