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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 sheep’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—and wench, alike—with which he came in contact, 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 maid servant.”
He bowed and marched out, leaving Othniel alone with his morose thoughts. What was wrong with him? Was it even him? This should have been one of the happiest days of his 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 her maid, Helein, and her horse, Rising Wind.
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 stables to gather her mount. Rising Wind stamped his hooves and dipped his head in welcome, a huff of his warm breath passing over her face in a familiar rush.
She held his muzzle in both hands and pressed her cheek near his nostrils. “Ah, my friend, my only 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 pins and 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, allowing 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 . . . distracted and a little mischievous. How would she explain this when she returned to the castle?
“Do you swim, my lady?”
Ismene lost her balance and tipped sideways at the sound of Othniel’s voice. 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.
She didn’t know what to do. She stood, 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 rat.
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, 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 into him, to give in to his every whim.
“Othniel.” She spoke his name in a voice much sterner than she intended. “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 losing herself in his gaze, Ismene shivered and crept back to shore where she sat.
Othniel didn’t bother to give her space or time to compose her jumbled thoughts; he knelt and reached for her foot, his soft vest in hand. His movements slow, as if he meant to sooth a wild animal, he lifted her foot and toweled the water from her icy skin. Her breath hitched in her chest.
“It’s not that I think you incapable of taking care of yourself, Ismene. I came to apologize. I know what it’s like to miss the ones you love.”
“You do?” she said, her voice hushed.
He stared at her foot and brushed his thumb over her ankle bone, sending a shiver up her leg.
Suddenly, Ismene realized he was talking about his mother, and her heart ache shifted from herself to Othniel and his loss. Losing his mother was so much worse than anything she’d yet endured in this life. Without thought, she placed her hand on his forearm in a gesture meant to sooth but retracted it with just as much haste. “Forgive me, S-Othniel. She must have been very special.”
He only nodded. For how much he’d smiled the day before, it seemed the opposite would be true this day. His brow furrowed deep as he finished drying her feet.
Once they’d both put on their boots, her silent companion offered to help her up. The feeling of his warm hands on her icy bare skin lingered, and the thought of touching him again sent a thrill down her traitorous spine; she couldn’t resist and reached up to grasp his strong fingers. He pulled her to her feet and stopped with her body a fraction of an inch from his chest.
Their eyes met, and Ismene swallowed the sudden lump in her throat while she breathed in his earthy scent of pine and leather. Before either of them had a chance for a second thought, Othniel leaned in, his hand reaching for her cheek as his lips pressed to hers. But this kiss was different from the one at the wedding. This lingered. A hint of intensity so unfamiliar to Ismene, it left her breathless and longing for more.
He broke contact first, and she staggered back a step, touching her lips where the heat from his dissipated. Othniel’s hands dropped to his sides. He seemed just as shocked by the kiss, but neither spoke. After a moment, Ismene questioned herself, wondering if she’d imagined the whole thing.
“Come. I have something for you,” he said, breaking the awkward silence.
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 in waltzing through the castle in dripping attire. It gave her a little more courage walking next to him.
After they dressed in dry outfits, Othniel led her back to his mother’s rose garden. The young 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, but she used to work in the kitchens until she began assisting my mother here. She knows everything there is to know about the varieties in this room.”
Ismene smiled, unsure what to say in response.
Bimala smiled 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 left through a different door.
“I wanted you to meet Bimala because this garden 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 her. She found herself wishing to comfort him but unsure how.
“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 is beautiful, and knowing it was your mother’s . . . . I’m honored. But I have nothing to offer you in return.”
“We are . . . family now. This gift requires nothing, but I would beg you to give this marriage—me—a chance.”
What could she say? She couldn’t deny how she found herself thinking about him constantly. How the feel of his lips still lingered on her mouth. How she loved the slight wrinkles around his eyes that would one day be a hallmark of his easy laugh.
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.
“It will be my great pleasure, my lady.”
Sudden mischief filling her, she smiled.
“Ismene, Othniel. Call me Ismene.”
He took her hand and kissed her palm, all while stifling a soft laugh. 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.