I had no words. He was still holding my hand, and I was sitting in his lap, and all I could think about was that part in Willa Colyn’s journal, where she described being in a man’s lap. There had been less clothing—
“You can’t be comfortable.” One of his arms folded around my upper back, pulling my side against his chest. “There. That has to be much better.”
And it wasn’t.
“I don’t want you getting too cold,” he added, his breath warm against my temple. He was so much taller, even sitting as straight as I was, my head still didn’t reach his chin. “I feel like that’s an important part of my duty as your personal Royal Guard.”
“Is that what you’re doing right now? Protecting me from the cold by pulling me into your lap?”
“Exactly.” His hand was against my side, the weight like a brand.
I stared at what I thought might be his throat. “This is incredibly inappropriate.”
“More inappropriate than you reading a dirty journal?”
“Yes,” I insisted, heat creeping into my face.
“No.” His deep chuckle rumbled through me. “I can’t even lie. This is inappropriate.”
“Why?” His chin grazed the top of my head. “Because I wanted to.”
I blinked once and then twice. “And what if I didn’t want to?”
Another chuckle sent an acute shiver through me. “Princess, I’m confident that if you didn’t want me to do something, I’d be lying flat on my back with a dagger at my throat before I even took my next breath. Even if you can’t see an inch in front of you.”
“You have your dagger on you, don’t you?”
I sighed. “I do.”
“Knew it.” He let go of my hand, and I let mine fall to my lap. “No one can see us. No one is even aware that we’re here. As far as anyone knows, you are in your room.”
“This is still reckless for a multitude of reasons. If someone comes in here—”
“I’d hear them before they did,” he said. Before I could voice that his hearing couldn’t be as special as his sight, he added, “And if someone did, they’d have no idea who we are.”
I drew my head back, putting space between my upper body and his. “Is this why you led me out here to this place?”
“What is this, Princess?”
“And why would I do that?” he asked, his voice dropping low as his hand touched my arm.
“Why? I think it’s pretty obvious, Hawke. I’m sitting in your lap. I doubt that’s how you normally hold innocent conversations with people.”
“Very rarely is anything I do innocent, Princess.”
“Shocker,” I muttered.
“So, you’re suggesting I led you out here, instead of toward a private room with a bed”—he dragged the tips of his fingers down my right arm—“to engage in a particular type of inappropriate behavior?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying, though my room would’ve been a better option.” My heart had already started pounding the moment my rear ended up in his lap. Now, it felt as if it were going to explode out of my chest.
“What if I said that isn’t true?”
“I…” My stomach fluttered as his fingers found their way to my hip. “I wouldn’t believe you.”
“Then what if I said it didn’t start off that way?” His thumb moved against my hip. “But then there was the moonlight and you, with your hair down, in this dress, and then the idea occurred to me that this would be the perfect location for some wildly inappropriate behavior.”
“Then I…I would say that’s more likely.”
His hand glided over the thin, gauzy material of the gown. “So, there you have it.”
“At least, you’re honest.” I bit down on my lip as the fluttering deepened. This was dangerous. Even if no one discovered us, it felt like tempting fate with the gods. A few stolen kisses—all right, a little more than a few stolen kisses—was possibly forgivable. But this?
Even those stolen kisses weren’t forgivable, at least according to the Duke and Duchess—and the Queen. Then again, if the gods were to intervene, wouldn’t they have done so already? I thought about what Tawny had once said about not being sure whether the rules imposed upon me were a decree from the gods.
And if I had interpreted what the Duchess had said about the first Maiden correctly, she’d done a lot of forbidden things.
She hadn’t been found unworthy.
“Tell you what. I’ll make you a deal.”
“If I do anything you don’t like…” Hawke’s hand slid down my thigh, causing my breath to catch. Through the dress, his hand closed over the dagger. “I give you permission to stab me.”
“That would be excessive.”
“I was hoping you’d give me just a measly flesh wound,” he added. “But it’d be worth finding out.”
I grinned. “You are such a bad influence.”
“I think we’ve already established that only the bad can be influenced.”
“And I think I already told you that your logic is faulty,” I repeated, closing my eyes as his fingers followed the outline of the sheathed blade.
Another hot, tight shiver curled its way down my spine, and I had the sudden urge to squeeze my legs together. Somehow, I refrained.
I resisted him, despite knowing how I would’ve let him kiss me the night before.
“I’m the Maiden, Hawke,” I reminded him—or myself, I wasn’t sure.
“And I don’t care.”
My eyes flew open in shock. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
“I did. And I’ll say it again. I don’t care what you are.” Hawke’s hand slid off my back. A moment later, I felt his palm flatten against my cheek with unerring accuracy. “I care about who you are.”
My chest swelled so fast and full, it was a small miracle that I didn’t float right out of his lap and into the willow. What he’d said…
It had to be the sweetest and most perfect thing anyone could say.
“Why?” I demanded, almost wishing he hadn’t spoken those words. “Why would you say that?”
“Are you seriously asking me that?”
“Yes, I am. It doesn’t make sense.”
“You don’t make sense.”
I hit his shoulder—or chest. Some extremely hard part of him.
Hawke grunted. “Ouch.”
I so did not hit him hard enough for that. “You’re fine.”
“You’re ridiculous,” I retorted. “And it’s you who makes no sense.”
“I’m the one sitting here being honest. You’re the one hitting me. How do I not make sense?”
“Because this whole thing makes no sense.” Frustration rose swiftly through me, and I started to stand, but the hand on my hip stopped me. Or I let it stop me. I wasn’t sure. And that was even more irritating. “You could be spending time with anyone, Hawke—any number of people you wouldn’t have to hide in a willow tree to be with.”
“And yet, I’m here with you. And before you even begin to think it’s because of my duty to you, it’s not. I could’ve just walked you back to your room and stayed out in the hall.”
“That’s my point. It makes no sense. You can have a slew of willing participants in…whatever this is. It would be easy,” I said. Pretty Britta came to mind. I was sure he’d had her. “You can’t have me. I’m…I’m un-have-able.”
“I’m confident that’s not even a word.”
“That’s not the point. I’m not allowed to do this. Any of this. I shouldn’t have done what I did at the Red Pearl,” I continued. “It doesn’t matter if I want—”
“And you do want.” His whisper danced over my cheek. “What you want is me.”
My breath caught. “That doesn’t matter.”
“What you want should always matter.”
A short, harsh laugh left me. “It doesn’t, and that’s another thing that isn’t the point. You could—”
“I heard you the first time, Princess. You’re right. I could find someone who would be easier.” His fingers traced the line of my mask from my right ear and along my cheek. I had no idea how he could see. “Ladies or Lords in Wait, who aren’t burdened by rules or limitations, who aren’t Maidens I’m sworn to protect. There are a lot of ways I could occupy my time that don’t include explaining in great detail why I’m choosing to be where I am, with whom I choose.”
The corners of my lips started to turn down.
“The thing is,” he went on, “none of them intrigue me. You do.”
You intrigue me.
“It’s really that simple for you?” I asked, wanting to believe him, and also not.
His forehead rested against mine, startling me. “Nothing is ever simple. And when it is, it’s rarely ever worth it.”
“I’m beginning to believe that’s your favorite question.”
“Maybe.” My lips twitched. “It’s just that…gods, there are a lot of reasons why I don’t understand how you can be this intrigued. You’ve seen me.” My face heated, and I sincerely hoped he couldn’t see it. I hated saying it, but it was a reality. “You’ve seen what I look like—”
“I have, and I think you already know what I think. I said it in front of you, in front of the Duke, and I told you outside the Great Hall—”