“What? You were.”
“You see what you want to see.” He shook his head, his lips lifting slightly. “You were supposed to marry me.”
Frowning, I blinked. Then I sat up, my palm slapping against his pectorals as I glared down at him. “What?”
He smiled, and the effect of it, so rare and genuine, drew apart my lips. He cupped my cheek, his hand calloused and large—threatening and protective. “You were to vow to me before your father devised a way to try to put an end to the upheaval he’d stirred.”
I didn’t want to, but staring at his earnest expression, the openness of it, I found I believed him. “But you loathe me.”
“Loathe is a strong word, my queen.” Rough fingers traced my lips, his gaze too. “I resented that I’d have to marry a child, yes. But your mother was a friend, and she wanted you taken care of.”
That had me rearing back and removing myself from the bed. Memories, so many of them, of him always drifting on the fringes. The times he’d found me when I hadn’t thought I’d wanted to be found—of rescuing me when I’d never dare admit I needed it. Running a hand through my tangled hair, I snapped, “I need no such thing, Lord.”
I traipsed into the bathing room and took my time drawing a bath.
Zadicus as my husband.
Even though it was supposed to come to pass, the idea utterly baffled me as I dipped my toes inside the steaming water. My mother had been an idiot for a lot of reasons, one of the biggest for thinking I’d vow myself to a lord such as Zadicus.
Yet the more I thought about it, watching tendrils of steam curl toward the cracks in the walls, escaping into the frigid air outside, the more it made sense.
Of course, I was to vow to someone like Zad. The silent, mysterious, often cold, well-respected high royal with lands that had belonged to him since any of us could dare remember.
So why had I never given him the time of day after the first time we’d met? Flashes of memories thundered in, and for precious minutes, I let them.
I remembered one instance of being distracted at a ball Zad had attended. I’d been searching for Berron who’d promised to fetch three bottles of wine and meet me in the fields of the lower mountains, where we’d watch the clouds drift and seek pleasure until the sun woke. Zadicus, who’d given me unreadable looks any time I saw him, had faded from view within an hour that night, and he wasn’t seen again until my engagement party.
I blocked that memory of him, built a fortress of steel and ice around it, and threw away the key.
“You were married,” I said, knowing he was standing in the doorway, watching me place bubbles over my arms.
“Nova had…” He paused. “She was gone when your mother and father began serious discussion over the arrangement.”
“Arrangement,” I repeated, sour. “Eternally cursed to become a business transaction.”
Zad said nothing for a moment, then, “One could only dream of brokering such a deal.”
My lips twitched. “You rarely attended court.”
“I didn’t like your father’s antics.”
I smirked at that. “I wouldn’t have guessed you to be weak in the stomach.”
“His brand of cruelty didn’t mesh well with my own, and you can only imagine killing someone in thousands of different ways for so long before you finally snap.” Footsteps drew close, and then he was lifting a sponge to my back. Seated on the edge of the tub, naked, he lifted my hair and squeezed.
Water trickled down my back, and I hummed, my eyes shutting as my teeth caught my lip.
“Why did you come?” He was so much of a mystery to me.
I knew that was my own fault for being too wrapped up in the haunting that gathered and spread thorns inside me. It was also foolish not to know the enemy, but if I thought he had plans to kill me, he would not be in my bed. He’d already be dead for the mere thought.
He didn’t need to ask when or what I was referring to. “I have my reasons.”
I wanted to growl at his vague response. Instead, my hand pulled at his, and he fell into the water with a splash, his long legs draped over the side of the porcelain.
I laughed at his shocked expression, the unimpressed flatness to his lips, and the careful way he blinked at me. “Oh, relax. It’s not as if you were clothed.”
He righted himself in the water, and I moaned when I felt his foot brush the inside of my thigh.
His throat dipped. He tugged me close, slipping his hand between us in the water to massage my swelling center with careful strokes of his thumb. His head angled. “Why all the questions?”