Reth mentally scanned back through the previous moments of conversation. What had he said to her that would make her angry? He’d only spoken about her choosing him. Why would that anger her?
Human women were strange. She had him tied in knots and she wasn’t even trying.
“Well?” she snapped.
“I’m sorry, what did you ask me?” he said, then cleared his throat. She really was stunning when she wasn’t cowering.
“I said, on what planet would I have to choose you? You’re the King. You’re the rutting stag. I’m the… what did they call me? The weak human? The coward? Why would the choice be mine?”
“Because you’re the female,” he said, confused. Had he so badly misunderstood the mating rituals in the human world? “The female always chooses… at least, for the mating.” He cleared his throat again and scratched the back of his neck. Her sensitivity to the subject was beginning to rub off on him, which was ridiculous.
“In the animal kingdom it is always the same: The males either fight for female favor, or demonstrate their ability to provide. In the end, it’s always the females who choose their mates. We are not animals. But old instincts die hard. As King, of course I have a choice. But when I’ve made one… it’s up to her—to you—to accept me.”
Elia shook her head slowly. “This is crazy,” she breathed. “I can’t do this.”
“Of course you can,” he said gruffly. “All you have to do is turn down any other offers, then accept mine.”
“Offers? What offers?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s theater, like I said. But during the ceremony, other men will attempt to take your attention from me. Simply refuse them.” He paused and indicated his own chest. “Let’s be honest, you’d be crazy not to.” He winked at her then, and for a split second her eyes flashed with humor. But it died as quickly as it appeared. And she looked uncertain again.
Reth sighed and approached her, let his hands rest lightly on her upper arms. “Look at me, Elia,” he said. When she did he held her gaze. Her eyes were a blue so deep and bright they were almost purple. He remembered them from her childhood. He ached to stroke her face, but he knew she was already pulled tighter than a toad net. He couldn’t do anything to trigger her to panic.
“We will go to the flames,” he said softly, “and there will be long boring speeches about the pleasure of the King, blah, blah, blah. Then they’ll put herbs on the fire that create a haze of smoke that is… intoxicating. It will free your mind and your inhibitions. And then the males will try to tempt you. It’s all for show. But in Anima, it has purpose: By forsaking others, you show your willingness to mate for life. Then, when I fight for you, I show my willingness to fight to keep you. And at the end, when I’m the only man standing, you choose me. We kiss. Then we’ll leave.”
Elia blew out another breath, then nodded. “I can do that.”
“I know you can. I’m hoping you can do that soon, because we need to get out there.”
“Okay.” Her shoulders rose and fell slowly. “One last question?”
She swallowed. “What are you getting out of this?”
Reth blinked. The question was so unexpected. No one ever asked him that. “I’m sorry?” he said, to buy himself time.
“You said you fight for me—pretend fight, whatever. My point is… you had to do that already tonight. At the Rite. And now you’re going to do it again. You said all I have to do is choose you. But why… if it’s not pity… why would you choose me? What do you get out of it?”
It was on the tip of his tongue, the whole story, their history, how he knew her, why he cared what happened to her, but the words died in his throat. He couldn’t put that on her now, on top of everything else. Trying to explain all that—make her believe he wasn’t the one who’d chosen her to come to Anima… it was too much.
So in a flash, he told the only other truth that he could. He gave her wicked grin and leaned into her ear. “I get to stop having to deal with women who look at me and only see an unmated King. And, perhaps more importantly, their mothers.”
Her eyes went wide. “They… pressure you?”
He shrugged. “Annoy me, would be closer to the truth. But yes there’s always political pressure on a leader—especially in Anima, where ancestry is so important. There are always tribes looking to improve their standing, or women hoping for an easy life…”
“And they’ll stop pressuring you after tonight?”
“Yes. So while I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful life, Elia, no matter what, I’ll live in eternal gratitude that you don’t look at me like I’m a prize pelt, and that your presence will have stopped the others doing it, too.”
“Delicious,” he said honestly.
Her eyes slid down then, from his face, to his neck, his chest, his abdomen, and he felt her gaze like she’d dragged her fingers down his skin. There was the slightest hint of arousal in her scent that made his groin clench. Then she swallowed and he turned and offered her his arm before he embarrassed himself.
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