“You can hear me just fine,” I told her.
She looked as if she wanted to kick me under the table again. “I have no idea how you haven’t confronted him yet. I understand the risks involved, but I would have to know if he recognized me. And if he did, why hasn’t he said anything?”
“It’s not like I don’t want to know.” I glanced at Hawke. “But there’s…”
I stiffened as Hawke’s gaze connected with mine and held. He was looking straight at me, and even though I knew he couldn’t see my eyes, it still felt like he could. There was no way he could hear Tawny and me, not from where he stood and with as quietly as I was speaking, but his stare was piercing as if he could see not only through me, but into me.
I tried to brush off the sensation, but the longer he held my gaze, the more the feeling increased. It had to be his eyes and their color. Such a strange, stunning golden hue. One could imagine all sorts of things while staring into those eyes.
He broke eye contact, pivoting toward the entryway. My breath left me in a ragged exhale, my heart hammering as if I were running across the Rise once more.
“That was…intense,” Tawny murmured.
I blinked, giving a shake of my head as I turned to her. “What?”
“That.” Her brows were lifted. “You and Hawke staring one another down. And no, I can’t see your eyes, but I knew you two were engaged in a rather heated one on one there.”
I could feel warmth creep into my cheeks. “He’s just doing his job, and I…I just lost track of what I was saying.”
Tawny lifted her brow. “Is that so?”
“Of course.” I smoothed my hands over the lap of my dress.
“So, he was just making sure you’re still alive and—”
“Breathing?” Hawke suggested, startling both of us. He stood a mere foot from where we sat, having moved with the stealth of a trained guard and the quiet of a ghost. “Since I am responsible for keeping her alive, making sure she’s breathing would be a priority.”
My shoulders stiffened. How much had he overheard?
Tawny made a poor attempt to smother her giggle with a napkin. “I’m relieved to hear that.”
“If not, I’d be remiss in my duty, would I not?”
“Ah, yes, your duty.” She lowered her napkin. “Between protecting Poppy with your life and limb and gathering spilled crystals, you’re very busy.”
“Don’t forget assisting weak Ladies in Wait to the nearest chair before they faint,” he suggested. Those strange, mesmerizing eyes glinted with a hint of mischief, and I was…as transfixed with him as I’d been with the Ladies in Wait. This was the Hawke I’d met in the Red Pearl. A well of pain hidden behind a teasing and charming personality. “I am a man of many talents.”
“I’m sure you are,” Tawny replied with a grin while I fought the urge to reach out with my senses.
His gaze flicked to her, and the dimple in his right cheek appeared. “Your faith in my skills warms my heart,” he said, glancing at me. “Poppy?”
My eyes widened behind the veil as I clamped my mouth shut.
Tawny sighed. “It’s her nickname. Only her friends call her that. And her brother.”
“Ah, the one who lives in the capital?” he questioned, still looking at me.
“Poppy,” he repeated in a way that made it sound as if my name was wrapped in chocolate and would roll off his tongue. “I like it.”
I gave him a tight smile to match how the muscles in my lower stomach suddenly felt.
“Is there a threat of stray crystals we need to be aware of, or is there something you need, Hawke?” Tawny asked.
“There are many things I’m in need of,” he replied as his gaze slid back to me. Tawny tipped forward as if she couldn’t wait to hear what those things were. “But we’ll need to discuss that later. You’ve been summoned by the Duke, Penellaphe. I’m to escort you to him at once.”
Tawny grew so very still I wasn’t sure if she took another breath. Ice drenched my insides. Summoned by the Duke so quickly after yesterday? I knew it wasn’t for idle conversation. Did Lord Mazeen make good on his threat and go to the Duke? Or was it because of how I’d stared back at the Duke and smiled when I was unveiled? Had he found out that I had stabbed the man who attempted to kidnap me? While most would celebrate that I’d been able to thwart the abduction, Duke Teerman would focus solely on the fact that I’d been carrying a dagger. Could someone have seen me in here and already reported back to him? Had he found out about the Red Pearl? My stomach dropped as I stared up at Hawke. Had he said something?
Gods, the options were truly limitless, and none of them were good.
Stomach churning as if I’d swallowed spoiled milk, I managed to plaster a smile on my face as I rose from the chair.
“I’ll await you in your chambers,” Tawny said, and I nodded.
Hawke waited until I was past him before falling in step slightly behind me, a position that allowed him to react to threats from the front and back. I led us out into the hall, where shimmering white and gold tapestries hung from the walls, and servants in maroon gowns and tunics scurried, carrying out various tasks that kept the large household running.
He didn’t lead me toward the banquet hall. He aimed for the staircase, and my stomach sank even further.
We crossed the foyer and had neared the foot of the wide stairs before he asked, “Are you all right?”
“Both you and your maid seemed disturbed by the summons.”
“Tawny is not a maid,” I blurted out and then immediately cursed up a storm in my mind. It was silly to have tried not to speak, but it would’ve been better for it to have occurred when we weren’t in the foyer, surrounded by any number of people.
And I would’ve liked to have lasted at least an entire day.
I braced myself as I snuck a peek at him.
He stared, expression utterly unreadable. If he recognized my voice, he showed no sign whatsoever.
That strange mixture of disappointment and relief hit me once more as I stared straight ahead. Did he seriously not know it had been me in that room? Then again, should I be surprised? He’d believed that I’d been Britta at first and had no problem continuing on when he realized I wasn’t her. Who knew how many random women he…
“Is she not?” he queried. “She may be a Lady in Wait, but I was advised that she was duty-bound to be your ladies’ maid. Your companion.”
“She is, but she’s not…” I glanced over at him as the stone staircase curved. One hand rested on the hilt of the sword at his waist. “She’s…” She was duty-bound to be my companion. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing is wrong.”
He looked over at me then—well, he looked down at me, even though I was a step higher than he was. He was still taller, which seemed unfair. One dark brow rose, his gaze questioning.
“What?” I asked, heart seizing as I lifted my foot but not high enough. I tripped. Hawke reacted fast, curving his hand above my elbow, steadying me. Embarrassment flooded my system as I muttered, “Thank you.”
“No insincere thanks are required or needed. It is my duty to keep you safe.” He paused. “Even from treacherous staircases.”
I took a deep, even breath. “My gratitude was not insincere.”
“My apologies then.”
I didn’t have to look at him to know he was grinning, and I’d bet that stupid dimple was gracing the world with its presence. He fell quiet then, and we reached the third-floor landing in silence. One hall led to the old wing—to my chambers and many of the household staff. To the left was the newer wing. Stomach full of tiny lead balls, I turned left. My mind was now so fixated on what awaited me that I wasn’t all that focused on Hawke’s apparent lack of recognition or what it meant if he did realize it was me and just wasn’t saying anything.
Hawke reached the wide, wooden doors at the end of the hall, his arm brushing my shoulder as he opened one side. He waited until I had entered the narrow spiral staircase. Sunlight poured in through the numerous oval-shaped windows. “Watch your step. You trip and fall here, you’re likely to take me out on your way down.”
I huffed. “I won’t trip.”
“But you just did.”
“That was a rarity.”
“Well, then, I feel honored that I bore witness to it.”
I was glad he couldn’t see my face then, and not out of fear of recognition, but because I was sure my eyes were so wide they took up my entire upper face. He was speaking to me in a way no other guard did—besides Vikter. Not even Rylan had been so…familiar. It was as if we had known each other for years instead of hours…or days. Whatever. The comfortable way he was talking to me was disconcerting.
He eased past me, reaching the entryway to the fourth floor. “I’ve seen you before, you know.”
My breath hitched, and only by the grace of the gods did I not trip again.
“I’ve seen you on the lower balconies.” Holding open the door, he gestured for me to enter. “Watching me train.”
Heat blasted my cheeks. That had not been what I’d expected him to say. “I wasn’t watching you. I was—”
“Taking in the fresh air? Waiting for your lady’s maid, who is not a maid?” Hawke caught my arm as I walked past him, stopping me. He lowered his head until his lips were mere inches from my veil-covered ear and whispered, “Perhaps I was mistaken, and it wasn’t you.”
Surrounded by the earthy, woodsy scent of him, my breath caught. We were nowhere near as close as we were the night of the Red Pearl, but if I tilted my head to the left just a few inches, his mouth would touch mine. The curling motion inside me returned, settling even lower in my stomach this time. “You are mistaken.”
He let go of my arm, and when I looked up, I saw that the corner of his lips was tipped up. My heart was doing funny, strange things in my chest as I stepped into the airy hall, my pulse thrumming.