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But she would not feign love for a man she despised. There were some lies even she could not tolerate.
A shadow flashed across Gild’s face and she could tell he felt properly chastised. His shoulders hunched. “I hope he—” he started, but paused, lips tight as though he’d bitten into a lemon. It took him a moment to try again. “I hope he’s a …gentleman.”
Gentlemanwas spat out like a lemon seed, and for some reason, Serilda’s heart softened. She knew he was trying to understand, toaccept, as well as he could.
Swallowing hard, she settled a hand on his wrist.
“He does not hurt me,” she said.
Which was true, in its way. He had never hurt her physically … excepting the time he’d cursed her by stabbing a gold-tipped arrow through her wrist. He hardly touched her when they were alone, in stark contrast to the gross affection he showed her in the presence of others. Serilda sometimes wondered what the court thought of the whole situation. Their king—beautiful, tranquil, dangerous—apparently pining for her. Mortal and plain by anyone’s estimation, with strange golden wheels overlaid on the irises of her eyes. In the mortal realm, her eyes had marked her as someone to be avoided. She was strange. She was cursed. She would bring misfortune on anyone who got too close to her.
But the dark ones and their king did not harbor these superstitions. Perhaps becausetheywere often the misfortunes that humans were so afraid of.17
Maybe the demons assumed it was her anomalies that the king was attracted to.
The lines on Gild’s brow eased, but only slightly. He gave a curt nod, and it hurt Serilda—an actual sharp pain beneath her ribs—that she could not say more.
True, the king did not hurt her. She would not be warming his bed, not tonight or any night. She would not be giving him a child, at least not in the way Gild suspected.
It isn’t true, she wanted to whisper. To lean forward and nuzzle her cheek against his temple. To press him against the wall and mold her body to his.I am not his. I will never be his.
But I still want to be yours.
She said nothing, though, and released Gild’s wrist before continuing her journey through the castle halls.
Toward her waiting groom.
Gild followed with soft footsteps, and she couldn’t help being glad that he hadn’t vanished. It was torture to be around Gild while she harbored these secrets, but it was far worse to be without him. At least when he was near, she could imagine that he felt this way, too. A shared agony. A mutual desperation. A longing for what they’d once had. What had felt, for an achingly brief moment, like it might become something more.
They came to a crossed path at the end of the hall, and she couldn’t recall if she ought to turn left or right. She stood, struggling to remember, when Gild sighed quietly and gestured to the left.
She smiled at him, shy and grateful, but the misery on his face constricted her chest. There were gold specks in his eyes, catching on the firelight. His copper-red hair was unkempt, as if he’d spent the last week dragging his hands through it rather than a comb. The row of buttons on his linen shirt was uneven, a hole missed.
She didn’t really decide to do it, so much as her hands were on the fabric of his shirt before she could stop them. Undoing the misplaced button.
Gild went statue-still beneath her touch.18
Warmth flushed across Serilda’s cheeks, even though it was a phantom blush. She had no heartbeat, no real blood pumping through her veins anymore, thanks to the curse that had separated her spirit from her mortal body. But she was well acquainted with embarrassment and, these days, even more with yearning.
The button popped free in her fingers, which had started to tremble. She smoothed out the material, aligning the two sides of his wide collar against his throat.
Gild inhaled sharply.
Her fingers stalled, lightly gripping each side of the collar, now revealing his bare throat, the dip of his clavicle, pale freckles at the top of his chest.
She could lean forward. Kiss him. Right there on that bared skin.
“Serilda …”
She glanced up. Countless thoughts were written in his eyes, echoing her own.
We can’t.
We shouldn’t.
I want this, too.
She pressed the pad of her thumb against those freckles.