No Man Can Tame (Page 12)
Before she could reply, the doors to the great hall opened, and both Bianca and the sharp-eyed guard stood aside as she and Veron entered. The guests had not yet arrived, but the hall certainly wasn’t empty. Servants bustled back and forth, carrying all manner of platters, bottles, glassware, and viands. The musicians were already setting up in the corner, and massive floral arrangements adorned the outskirts of the hall, matching ostentatious centerpieces on tables.
Veron took in everything with a narrow gaze, as if such preparations were foreign to him. Maybe they were. What, exactly, was a dark-elf wedding feast like? She turned to him, but Bianca’s soft grip closed around her arm.
“Come,” Bianca said with a subtle smile. “Let’s get ready for the feast.”
The sharp-eyed guard murmured something to Veron, inclining her head.
“See you at dinner, Alessandra,” Veron said.
She offered him a smile. With the briefest of looks exchanged, she and Veron parted ways. It wouldn’t be long before the guests would start arriving, and she would have to return to the great hall long before Papà could arrive—at least if she wanted to avoid his further ire.
And then… the consummation.
In her dressing chamber, Aless stroked a finger over the swath of crimson chiffon spread out on her chaise longue, ethereal and romantic. A nightgown for later tonight. Bianca had selected it, along with a dazzling array of rubies and gold.
“You make it look like I’m trying to seduce him,” Aless muttered.
Behind her, Bianca pinned the train of the red gown. “Maybe that’ll make things easier tonight?”
After the feast, she and Veron—along with a host of lords and councilors—would depart to her bedchamber. For the consummation. The bed curtains would be drawn, and in the presence of these officials, she and her new dark-elf husband would have to—to—
“Are you scared?” Bianca asked softly.
Scared. Oh yes, she was scared.
That is, she had been with many a lover, many a human lover. All men she’d chosen herself, strong and handsome, well bred, alluring. With those men, she had been bold, fierce, confident. She had pursued them and seduced them and played with them as she’d pleased. There hadn’t been a single worry in her mind, no more than the pulse-pounding mystery of whether each would prove capable and worth her time.
Veron. She ran a fingertip over the scratch on her wrist.
She hadn’t even become accustomed to just looking at him without holding her breath or shaking. Even his voice rippled shivers down her spine. They’d only just met, were so different from each other—too different. Maybe two dark-elves weren’t concerned with claws and fangs, as their skin seemed firmer, too.
But one of his claws had only grazed her wrist as they’d exited the carriage, and it had left a scratch. Stroking a finger over it, she knitted her eyebrows together. So commonplace a thing, helping a lady out of a carriage, and he had left a mark.
Even if they… overcame their differences, how careful could he be? How much control could he have? Being raised a dark-elf, how much could he know about the limits of a human? In the throes of pleasure, even humans forgot themselves, gave themselves over in mind and body to sensation, and what would happen to her if he did?
The scratch was shallow, almost beneath notice, but if he forgot himself for just a moment—
“Aless?” Bianca stood before her, face pale and creased with worry, and took her hand. “I’m touched that you want to do this for me. I am… and thank you for stepping in. But you don’t need to do this. The marriage hasn’t been consummated yet, and we could still—”
“I’m—I’m just nervous.” Holding a smile in place, she embraced Bianca. There was no way she could even consider sabotaging her sister’s happiness. Not when Bianca actually loved Luciano. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
Bianca struggled in her hold. “You’re just saying that, and —”
“No,” she said, tightening her embrace. Her heart fluttered in her chest, but she had to make Bianca believe everything would be all right. “The witnesses will be there tonight, remember? And after that, I have my plan, right?” Her voice broke, and along with it, her composure. No matter how hard she tried to hold everything in, a couple of lone tears escaped.
She closed her eyes and took three deep breaths.
Never had she wanted to fade away into that sprawling courtyard of overgrown roses more than she did now, surrounded by them and their tangible air of magic, in that place of dreams where she knew she belonged. A thicket of tangling vines, wild and winding, reigning there and yet making a place for her, clearing a corridor through the green and letting her inside.
“I don’t want you to do it,” Bianca whispered. “I know I said—”
“It’s done.” Pulling her shoulders back, she moved away and smiled at Bianca, who sniffled softly. “It’ll be fine. You’ll see. You’ll get to marry Luciano, and Veron and I will come to an agreement. Neither of us wants this, so I think he will be motivated to work with me. And then…”
She would still technically be married in the human realm, and Papà would never let her return if she reneged. She would find herself as the Order’s ward, at best, and she’d ply every ear among them until the public library was built. A place where she could make a difference.
Her eyes overbright, Bianca gave a small nod. And there it was—an understanding. She had resolved to do this, and Bianca wouldn’t fight her.
Good. At least one of them could be happy.
In the mirror, her cloak of raven feathers was gone, and the dramatic wedding gown was pinned up, perfect for dancing. Did the dark-elves dance? Did Veron dance?
“Did you see Papà’s face in the abbazia?” Bianca asked with a half-laugh. “I’ve never seen his eyes so wide. And Lorenzo, his eyebrows shot up so high, but his eyes were half-moons, as if he’d been smiling.” Bianca tried to hide a smile herself, but she failed.
Lorenzo was Papà’s firstborn son and heir, but for years he had bucked that yoke, struggling in vain for a simple life that he could never have. Oh, if only they could have traded places—she would have gladly accepted the responsibilities he wished to shirk, and he could have as simple a life as he wanted being traded away like a pawn.
“Maybe he’ll put in a good word for you with Papà,” Bianca added. “Help you get back into Papà’s good graces.”
“I think he has no more good graces to spare for me.” She narrowed her eyes at her own reflection before turning toward the door. There was nothing left for her here. Ahead of her, she had only negotiations with Veron, and a life outside the palazzo, whatever she could make of it. “Come. I think my wedding feast is about to begin.”
Bianca joined her as she exited the dressing chamber and headed for the great hall. Tonight, she and Veron would find a way to survive the consummation, but before that, there was an entire hall filled with courtiers, some of whom belonged to the Brotherhood, who were here for a human–dark-elf wedding feast. No doubt Papà had already prepared the Royal Guard, and she would have to prepare herself. As much as she wanted out of this marriage, nothing about her exit strategy could ruin the peace. She wouldn’t allow it.
The herald announced her and Bianca, and as they entered, all of the guests seated at the many tables stood, including Veron at the head table, wearing a finely tailored black jacket with silver rose buttons—one of Lorenzo’s—form-fitting trousers, and his own boots. Lorenzo must have spoken to him—helped him.
A kindness. Fine of you, brother.
Veron’s gaze rested on her, even but purposeful as he clasped his hands behind his back, cutting a strong figure. He didn’t look at her with the intensity of the men who had desired her—it didn’t take a lot of thinking to realize why—but even a serene look like this was unsettling in how perfectly controlled it was. As a child, he must’ve feared to even have a hair out of place and risk his mother’s disapproval. Even now, the shadow of that risk had followed him here.
She and Bianca moved to the viand-laden head table, where a sweetly smiling Luciano pulled out a chair for Bianca as Veron did for her. Those two. They probably already had adorable pet names for each other like kitten and tomcat.
As she inclined her head to Veron and took a seat, a chill slithered down her spine, and her eyes meandered toward the direction of Papà’s gaze.
He was smiling.
He raised a goblet to her, glanced past her toward Bianca and Luciano, then leaned back.
Her heart pounding, she stared at the spot he’d leaned into before, at nothing now. The low hum of the hall faded in favor of the pulsing thud in her ears, loudening and loudening.
Holy Mother’s mercy, he’d—he’d played her.
The way he had called both her and Bianca into the throne room to announce the marriage arrangements—
He had—he had manipulated her into this.
She had never been able to ignore an injustice, not when she could do something to fix it. And Bianca…