For a second I was embarrassed to have been caught talking about him. But then I remembered: This man planned to treat eighteen young women like a stable of broodmares.
That snapped my spine straight.
"Yes, I would very much like to speak with you," I said tightly.
"Please, come to my study." He stepped aside and gestured up the hallway with a graceful arm. But when I nodded and started to follow, Ash moved with me. David pinned him with a look. "Alone," he snapped.
Ash stopped like he'd been shot, but I saw the flames rise in his eyes. "I am her Defender—"
"From danger. You believe she will be harmed by me… who may one day be her husband?"
Ash stood very still for a moment, his eyes locked with David's. My heart pounded.
David raised that icy brow again and Ash dropped into a bow. "Of course, your Highness," he said stiffly. "Of course she is safe with you. It was only instinct."
David's expression made it clear how much he believed that, but he only turned, gesturing to me to follow, and stalked down the hallway.
We were at the third turn and the second set of stairs before I lost my patience. "Where exactly is your study?"
"In my quarters."
He walked on, not looking at me, but glaring at the portraits on the walls, or perhaps staring holes in the wallpaper.
"How far away are your quarters?"
"A level above yours."
His tone was flat. Disinterested. But I caught the corner of his mouth twitching.
I gaped at him. "You're taking me all the way back to the residential wing?"
"I wish to be certain there will be no interruptions," he snapped, though it was the servants passing in the hall that he cut his eyes towards when he said it.
A strange roller coaster of emotions rocketed through me.
The King wanted to be alone with me. That was thrilling.
The King wanted to be alone with me? Disbelief, and some suspicion.
Holy shit, the King wanted to be alone with me.
"If you call my honor and integrity into question right now, Zara, I swear to God—"
"You're taking me far away from my Defender, to be alone in a room with you—"
"To hear you accuse me of being a monster? Yes, I suppose I am."
"You just don't want to have to face the accusations! You want to silence me!"
He chuckled darkly. "We are newly acquainted, but I am already certain that silencing you would be an act of God Himself."
I scowled, stomping along next to him, his long legs eating up the expanse of each hall and stair, while I took almost two steps to his one.
Then it occurred to me what he was really doing.
I sucked in an indignant breath. "You're taking me away alone so they think you... they think we... that you and I—"
"No, Zara, though I do pray they will gossip among themselves and speculate about it."
"Because I want everyone who saw that little performance distracted from thinking about the disrespect and insolence you showed—"
"—so no one takes it upon themselves to have you removed."
"Removed? The only person who wants me removed is apparently you!"
I flinched when he snapped his head around, his eyes hot with rage and his body poised, but he didn't touch me, or even loom over me. He shot that lasered gaze at me, but continued walking. He did snarl a bit when he spoke, though.
"Do you have any idea what should have happened back there?"
"You mean the part where you should have spoken up and reassured all those women that you weren't going to—"
David hissed a curse and clapped a hand over my mouth.
We stood in the center of the hallway, glaring at each other.
David's eyes cut to the side. "When we are alone, I will listen to the no-doubt offensive description of me you are about to express. However, there is a secondary reason for having this conversation in private, and it is to your benefit," he said through his teeth.
"Oh really?" Except, his hand was over my mouth. So it sounded more like, "Mo meeyee?"
David grimaced and removed his hand from my mouth, but he hadn't stopped looking around.
"We can speak more... frankly in my study."
"You keep saying that, but where the hell is it? We've been walking forever! I'm not falling for this, Dav—Your Highness. I'm not going to just follow you around blindly. I have no clue where you're taking me. I won't go another step until you describe exactly where we are going and how I can get back to my Defender!"
His lips twitched on one side. "The door to my suite is directly behind you."
I set my teeth and made sure I didn't react. He set me up!
"The Turret we left is three floors below and due East. It's a bit of a rabbit warren. But if you keep moving that way, you'll find it eventually. That is... if you are refusing to be alone with me."
The gleam in his eye was deceptive, I realized. Something fragile had appeared behind it when he said those words.
I wanted to yell at him more, but I was also aware of the curious eyes on us as servants, guards, and staff passed us in the hall. It was irritating, because I wanted to be alone with him to hash this out—and that in itself made me nervous. Because I wasn't nervous. Why wasn't I nervous?
I smoothed the front of my gorgeous dress, then snapped, "Fine." Then turned to the door he'd indicated—only to draw up short again because there were two guards standing outside it, both watching David.
"Let her in," he said quietly behind me.
"Are you certain, Highness? It is my professional opinion that she may have violent intentions," the Guard replied so blandly I couldn't tell if he was making a joke, or an actual observation.
He wasn't wrong.
"I'm certain," David said. I could hear the smile in his voice.
Both Guards bowed as if they'd been snapped at the waist, then one opened the door wide to allow us in.
"Thank you," I said primly as I stalked past him with my chin high.
"Be careful, Highness. Shout if you need us," the Guard said quietly as David passed between them.
I huffed, but kept walking, straight into a set of rooms that stole my breath away.