It was to her credit that she did not respond to his taunt. Instead, she turned her head away, thwarting whatever manipulation he might attempt. “She could not, for she does not know what love is.”
Her hands floated to the blanket that lay over her legs, her fingers smoothing out the creases and impressions his hands had made on the blanket’s surface. Her practical – almost compulsive – action interrupted the momentum of the conversation, halting Wolfram from teasing her further.
The man found himself sitting on the bed to her side, waiting for her to speak.
When her thoughts settled into place, her hands stopped their movement, folding neatly in her lap. “I meant to say that my lady has not loved anyone. She calls it ideal to never had any entanglements to distract her from doing her job. She refuses to love.” She paused for a tiny moment. “If I loved you, how could she possibly know?”
He admired how she tried to use logic and a calm expression to deflect his question. However, he was not the sort to be easily distracted by such tactics. “A woman doesn’t have to experience love to observe what it is. She must have known we were lovers. Perhaps for that reason she forbid you from associating with me. ”
“Of course she knew,” she shook her head. “You are a wolf. But she had no reason to worry about that. It is not as if I spoke of you constantly like a silly young girl. If anything, I have said little and obeyed her in every order thus far.”
“What does it matter if you have obeyed or not?” His hands moved quickly, trapping her between his arms and boxing her in between himself and the wall. This quick, forceful action refocused the lady’s attention back upon him. “I don’t care about her. You and I have unfinished business. You have responsibilities that involve me.”
Caught, her eyes darted back and forth. Seeing no way to free herself, she became annoyed. “I’m certain there are many younger cousins who would gladly fulfill that purpose.“
“I have no wish to train a new wife,” he said lightly as his mouth hovered near hers.
“You ought to,” she turned her head away. “ I am not particularly suited to bearing a litter of cubs. Nor do I have the time or temperament. We fight too much!”
And yet, it was her ability to fight him that made him admire her. In this family, they were always accommodating him. The young ladies who had recently filled his estate were too young, too simple, too sheltered like him. But she did not understand this. “I see. Is this refusal some sort of revenge for the coldness you perceived on my part?”
“No!” She suddenly despaired. “I have never wanted revenge. What I do would never be for revenge.”
He frowned slightly. “Let me ask again. Why have you stayed? If not for her or for me, then what?”
She placed her hands on his chest, whether to keep him away or close he did not know. ”It’s the snow. The more I can create the more difficult it is for the creatures to come here. If I left, they would be here much more quickly and in greater numbers!”
“Selva,” he saw what she was trying to do. Moreover, he understood why the lions were so frantic that he stop her. Magic did not come from a vacuum. It drew from something else, always demanding a sacrifice of sorts. “Why did you not confess this from the start? Did you fear that I’d have banished you? Or perhaps harassed you until you left?”
She did not answer. However, her sorrowful countenance spoke loudly on her behalf.
Time had not moved forward for her. Twenty years was just like yesterday — the threat of his anger as real and alive as her own feelings for him.
His expression was almost gentle as he scolded her. “You kind-hearted fool. She tells you to stay away and you obeyed her it would seem, but quite poorly. You could not talk to me, but you sent me a messenger to aide me and who insisted I come to see you. The truth is you did not wish for me to forget you but were afraid I had.”
“No,” she protested quietly. “I only wished for you to know I did not desert you and to encourage Edmund to help you.”
“You pretty little liar,” he continued to see through her. “You hide your feelings because you think I am like she – unable to appreciate or care about other people. I am incapable of love, you think. But I tell you the truth: I would not mock you if you loved me even as half as much as you appear to love everyone else.”
“As if I would love you less than everyone else,” she protested heatedly.
He knew then that she loved him. The wolf within him grinned, whispering that he could test her love right there. He firmly pushed his baser instincts aside and sat back, freeing her from his grasp. He pretended to look for his gloves instead.
Maximilian was clumsy, stretching and wrinkling the gloves over his fingers.
A sound of frustration rose in her throat as she saw what he was doing. She bent over his hands to assist him. A part of him rejoiced as he watched her fingers straighten his gloves. “You’ve always needed help with these. You’re always in too much of a hurry. Hastings must have his hands full with you.”
“Hastings has grown old,” he told her. “His job is harder without a mistress to whip everyone else into shape. Including me.” With great care he added, “He told me that your place is with me as my wife.”
She suddenly dropped her hands from his and tried to shy away. “Please do not speak of such things. I cannot return with you and your men.”
“Why?” His voice took on a dangerous edge as he wondered what game she was now playing.
“Your men do not need me,” she countered. “You are their leader and I add nothing at your side. But the others — the townspeople have the guildmaster but none know what they face.”
“They are strong,” he felt annoyed by her excuses. “They are trained to hunt and to kill.”
“But it won’t be enough!”
Her cry reverberated throughout the house and the house fell silent. The other conversations had ceased when she had shouted. The others would come soon to drag him away for unnecessarily exciting the patient. He reached out with a tentative hand to calm her, to buy time.
But Selva clutched her blanket, her fingers growing whiter by the moment. “How you can be so thoughtless! Those children in the town who see magic, will perish when the Unthings come. The guildmaster’s wife and her unborn child will also vanish. She prayed for that child for years. It will not even see the light of day if something isn’t done!”
Her passion about the situation surprised him. “Selva, you should have told this to your lady. If it is snow that can help keep the creatures away, she could stop them entirely.”
She turned away, pressing her nose against the window as she looked skyward. For a few minutes she did nothing, except cool her face on the glass. “Do you think I didn’t ask? But her owls told me she would not act. You see – the chaotic forces might turn their attention towards her if she was felt to stray beyond her duties.”
“So you stay here, but with them?”
“Yes,” she looked almost apologetic as she turned her attention back to him. “If I am to risk judgment, would it not be better helping those who cannot help themselves rather than indulging my selfish desires?”
Maximilian realized she was far nobler than he, choosing a difficult path that did not appear to benefit her in any way. He pitied her – for she was a prisoner in a way to that selfless and kind nature.
Unlike her, he was free.
He was not held back by dignity, by rules, or a responsibility to the greater world in the same way she was. Impulsively he seized her by the waist, pulling her across the surface of the bed towards him. Her mouth fell open, lips parting in surprise as he captured her within his arms.
“Bring them with you,” he commanded the woman who now rested on his lap. His free hand trailed back and forth along the length of her back in leisurely fashion, intent on persuading her to stop resisting him. “As my wife, you would have that authority. I may fail at showing you the love that you desire, but I can honor your wishes. Already I have begrudgingly learned to accept outsiders. So a few more will not be a burden.”
She did not respond as he hoped. Instead of wrapping her arms around him as a human might do, she stared at him as if he was possessed by some odd spirit. Her expression was not soft and glowing but pensive. “It is too much to ask of everyone. Your men and they — how can they be persuaded? Surely the humans will fear you once they understand your nature.”
“It is possible that might be the case,” he confessed. “But our common enemy out there is far worse. And in spite of what you think you’d try to do – you won’t be able to sustain this snow for months on end. The lions said what you do is not safe. Nor is it safe to march yourself into a compound of hunters.”
Her nose twitched slightly at such a remark. “I won’t be safe? Did they say that? I am just as strong as any of them.”
“The lions didn’t say that it was unsafe for you,” he said archly. “I say it won’t be safe for them. Men –human or not– are all dogs. You will be a target for some fool who has his head turned by your looks. And if that fool tried to mate with you, my sense of honor would compel me to leave the estate to kill him. This, of course, would be exactly what I am not supposed to do.”
“No, definitely not,” she responded darkly. “And how would bringing them to your estate be different?”
“Fewer deaths,” he stated immediately. “Any man who dares to lay a hand on you would be given to Giles to deal with. At least he knows how not to kill them when he plays with them.”
She flushed. “You ought not joke like that! Humans don’t share your sense of humor. How will we persuade them to agree if you start by threatening them?”
He noted how she spoke, how she had already fallen in with his scheme. Wolfram buried his nose in her hair, smiling to himself as she involuntarily placed her arms around his neck in response. “We must start by picking precisely the right threat.”
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