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Othniel squeezed the back of his neck and let loose a low growl of frustration. He didn’t like how he’d behaved upon first seeing Ismene with Kendric. Damn that man for knowing her first. There had been nothing untoward in their meeting in the alcove off the great hall, but Othniel had not expected to find Kendric with her when he’d gone searching for her upon his return.
Three days away, and every moment of each his mind had wandered back here, with her. He’d missed her more than he thought possible after such a short time. This emotion, though . . . never before had he experienced such a keen dislike for someone as he now did for Kendric. He’d never come face to face with his own jealousy before either.
“My lor— Othniel, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to greet you sooner. I fear no one informed me of your return,” Ismene said, hesitation obvious in the timidity of her voice.
Othniel had barely walked through the door of his chamber, and he’d left it open without thinking. He turned from where he stood at the window to see Ismene standing in the shadow of the frame. The sight of her, coming to him of her own accord, melted any anger he harbored except toward himself for his insensitive behavior. He took a step toward her.
“I must take the blame. I wanted to surprise you,” he said, hoping to alleviate any discomfort she might be feeling, even if he didn’t know why. Something about her innocence softened his mounting distrust.
Ismene’s mouth formed an ‘o’ as if she hadn’t expected it. If not for the shadow falling across her face, Othniel thought she might be blushing.
“I am surprised,” she said and added hastily, “and pleased. Lady Grace said you were often gone for weeks at a time when you left on these diplomatic trips.”
“I told you I’d be back before Fortnight.”
Ismene nodded in response, but an awkward silence filled the space between them. When she bowed, Othniel realized he must make the first move or she’d never be his. He just didn’t know what the right move would be. When he walked in this room, he’d been angry at himself for how he’d handled his feelings and at her for spending time with Kendric in his absence, but he could easily forget all of it if—somehow—he knew she was wholly his.
She stepped back, and without another wasted thought, Othniel strode across the rest of the space separating them and grabbed her hand in both of his, bringing her fingers to his lips and halting her escape. His heart thumped against its cage, and he hid his smile at her soft gasp. Emboldened, he pulled her into his arms then reached out to caress the ever-escaping wisps of dark hair framing her face.
Othniel didn’t know if her heart beat the same wild rhythm as his, but when she didn’t pull away, he hoped she couldn’t tell how much her nearness affected him. His sight settled on her wide eyes as he did his best to keep his own averted from her parted lips.
“I thought of nothing but you while I was away. I am bewitched by my wife.”
“Oh,” she said on a breath and tilted her face up.
Othniel searched her eyes, silently daring her to tell him she didn’t care, but he found not an ounce of resistance in her. Much like at the waterfall, a new and still unfamiliar desperation filled him to kiss her, but he swallowed the lump in his throat and restrained himself, only giving in to the desire to touch her mouth, running his thumb over her soft lips. He’d always planned to make the most of this marriage, but at this defining moment, he knew full well his intent and that was to woo his wife so that no other man would ever fill her sight.
Ismene couldn’t breathe; she thought she might have forgotten how as soon as his arms encircled her waist. Then when his thumb, with a whisper of pressure, slid across her lips, her entire body tingled. Still, she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. At least not anything except, kiss me!
“I must go meet with my father now, Ismene, but I hope we can finish this . . . discussion later.”
His arms relinquished their hold and robbed her of heat as he stepped back, putting the slightest measure of distance between them where moments ago they’d been so near Ismene didn’t know where one ended and the other began.
“Mmhmm,” she said, pulling in her bottom lip with her teeth where it still tingled from his touch.
Like a marionette on strings, Ismene stepped aside to let him leave. Since coming here, she’d never before had so many instances of feeling as though she watched from outside her body, as if someone else controlled her fate and future. But for the first time in it all, she didn’t feel frightened by the unknowns. Life had become a surreal dream.
Othniel looked back once more before turning the corner and smiled that perfect smile that always melted her heart. She smiled back, unsure when it had occurred that she had fallen for her husband.
It happened that Ismene and Othniel were unable to continue where they’d left off the day before. Once Othniel had met with his father, they’d been sequestered in the king’s war room for the rest of the evening.
Ismene had gone to bed disappointed, but she spent a good deal of energy chastising herself for her egocentricity. Othniel was still the prince, after all. His life and duty did not revolve around her, and she might as well get used to the fact now.
And this day had turned out to be whirlwind of activity as the castle folk prepared for the Fortnight celebration. Ismene spent the day in the kitchen, probably being more of a pest to the chef than a help, but she didn’t care. It had been an opportune moment, since Helein had been fully preoccupied with her duties in preparing for the night’s forthcoming game.
Ismene had barely seen Othniel, but now she stood beside him and him next to his father before the entire congregation of gathered nobility who’d come to participate in Fortnight.
But the sight of Kendric caught her eye and wiped Othniel from her mind, at least temporarily. She’d seen Kendric almost daily since their first meeting in the rose garden. Kendric knew her family and her home. He had this way of setting her at ease and making the stress of fitting in at court melt away. And with Othniel gone those three days, she’d appreciated that external wall of protection.
But with the intense and personal way Kendric now stared at her from the audience of nobles, she wondered if maybe Othniel wasn’t right to keep him at a distance. As much as she enjoyed the familiarity of Kendric and how he reminded her of home, she suddenly realized that a bit of distance, at least emotionally, would be wise. She hated the thought but didn’t feel strong enough to search the depth of her reasons.
“Lords and ladies of the court,” the king said, his voice booming over those gathered and rattling Ismene from her musing. “This day we mark the ancient tradition of Fortnight. Just as our ancestors reveled in the continued peace of our kingdom through the sacred vows of marriage, so we also do. Tonight, we celebrate!”
Most people clapped, many young men whooped. Ismene noticed the smiles of young ladies hidden behind fans. The night would be long.
Fortnight was an antiquated tradition of Taisce, quite unique to this realm. Ismene had only ever heard stories of it. Her parents had been present at the last one, when the current king had married his own princess. Neither had been old enough to participate, but like all the young ones, they’d sneaked about to catch glimpses of the festivities.
Othniel surprised her by squeezing her hand, sending a most welcome jolt of encouragement up her arm. She glanced at him. The mischief on his face made him look younger. She realized, yet again, he was barely older than her even though she’d seen how much responsibility he already carried within the castle and kingdom. As much as it surprised her after two weeks, her deepening regard for Othniel held at least the beginnings of love. If he didn’t feel the same for her . . . . She shuddered. That thought was not one she planned to contemplate.
“My people, my friends, make ready! We begin at sunset!”
The king’s voice boomed with excitement, and those congregated seemed to undulate like the heat of a mirage as the waves of it rolled over them. Ismene cringed, altogether frightened by the idea of her role in this.
The crowd dispersed and Othniel leaned in. “You’ll be fine. I promise. You should go change so you’re ready.”
Ismene pouted which made Othniel’s smile broaden. She added a glare, but not because she was annoyed. His teasing had certainly grown on her, reminding her of the ease of being with her siblings. “I’d rather just hide in the wardrobe until it’s over.”
“You wouldn’t want to ruin everyone’s fun, now would you?”
“I don’t believe that for a second,” he said as he reached up and wrapped her braid around his hand, then let it slide off the tips of his fingers. “I’ll find you tonight.”
Ismene smiled, albeit reluctantly. “You’d better. Helein is fretting about layers.”
“Mother hen, that one. You’ll be fine.”
With that he walked away. Ismene watched him; he had a bit of a swagger to his step that made her grin.
Ismene turned to ascertain who’d just cleared his throat.
“Oh! Lord Kendric. You caught me by surprise. Shouldn’t you be preparing for Fortnight?”
“Isme—my lady, you should not participate in this revelry.”
“It’s a longstanding tradition,” she said, bristling at his serious tone. It almost held an accusatory note.
Kendric gritted his teeth, his nostrils flaring for a second. For the life of her, Ismene couldn’t understand his sudden change. He’d never spoken to her in that voice before, and fear crept up her spine.
“It’s . . . it is . . . un-unseemly,” he said, stuttering over his words, as if his thoughts and his mouth were not in accord. “I wish you wouldn’t go.”
Ismene crossed her arms, wishing to protect herself from his harsh judgment. “I will not forego a tradition that has been carried out in this kingdom for the last three centuries. What sort of impression would that make of me on the people? If I’m to someday be queen—”
“That’s what—no.” He shook his head, his vehemence startling. “Please.” His tone changed, softened. He glanced around the great hall and stepped closer, more intimate, and reached for her hand. “Ismene, I’m saying this for your own good. Please.”
Ismene stepped back, pulling her fingers from his grasp and planting them firmly against her corset stays. Her decision from mere minutes earlier still echoed through her mind as she raised her chin a fraction. She must keep this man at a distance, no matter how soft his voice, no matter how gentle his pleading.
“I thank you for you concern, my lord, but now I must go prepare. You are welcome to not participate, but I do not have such luxury. Good day to you,” she said and spun around. She heard him sigh but refused to even slow her pace as she strode away.
Othniel ducked back around the corner and leaned heavily against the wall. He’d forgotten to give Ismene a small token for tonight and had gone back, but upon seeing her speaking with Kendric and with such passion vibrating off them, he froze in his tracks, neither moving forward nor retreating. He could only stare.
By the end of whatever conversation they had, Ismene was obviously angry. Kendric, though, the look on his face was what hurt the most. The man had undeniable feelings for Othniel’s wife, and she seemed so at ease with him.
They’d talked very little together about her history with Kendric, so Othniel knew next to nothing about how close they’d been previously. But the more Othniel considered it the more fury brewed deep in his gut over the possibility of this overindulged, narcissistic son of a lord having any claim on Ismene’s heart. He buried his own feelings deep and told himself he needed to protect his wife and her reputation. Kendric had to go.
With his resolve in place, and an earful of necessary words to spew, Othniel reentered the great hall only to find Kendric long gone. Deflated, Othniel squeezed the small gift for Ismene in his fist and retreated to his room. At least this way he’d have a little time to compose himself before making it abundantly clear that Kendric Selin was no longer welcome at the castle.