19 Coming Home

The quarters the other Select and I had been given were extremely grand—tall ceilings, carved pillars, thick wallpaper and carpets, solid wood doors, and furniture fit for... well, a Queen. I'd expected David's rooms to be the same, only grander. Perhaps with gold coated moldings, or something stupid like that. But these rooms were... homey?

I stopped dead just a few feet inside the door and gaped.

The central living room had an even larger fireplace than mine. And a full bear skin rug on the floor in front of it. But the furniture was thick, masculine, and well-worn. Comfortable. Lamps with shades that were faded. The kind of couch you'd just fall into and put your feet on.

The wide, low coffee table was marked by what looked like boot scuffs all along the edges. And there were books piled on every surface. Including one laying flat, the spine cracked, on the nearest couch.

I'd expected things to feel a lot colder and more Kingly.

"I'd show you the bedroom, but given the reason we're here it seems in poor taste," David said dryly.

It was the first time I'd heard his voice sound normal. Even with the tease, and the tension of disapproval, he suddenly sounded like a man having a conversation, instead of a King declaring things.

I whirled around to face him, found him standing tall and looking at me down his nose.

But his left hand gave him away. He kept rubbing his thumb with his forefinger.

He was nervous?

"That wasn't funny," I warned him, not quite as hotly as I had intended.

David shrugged. "Would you like a seat? A drink? I can call for a servant to bring food since you're missing lunch."

I looked at him suspiciously. "What about you? Don't you need lunch?"

"I rarely eat the midday meal," he said with a casual flick of his hand. "It slows my thinking."

I didn't know what to say. It sounded sad that he needed to be strategic like that. But also, like he was living in danger.

I opened my mouth to ask him whether he actually wanted food, then caught myself.

"Stop doing that!"

"What? Being polite?"

"No, distracting me from what's important! I'm not going to forget what an asshole you're being and how messed up this whole Rite is."

David closed his eyes for a moment, then opened a hand towards the very inviting couch.

"If I must listen to a lecture, at least let me do it comfortably. Please. Sit down."

My feet were still sore from the day before and I didn't know what I'd be doing that evening. So, I sat. Then waited nervously—and pissed off with myself for feeling nervous—while David seated himself smoothly, flicking out the tails of his jacket before sinking into the opposite corner of the couch.

He tugged at the knot at his throat for a few seconds until it gave, then he pulled out the long, silk fabric and tossed it to the floor, before unbuttoning the tight collar, then sighing.

He immediately opened one long arm along the back of the couch, leaned the other elbow on the arm and leaned his temple on it. He pulled one booted foot up to rest his ankle on the opposite knee. Then he just... waited.

"I'm listening," he said quietly. Warning.

For a second my mind was blank. He'd bared that V of skin at his throat, showing his collarbones and that divot of skin between them. The skin was paler there, than on his face, but still had that olive dusk to it.

It was one of my favorite parts of a man, and for some reason, the way he'd bared it seemed somehow… vulnerable.

Then I realized what he was doing, and I huffed and tore my eyes from him to get my head straight.

"Is it true that you're planning to sleep with everyone in the Select?"


I blinked and turned to look at him, carefully keeping my gaze on his dark eyes that were locked on mine, but slightly wary. "No?"

He shook his head. "Intimacies will be reserved for those with whom I grow closer and begin to see as genuine contenders for the crown."

I set my jaw. "So you do plan to sleep with multiple women."


I gaped at him. "You aren't even ashamed of it?!"

"Why should I be ashamed of doing everything in my power to ensure that the woman I choose and I will be able to enjoy a life together? We will be at each other's sides for the rest of our lives."

I ignored the flutter in my stomach at the simple way he just put that out there. "Because in order to figure that out you're banging how many others? Is this whole Rite just an excuse to have as many women as you can before you have to settle down?"

Confusion flittered across his face. He frowned and rubbed his jaw. "Banging?" he asked faintly.

"Having sex," I said bluntly.

"Your cultural terms are very… colorful," he said and I got the feeling he was trying not to laugh. But when he saw my face he sighed and sat forward, elbows on his knees. His eyes were clear and his expression serious.

"I will admit I hadn't planned to have these conversations this early in the process. In truth, you don't deserve it."

"Deserve it?" I was indignant.

He gave me a flat look. "Zara, while I am definitely attracted to your freedom and… openness," he said with a wry twist to his lips, "the truth is that you show me little respect, deference is an afterthought, and despite warnings from your Defender, you placed me in the position of being questioned publicly. I cannot decide if this is a strategy—you have definitely kept yourself front-of-mind—or whether you really are that reckless."

"It's not a strategy, and I'm not reckless. I'm just not scared of you!"

"Perhaps it isn't me you should fear, but the ingrained traditions of my people."

"I don't give a flying—"

"Yes, that part is apparent. But while I wish to see you advance in this, Zara, if you continue to challenge my authority, eventually someone will decide that I have been bewitched and if our relationship develops and they begin to see you as a true threat, your days are numbered."

"If speaking my mind gets me kicked out of this stupid competition, I don't want to be here anyway."

His eyes shuttered at that and his jaw set. "Very good to know. But that isn't what I meant. The men who work with and for me are gentlemen—as you have expressed you wish to see. But do not believe that their exquisite manners make them any less dangerous. If they believe I am blinded by your fire, they will snuff it out and remain convinced that they are saving me from being burned."

I opened my mouth, but then the implications of his words set in and I closed it again.

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