She was still frowning at him, waiting for an answer. But, instead he took her hand, kissed her knuckles, and said, “You may be different than our kind, Elia, but you are one of us. I watched the wolf in you make a plan and stick to it. I watched the steed in you push forward even when you were exhausted. And I watched the Lion in you roar. Ignore the taunts and questions of my people. They just haven’t looked closely enough, yet, to see what I see. You will find your place here. You will be an excellent Queen.”
“But… why me?”
Reth sighed. “I didn’t choose the sacrifices, Elia. You can ask any Anima and they’ll tell you—the clans choose, each in their own way. And the choice of the Pure One is always given to the strongest clan below the King’s. I did not know you would be in the circle tonight, but once I saw you there… had it been up to me, I would have chosen you then.” It was pure truth, but it only brought a deeper confusion to her features, puckering a little V between her brows.
Reth shrugged. “Who can explain it beyond the Creator? Some people are meant to be together. Tonight we learned that we are. I cannot answer why… I can only tell you that I’m certain of it.”
“You learned that tonight?” she said, a hint of hope in her tone.
“Didn’t you?” he asked softly, surprised by the tenderness in his chest. As if she could bruise him with the wrong answer.
“I thought it was just the smoke. I thought it made us all feel… good.”
He shook his head. “I’ve been in dozens of ceremonies. Touched hundreds of females—with the smoke, and outside it. I’ve never felt that certainty before. Never had trouble controlling myself.”
She frowned, and he wondered what he’d said wrong.
“What control did you lose?” she asked.
Reth chuckled again. “A dear friend had to put a hand to me to stop me tearing you out of the grip of all those males. He could feel how close I was to the edge. He said he’d felt the same way when he and his wife were mated. It’s a sign of… rightness.”
She nodded and something in her eased. Reth waited, letting her think through everything she’d seen. When her eyes drifted back up to his, he held his breath.
“So we’re married now?” she said, her voice husky.
Reth sucked in, kept his hands clenched on his thighs so he wouldn’t grab her. “Yes.”
When he spoke, her eyes cut to his mouth and her desire spiked again. Reth wanted to roar, but he kept himself very still. He didn’t want to frighten her. Let her come like the doe in the forest, picking her way carefully, alert.
Her eyes trailed down his neck and chest again, to where her hand still rested on him. His skin hummed when she stroked him there, just once. Then she locked eyes with him again.
Reth could barely breathe. It was always the females’ choice—always. But he wasn’t certain if her signs would be the same as an Anima woman’s.
Actually, he knew they weren’t. Any Anima female would have leapt on him like a frog by now. He’d heard that human women were much more careful—they lived in a world where the choice was often taken from them. A thought that made Reth want to bite something.
No, he couldn’t urge her. Had to let her make the choice for herself.
She dropped her eyes again, watched herself stroke first his chest, then slide her hand up to cup his neck in a way that made him pray she would kiss him. But then she met his eyes again and… nothing.
The silence between them stretched, until finally she sighed and pulled her hand back to her own lap. It was as if she’d turned off a light. Everything in her darkened and Reth grieved it.
“Thank you… thank you for caring about how I feel. For making me safe,” she said quietly, though Reth was off-balance now, because she sounded sad.
He curled his hands to fists again, but this time to stop himself from grabbing her and pulling her back to his chest.
“Are you… tired?” he asked uncertainly.
She nodded sadly, still looking at her own hands in her lap. “I think it would be good to rest,” she said.
And so Reth got to his feet and offered his hand, led her to the bedroom, and showed her the sleeping platform that was attached to his, but had its own level. Its own space.
He thought he caught her looking at the main bed, directly above it. But when he looked again, she’d turned to the furs he’d shown her.
Minutes later she was snuggled in, one hand under her chin, exclaiming over the softness of the furs and their warmth.
Reth ached to warm her himself, but instead, he tucked her in, wished her good rest, and walked to the blow out all the candles and lanterns that had been lit in the room.
Her breath became low and even almost immediately. And when he finally crawled between his own furs, it was with a body aching with frustrated desire, and a heart that pounded for all the wrong reasons. He lay back, staring at the high, rock ceiling, one arm curled under his head, and let a low growl of self-loathing shudder in his throat.
She’d wanted him. She’d chosen him.
But she hadn’t offered herself.
He reminded himself she was human and would need more time to find her comfort.
But deep down, he knew something was wrong. He knew he’d scented her desire, more than once. And her jealousy when the other females touched him.
No, if she’d chosen not to give herself, there was something wrong. Something that still frightened her, or gave her caution.
He would just have to be patient.
He rolled over then, to look at her in the dark—his Lion eyes had no trouble making out the peace now on her face. His heart swelled with the urge to protect her, to bring her to a place where she’d look that rested when she smiled at him.
But then she rolled over, fluffing the furs as she moved and her scent washed over him.
Reth groaned quietly.
His desire for her had reached near painful proportions. Before he could do anything he’d regret—or she might fear—he threw back his furs, grabbed his trousers, and ran silently from the cave, fleeing the sight and smell of her so he wouldn’t be tempted to reach for her.
When he made it out to the clearing, and had to stop—he’d forgotten about the guard—he made an excuse about needing fresh air to clear his head of the smoke. But the men all knew and looked at him, then at each other.
He kept his chin up and his shoulders back as he ordered them to keep guard over her, then disappeared among the trees. But when he was out of sight, he let his body sag, cursing himself for letting the men see that he’d left her.
It definitely wasn’t the wedding night he’d always envisioned for his life.
But, at least, he reminded himself, it also wasn’t a wedding night with Lucine, as he had feared.
Thank the Creator for that.