Click the numbers if you missed the first six chapters:
Days morphed into weeks, and over that time, countless opportunities to witness just what kind of man Othniel was presented themselves. The more Ismene saw, the more she liked. His playfulness and teasing were always in good fun, and he carried himself with kindness, even to the servants, but his jocularity arose only when balanced by a sense of time and place; he knew when he needed to be serious. Better still, the frown he’d worn almost constantly the day after the wedding had practically faded away.
Ismene saw how the castle servants respected him and heard it mentioned by Helein frequently. When she and Othniel walked out together, the courtiers even extended to her their pleasure upon encountering him. The general snubbing she received when they were apart made it obvious it was on his behalf that the present nobility were kind, which made his forthcoming trip seem all the more discouraging.
She’d been at the castle for almost two weeks. In all that time, Othniel had never pressured her. He seemed content to get to know her better, and for that her gratefulness abounded. But she hated to admit to herself how disappointed she was that he’d not kissed her again. After all, they were married, she reasoned too often to admit. The urge to kiss him, the remembrance of his lips pressed to hers beside the waterfall, the longing for it again all seemed to float into her mind at the most awkward times. It proved terribly distracting.
In fact, even now, while she stood at the base of the keep’s entrance stairs and watched him descend the steps, she lost herself in examining the slight upcurve of the corner of his mouth.
Instead of allowing her mind to linger there, she focused on his horse. With reins in hand and staring into the stallion’s dark eyes, she asked, “How long will you be away?”
Othniel stopped beside her, but she didn’t turn to look at him, afraid and hopeful all at once that he’d kiss her. He took her free hand in his and kissed it. Her lips curved downward.
“Only a few days. We will be back in time for Fortnight.” Ismene chanced a glance at him and found herself surprised by the genuine look of regret he wore.
“I’ll miss you,” he said, hesitant and adorable to the point she felt herself sway in response. “Promise to pine for me every moment.”
Ismene couldn’t resist the smile that crept across her face. “I give my solemn word, my lord.”
Surely, he would kiss her after that, but no. He squeezed her hand and released it, mounting his horse with a wide grin. Ismene’s keen disappointment only lasted a second; his contagious smile held a promise.
“I look forward to your swift return,” she said, bolder than even she could believe.
“I’ve never wished for a faster journey than I do this day, wife. Be well.”
His smile faltered as his eye caught something behind her, but she didn’t bother looking; she wanted to memorize him. He bowed ever so slightly to her and rode away, followed by his guardsmen.
“What a pity.”
“Lord Kendric,” Ismene said, turning to see him standing behind her while everyone else retreated back in to the keep, “to what do you refer?”
“Oh, nothing really.” He stepped down to stand on the same level, all joking erased from his countenance. “I just find it a pity that a man might have such a bride as you, and yet he could leave you alone after less than a month.”
“You are a flatterer, sir, if ever there was one,” Ismene said while tamping down the small rise of pleasure his words created.
Kendric waved his hand in a dismissive gesture and relaxed back on his heels. “I can’t not speak what’s true. If you were my wife, I’d never leave you.”
Ismene’s heart hammered at the words, never having expected to hear anyone utter anything like that to her. “I—well—I . . . . Excuse me, Lord Kendric. I promised the chef I’d share Cook’s bread recipe from back home.”
Ismene turned to leave but Kendric’s words halted her.
“I apologize for making you uncomfortable. Forget I said anything. It’s just that I can see you’re homesick. If you’d like to talk, consider me a friend, my lady.” He bowed and walked away.
Ismene watched him go, confused and relieved. She used his excuse to convince herself he’d only meant to set her at ease with teasing. With a shake of her head, she walked up the steps in to the keep.
The next few days would be lonely without Othniel, but at least she would be getting to know some of the staff at the castle.
Ismene looked out the window of the great hall at the gathering storm clouds. The late fall air chilled her bones, but the sky held an ominous hint of winter that she dreaded, knowing it would certainly separate her from her family for many months.
And with Othniel gone for the last three days, she felt alone most of the time. The nobility hadn’t warmed to her in his absence, and Helein shooed her from the kitchen every time she tried to help prepare anything.
The only highlights had been spending time in conversation with Lord Kendric who’d gone above and beyond to make her feel at home as well as regale her with stories of his travels and of things he remembered from her family’s land and manor. He’d been nothing but a gentleman since their awkward conversation on the steps of the keep the day Othniel had left.
He’d even saved her from his own betrothed when Lady Grace and her friend Lady Melinda had cornered her and were asking her all manner of pointed, personal questions. Grace’s tone and how she spoke of her distant cousin, the prince, made Ismene wonder if the girl had at one point had her sights set on marrying him.
If there was one thing Ismene had a basic grasp on, it was the jealousy of women. She’d seen it often enough between village girls. Thankfully, she and Ketra had such different taste in most things that they rarely fought over anything other than who got the settee nearest the fire in winter or the biggest roll from Cook’s basket.
“Here they are, mistress,” Helein said as she walked up to Ismene with a stack of handkerchiefs and a sewing basket.
Ismene faced her and reached out for the stack, but Helein pulled them away.
“Please, can’t I help, Helein? I’m bored. It will give me something to do.”
“Tut, tut, my lady. You will do no such thing. I brought you your book from the table in your room.”
With a resigned sigh, Ismene accepted the book Helein held out to her, and the two retreated to an alcove near the fire. The spot was private enough the two wouldn’t have every eye staring at them.
Ismene did her best to read, but her mind kept wandering. She gave up after ten minutes and snapped the book closed, setting it in her lap. She looked at Helein and considered how she might escape to the kitchens or out for a ride on Rising Wind in the rain, but just as she opened her mouth to make an excuse, Lord Kendric’s head appeared around the corner.
“Am I interrupting?” he asked cordially.
“I wish you would,” Ismene said with mock seriousness.
Kendric smiled and stepped into full view. Helein stood and moved to a seat nearby, relinquishing hers to accommodate the lord. He bowed to Ismene who held out her hand to offer him the chair Helein had vacated.
Sitting, Kendric smiled and sighed as if the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders. “Thank you. How goes your day, my lady?”
“Wretchedly boring. I’d rather be home, playing hide and seek with Blayn. Here I am relegated to reading or talking in polite society of this dreadful weather.”
Kendric laughed, probably at her exaggerated tone, but she didn’t care. It at least lightened the boredom.
“It is rather dreadful out today, isn’t it? I see you have a book to take you out of this place,” he said, reaching for the volume on her lap.
Ismene stiffened at the brief brush of his fingers over the material of her skirt. He pretended as if it hadn’t happened and so did she. Kendric lifted the book and examined the title.
“‘The Histories of Ovlander Greatshield.’ Could you read anything drier on such a dreary day?” He smiled and Ismene couldn’t help but grin at the subtle teasing. “But on that note, I hope to distract you from the doldrums of life at court with something I remembered from my stay at your family’s manor.”
Ismene sat forward. “Oh yes, please do.”
Kendric followed suit and leaned forward in his chair, holding the book against his thigh. He recounted the time he’d convinced Blayn, who’d been less than ten at the time, to snatch a batch of cookies.
“Oh my! I remember that. When caught in the act by Cook, Blayn—”
In uinson they finished, “—shoved all the evidence in his mouth,” and leaned back laughing at their combined memory.
“Mischievous Blayn. My brother can be riled up by the slightest challenge to his ability. You played him like a fiddle.”
“He would have done it without my slight nudge, I’m sure.”
Ismene smiled, thinking of her mischievous brother. Blayn was forever finding ways to get himself in trouble.
“Why does that not surprise me?” she asked.
Kendric’s smile faltered as he looked beyond her. He stood with slothful grace, but the joy seemed to have been ripped from him in an instant. He bent a slight degree at the waist.
Ismene looked over in time to see Othniel, whose stoic expression sent her heart plummeting to her stomach for reasons she could not comprehend. She stood as well.
“Selin,” Othniel said, his tone noncommittal.
Kendric sunk back into his chair without waiting for permission from the prince.
Ismene, consumed with a myriad of emotions, remained silent. She noticed the slight twitch of muscle in Othniel’s cheek before he turned his penetrating stare to her. He bowed his head and walked away.
Ismene watched him, a stunned silence rekindling every awkward feeling she possessed about their relationship. Her mind whirled with warring thoughts. She refused to feel guilt, as if she’d done something wrong. Othniel obviously didn’t like Kendric, but she couldn’t understand why. In fact, Ismene was sure they would be great friends if they’d set their male egos aside.
Kendric stood, interrupting her pensiveness. He bowed and stepped close, pressing her book back into her hands, his warm fingers brushing hers. “My apologies, my lady, but I have just recalled a meeting I am late to. Please forgive me.”
Ismene lifted her chin. She did not want anyone’s pity, and she was sure Kendric pitied her at that very second. Othniel had barely acknowledged her. “No. No apology, my lord. I am sorry to have kept you from your responsibility with my selfish pouting,” she said with as regal a tone as she could muster. Kendric’s next words made her brave front falter for a second.
“You are not selfish, Ismene. And if that was pouting, I’d take that over certain other people’s disdainfulness any day.”
Ismene’s mouth dropped open, but he bowed again and was gone before she could make any reply.
“Close your mouth before you swallow a fly,” Helein said from where she sat embroidering. “And don’t let the viper’s beautiful dance fool you. His venom is meant to kill, and his bite is lethal.”
Ismene knew full well what Helein implied, but the idea that she was doing anything dangerous by being friendly with Kendric made her bristle. “A viper can be tamed, as any other snake, and their fangs removed. There is no danger. I’m married. He’s betrothed, and frankly, he’s quite harmless.”
“If you say so.” Helein said, obviously unconvinced.
If Ismene was honest with herself, she might agree with the maid.