Pinned against the wall, my hands landed on his chest, ready to push him off—but waves of delicious pleasure played down my neck where his fingers stroked, and the warm velvet of his full lips stole the breath I'd taken to swear at him.
He held me like a lover, one hand at my neck, the other at my waist. His kiss was tender, but urgent. And then, in the moment when I had just begun to respond to the pleasure quivering through me from his kiss, he tipped his forehead against mine and his fingers tightened on the back of my neck.
When he opened them, his eyes were pure, bright pools of blue that locked on mine as he rasped, "I'm so sorry, there was no warning. No time. I can't… we have to get you to him. But I will get you free from this, I swear it, Zara. Do not doubt me."
"I… wouldn't?" I was scrambling, trying to figure out who he thought he was to me. Obviously we'd kissed before as far as he knew.
His breath rushed out, fluttering sweetly against my lips as he grimaced like he was in pain. "We have no time, so listen," he whispered urgently. "The King is seeking a flower—a sweet, quiet, docile woman who will grace his arm, and be seen to back him at every turn. You must be your most genuine self, Zara. Show your strength and independent mind. Show him… show him the side of you that dances beyond the etiquette of the Court. Do you hear me? I'm saying you must offend him."
I almost laughed. "I… okay."
"This is no joke, Zara. He will remove you from the Select, but I will not allow your father to take you. It is my job to return you to him. Instead I will take you away. I promise it, Zara. Do not fear the consequences of the King's rejection—I will save you. We will finally be free. Together. I vow it."
I blinked. Trying to get my head around what he was saying. It was clear I'd been dropped into the middle of this story—I had to search a foggy mind to remember what the female lead's backstory had been.
"My father is a powerful man… a nobleman. A friend of the King," I muttered to myself. "He's controlling, but he loves me—"
"We will flee them both, Zara," he growled. "I will not let anyone take you from me! Our love is fated… if they can't see that I would protect and provide for you despite the class of my birth…"
Oh! That's right. The Knight Defenders were a brotherhood, trained in the castle, but distributed throughout the Kingdom to various powerful families. Although they were strong and carried a lot of status, they were servants. If this one thought I was the daughter of a noble man, he also thought I was forbidden to marry someone like him.
I met his stunning eyes and smiled. "You'd do that for me?"
His brows pinched together over his nose and he stared at me like he was saddened. "You still question my devotion?"
His intensity was overpowering. I tried to laugh him off, but he took my chin in his hand and locked eyes with me. "Zara, you are the most precious… you are the purpose of my life. God brought us together. And what He joins, let no man pull asunder."
It was all very dramatic, but clearly it was real for him. This was a dream, I remembered. A romantic fantasy. He really felt what he said because my mind had created him to do that.
So I took his handsome face in my hands and pulled him down into another delicious kiss, enjoying the soft slide of his tongue, and the tortured groan that vibrated in his chest.
He was the one to tear out of the kiss, turning his face from me and shaking his head. "You will steal my wits," he muttered, reluctantly putting space between us, taking my hand and pulling me out of the alcove, our fingers entwined. He hesitated at the curtain to scan both directions in the hallway and make sure there were no other people around, then tugged me with him into a brisk walk.
"Remember what I said: You cannot defer to his position. You must treat him as you do me: speak plainly and do not filter your words. He will be put off, and then I will take you away when he has declared his final Selection and discarded you and the others." He said the words with clear distaste.
I was touched—he didn't like the idea of a powerful man "discarding" women.
"You have a good heart," I said, rubbing his arm.
He looked down then, where I touched him, where our hands clasped, and growled at himself, something about inappropriate familiarity.
Letting go of my hand, he bent his arm, tucking my hand around his elbow. "Keep your chin high and ignore me from the moment we enter the room," he muttered. "Let them see your ambition and confidence. Leave it to me to get you out to safety."
"Safety?" Surely they would let me leave the room? The Kings in these stories were always old farts, arrogant and playing with the lives of their people like pawns on a chessboard.
We were approaching an intersection of hallways, but despite the hurry, he slowed his pace and turned to meet my eyes again, his own wide and slightly frightened for the first time.
"Zara, I would marry you." He swallowed hard. "I would take you to wife and rain hell on any man who tried to take you from me," he breathed. "If you will have me, I will never let you be a pawn in someone else's game again."
The shock made me want to laugh again, but I was touched by his sincerity, and the fear in his eyes.
He seemed to really think I might reject him. I opened my mouth, scrambling for the right words to reassure him, but at that moment, footsteps began to ring in the wide hallway ahead of us.
He snapped to attention, his arm tightening to pin my hand to his side as he picked up the pace again and we began to walk even more quickly than we had before.