No Man Can Tame (Page 23)
He sighed. “It was inauspicious.”
“If we leave things as they are, that will be the story.” She laid out the clothing on the sprawling bed, to the soft slosh of water behind her. The Beast Princess would have strode before him, undressed, and slipped into the tub before he could remember to close his mouth. The Beast Princess would be bold, daring—
The Beast Princess was nowhere to be found.
Instead, here was this quivering, awkward mess, barely able to function in the mere presence of this one man. Some smelling salts would do her good.
This attraction—it would go nowhere. All he felt for her was duty, and she wouldn’t be the pathetic wretch longing for a man who didn’t long for her.
She’d meet with Nunzio today, discuss her plan for the library, and no matter how it was done, she needed to live her dream, to help in any way she could. She’d explain it all to Veron. He didn’t deserve this mess—he deserved the truth, to know her plans, even if it would upset or anger him. A decision had to be made, and soon.
Soon… That is, not right this instant. Tonight they had to sway the Stroppiata nobiltà to support the peace—with both human and dark-elf lives at stake, that had to take priority. But after that…
She heaved a sigh. After that, she’d tell him, and he… he’d understand her desire to cure the ignorance driving this rebellion, and if she helped solidify the peace during this Royal Progress, there would be no need for the second ceremony, for the marriage. With his mother’s goal fulfilled, he wouldn’t want to marry a human anyway, so he’d be free. He’d understand. He’d—
“That was our one chance,” he said quietly. “The schedule has us spending the rest of our visit here with the nobiltà.”
“Then the Brotherhood wins. They choose the impression we leave the paesani with, and we make no effort to change it, and appear resigned or, worse, afraid.”
A loud splash and rustle of fabric. “What do you propose?”
“That we set the narrative. Let’s keep Silen focused on the positive. On us.” As footsteps approached the bed, she turned away. “We’ll ask the duchessa to have her people spread word of your heroism, and your people’s, during the rescue today. And tomorrow, let’s plan an impromptu visit to the Terran shrine. I’ll make an offering before the Mother of Stroppiata for a blessed union, and we’ll do our best to seem affectionate and unified.” It wouldn’t be too big of a challenge, at least on her end.
“Will that work?” Velvet swished behind her, Veron changing, casting an interplay of sunlight and shadow stretching before her.
“Stroppiata is Silen’s most pious city. It will be seen as an act of respect.” They had the advantage of the public eye; while the Brotherhood hid and slinked in the shadows, she and Veron could use their visibility to win the public’s favor, if they proceeded wisely. If they won that, the Brotherhood’s cause would fail.
A brief silence.
She glanced over her shoulder as he buttoned a shirt beneath the open black jacket, over a sculpted, hard body, blue-gray like Carrerra marble from the North. Dreaming Sileni artists had built gods and heroes, powerful ideals of myth and legend, with such form. And he stood before her now, real and breathing and beautiful and strong, the godly and the heroic driving him in his earthly deeds. Layers of rumor and presumption and mystery that had hidden him before now swept away like dust, and he’d been here, beneath it all, this entire time.
“I’m glad it was you, Aless.”
Her heart skipped a beat. Blinking, she fixed her gaze upon the parquet floor.
“Glad it was me?” she whispered, daring to meet his eyes as he now fastened the jacket’s golden toggles. Holy Mother’s mercy. Seeing him only confirmed her misplaced attraction.
But he’d said he was glad. Maybe it wasn’t misplaced?
Holding her gaze, he abandoned the toggles midway and took a step closer.
Her heart pounded. Had he noticed her awkwardness? Was he teasing her? She swallowed.
He carefully took her hand, her shaking hand, and raised it to his chest, pressed it there, over his heart. “When I arrived in Bellanzole, I’m glad it was you.”
Her eyes widened, but he didn’t waver, just held her hand there against the pulse beating in his chest. His golden eyes, soft and warm, held her speechless, breathless, and his hair, clean and damp, begged for her touch. The toggles on his jacket, halfway done—she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to finish fastening them, or—
“Am I alone in this, Aless?”
He blinked, and for a moment, she couldn’t breathe. She shook her head slowly. No, he hadn’t misread her. He wasn’t alone in… “I think there may be something here that—”
A soft rapping on wood came from the hall.
Veron’s mouth curved as he searched her eyes. “It’s time to meet the duchess.”
It was time, and their discussion had been cut short, but it didn’t matter—he knew.
He knew, and he felt the same.
A corner of Veron’s mouth turned up as he escorted Aless to the great hall, following a footman. By Deep and Darkness, he could scarcely stop himself from smiling.
Aless spoke not a word of Elvish. Didn’t worship Holy Ulsinael. No combat prowess whatsoever. Couldn’t hunt, nor even pitch a tent reliably.
But she was devoted to peace, generous with her things, loved her sister fiercely. She was determined, a strategic thinker, passionate about knowledge, and eager to learn new things. Charismatic and inspiring. Above all, honest. The more he learned about her, the more he liked her—something he hadn’t expected in this arrangement.
Next to him, she practically glowed, darkly gleaming ringlets cascading over her shoulders, drawing his gaze down to the neckline of her silver-trimmed purple gown, plunging just past the curve of her breasts.
He shouldn’t look, but—
Human fashion had certainly changed in two thousand years. Drastically, gloriously changed. Just like the sheer red thing she’d worn on their wedding night. A sheer red thing that now lingered in his thoughts.
With a sharp breath, he looked away.
The softest of giggles came from her, quickly stifled. “Something the matter?”
Quite the opposite. “Just an uncommon sight.”
“Breasts?” she teased.
He cleared his throat. “The dress.”
Her dark eyes gleamed as she blinked, long black lashes fluttering. How had he not noticed her strange beauty? She had dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin—outlandish among his people. No fangs, no claws, a soft—too soft—body. She was human. So different from dark-elf women, from the most beautiful of them, but…
It didn’t make her ugly. No… Among a sea of stars, she was the moon. It was as though he hadn’t looked up until now.
Those dark eyes weren’t the amber of his people, but how they gleamed as her mind worked, sparked when she had an idea, softened when she looked at him, held mystery like the holy Darkness. And her hair wasn’t white, but its shade was like the Deep, mystical and mesmerizing, and contrasting with the olive tone of her skin.
Her skin—sometimes when he looked at her, it pinked, turned such a delicate shade of rose on her cheeks, and she didn’t have to speak her thoughts when they were so clear on her face. No shades of blue and purple and gray, but pinks. Like the Bloom protecting Nozva Rozkveta. The more he looked at her, the more she reminded him of home.
Her arm, looped around his, curled closer as she stroked his bicep softly. He carefully covered her hand with his as two men opened the tall double doors, and a third announced them.
“His Highness, Prince Veron of Nightbloom, and Her Highness, Princess Alessandra of Nightbloom.”
The low din of conversation in the great hall quieted as he led in Aless, the crowd parting and every face turning to them. Wide eyes blinking, manicured eyebrows rising, painted lips parting. A spectrum of colors swathed the hall, where on the other end, a woman sat in a throne-like chair behind a massive head table. Dressed in a golden gown, she had a little emerald adhered high on her cheek, and blond hair pinned elaborately with a peacock feather adorning it.
This woman would have clad herself in all the wealth of Nozva Rozkveta’s mines, and yet her smile seemed entirely genuine. The duchess. It was the promise of her friendship that they’d have to earn here tonight.
Beaming brightly, she stood and began a slow but confident clap, which the rest of the assembled guests joined.
“Prince Veron and Princess Alessandra,” the duchess said with a ringing pleasantness. “You are most welcome. I thank you both for your bravery in defending my people.” She curtseyed gracefully, and a ripple of bows and curtseys followed.
“We are honored, Your Grace,” he replied, inclining his head with Aless as befitted their station.
“To the happy couple.” The duchess raised a goblet of wine, as did everyone, except for a tall, large man near the duchess, who raised a glass of water and nodded to Aless, tattoos peeking out from under his sleeve.
Aless smiled warmly, inclined her head, and then tightened her hold on his arm. Someone she knew, then.
The duchess motioned to the musicians, who struck up a winding tune, and the hall’s conversations resumed as she approached them.