His smile faltered and he sighed. “Why do I not like the sound of that?”
Taking his hands, I held them firmly in mine. “It’s not bad, Iston. There’s just something we need to discuss.”
He looked away and then down to the snowy ground. “Your mother told you, didn’t she?”
“What? That you talked to my father last week?”
His sea-green gaze lifted to mine. “I take it you know what it was about?”
I nodded. “My question is . . . when were you going to letmeknow?”
Letting my hands go, he slid his up my arms and rested them on my cheeks. “Tonight, after the ball. I was going to see if it’s something you might consider.” His eyes searched mine. “I want to be with you, Ella. You don’t have to give me an answer now; I’ll give you all the time you need. I know when we first got together, we said no complications. We can still do that if you want. I just want you to know that I’m all in.”
I placed my hands over his. “Do you think you can handle the cold every day? You’re an elf, Iston. Your land is very different from here.”
The elvish kingdoms were green, warm, and colorful with nature. It was the complete opposite from the stark snow-filled landscape surrounding the Winter Court.
Iston kissed me and smiled. “I can for you. All I ask is that you think about things and let me know when you’re ready.”
“What if it takes time?” I asked. “I know I’m not ready right now.” I could see the turmoil swirling in his eyes.
There was a hint of a sad smile on his face and trepidation in his voice when he spoke. “Then it takes time, Ella. I’m in no hurry.”
Music began to echo from the palace ballroom. Iston linked his hand with mine and led me up the stairs to the veranda and through the ice-covered doors to the ballroom. I didn’t want to hurt him, but at least I was honest. Hopefully, the answers will come to me soon.
* * *
With a glassof faerie wine in hand, I sipped the blue, sparkly liquid as I made my way around the ballroom holding onto Iston’s arm. Merrick was by my side only no one could see him. Everyone smiled and bowed at Iston and me as we walked past. I even heard some whispers about how they expected marriage to come soon. All it did was add more pressure to the situation.
After peering around the room, my focus landed on Aelfric, Iston’s father and king of the elvish kingdom, standing with Durin, the leader of the dwarves. Aelfric wanted me to get Iston’s attention, so I nudged him. “Iston, I think your father needs you.”
He glanced over at him and sighed. “I believe you’re right. It’s probably business as usual.”
“Tell him I’ll keep you company,” Merrick said. “I’m more entertaining anyway.”
A snicker escaped my lips. “Keep telling yourself that,” I said in a low voice.
Iston stood in front of me, his gaze narrowed curiously. “What did Merrick say?” Ever since we were younger, Iston had grown accustomed to having Merrick around. Merrick had watched us both grow up.
Grinning wide, I shook my head. “Nonsense like always. He said he’ll keep me company and that he’s more entertaining than you.”
Merrick winked and Iston snorted. “Keep it up, warrior,” Iston joked, looking right at the spot where Merrick stood. “And enjoy Ella’s time right now because once this ball is over, I don’t want you hanging around the cottage, if you know what I mean.”
Merrick hung his head. “Trust me. I don’t want to see that.”
I patted Iston’s arm. “You have nothing to worry about. Now go.”
Iston strolled through the crowd and joined his father and Durin. “It’s a good thing I’m dead and can’t feel the cold,” Merrick teased. “I’m surprised Iston isn’t worried about his balls freezing off. His people aren’t used to the frigid temps twenty-four seven.”
“He says he can handle it,” I said, looking over at him. “Guess we’ll see. I’m sure if we bonded, the Land of the Fae would change him like it does with all the other fae in the realm.”
Merrick nodded. “True. It’ll be interesting for sure.”
That is, if I went through with the marriage. Merrick’s gaze averted to something across the room and his eyes lit up. I didn’t have to turn to see who it was. The only person he ever looked at like that was my aunt Calista. He focused back on me, and I smiled at him.
“Go. I know you want to be by her side.”
Merrick winked. “I’ll see you in a little bit.”