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Lionel falls into step beside me as we venture into the forest. I’m acutely aware of his presence, and when I try not to look at him, it’s as if I can see nothing else. Every roll of his shoulders or idle movement draws my attention, making me feel like a lovesick puppy.
Hunting doesn’t go well, likely because I’m too distracted to focus on the task in front of me.
After we wander for hours without any luck, we return to our camp in the heat of the day. I’m ready to move on.
Cadalia and Shalay are waiting for us—but they’re not alone.
“Cadalia!” I yell as soon as I spot what they’ve cornered against a tree. Leaving Lionel behind, I run forward to intercept.
“This man claims to know you,” Shalay says. She takes a step forward, looming over her prisoner as she narrows her emerald eyes.
The man we met in front of the tavern yesterday looks my way, his eyes wide. “Are these…yours?”
Cadalia bristles at the idea that she might be a pet, and smoke wisps from her nostrils.
“Please, let him go,” I say with a sigh. “Let’s see what he wants before you roast him.”
Shocked, Aubrey turns to me.
I only offer an unrepentant shrug in apology.
With great reluctance, the dragons give the man room. He pushes away from the tree and clears his throat, looking rather embarrassed.
He wears a deep green doublet trimmed with silver thread. His brown boots look recently polished, and every spot of metal on him gleams—from buckles to buttons to blades. I’m instantly aware of how disheveled I must look after traipsing through the woods all morning.
“Genevieve,” he says when he turns his eyes on me, almost as if he’s testing the name.
“Unless I’m mistaken, and I don’t think I am”—he flashes a scathing look at my dragons—“you are Lady Delana’s daughter.”
Even though I was expecting it the moment I saw the man, my blood goes cold.
“What do you want, Aubrey?” Lionel asks, joining us. The imposing prince stands by my side, which is a gesture I find far more comforting than I probably should.
Aubrey’s eyebrows go up when he takes in Lionel. The prince looks far different than he did when we first met the man in the village.
Shaking his head as if he’s still processing the situation, Aubrey says, “It suppose it’s not a coincidence to find the two of you together, considering both of you were abducted by dragons.”
Shalay growls quietly, reminding him those dragons are still present.
“And both of you are assumed to be dead,” he adds, shooting a cautious look over his shoulder.
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Lionel says.
“I’m here for Genevieve.” Aubrey frowns at the prince. “I have come to escort her safely back to her family.”
My stomach knots, and more wretched tears sting my eyes. I refuse to let them fall, not wanting to give Aubrey a chance to take the news of my weakness back to the people who discarded me.
“I have no desire to return to them,” I tell him, hoping to put an end to the conversation. “And I am old enough to refuse.”
Aubrey extends his hands in a pleading gesture. “But they are your family, and this…this is a miracle. Do you have any idea how the local people will rejoice when they learn you’re alive? There isn’t a child who doesn’t know your name—tales of your sacrifice and bravery have graced every hearth fire from here to western Glendon. And now you’re here, and you’ve befriended the creatures. By the end of the summer, there won’t be a soul in Lauramore who doesn’t know you and your story.”
“My mother and stepfather gave up the right to call me their daughter when they tied me to the sacrificial pier,” I say. “If you must tell them anything, tell them that.”
I turn away, dismissing him.
“Who are you?” I demand, whipping back to face him. “What makes you think you have a right to confront me like this?”
At my anger, Shalay and Cadalia edge closer.
“And what in Elden makes you think I would want to see them?” I demand. “I was a child, and they sent me to my death. Do you have any idea what that was like? You talk of my bravery like I was old enough to make that kind of sacrifice—but I was not. Can you imagine how scared I was? How abandoned I felt? What parents order the murder of their daughter?”
Aubrey looks stunned, and I blink back angry tears. Lionel steps between us, blocking him from my view.
“You need to leave,” the prince says, his voice low and controlled. “Do not mention Genevieve to Lord Quinn. Do not whisper her name at all. You didn’t see either of us, do you understand?”
Sounding defeated, Aubrey says, “I already told them.”
I clench my eyes shut when my world begins to spin. They know I’m here—they know I’m alive.
“Then they can live with disappointment,” Lionel says sharply, making me love him a little more.
No—not love. Something, maybe, but not love. The word is too big, too significant.
Undaunted, Aubrey peers around Lionel. “Don’t you want to meet your brother? He wants to meet you.”
Lionel draws his sword, apparently tired of the conversation. The warning is silent…but not terribly subtle. “Genevieve knows where to find you. If she wishes to see her family, then she will contact you herself.”
Aubrey glares at Lionel’s blade, looking like he wants to argue. But he’s a head shorter than the prince and about half his size. Plus, Lionel looks like he’s itching for a fight.
Wisely, Aubrey holds up his hands in surrender and steps back. Unfortunately for him, he accidentally bumps into Shalay, who managed to sneak up behind him. He lets out a squeak of surprise and jumps to the side.
Normally, I would laugh, but I’m not in the mood.
“I’ll go now.” Aubrey turns toward the woods, his wary eyes on my dragons. “But, Genevieve, please—think about it.”
“Wait,” I call to him before he disappears into the woods. “You never told me who you are.”
Aubrey flashes me a smile over his shoulder, perhaps thinking my curiosity means more than it does. “I’m your cousin—Lord Quinn’s nephew. His brother’s son.”
“I don’t remember you.”
“That’s all right. Just don’t forget me now.”
Lionel growls under his breath, jerking his head in a silent warning. Aubrey rolls his eyes, turning down the path. As he goes, he calls, “I don’t suppose you saw my horse around here?”
“Horses don’t like dragons,” I holler back.
“So I noticed,” Aubrey grumbles, and then he’s gone.
Lionel turns to me. Hesitating for only a moment, he sets his hands on my shoulders. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I lie. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You owe them nothing,” he says quietly.
“As we have said a hundred times, we are your family,” Shalay says as she and Cadalia join us. The dragon nudges me with her snout. “And you are ours.”
I nod, feeling a bit watery again.
Not overly emotional by nature, they don’t linger.
“Break camp,” Cadalia instructs when she pulls away. “Let’s leave this region.”
“Yes,” I agree.
The dragons take to the sky, giving me a moment alone with Lionel. I turn my eyes back to the prince, realizing he still has his hands on my shoulders.
I stare at the ground, my mind too full.
“You want to see your brother, don’t you?” Lionel asks quietly.
“He was so little when…” I shake my head as obnoxious tears pool in my eyes. “Mother would let me hold him sometimes. I remember thinking that I would love him, take care of him. Never let him feel unwanted.”
I let out a scoffing laugh. “I was young and stupid. Of course he would never feel unwanted—he was Lord Quinn’s son, heir to his title and land. I was the only unwanted child in that family.”
“Do you want to see him?” Lionel asks again, his voice laced with so much soft understand. “If you do, I will protect you from your parents. I will stay by your side—I won’t them touch you, with words or with hands.”
“No,” I breathe. “I saw him—he is well. That’s enough.”
We’re quiet for several moments as Lionel patiently lets me collect myself. Once I nod, silently telling him I’m all right, he offers me a wry smile. Rubbing his thumb against my shoulder, he says, “You know, you should thank your fool parents.”
I bristle at the thought. “And why is that?”
His smile grows. “Because, Genevieve, if you hadn’t come to live with the dragons, you wouldn’t have met me. And what a tragedy that would have been for you.”
Maybe it is love, a little voice whispers in my head.
I can deny it to myself all I like, but I know the truth. Despite all his faults—numerous as they may be—I’m falling for this disgraced prince.
But it’s a path to heartbreak. How long will Lionel linger with the dragons? A year? Two at the most? Eventually, he’ll return to his place in the world. He won’t stay with me forever.
Our time is destined to be short.
“Lionel…” I say.
Slowly, he runs his hands down my shoulders until they meet my hands. He winds our fingers together, the gesture infinitely sweet.
“I care for you,” he says quietly, his eyes meeting mine. “This family you’ve found with the dragons, I want to be a part of it.”
I stare at him, unable to breathe, much less answer.
He raises an eyebrow, his smile turning wry. “And yes, that’s a confession.”
With his eyes locked on mine, he leans down. I know I should pull away, but I go perfectly still, conflicted to a point it hurts.
I want this—I want him. But love is dangerous. It betrays you. It rips you apart and abandons you as you attempt to put back the jagged pieces. I haven’t fully healed from the first time love destroyed me. This next time might kill me.
As if sensing my conflict, Lionel smiles. “I’ll do all you ask of me. I’ll make nice with the local villagers and say thank you for trivial things shopkeepers do—even if they’re simply doing the job I’m paying them to perform.”
“You can’t help yourself, can you?” I laugh even though part of me wants to cry.
“Genevieve,” Lionel whispers, close enough the words caress my lips.
I clench my eyes shut, trapping in too many emotions. “I can’t.”
One of his hands leaves mine, and he weaves his fingers through the hair at the base of my neck. “Why?”
“Because you’ll leave. Not right away, but eventually. Lionel, you can’t want this life.”
“I won’t leave,” he promises. “You’re all I have—you’re all I want.”
“It’s easy to say that now, but this isn’t a life for a prince of Vernow. At some point, you must reclaim the crown that belongs to you.”
He shakes his head, adamantly disagreeing. “No.”
I stand on my tiptoes and press my lips to his, giving him a soft kiss full of regret. He meets it, silently begging me to change my mind.
And I almost do.
Every inch of me warms, and my knees grow weak. Lionel smells like soap and forest, and the short stubble on his jaw scrapes against my skin. Every sensation is new, every moment perfect.
He’s so tall, he picks me up, holding me tightly. When we break the kiss, I wrap my arms around his neck, clinging to him like he’s leaving this very moment.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
As if defeated, Lionel lowers me to the ground and rests his forehead against mine. “I will wait for you,” he vows. “I will never abandon you or cast you away—I will prove to you that I will stay. I don’t care how long it takes, when you are ready, I will be waiting.”
I step away, rubbing the ache in my chest with the heel of my palm. I believe that Lionel means it now…but I don’t believe the words will prove true.
“Let’s return to the ridge.” He frowns at our surroundings, rubbing his neck as if suddenly weary. “Surely we can find game closer to home.”
Nodding, I begin the task of breaking camp. We talk little, but the silence is comfortable. I find myself watching Lionel, realizing my decision would have been easier if he’d gotten frustrated with me. But he’s calm, far more at ease than I expect. When he catches me watching him, he gives me a reassuring smile. It tells me that we’re all right, that my rejection didn’t put a rift in our growing friendship.
Friendship, a snide voice whispers in my head. The man offered you everything, and you turned it down.
Even now, I worry I’ll regret the decision for the rest of my life. What if this was my one chance at happiness, and I refused it?
Soon, the dragons return, and I push my fears aside.
Together, we begin the journey home.
End of Part One
The story will resume September 16th!