“You say your life is over,” Reth began.
Elia coughed. “I don’t just say it. Whoever stole me from my world killed me—ended my life—just as surely as if they’d murdered me on the spot. To everyone who knew me, for everything I’ve ever done or been involved in… it’s over. They’ll never know where I went, what happened to me. I’ll never finish anything I started. My life, in my world, is over.”
“And you grieve it?” he asked.
“Of course I grieve it!”
He frowned. “But was it such a life that it was worth holding so tightly? The sacrifices from the humans are selected, it’s true—but only from certain situation. You are an orphan. No family. Clearly you had no lover. Can life be full without family or a mate?”
Her mouth dropped open and she gaped like a fish on a hook. “I would have… There was a man I thought… Those things would have come. I only needed time.”
A strange expression crossed his features that she couldn’t read. He looked down for a moment in the most uncertain she’d seen him since he appeared in the clearing. Then he looked up again, his eyes locked on hers. “What happened to your parents?” he asked softly, gently. If he’d asked in any other tone she would have told him to mind his own business. But it was as if he actually cared.
She swallowed. “When I was in my last year of high school they were in a car accident. My mother died on the scene. My father held on for a few days, but… it was better that he didn’t wake up.” She cursed the tears threatening again. She was so sick of crying! Of feeling weak! But this night… it had all been too much.
As she cursed and tried to wipe the tears from her face, his face dropped and she saw lines next to his mouth for the first time.
“I don’t know if it’s a comfort, but that is one manner of death you do not need to fear in the WildWood,” he said carefully. Then he cleared his throat. “I’m very sorry that your parent passed. They were—I’m sure they were good people.”
“How would you even know that?” she snapped, trying vainly to stop her tears.
“Because they raised you,” he said.
She blinked and frowned at him. “You don’t know me.”
“I know enough.”
“No, you don’t!” she snapped, glad for the anger that kept her grief at bay. “You ripped me out of my life and brought me here and… and…”
“And made you Queen,” he said simply. “I promise you, my decision was not made in pity.”
“Then what did make it for you?”
His eyes never left hers as he approached, and reached for her hands. She was so overwhelmed she just let him take them.
He raised them to his mouth and kissed her knuckles, never breaking eye-contact. She knew she should be awed. But all she could feel was a boiling rage twisted up with teeth-chattering fear.
“Elia, no matter what else you may feel, this is real. You are here. And here is very different to your world. Here, we have learned to accept what we cannot change. Fighting it only brings pain and steals peace. And right now the thing we cannot change is that we have been thrown together—and we must publicly be seen to be together for the good of my people, and for your own safety. I understand that you’re afraid. I wish I could change it, but I cannot. For tonight, at least, you must become Anima. You must become the Lioness who will rule her people. And you must do so in the furs of a woman who is desired and strong. The Flames—the smoke—will help. I promise. But until we get there you must pretend. Show a stronger front than you feel. I will be here. I will not let you fall. But where the choices are yours—the words, the actions—they will measure you for what you do, what you say. You must accept this and walk into the new life the Creator has given you. One step at a time. And this is your first step.”
She took a deep breath and swallowed all the feelings back. Then she took her hands back. Then she turned to the clothing on the bed and sighed again.
“Very good, Elia,” Reth said. While she leaned down to take off her high heels, he turned back to the closet and shrugged off the vest he’d been wearing with its Lion’s mane collar. As he hung it up, his back was revealed in the light of the lanterns, Elia swallowed.
His muscles gleamed, crawling like ladders from his trim waist to the wide expanse of his shoulders. The line of his spine made a deep crease down the center of his back. But here and there, all over his body, his smooth skin was marred by white, puckered scars, some in deep, parallel lines, like claws. Others in half-moon punctures like teeth. And one at his shoulder blade that made Elia swallow to think what must have done it.
Then he unbuckled his belt and shoved his pants down and Elia’s eyebrows shot up and she turned, trying to ignore the clinking and rustling sounds coming from where he stood that must mean he was removing all his clothing.
Reth chuckled. “I will keep my back turned until you tell me otherwise, Princess. But this is one thing you’ll need to become accustomed to. The Anima are unashamed of our bodies.”
If she looked like that she’d probably be unashamed too, Elia thought. She swallowed hard. “It isn’t… I just…”
He turned only his head, to meet her eyes for a silent breath. Then, “You’re safe here. I will not disrespect your wishes and look. Take your time.” Then he turned back to the closet and muttered something under his breath that sounded like sweet girl, but she couldn’t be sure.
Elia looked at the clothing on the bed that amounted to not much more than a bikini. His word from a moment before echoed in her head: Here, we have learned to accept what we cannot change. Fighting it only brings pain and steals peace…
For a moment she let the unfairness of it all wash over her. She shook with the fear and frustration and rage. She would give herself just one, slow breath to feel it and then she would push it away and try to accept. But before she’d taken that second breath, Reth’s voice rose softly from behind her.
“For what it’s worth, Elia, I’m truly sorry that you were brought here against your will.”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say. Didn’t think there was anything she could say. So she just lifted her hands in a desperate shrug, then started unbuttoning her blouse.
It wasn’t until later that she realized he hadn’t said he was sorry she was there. Only that she’d been brought against her will.
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