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He stared at her closed door with a frown furrowed deep. Othniel knew he’d not handled that well, but part of him had gone—he wasn’t sure—senseless, idiotic, unreasonable, or dare he admit jealous, when he’d seen Ismene with Kendric . . . of all people.
The man was a wolf in swan’s clothing; if the phrase ever had a perfect example, it was Lord Kendric Selin of Lithgrall Hall. Not only did his blue eyes and winning smile garner the favor of every lady he came in contact with, but his father was one of the richest lords in Taisce with the largest diamond mine ever to be unearthed.
In fact, the Selin mine was from where Othniel and his father had just returned after helping to defend it against Dark Land raiders before the wedding. Kendric had been nowhere to be seen, supposedly having been sent on an errand to trade in Larue. Othniel didn’t believe it, knowing Kendric to be irresponsible and more likely to have run off on some path of debauchery. As the only male heir to his father’s fortune, Kendric had been allowed far too much rein.
How Ismene knew the rake, Othniel could not fathom. And then finding her enjoying his company . . . alone . . . in his mother’s rose garden. His fist clenched involuntarily and he shook his head, backing away from the door. Entering his own room, he found Finn waiting by the fire, always waiting to be of service.
“Find Lady Ismene’s maidservant.”
Finn’s eyebrows quirked in question, but he made no comment on Othniel’s sullen command. “Yes, Sire.” He bowed and glided out, leaving Othniel alone with his morose thoughts.
What is wrong with me? Is it even me? This should be one of the happiest days of my life.
But he already caught his new wife alone with another man. He slumped into the chair by the empty hearth and leaned forward, elbows on knees and fingers gripped in his hair. The heels of his hands pressed into his eyes.
If he knew one thing, it was that Lord Kendric needed to make a hasty exit. There was little Othniel could do in light of the fact that his father, the king, was friends with Kendric’s. It was a strategic friendship, of course, built on mutual power and control. The king would not likely back Othniel if it came to him insisting the other man leave. Almighty forbid any bad relations arise between nobles over something so slight as a naive princess being seduced by a lascivious lord.
Othniel yanked harder at his hair. Pulling his fingers free, he growled low in his throat. He needed to calm down and not overreact. The worst part was that he actually thought he could come to care for his wife. Ismene was rough around the edges for life at court, but it was that very unrefined part of her paired with the brief glints of defiance sparked in her eyes that raised his heart rate and drew him in to her spell to begin with.
The soft creak of a door opening and closing in the salon brought his attention around. The maid must have arrived, but now he wished she’d leave. He’d surely upset Ismene, and he wanted to apologize. How could he make things right?
* * *
Ismene did her best to be silent, but the door chose not to cooperate. She cringed at the low squeaking as she closed it. The last thing she wanted was to face Othniel again after his obvious displeasure and near disgust with her. She’d never been shamed like that before. Even her father’s disapproval hadn’t had the same effect on her when being disciplined as a child. And for the moment, she wanted to escape . . . at least for a little while.
Helein had showed up at her room within minutes of Ismene closing the door in Othniel’s face, and right away she’d decided she would take a ride on Rising Wind to clear her head. After quickly changing, she made her exit.
Seeing Othniel’s closed door acted as a silent warning: you are not welcome. Ismene grimaced. Her unsettled feelings were getting the best of her, she knew, but her heart ached from the feeling of being abandoned by her family, out of her element, and surrounded by strangers. She didn’t think she could trust anyone outside Helein . . . and her horse. Rising Wind at least could be fully trusted beyond a shadow to keep a secret.
With one last glance at Othniel’s door, she slipped from the salon. She crept toward the exit, at one point losing her way in her desire to avoid any crowds, and finally wandered to the outer bailey and stables to gather her mount. Rising Wind stamped his hooves and dipped his head in welcome. A huff of his warm breath passed over her face in a familiar rush.
She held his muzzle in both hands and pressed her cheek near his nostrils. “Ah, my friend. Let’s take a little walk, shall we?”
A stable boy ran up and bowed, awkward and rushed. “M’lady.”
“Bring my saddle, please,” she said with a smile to the young boy who darted off as fast as he arrived.
While she waited, she ran her fingers along Rising Wind’s neck, just under his mane and down his back. He twisted his head and used his lips to muss her hair which had already begun its unruly descent from the braid. She smiled and rested her hand on his nose.
Ismene galloped across the countryside with a groom trailing behind to keep an eye on her. She charged Rising Wind up the hill and in to the wooded area east of the castle. Soon, a small river and thirty-foot waterfall halted her progress away from the stifling castle.
She dismounted and stood at the edge. The deceptively lazy river didn’t appear deep or large, possibly twenty feet across. Ismene moved toward the waterfall and pool at the bottom. She savored the pinpricks of cold as the mist floated up off the surface.
The groom from the stables dismounted and stood guard near the edge of the clearing. He kept his gaze averted from Ismene. She assumed this would be as close to alone as she’d ever again be. With a sigh, she sat down on the bank and took off her boots and stockings. She glanced once more at the back of the groom’s head and lifted her skirts, stepping carefully into the chilly pool.
Her dress dampened under the sprinkle of mist, but she didn’t care. She allowed her mind to drift far away to mythical lands she’d read of in her father’s library of books. She took cautious steps over slimy rocks that twisted under her feet until she was knee deep. Her dress dragged along the surface, unable to lift it any higher without being completely inappropriate.
Gathering the material in one hand, she swept her fingers along the surface and watched the wiggly trails left briefly in their path.
“I hate this place.”
She said the words out loud, but her conviction was mediocre, even to her own ears. This was beautiful. Here. The castle had the rose garden and such finery. What she did not have, though, was a sense of her place in it all. She did not belong.
Ismene sank down to her knees and sat on her heels, the water reaching her chest. She gasped at the change in temperature but relished how alive it made her feel … diverted and a little mischievous. How would she explain this when she returned to the castle?
“Do you swim?”
Ismene lost her balance and tipped sideways at the sound of Othniel’s voice rising above the constant din of flowing water. She gasped from the sudden cold up to her neck. Righting herself, she looked over in time to see he’d stepped forward on the shore and reached out as if he could stop her from toppling.
Flustered, she stood on wobbly legs. Her drenched dress a weight upon her body. Her discomfiture one upon her soul.
“I— How did you know where to find me?” A sudden bout of insolence swept over her. “Are you here to chastise me for riding out alone now?”
Othniel didn’t answer. He stared with the slightest twitch of a muscle at his jawline. Ismene guessed him to be tamping down anger and possibly how he’d like to throttle her for traipsing about without a lady-in-waiting . . . and for this unladylike display; surely, she looked like a drowned cat.
Ismene steeled herself for more harsh words, but of every thought whirling through her head, she didn’t expect to see him remove his boots and sword belt in response to her flippant remark. She gaped as he worked his way into the pool, and her traitorous heart hammered in her chest when he stopped before her.
“You weren’t in your room, and after searching out your maid, she directed me to the stable where they said you’d ridden out with a groom.”
His voice was soft, unaccusatory, and the defiant air drained from her, leaving Ismene with a feeling of meekness, reflected in the soft mumble of her words. “There is nothing untoward in my being accompanied by a groom, and I can take care of myself, Sire.”
“Othniel. Please, Ismene.” His voice softened further. “Please call me Othniel.”
She only now grasped a sense that he truly pled for something other than his name. But what? Ismene floundered. She looked up, at first distracted by the sparkling rivulets of water coating his hair. She had no clue what he wanted from her, but his eyes held a force that made her want melt, to give in to his every whim. She shook herself to be rid of her weakness.
“Othniel.” She spoke his name in a voice much sterner than she intended and shivered. “I . . . I’m ready to return to the castle.”
He hesitated as if he had more to say but stepped aside.
Head lowered to avoid his gaze, Ismene shivered more and crept back to shore where she then sat.
Othniel didn’t give her space or time to compose her jumbled thoughts as he knelt and reached for her foot, the edge of his tunic in hand. He moved slow, and Ismene suspected he saw her as a skittish, wild animal. She didn’t know whether to laugh or be offended at the idea, but his gentleness soothed her as he lifted her foot and toweled the water from her icy skin.
“It’s not that I think you incapable of caring for yourself . . . you seem just the opposite. I came to apologize.” He glanced up but trained his gaze back on her foot. “Forgive me. I know what it’s like to miss the ones you love.”
“You do?” she said, her throat constricting the air flow to her lungs.
He stared at her foot and brushed his warm thumb over her ankle bone, sending a shiver up her leg.
“Oh.” She gasped, both from the touch and a dawning realization. His mother. Always so selfish, she chided herself. Of course. Her heartache shifted to Othniel. Losing his mother was so much worse than anything she’d yet endured in this life. She placed her hand on his forearm in a gesture meant to sooth but retracted it with just as much haste. “Forgive me, Si-Othniel.”
He shook his head a fraction. “There’s nothing to forgive.” He placed her dried foot on the ground before tending to his own feet. For how much he’d smiled the day before, it seemed the opposite would be true this day.
Once they’d both put on their boots, her silent companion offered his hand. The feeling of his warmth on her icy bare skin lingered, and the thought of touching him again sent a thrill down her traitorous spine; she reached up to grasp his strong fingers, and he pulled her to her feet where she stopped a fraction of an inch from his chest.
Their eyes met, and Ismene swallowed the lump in her throat while she breathed in his earthy scent of pine and leather. Her heart thudded in her ears, and she berated her fickle heart for wanting him—a practical stranger, husband or no—to kiss her. All too quickly, Othniel stepped back, and his sudden distance left her breathless.
“Come. I have something for you,” he said.
They returned to the castle and changed from their wet clothes. Ismene found herself embarrassed under the scrutiny of curious courtiers and servants, but Othniel acted as if there was nothing out of the ordinary with waltzing through the castle in dripping attire. It gave her a little more courage walking next to him.
After dressed and dry, Othniel led her back to his mother’s rose garden. The woman who she’d met coming into the castle before the wedding stood smiling amidst the beauty.
“Ismene, this is Bimala. She’s from the village outside the castle. She used to work in the kitchens until she began assisting my mother here. She knows everything there is to know about the roses and other plants in this room.”
Ismene smiled, unsure what to say in response.
Bimala beamed and curtsied to Ismene. “Princess, it is my humble pleasure to be of service to you.”
Othniel cleared his throat. Bimala glanced his way with a knowing smile. She curtsied again and disappeared toward the other end of the garden.
“I wanted you to meet Bimala because this place is your wedding gift.” He paused, a bit melancholic. “My mother, she wanted it to be so. She named this room the Queen’s Garden for all her future daughters to enjoy.”
Othniel cleared his throat and physically seemed to shake off the past before facing Ismene. His obvious sadness at the loss of his mother was something she couldn’t quite identify with, but the way he spoke of her made Ismene wish she could have met the queen. She wished to comfort him but faltered, unsure of herself.
“Bimala will help you care for it, and you may add to it as you like. It is your respite and sanctuary here in Castle Taisce. Only those you invite may enter those doors.”
“I don’t know what to say. This garden . . . it’s beautiful, and knowing it was your mother’s . . . I’m honored. But I have nothing to offer you in return.”
“I ask nothing.”
“But there must be something . . .”
Othniel’s face took on a shy quality Ismene hadn’t seen before. He vacillated and gave the impression there was something he would like from her. Her mind raced in a direction she did not want to go. Not yet. But she knew she must repay him for this extravagant gift that he could have withheld without her ever knowing.
He took her hands in his and rubbed his thumb over the backs. “This life you’ve entered will not always be easy. There are few I can trust, but I want you . . . I only . . . I would beg you to give this marriage—give me—a chance.”
The tension in her shoulders relaxed. What could she say? It was a simple enough request, one she would be foolish to deny. With more confidence than she truly had, Ismene nodded. “Only if you will do the same for me.”
She watched a slow smile spread across Othniel’s face, relief softening the faint worry lines on his forehead. Ismene held her breath as he lifted her hands to his lips and kissed her knuckles.
“It will be my great pleasure, My Lady.”
Sudden mischief filling her, she smiled.
“Ismene, Othniel. Call me Ismene.” He stifled a soft laugh and kissed her hand again. Ismene hadn’t realized how much she’d already come to enjoy the husky baritone of his mirth; it warmed her from the inside out and was a far cry from how she’d felt earlier.