From Blood and Ash

Page 39

Tawny lifted her brows.

Beside her, Hawke snorted. “I’m sure it was one of the most important things to have happened to you in a long time.”

My eyes narrowed. “You have an over-inflated sense of involvement in my life if you really think that.”

“I think I have a good grasp on just how much of a role I play in your life.”

“Doubtful,” I parroted back.

“I do wonder if you actually believe half the lies you tell.”

Tawny’s gaze snapped back and forth between us.

“I am not lying, thank you very much.”

He smiled, showing off the dimple in his right cheek. “Whatever you need to tell yourself, Princess.”

“Don’t call me that!” I stomped my foot.

Hawke lifted an eyebrow. “Did that make you feel good?”

“Yes! Because the only other option is to kick you.”

“So violent,” he chuckled.

Oh, my gods.

My hands curled into fists. “You shouldn’t be in here.”

“I’m your personal guard,” he replied. “I can be wherever I feel I am needed to keep you safe.”

“And what do you think you need to protect me from in here?” I demanded, looking around. “An unruly bedpost I might stub my toe on? Oh, wait, are you worried I might faint? I know how good you are at handling such emergencies.”

“You do look a little pale,” he replied. “My ability to catch frail, delicate females may come in handy.”

I sucked in a sharp breath.

“But as far as I can determine, other than a random abduction attempt, you, Princess, are the greatest threat to yourself.”

“Well…” Tawny drew the word out, and when I shot her a look that should’ve sent her running from the room, she shrugged. “He kind of has a point there.”

“You’re absolutely no help.”

“Penellaphe and I do need to speak,” he said, his gaze never leaving mine. “I can assure you that she is safe with me, and I’m sure that whatever I’m about to discuss with her, she’ll tell you all about it later.”

Tawny crossed her arms. “Yes, she will, but that’s not nearly as entertaining as witnessing it.”

I sighed. “It’s okay, Tawny. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She stared at me. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” I confirmed. “I have a feeling that if you don’t leave, he’s just going to stand there and drain precious air from my room—”

“While looking exceptionally handsome,” he added. “You forgot to add that.”

A short, light giggle left Tawny.

I ignored the comment. “And I would like to get some rest before the sun rises.”

Tawny exhaled loudly. “Fine.” She glanced over at Hawke. “Princess.”

“Oh, my gods,” I muttered, a dull ache pulsing behind my eyes.

Hawke watched Tawny, waiting until she had slipped through the adjoining door before saying, “I like her.”

“Good to know,” I said. “What is it you wish to talk about that couldn’t wait until the morning?”

His gaze slid back to me. “You have beautiful hair.”

I blinked. My hair was unbound, and without seeing it, I knew it was a mess of crimped waves. I resisted the urge to touch it. “Is that what you wanted to talk about?”

“Not exactly.” Then his gaze dipped and roamed slowly, starting at my shoulders, moving all the way down to the tips of my toes. His stare was heavy, almost like a touch, and a flush followed in its wake.

It was at that exact moment I remembered that not only was my face uncovered, but I was also wearing only a thin sleeping gown. I knew that with the light of the fire and the oil lamps behind me, very little of the shape of my body was hidden from Hawke. The flush deepened, became headier. I started for the robe lying at the foot of the bed.

Hawke’s lips twisted into a knowing half-smile that sent a bolt of irritation streaking through me.

I stopped, meeting his gaze and holding it. Hawke might not have seen all the shadowy areas visible beneath the flimsy white gown, but he’d done more than just feel a few of them with his hands. There was a tiny part of me that thought about moving my hair to cover the left side of my face, but he’d seen the scars already, and I wasn’t ashamed of them. I utterly refused to allow what the Duke had said about Hawke saying that I was beautiful to have any impact on me. Hiding my face or covering myself was rather pointless, but more importantly, I swore I saw a challenge in his gaze. As if he expected me to do both things.

I would not.

A long, tense moment passed. “Was that all you were wearing under the cloak?”

“That’s none of your concern,” I told him as I held my arms to my sides.

Something flickered across his face, reminding me of the look Vikter often gave me when I bested him, but it was gone too quickly for me to be sure. “Feels like it should be,” he said.

The rasp of his voice caused a wave of goosebumps to break out over my skin. “That sounds like your problem, not mine.”

He stared at me with that strange expression again. The one that made me think he was caught between amusement and curiosity. “You’re…you’re nothing like I expected.”

The way he said that sounded so genuine that some of my irritation eased. “Was it my skill with an arrow or the blade? Or was it the fact that I took you to the ground?”

“Barely took me to the ground,” he corrected. His chin dipped, and his lashes lowered, shielding his odd eyes. “All of those things. But you forgot to add in the Red Pearl. I never expected to find the Maiden there.”

I snorted. “I imagine not.”

His lashes lifted, and there was a wealth of questions in his stare. I didn’t think there’d be any avoiding them this time around.

Suddenly too tired to stand there and argue, I walked over to one of the two chairs by the fire, all too aware of how the sides of my gown parted, revealing nearly the entire length of my leg.

And all too aware of how Hawke tracked every step.

“That was the first time I was in the Red Pearl.” I sat, letting my hands fall to my lap. “And the reason I was on the second floor was because Vikter came in.” I wrinkled my nose as I gave a little shudder. “He would’ve recognized me, mask or not. I went upstairs because a woman told me the room was empty.” I still felt as if she had set me up, but that was neither here nor there at the moment. “I’m not telling you this because I feel like I need to explain myself, I’m just…telling the truth. I didn’t know you were in the room.”

He remained where he stood. “But you knew who I was,” he said, and that wasn’t a question.

“Of course.” I shifted my gaze to the fire. “Your arrival had already stirred up quite a bit of…talk.”

“Flattered,” he murmured.

My lips twitched as I watched the flames curl and ripple over the thick logs of wood. “Why I decided to stay in the room isn’t up for discussion.”

“I know why you stayed in the room,” he said.

“You do?”

“It makes sense now.”

I thought back to that night and remembered what he had said. He’d seemed to sense that I was there to experience, to live. Now that he knew what I was, it would make sense.

But that still wasn’t something I was willing to discuss. “What are you going to do about me being on the Rise?”

He didn’t answer for a long moment, and then he walked to where I sat, his long-legged prowl full of fluid grace. “May I?” He gestured to the empty seat.

I nodded.

Sitting across from me, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his bent knees. “It was Vikter who trained you, wasn’t it?”

My pulse skipped, but I kept my face blank.

“It had to be him. You two are close, and he’s been with you since you arrived in Masadonia.”

“You’ve been asking questions.”

“I’d be stupid not to learn everything I could about the person I’m duty-bound to die to protect.”

He had a very good point there. “I’m not going to answer your question.”

“Because you’re afraid I’ll go to the Duke, even though I didn’t before?”

“You said out on the Rise that you should,” I reminded him. “That it would make your job easier. I’m not going to bring anyone else down with me.”

He inclined his head. “I said I should, not that I would.”

“There’s a difference?”

“You should know there is.” His gaze flickered over my face. “What would His Grace do if I had gone to him?”

My fingers curled inward. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Then why did you say I had no idea what he’d do? You sounded as if you were going to say more but stopped yourself.”

I looked away, staring at the fire. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”

Hawke was quiet for a long moment. “Both you and Tawny reacted strangely to his summons.”

“We weren’t expecting to hear from him.” The lie rolled off my tongue.

There was another pause. “Why were you in your room for almost two days after being summoned by him?”

Sharp, biting pain radiated from where my nails dug into my palms. The flames were dying, flickering softly.

“What did he do to you?” Hawke asked, his voice too soft.

Suffocating shame crept up my throat, tasting acidic. “Why do you even care?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” he asked, and again, he sounded unbelievably sincere.

My head turned before I realized what I was doing. He’d sat back, hands curled around the arms of the wingback chair. “You don’t know me—”

“I bet I know you better than most.”

Heat creeped into my cheeks. “That doesn’t mean you know me, Hawke. Not enough to care.”    

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