No Man Can Tame (Page 25)
She gasped. “There are… There…”
“Pixies,” he said softly, savoring the wonder illuminating her face. “Little winged people, no taller than your thumb. They love gardens, and live in the healthiest of them, thriving on nectar and pollen.”
Her lips parted, she very slowly reached up toward a tiny glow, and the pixie flitted closer to her hand, just out of reach, casting a gentle light on her skin.
“They feel a kinship toward those who love gardens as they do, will even fight to save them.”
“So little,” she whispered, her eyes wide.
“No one is ever too little to fight for what they believe in.”
She turned back to him then in his embrace, beaming a smile, her eyes shining, reflecting the ethereal glow in the starlit night.
His breath caught. Alessandra Ermacora was his wife, and he would do anything for her sake. And he knew it as clearly as the stars shone above them.
She lowered her gaze, her smile fading. “Veron, about the ceremony in Nightbloom…”
He raised her hand to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to it. “We’ll discuss it after the party.” Whatever she feared about the ceremony, he’d allay. It was different from human celebrations, but he’d prepare her. “Will that be all right? I think we’re due for the feast.”
“If you keep the duchessa entertained, I think it’ll go very well.” A brief glimmer in her amused eyes, and she nodded, turning to the hall with him.
So she hadn’t missed the duchess’s look. Of course she hadn’t. And she wanted to use it to their advantage. He wouldn’t expect any less.
And it would go perfectly.
His bride was human, and she felt the same way about him as he did about her. Nothing could ruin this night.
Aless tried to slow her racing heartbeat to no avail as they entered the great hall, each step echoing in the vastness. It was as though she could feel every hair on her head, and every swish of fabric against her skin, every individual thread. Where Veron’s hand held hers, the barest touch, the merest stroke of his skin against hers tingled, warmed.
Holy Mother’s mercy, she wanted to marry him. She wanted to marry him, and she was about to meet with Paladin Grand Cordon Nunzio.
She wanted to hide, go back to that moment outside and tuck her face against Veron’s chest, shut out the world, shut out everything but him, and live there, in that moment, forever.
Nunzio probably wouldn’t even agree to her proposal about the library and teaching there. The Order of Terra didn’t want women so involved anyway, did they? It had been everything she’d wanted, and she’d been willing to try convincing Veron that they didn’t need that second ceremony in Nightbloom, that they’d be better as friends, but…
But she wanted him. Veron and her dream.
Say a prayer for me this time, Bianca.
Holy Mother’s mercy, if her dream had already been higher than she could probably reach, trying to take both would mean she’d need a taller ladder. A much taller ladder.
She’d just have to make one.
Maybe she could talk to Veron, and they could stay together and find a way to make the library happen together near Nightbloom? Maybe he’d be passionate about this, too.
And Veron… when she’d tell him tonight what her plan had been, he’d forgive her, wouldn’t he? She’d planned all this before she’d truly known him.
There had to be a way for their marriage and her dream to coexist. She would just have to find it.
Against a backdrop of myriad mirrors, the duchessa sat at the head of a long configuration of elaborate place settings, with two empty seats at her side. For them.
Her reflection caught in one mirror—a betrayer, a liar—and it reflected in the next angled against it, and the next, and the next, and the next, a crowd of betrayers, of—
“Are you all right?” Veron whispered to her as they approached.
Can we please just leave? Can we disappear into our quarters, into each other, and never emerge?
But even as the thought surfaced, it was impossible. They had the duchessa’s friendship, but they couldn’t abandon her party and her nobiltà without consequence. It was a victory lap, but a necessary one. She glared at her reflection.
As long as Nunzio didn’t approach her about the library while she was here with Veron, she could keep the situation from spiraling out of control.
She cleared her throat and forced a placid expression. “I’ll be fine.”
With a warm smile, he led her to the table, seated her, and then himself between her and the duchessa, who had taken an obvious interest in him earlier. That would work to their advantage. He could describe Nightbloom to her, his culture, his people, and as long as the duchessa’s curiosity held, the nobiltà would take her cue and support them as well.
A servant between them poured some bubbly white wine, and she tasted it.
“Princess Alessandra,” a man’s deep, gravelly voice greeted from her other side. “I received the plans you sent for your library.”
She froze. Holy Mother’s mercy.
No, not him. Please, not him. Not now.
As she caught the man with a peripheral glance, his eagle-sharp blue eyes met hers. That aquiline nose, full head of graying hair, cleft chin, and a build like Forza’s, wrapped in sigil tattoos.
She swallowed the wine already in her mouth. “Paladin Grand Cordon,” she greeted, cordially but softly.
Slitting those eagle eyes, he leaned back in his chair, his gaze raking over her as if she were some ruffian he’d taken in for questioning. “Your proposal was quite… passionate.”
For a moment, she paused, listening to Veron telling the duchessa about his brother in Nightbloom. As long as Nunzio kept his voice down, this night wouldn’t turn into a disaster.
“Maybe we could discuss this another time,” she said softly. They could find a way to move forward on the project. Somehow. Maybe the Order would agree to help build the library elsewhere, closer to Nightbloom?
“Are you no longer passionate about literacy and cultural exchange?” Nunzio tilted his head. “Of building peace through shared knowledge and education? Those were your words.”
Keep your voice down.
“Of course I am,” she whispered, then sipped her wine. The rest of the nobiltà were deep in their own conversations. Thank the Mother for small favors.
Nunzio leaned in. “Then give me a name, any name, of a person who can manage the implementation of your plan,” he said, “because I cannot in good faith meddle in this country’s political agreements. How did you mean to both oversee the construction and management of a library while marrying and residing in Nightbloom?”
Each word elicited a shiver, even as she struggled to stay still. There was a lull in the conversation next to her, and she dared to look at Veron.
His eyes were wide beneath furrowed brows. He gave a slow, disbelieving head shake.
He’d heard it.
He’d heard it all.
No, no, no, no… She opened her mouth, but he raised his chin, went still—unnaturally still, the wideness of his eyes narrowing to icy, metallic gold.
With a deep breath, he was smiling again as he turned to the duchessa and said something about stone-singing.
Her chest tightened as Veron chatted with the duchessa, his steely velvet voice smooth with charm, his quiet laugh lofty.
She’d disappointed him, completely and utterly, and he had bottled it, continued trying to keep the duchessa and her nobiltà entertained. Inside, he had to feel…
“Princess?” Nunzio asked, and he continued speaking, but the sound of his voice faded as a high-pitched ringing found its way to her ear, grew louder and louder until she could hear nothing else.
Her gaze dropped to her lap, to her hands on the violet tulle of her gown, hands that had held Veron’s not even an hour ago.
* * *
Aless stood when Veron did, and although he guided her from the hall with a gentle hand at the small of her back, there was nothing gentle about his expression.
He bid the duchessa goodnight with an elegant smile and inclination of his head, called good-natured goodbyes to certain members of the nobiltà he’d chatted with. But beneath that charm was that cold gaze, the chilled gold of his eyes, and the look he’d given her at the table.
The night had been a blur. It still was. She’d eaten tonight and drunk, she supposed, and maybe even danced. Probably with him. But it was just a mess of colors and murmurs and laughs, and then a walk to an empty corridor.
She’d betrayed him. Before they’d ever met, she’d already been resolved to go back on her word.
No matter how badly she wanted to see Mamma’s dreams realized, she’d sacrificed Veron’s trust to pursue them. Now he knew. And hated her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, as he walked her up the stairs, past the windows to the gardens where her life had changed. “I wanted to tell you tonight, but then the Paladin Grand Cordon was there first, and he had questions, and…”
And Veron didn’t even look at her. Didn’t waver from ascending the steps. Didn’t seem to have heard her at all.
“Veron, please,” she pleaded, gripping his arm tightly, but he didn’t react.