BONUS SCENE: MIDWINTER
The village of Cel Ceredi was packed, and even for market day, this seemed excessive. There were the usual carts and tables stocked with dried meats and salted pork, eggs and cheese, butter and sugar. Others were piled high with evergreen branches, mistletoe wreaths, and wood-carved ornaments.
“What is all this?” I asked Vesna as we waded through the throng. She wore green and a matching cloak trimmed with brown fur. Her cheeks were rosy and so was the tip of her nose, but she looked happy and that was all I wanted.
“It’s always like this in the days leading up to Midwinter,” she said.
“What is important about Midwinter?” I asked.
“The weather is harsh here, and usually by midwinter, the worst of it has come to an end. Not to mention, our days will grow longer. So we celebrate by decorating and there is a ball.”
“Well, our version of a ball, which is mostly the same as any feast. You will like it.”
I had no doubt.
“What do you celebrate this time of year?” she asked.
“I would not say we celebrate,” I said. “The week after midwinter is a time of worship and sacrifice to the goddess Asha. It is seven days of fasting and prayer—it’s awful.”
I had always hated it and had begrudgingly participated to appease both my father and Nadia.
Why do we continue to worship goddesses who do not heed our prayers? I had complained to Nadia during the last fast.
They do not heed our prayers because of people like you, Nadia had chided.
It was a horrible thing to say, and a horrible weight to place upon those whose faith had waned in the face of war.
“Then it is good you are here this year,” said Vesna, and we laughed.
We perused more of the market. My eyes were drawn to new additions—colorful and scented candles, paint sets, cloaks, and books.
“There are so many new things,” I said.
“That is another reason the market is so busy,” she said. “People are buying gifts.”
“Gifts are exchanged on Midwinter,” she explained. “You never…exchange gifts in Lara?”
“On occasion, but there is no designated day,” I said. “I was lucky to get anything other than a prayer book.”
That was Nadia’s preferred gift. At one point, I had so many, I buried them in the garden. That had been my only option because I’d still been too afraid of fire to burn them.
“I have only one gift left,” said Vesna. “But buying for Jasenka is always a challenge.”
“How so?” I asked, as I scanned the book titles.
“She is curious. Her interests are always changing,” she said, and gave a light laugh. “I am never certain if she will pursue something for more than a week.”
I shared her laughter. “Perhaps you should buy her a blade,” I said.
“She is only nine, my queen.”
“I received my first blade at eight,” I said. “Of course, I was not allowed to use it until much later.”
“I don’t know whether I should be sad that you learned to fight so young or impressed,” she said.
“I suppose you can feel however you wish,” I said. “But I am thankful for my training. It has saved my life more times than I could count.”
And it was necessary within this world. It should have been necessary for Vesna, but her father would have never allowed her the opportunity to be more powerful than him.
Vesna’s expression was thoughtful. “I am thankful for it too.”
We fell into an easy silence, and I started to wonder if Adrian had been preparing for Midwinter. It was silly to question it. I knew he had, and suddenly, I was frustrated with him because he had given me no notice. What was I supposed to gift to someone like my husband? He had no interests beyond battle and my body.
Perhaps I could encourage a new interest?
We wandered along until a glimmer caught my eye, a string of light-catchers hanging from the awning of a cart. I loved them. Some were simple—a string of beads and crystals—while others were far more intricate, wire webs laced with the same light-catching gems. They cast rainbows all around, all varying in shade and intensity.
“Aren’t they pretty?” Vesna said. “I got one for Kseniya.”
“They are,” I said. “Very pretty.”
But not something I could choose to give Adrian.
I wandered on through the assembly, pausing at the forge where the smith worked, shaping a piece of iron into a blade. The clash of metal on metal added a harshness to the hum of the market, but I liked the sound and I found his work mesmerizing. My eyes dropped to the array of swords, daggers, shields, and arrowheads, and while these seemed like the most practical gifts for Adrian, I still did not feel like they were right.
“Find anything?” Vesna asked, coming up beside me. “If you decide to buy Kseniya a blade, I will teach her to use it,” I said. When I looked at her, her eyes widened.
“My queen, you do not have—”
“Do not feel inclined to say yes,” I said. “But…it is a genuine offer.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I will think on it.”
I offered her a small smile, and we started our return to the Red Palace, navigating along a path of compact snow.
Before we could even leave the village, a great, black stallion caught my eye. My heart leapt into my throat at the sight of Adrian, who sat astride, regal and wicked.
Behind him, Daroc followed, as did two palace servants who led a smaller horse with an attached sled.
A smile spread across my face at the sight of Adrian, and I broke out into a run.
Adrian dismounted Shadow and I jumped into his arms. He held me suspended for a moment before setting me on the ground and kissing me hungrily. Then he pulled away, his fingers tenderly trailing along my jaw.
“You look beautiful, Sparrow,” he said.
I still blushed when he told me that, my cheeks warming under his praise.
“You might have told me this morning,” I said. “But you were gone before I rose.”
He tipped my head back. “Ah, forgive me,” he said. “I had a few kingly responsibilities to attend to.”
I raised a brow and replied dryly, “Those sound very important.”
“Very,” he agreed.
“I’m afraid I must add to your grievances,” I said. “Oh?”
“You did not tell me about this Midwinter Celebration,” I said.
“Sometimes I forget you did not celebrate in Lara. I had every intention of telling you today but it seems someone managed to best me,” he said, looking over my shoulder at Vesna.
“You can hardly blame Vesna. The market is full of merchants,” I chided.
“I suppose you are right,” he said, looking down at me again. “Truly, I did come to find you for that very purpose. It is tradition for the king and queen of Revekka to choose a tree to decorate for Midwinter. Would you join me?”
I pressed my lips together, but could not suppress my smile. His request seemed so quaint and so pure, and it was a stark contrast to how we had spent the majority of our life together so far. Our past was bloody and dark, our future would be too, but these were the moments I lived for—the ones full of bright and happy things.
“Of course,” I said, content that his smile matched mine.
Then Adrian’s gaze shifted to my lady-in-waiting. “Vesna, would you like to join us?”
She opened her mouth and then closed it, her rosy cheeks turning scarlet.
Daroc approached on his horse and dismounted. “I would be happy to escort you, Lady Vesna.”
She accepted his offer, and we mounted our steeds with Adrian leading us into the Starless Forest.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“There are pines near the mountains,” he said.
I went quiet at his response, my earlier excitement dimmed. The mountains held many painful memories for us. It was where Adrian had kept a cabin hundreds of years ago. Where we had fled to escape Dragos. Where we had spent a final night together before we were discovered by the cruel king and I was burned at the stake for telling the truth.
We had gone there a few times since, each time attempting to plant a new memory, but I was beginning to believe that no amount of good could overcome such awful things.
Adrian’s hand tightened around my waist and his head dropped to the crook of my neck.
“We do not have to go,” he said. “I only thought—”
“I know,” I said quickly and covered his hand with my own. He thought to add more memories to the well. “It’s okay. I am content, so long as I am with you.”
Adrian kissed the side of my forehead, and we continued in silence. My thoughts turned once more to possible gifts for Adrian. Then I wondered what he might have gotten me. Perhaps it was presumptuous to assume he had already gotten a gift—maybe I should ask him about it and we could agree to not get anything for each other. I sighed, frustrated. This was causing too much anxiety.
“Are you all right?” Adrian asked quietly.
His tone made me feel guilty. I realized he thought I was upset about going to the mountains.
“Yes,” I said, pausing. “I wish you had told me about Midwinter.”
He was quiet for a moment. “What upsets you so much about it?”
When I did not respond, Adrian prompted. “Isolde?”
“Vesna says that we are to exchange gifts,” I said. “And I do not know what to get you.”
“Why are you laughing?” I asked, agitated.
“You,” he said and his warmth seemed to envelop me further. “You are…everything.”
“Adrian,” I said, leaning my head back against his chest. “This is important. I have never gotten you a gift.”
“You are my greatest gift, Isolde,” he said. “The day I found you was the day I needed nothing else.”
“That is your answer to everything.”
“Do you not think it is a good answer?”
“It is a good answer,” I said. “But not the one I am looking for.”
He chuckled again. “Anything from you, Isolde, will be perfect. Do not think so long on it.”
We came to the foot of the mountain where the naked trees of the Starless Forest faded into scattered pines, firs, and spruces.
“How does one choose a tree for Midwinter?” I asked as I dismounted.
“Looks, of course,” said Vesna. “You want the most beautiful tree for the castle!”
We waded through the snow and wandered between the trees. Now and then, Adrian reached out to touch the needled branches.
“See anything you like?” he asked.
I looked around, truly uncertain of how to choose among so many similar trees.
“Perhaps you should pick,” I said.
He held out his hand and I took it. Then he pulled me along between the trees. As we went, I heard the sound of running water. It came from the mountains, little streams that ran down fissures, filling jagged wells along the face of the rocky wall. I watched the water, choosing one of its many paths to trace until I noticed a substantial spot along the wall that was nearly full. It was a small basin, the edge caked with dying moss, but I could see something moving inside—small fish darting about.
Fish! I gasped.
That was the perfect gift for Adrian.
It was not so long ago that his fish were poisoned.
He had taken great comfort in walking to the garden and watching them swim around, but now the pond sat empty.
“What is it?” Adrian asked.
“Nothing,” I said quickly and turned my head, trying to divert his attention. “What about that tree?”
I pulled him forward, away from the face of the mountain, but I was already trying to figure out how I might return later to retrieve a few of the fish for his pond.
The tree I led him to was massive, so I was not surprised that he laughed.
“I am not so certain that it will fit through the doors of the palace, but if you truly want it, perhaps we can have an outdoor tree this year.”
I frowned, but then Vesna ran up to me in the snow. “My queen! Come see this tree!”
She took my hand and pulled me along, but I knew which one she had chosen before she even pointed to it. It was a blue-toned spruce and its needles were healthy, making the tree appear ample and full. And it was also not too tall, which helped.
“Isn’t it perfect?” she asked.
I smiled at her excitement. “It is perfect,” I said. “Well, have we found the tree?” asked Daroc.
I could not tell if he was asking because he was impatient or bored—but then again, he often looked impatient and bored.
“I think so,” I said.
The general motioned for the servants to begin cutting, and I realized I liked this—the simplicity of being together and not feeling the threat of something terrifying on the horizon—but there was also a moment when I questioned whether or not I truly deserved the peace.
With our tree chosen, we returned to the palace. On the way, I tried to think of when I might be able to return to the mountain tomorrow to retrieve the fish— and how and what I might carry them in until I could get them to the pond. My gaze shifted to Daroc, who rode beside us with Vesna. He could help me. At least, he could keep Adrian distracted while I left the palace for my task.
“You are quiet,” Adrian commented.
I knew he worried, given how I had responded to our return to the mountain, though we were nowhere near our cabin.
“Just thinking,” I said.
“Anything you want to share?” he asked.
I considered my earlier thoughts—about whether or not I deserved this peace—and shared that because it was true. I think my life had taught me to always expect disruption, that I somehow deserved the horrors we had faced for some unknown reason.
At my response, Adrian’s grasp on me tightened, his strength caged me, and I leaned into his warmth.
“No one deserves what you have faced,” he said.
I did not respond because there was nothing to say. This would be a struggle I faced in varying degrees for the rest of my life, and I think Adrian knew that.
When we returned to the palace, the servants prepared to raise the tree in the foyer. Vesna ran to find Safira and retrieve ornaments for decoration.
Tanaka was waiting for Adrian when we arrived and drew him inside ahead of me. I hesitated and turned as Daroc started to take the horses back to the stables.
“Daroc,” I said, halting him.
I hurried down the stairs to him.
“I need your help,” I said, voice quiet, not trusting that Adrian wasn’t nearby, listening.
Daroc raised a brow.
“I want to get Adrian a gift for Midwinter.”
“What do you need from me?”
“I need you to lie.”
Daroc’s brows lowered. “Why?”
“Because I can’t surprise him if he knows I am gone.”
“I guarantee you will surprise him, just not in the way you likely wish.”
I glared. “Are you going to help or not?”
His lips quirked. “What is your plan?”
I explained what I wanted to do—but I had no plan except that I needed someone to distract Adrian.
“I think I should accompany you,” Daroc said.
“We cannot both leave,” I said. “Adrian will definitely notice!”
“First, I am a horrible liar,” he said. “If you leave me behind to be confronted by Adrian, we would both end up coming after you. Second, you can tell Adrian you are going to buy him a gift and I am accompanying you.”
“I…” I opened my mouth and closed it. “Fine…but when can we go?”
Now I felt a little ridiculous.
“We can leave midmorning tomorrow,” he said. “I would be happy to escort you.”
I smiled at Daroc. It was strange; since the betrayal of his long-time lover, he had seemed to open up more—the opposite of what I had expected of him.
“Thank you, Daroc.”
The corner of his mouth lifted and he nodded. “Do not worry about the supplies. I’ll retrieve them,” he added.
Then he turned and headed toward the stables. I watched him go, a heavy sadness gathering in my chest. More than any of us, Daroc deserved happiness, but I knew he did not believe that so he would never let himself have it.
I straddled Adrian, his arousal pressing full between my thighs. I teased him, grinding into him, as his hands fanned across my skin.
“I’m not sure why I allow you to ride me so much,” he said, but there was a small smile on his face and a passionate spark in his eyes.
“Because you like watching me,” I said, and then I planted my hands on his chest and bent to kiss him.
“Hmm,” he said between long thrusts of his tongue. “You like control.”
“I am not the only one,” I said and straightened, my hands smoothing down his arms and my fingers tangling with his.
“I am leaving tomorrow,” I said, and he stiffened, brows lowering. “Daroc is escorting me so I can pick out your gift for Midwinter.”
He relaxed beneath me. “Can I ask where you are going?”
I considered this for a moment and then answered, “No.”
He looked a little frustrated.
“I do not want you to guess,” I explained. “Let me have this moment, Adrian.”
“At least tell Tanaka,” he said. “If you and Daroc are not back within a reasonable amount of time, someone will be able to direct me to find you.”
It made me sad that we had to think like this at all. “I can do that,” I said.
We were both quiet for a moment.
“A gift, huh?” he asked, shifting beneath me, as if to remind me that he was still engorged. “Shall I guess what it is?”
“You can try,” I said. “But I think you will be very surprised.”
“You know what would surprise me?” he said.
“Shall I guess?”
“You can try,” he teased.
“Hmm…would it surprise you if I…let you…take me in the throne room?”
His brows rose. “That is not what I was thinking but I am very interested,” he said, and I laughed, rising up and guiding him inside me. It was a slow descent, my hands pressing to his stomach, my breasts pillowing between my arms. Adrian reached for them, squeezing and pushing down while his hips thrust up. Despite all the times I had taken him into me, he still filled me up whole.
“This…idea of yours,” he said, though he knew it had come from him. “Do you want our people to watch?”
I moaned, feeling warm and safe and happy. I leaned down and kissed him, grinding against him, his hands moving to cup my ass.
“I will take that as a yes,” he said, and then his hold on me tightened and he began to move too, our bodies slamming together in rhythmic harmony that carried us to a violent climax.
I had done as Adrian asked and informed Tanaka of where we were going. Helpfully, he offered to send a servant to ensure the pond was ready for its new occupants, and I was grateful for how invested he seemed.
I met Daroc in the courtyard midmorning where he waited with our horses, and we left for the mountains.
“You have the supplies?” I asked. I assumed we would need some kind of net and a way to carry them home.
He smirked. “Of course, my queen. I always do what I say I will.”
“I did not mean to imply—I am just anxious,” I said.
“It’s all right,” he said quickly, warmly. “This will be simple.”
I hoped he was right. There was a time when I felt as though we could do nothing with simplicity.
Our trek to the mountains passed quickly, and I led Daroc to the craggy wall of the mountain once more, relieved when I found the earthy basin still full of small fish.
“Look at them,” I said. “They are so small. I wonder how they manage to get here.”
“Likely from a lake somewhere in the mountains,” he said. “Water is not often stagnant.”
Daroc returned to his horse and retrieved a clay pot with a lid, which he handed to me. He dipped it into the water, managing to capture a few fish. As he worked, I scanned our surroundings, feeling unsettled, though I did not feel that impending sense of dread that usually came when something bad was going to happen. This was merely a habit.
“Is this enough?” Daroc asked, drawing my attention once more.
“It’s a start,” I said happily.
“I think if I tried to get more, I would just lose these,” he said, taking the lid from me and placing it over the top. Once he was finished, he wrapped the pot in a piece of fabric to secure the top and handed it to me.
“Give this to me once I mount my horse,” he said.
“You intend to ride with it in your hand?”
“How else do I ensure its safety?” he said.
I laughed. “Thank you for coming, Daroc.”
He smiled, and once he was settled upon his horse, I gave him the clay pot and mounted my own horse, pleased and a little wary that our trip to and from the mountain was so easy.
“I can take them to the pond to acclimate them,” Daroc offered upon our return to the palace. He still held the fish against his stomach, his arms wrapped protectively around them.
“What if Adrian’s watching?” I asked. I knew he had been looking for our return—would he curiously follow Daroc’s path into the garden?
“It’s your job to distract him,” he said, pausing. “When will you show him?”
“Tonight,” I said. “Some time during or after the Ball.”
“Let me do this,” he said. “You should get ready for tonight.”
I eyed him almost suspiciously, though I knew Daroc would see to the task.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll distract Adrian.”
Daroc chuckled, a soft, deep sound. “I’m sure it will be quite taxing, but it is for a good cause, wouldn’t you say?”
I arched a brow at him. “Was that a joke, Daroc?”
The spark of genuine amusement in his gaze made me grin. “Do not get used to it,” he said as he walked off toward the garden.
I hurried inside to find Adrian and nearly ran head-first into him at the door. He reached for my shoulders, steadying me.
“Adrian,” I said, my heart racing a little. “What are you doing?”
“Coming to greet you,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
His gaze traveled down my body and then over my shoulder.
“I do not see a gift,” he said.
I narrowed my eyes. “Daroc is helping me hide it from you,” I said. “You are far too predictable.”
Adrian arched his brow. “Am I?”
“I knew you would be waiting. You watched us return, didn’t you?”
“You cannot blame me,” he said. “I worry when you are away.”
“When am I ever far from you?”
“Never,” he said. “And I prefer it that way.”
He dropped his hand and then, without warning, he scooped me up into his arms and threw me over his broad shoulder.
I yelped. “Adrian!”
He chuckled, his hand on my ass. “Not so predictable, am I?”
“Put me down,” I said, but I was laughing, my hands pressing flat against his back so I could keep myself elevated. “No,” he said as he carried me upstairs to our room with impressive speed. Once inside, he lowered me to my feet, took my face between his hands, and kissed me breathless. When he pulled away, he was smiling. “Are you ready for your first gift?” he asked.
“My first gift?” I asked, confused.
“You did not think I would only give you one,” he said.
“Y-yes!” I stammered. “Why didn’t you—”
“Because, Isolde,” he said quickly, stopping me, “this isn’t a competition. I simply wish to make you happy.”
His words made my eyes water, and a deep and strange sadness welled in my chest.
“You do make me happy,” I said. “Happier, then.”
I wanted to argue with him, but he stepped away and crossed the room to the bed. I turned to follow him and then froze. There was a large, white box sitting on the bed, tied with a green bow.
“What is it?” I asked. “Open it,” he said.
I wasn’t sure why I felt so awkward about this, but I could not deny that part of me felt dread.
I pulled the ribbon free and lifted the lid, finding a swath of emerald green silk.
It was a dress. I pulled it out of the box and lifted the gown, holding it to me as I turned toward the mirror. It was beautiful—the waist was high, the bust rounded, and there was a cape detail to the sleeves and off-the-shoulder neckline.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, and then I turned from him, folding the dress over my arm. “Thank you.”
“I thought you could wear it tonight,” he said. “To the ball.”
I smiled. “Of course.”
We stood in silence, watching each other for a moment, and then I placed the dress back in its box and went to him, sliding my hands up his chest and around his neck.
“You make me the happiest,” I said.
He smiled, but it did not touch his eyes, and I knew everything we had been through made him doubt that truth. All I could do was love him despite it because it was just as real as my fear of impending doom.
We moved at the same time, our lips colliding, and there was no slow descent into our madness. Adrian backed me up against the bed, lifted my leg so it was perched against the foot of the mattress and fucked me.
Vesna arrived already dressed in red with ribbons braided into her hair. She looked beautiful and her eyes glinted with excitement. She helped me slip into the gown Adrian had given to me, and the green made my skin and eyes ignite. We paired it with gold and emerald jewels, including my crown.
“You look beautiful, my queen,” Vesna said.
“So do you,” I said.
“I…I have something for you,” she said, and she pulled a small parcel from her pocket.
I took the gift and opened it, feeling less awkward than I had with Adrian, and inhaled a quick breath.
“Vesna, it is beautiful,” I said, gingerly picking up the crystal light catcher. Even in the dim glow of my room, it glimmered.
“I saw you looking at them,” she explained.
“I love it,” I said and gave her a hug, placing the box on my nightstand before opening the drawer and withdrawing another box. “I got you something as well.” Vesna opened the present and picked up the small knife. It was inlaid with gemstones and a pretty, filigree detail. It reminded me of her—beautiful and delicate. I had sent a servant to the village for it this morning as we collected fish.
“I know I said you should consider getting your sister a weapon but…I think you could use one too.”
She met my gaze. “Will you teach me how to use it?”
I smiled. “Happily.”
She embraced me once more before leaving to stow her new blade. I waited for Adrian, who arrived shortly after she left. He wore all black with the exception of his overcoat, which was trimmed in gold. Half of his hair was pulled back braided, and crowned with iron spikes. He smiled when he saw me dressed, his gaze making a slow descent down my body.
“Beautiful,” he said, and he took my hand, kissing my knuckles before he pressed his mouth to mine. “Shall we go?”
“I am more than ready,” I said.
I had become more and more excited as the day had progressed, eager to show Adrian his gift.
As we came down the stairs, I noticed that Vesna and Safira had finished decorating the tree, and it glimmered with candles, ribbon, and a mix of blown glass and carved wooden ornaments.
“Oh, it is perfect,” I said and walked around the perimeter while Adrian waited patiently.
When I went to him again, we entered the great hall, and our people, who had gathered on either side, bowed. The room had been decorated with tall, skinny pines that were adorned in the same manner as the one in the foyer, minus the candles. Garland made of holly and ribbon decked the banquet tables, and lit candles were placed all around the room, adding a cozy warmth.
Adrian took me to the center of the floor and pulled me close.
“Will you dance with me?” he asked.
“Of course, my king,” I said.
The music was light and cheery, composed of harps and bells, and the pace made movement easy and fun. I could not help grinning as we moved across the floor, Adrian’s fingers laced with mine or splayed across my waist. I was not certain what made me so hyper aware of his touch when I felt him so often. Perhaps it was the heat in the room or the magic of the day. Either way, when the song ended and another one began, the floor filling with dancing couples, my veins were on fire with a desperate desire.
We left the floor and ascended to the dais where we each took a seat in our respective thrones. Servants approached with wine—and the hall filled with the savory smell of honeyed ham and roasted vegetables, but I no longer hungered for food.
I hungered for Adrian.
I took a sip of my wine. It felt like fire going down my throat and only made me feel more on edge. I shifted in my seat, crossing and uncrossing my legs, squeezing my thighs together. The longer I sat there, the more my pulse raced, the more my core throbbed, the more desperate I became to draw my legs apart and touch myself just to gauge how wet I really was for the man who simply sat beside me.
I took another sip of wine, my fingers tightening around the wooden goblet.
As mortals finished eating, vampires began to feed, and the feeding turned into touching, and soon, amid the dancing and the feasting and the chatting, people were fucking—and I could no longer handle sitting still.
I rose to my feet and then turned to Adrian.
He met my gaze, eyes gleaming, as I rested my knees on either side of his thighs.
“Sparrow?” he asked, but his hands were already moving, skimming up under my gown, curling into my heat. He made a sound in the back of his throat.
“Fuck me,” he said as he brought that finger to his mouth to taste me.
“I intend to,” I said.
He grinned wickedly and shifted forward, and I gripped his biceps as he spoke, “Oh, Sparrow, we will see about that.”
His mouth descended upon my breasts. First, he toyed with me through the fabric of my gown, but then he shoved my bodice down, licking and sucking until my nipples were hard. His hand moved beneath my dress, tracing along the slickness between my thighs. I squeezed him harder and ground my teeth, and when his fingers finally slipped into me, a guttural cry left my mouth, scraping against my throat.
“Fuck.” Adrian’s curse was low and fierce, and his eyes moved up my body until he met my eyes. Then his mouth found mine and he kissed me hard, his tongue desperately lapping at my mouth, but the more he worked inside me, the less I could hold onto the kiss. Adrian’s free hand gripped my neck, a sheen of perspiration breaking out across his forehead as he continued his quick and frantic movements. I could barely breathe when I came in a rush of warmth and collapsed against Adrian.
I expected him to reach between us and take out his length—I could feel it against me, hard and thick—but he did not move so I reached for him, running my hand down him and teasing the crown of his cock.
Adrian groaned and stopped me. I met his gaze.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing is wrong,” he said. “I only wish to give you another gift.”
“What if I want to make you come?” I asked.
He grinned and kissed my forehead. “Just wait for your next gift.”
We rose and Adrian pulled me toward his study door. I kept my eyes on him, unable to glance at the room. It was enough that I could feel people watching us now, and I knew they had watched us earlier.
“Do not be embarrassed,” Adrian said, his voice quiet as we entered his study.
“I do not know that I am embarrassed,” I said. “Maybe it is that I am not comfortable yet.”
“Yet?” he asked, arching a brow. “Does that mean you want to do it again?”
“I wouldn’t say no,” I said and then turned to face the room.
It was illuminated warmly with burning candles just like in the great hall. My gaze settled on a rectangular parcel that sat on Adrian’s desk.
“Did you hide gifts everywhere?” I asked.
He chuckled. “No, and this is the last one.”
I went to the box, which was wrapped in brown paper. As I tore the first piece away, I burst into tears. I knew what it was the moment I saw the carved wood and mother-of-pearl.
It was my music box, the one I had broken in a fit of rage, the one my father had gifted me before my wedding, but that was not why it was so sentimental. The reason I loved it was because of its music, a lullaby my mother had sung.
I took a moment to compose myself before tearing the remaining paper away and opening the box. My mother’s lullaby played, a sweet and pure chime.
“Adrian,” I said and covered my mouth as my voice broke. He came to me and slipped his arms around my waist, holding me, resting his chin in the crook of my neck.
I was so moved—so grateful.
I turned to him and kissed him hard before drawing back.
“Come with me,” I said.
It was time for me to show Adrian his gift, and a thrill went through me as I led him out of his office, to the courtyard, and into the garden. Several torches blazed in the cold night throughout the garden.
Adrian said nothing and the only time I felt him hesitate was when I led him toward the vine-covered wall. I stopped and looked up at him. “I know how much your fish meant to you,” I said. “When I saw them in the mountains, I thought it would be the perfect gift. Daroc helped. So did Tanaka.”
He stood, quiet and stiff, and for a moment, I thought he was angry.
He did not respond as I said his name, but continued on toward the pond.
There, he knelt and peered down into the pool. I watched over his shoulder and could see the small fish swimming about, content in their new home.
I let him sit there and watch in the quiet cold, feeling strangely out of place, though it had been my gift to him. I decided it might be best if I left, to give him time and space, but when I moved, he rose to his feet, reaching for my arm. He drew me close and kissed me fiercely, passionately, gently. When he pulled away, he held my head between his hands, his thumbs brushing my skin. “You are my light,” he whispered, his voice warm and low.
It sent a shiver down my spine, and I wrapped my arms around his neck, my mouth hovering over his as I whispered back, “You are my light.”