After she is forced into marriage with a powerful ruler who deflowers and kills his brides, Issalia is compelled to use her wits to avoid the executioner’s axe. But can she avoid having her heart captured by the deeply wounded king?
Issalia’s seemingly calm demeanor gave him pause and he leaned forward to peruse her, waving off the bowl of fruit. The ends of her curls trembled. So she was afraid. Under his examination, her expression quickly became one of pride and defiance. This one would put up a fight.
Toridesh smiled and descended from the throne in three quick steps. Though dusty from the marketplace and obviously frightened, her beauty was unspoiled and an aura of innocence glowed from within her. He congratulated himself again on such a fine choice.
He touched her chin to raise her eyes to his. “It is customary, maiden, for you to kneel in the presence of a king.”
She moved her face to the side, a subtle gesture, but one that caused his fingers to slide away. Prideful girl. Rosebud lips pressed together. She was not going to answer him, nor was she going to kneel.
“My name is Issalia. My family, my carrons, call me Issa. You may call me Issalia.” Though her voice was soft, the tone was as firm as stone.
How audacious of her to speak to him in this way! His head snapped up, his gaze darting to his attendants. Dealing with her in private would be best.
“Out, all of you, now.” There was a rustling and tapping of feet on the sandstone floor as slaves and guards alike hurried from the chamber.
The head palace guard paused before he left the room, eyeing Issalia’s slight form. “Your Majesty.” His voice rumbled in the silence of the chamber. “I humbly implore you to keep me in the room—”
“Nonsense.” Toridesh brushed his fingers against Issalia’s face, smiling when she twisted away. “She is well aware that to attack me is to bring down vengeance on her family and relatives.”
“I fear more for my family than for myself.” Issalia pressed her hands together. “Do with me what you want, leave them be.”
Toridesh waved his hand. “Firaz, I am safe here. Go.” Firaz shut the door when he left, and Toridesh knew he was just outside, waiting for any sign of danger.
“So you wish to taunt me.” He twined his fingers through her hair, the lovely tangle of bronze and brown curls that had captured his attention in the first place. “Perhaps that is not wise. Perhaps you should take this opportunity to beg for your life.”
Issalia blew out a puff of breath. Defiance squared her shoulders and she raised her chin to look him in the eye. Despite her small size, the look of anger in her eyes was enough he had to steel himself not to step backward.
“If it is my fate to be your wife and then perish at your hands, then so be it.”
Full of bravado, this one. It suited her well. Toridesh stroked her cheek, feeling her muscles tense at the jaw line. Smooth, pretty skin. His fingers plucked at the collar of her blouson, and it pleased him that she did not flinch, though the tremors continued to shake her body. He dropped his hand lower and cupped her breast, stroked the firm flesh under the thin cotton, watched as she bit her lower lip, her gaze on the floor.
He continued his exploration, brushing his fingers across the peak that had hardened under his touch. It was then she stepped back, crossed her arms. “Preserve your caresses for your wedding night, king.”
“Will they be any better received then, maiden?” He reached forward and crushed her to his chest, tipped her chin up and pressed his lips to her succulent ones. Kissing her made the blood roar in his head and pressure rise in his groin. She was sweet and warm, like fruited honey that was heated to just below boiling, or the heart of the ripest, sweetest strawberry.
She yielded to his mouth, allowing him to taste her to the fullest. Dizzy with her essence, he swayed slightly on his feet and held her even tighter.
Issalia made a small sound in her throat that vibrated through his body, urging him on, making his head buzz and swoop as if he were a virgin boy receiving his first kiss.
After breaking the kiss, he stared at her upturned face for a moment. How could she have such an effect on me? The other maidens he had kissed had been pliant, acquiescent to all of his demands. Issalia was none of these things. Her defiance and inner fire had ignited something within him that he had never experienced.
He let her go so suddenly she stumbled before she dropped to the low chaise next to her. Color shone in her cheeks and her chest heaved as she fought for breath. She raised a trembling hand to her now-swollen lips and touched them. Issalia looked at him in wonderment.
Before she could speak, he strode to the door and tore it open. Her effect on him was more than it should have been.
“Take her away,” he barked, turning on his heel to stride back to his throne. “Take her to her quarters. Amina will prepare her for the wedding.”
After she was gone, he sat on the lounge she had vacated, took a few deep breaths. Something about her stirred him, touched him more deeply than he cared to admit to himself. He would have to be very careful with her.
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