It's over. Not the book. Today is the last day of giving. I loved sharing the first eleven chapters with you. I'm working on getting this book out so you can finish the story. It's finished. I completed it a while ago.
Answers are starting to appear for Praya and Dacian in this chapter. What they discover changes everything, but you won't learn what it is until I get out the book. Hang tight. It'll happen!
I'm adding a few more pics from my Pinterest like I did with the last post. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out my post titled 12 Days of Giving. All will be explained. Enjoy the last sneak peek!
From left to right- Praya by the lake, chair and fireplace where Praya reads, the Washer Woman, Praya.
Getting back to the woods takes longer than I expected. I'm not as energetic as before, drained from the run home and the emotional toll from seeing my family.
The river leads me back to the cottage. The thatched roof, golden against the trees, gives me a second boost. Almost there. Relief doesn't hit me until I'm at the door. Thank the Blessed Ones. The cottage remains as charming as it was when I left. I must be in the clear.
Out of breath and clammy with sweat, I grab the door handle. My hand shakes as I pull it open, nervous about who I might find inside. To my relief and surprise, the clean, cozy interior is empty. No Dacian.
I fall to my knees and catch my breath. "Thank you," I say to the cottage. "I will not forget this or my part of the bargain. I promise."
Behind me, the floorboards creak.
My muscles harden to stone.
"Do not turn around," Dacian orders.
I wait for the cottage to darken and return to its dingy state. It doesn’t. Does that mean Dacian has no power over it? He often refers to himself as a prisoner to the curse. I don’t understand what that means, or perhaps I didn't want to believe him.
"You left." Bitterness floods his tone. "You tricked the cottage into making a deal with you, and you left without my knowledge—without my approval—after all I've done to help you."
His anger I deserve, but the hurt I sense behind it, hits me in a strange way. "I’m sorry. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have left. It was reckless and stupid. I wasn't thinking. I won't do it again. I promise." I bow my head more furious with myself than he could ever be. "Does your mother know?"
Silence meets my request.
"Please forgive me, Dacian. I'll do whatever I must to earn your forgiveness. Please tell me there's still a chance for me to fix this, to fix everything."
Did he leave and I missed it? "Dacian?" I turn my head toward the door.
"Don't," he whispers from close behind me.
"I thought you left. You're being so quiet."
"I thought you didn't grovel." His tone softens.
"When I'm wrong I do."
"I prepared myself for a fight with you, certain your cajoling the cottage and deceiving me would be justified in your eyes. I never imagined you'd be … sorry."
"Are you no longer cross with me?" Can it be this easy?
His laugh is low and wry. "Don't mistake my surprise for forgiveness. You betrayed my trust and I demand to know why."
"I had to see my family. I had to let them know I'm safe and that I love them, and I needed to tell my father I'm sorry for deceiving him. You're not the only person I've betrayed. There was a boy in the village. We were supposed to … my Father arranged for us to … for him to save me."
He hisses out a breath and tension builds in the air. "You left to see a boy? Who? A suitor? You're not married or else you wouldn't be here."
"No. I told you. I left to see my family."
"Then who is this boy? Were you engaged to be married to him? Did you love him?"
"Dacian, stop," I plead. "There is no boy. I was referring to something else. I shouldn't have brought him up. He is nothing to me. He never was." And now, I'm worried I said too much. The last thing I want is to implicate Father for what he tried to do. The curse could be as strict as the Council regarding this matter. It would make sense.
"Then why are we talking about him?"
"You keep bringing him up."
He groans, and a puff of air, carrying his clove scent, brushes my back as he clomps away. "I don't know what to do with these feelings. It's like a war is going on inside me. You defy me, mock me, and instead of punishing you, I feel compelled to keep you safe."
"Punish me?" I cringe. "You have control over that?"
"No. Not exactly."
"Am I going to be punished for leaving?" Dread twists in my stomach.
Seconds tick by.
"You should be." He lets out a frustrated breath and shuffles around the room. "Your arrangement with the cottage saved you from that. It favors you for some reason. I don't understand why it does to such an extreme, but then I have you to answer that. What did you do?"
I swallow. "Why? Are you going to punish me after you know?"
"You won't be punished. The deed is done. Over with. Now tell me how you got the cottage to release you. It's never helped anyone in that way before."
"How do you know?"
I turn my head to the side, not enough to see him, and touch the arm of the chair. "The cottage told me."
"Amus told you?" he says, incredulous.
I snap my head forward and cross my arms over my chest, my blood heating. "Don't be mad at him. He didn't volunteer anything. I asked the questions, he answered."
I want to say believe it. It happened. Instead, I ask, "Are you going to be this grumpy all the time now?"
He moves to stand behind me again, close enough for me to feel the heat from his body. "Tell me what you did?" It's a whisper, a warning.
"I made a trade. I said I'd clean and care for the cottage in return for time to see my family. It seemed fair and worth a try." I rub an itch on my arm and hiss. Not an itch, it's a cut from the bushes and now it stings. How had I forgotten? "Can I get something to clean this?" I lift my arm to show Dacian. "I have several." Suddenly, they all burn.
He gasps and touches my wrist. "You're hurt. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I forgot." I lower my gaze and twist enough to inhale his delicious scent.
"Are your eyes closed? I need to inspect you."
I close them at once. "Yes."
He steps around me and brushes my hair behind my shoulders.
It feels intimate the way his fingers graze the skin along my neck. My breath catches and I shiver.
A soft laugh leaves him. "That's a nice reaction. What's not nice are the wounds on your collarbone and face. I'm sorry I didn't notice you were hurt."
His apology draws a small smile to my lips. "It's all right. It's my fault." I bow my head again and for some reason crack open my eyes.
Black pants and black shiny boots are clear as day, but what steals my gaze is his right arm, dangling by his side. Visible from his fingers to where his elbow meets his white rolled-up sleeve, his skin is the darkest color I've ever seen. Darker than the men in the village who work in the sun all day. The smooth, unblemished texture of his skin says he's an indoor person.
I don't know where he spends his time when he's not with me, but even if it's outdoors, the woods are too shaded for him to get the sun needed to deepen the tone in such a way. Other than that, his body seems no different from the boys in the village.
"Come. I need to tend to your wounds." He takes my hand and guides me across the room. Wood scrapes against the floors. "Sit in the chair."
With my eyes sealed shut, I do as I'm told.
"I’m going to touch the cuts. I won't hurt you, though. Try to relax." His voice comes from in front of me rather than above or behind me. It makes me think he's down on bended knee.
The impulse to open my eyes and see his face has me wishing I were blindfolded.
"Hold still." He moves my hands to my lap and sweeps a feather-soft finger across the cut on my arm. The area tingles and grows cold but not painful. The sensation fades and Dacian removes his finger from my skin. "Feel the wound," he instructs.
Hesitant, I touch my arm. The skin is smooth. Thinking I missed the spot, I feel around for the cut. Nothing. "I can't find it."
"It's gone. Healed."
"You can heal people?" I ask in awe.
"Not people, just you. It's part of my duty in caring for the chosen maiden. Now keep still and keep your eyes closed while I do the rest."
He heals the cut on my neck, my collarbone, and my cheek, his cool touch as gentle as a breath. I sink deeper into the chair, relaxed in a way I haven't been for longer than I can remember.
"All better." His voice is a close whisper.
"Thank you." My head lolls forward. I could fall asleep so easily.
For him? "I know."
"On me." He touches my shoulders and nudges me upright in the chair. "You were about to snuggle your head on my chest." A hint of humor sounds in his tone.
Alert now, I snap to attention. Heat rushes to my cheeks. "Sorry."
"No harm done." He moves away with a spice-scented breeze. "Have you been reading the book?"
"The one in the cottage. Right here on the table where it always is." Two thumps sound like he's tapping the book.
Ah, yes. That one. Perhaps, I'm not as alert as I thought. "Yes. I've been reading."
"Did you learn anything helpful?"
"Not yet. I've read a lot about the queen and her sister."
"Then you're not looking in the right places," he huffs.
How can I look in the right places when I don't know where to look? The book is huge," I fire back. "Why are you so angry all of a sudden?"
"You have to ask?" He shuffles over to me, his presence looming like a dark shadow. A warm hand slides over my tight fist. "It seems I’m not the only one who's angry."
I draw back my hand. "I'm reacting to you. What happened to the softer version of you? The healer. I like him better."
"I have the right to be upset. You left, remember?"
"I came back."
"You were by the river, weren't you? Did you see me and my mother?"
Is that what's really bothering him? "I used the river to get to town or else I wouldn't have found my way out of the woods. I didn't mean to cross paths with you or her, and I didn't see anything. The fog was too thick. All I heard were your voices. I swear."
He lets out a heated breath. "I don't know if I can believe you."
"It’s the truth." I stand and turn away since stalking across the room isn't an option.
"I've granted you things I've never granted any other maiden, and yet you still defy me by breaking the rules or finding ways around them. Is this how you are with other people—with your family? You said you deceived them. Did you do this often?"
"No. Never. I love my family and would do anything for them." Anything but Tristin. Maybe I don't love them as much as I thought—as I should. My shoulders sag, that deep ache returning to my chest. "I hurt them in the worst way and I'll never forgive myself for it."
"What did you do that was so terrible?"
I can't tell him. We were not only deceiving the Council but the curse as well. Who knows how Dacian will react, or the cottage. He may not even know villagers used to do it to keep their daughters safe, until the Council ruled against it. The severe punishment for the offence stopped families from any attempt decades ago.
Father was irrational to arrange such a thing, and I was so desperate to appease him, I agreed. At least I know Tristin didn't tell on us as he promised. If he had, Father and the twins wouldn't have been at home. They'd never be home again.
"Your reluctance to tell me leaves me to believe it was awful, too awful for someone like you. Now I must know. I fear I won't sleep until I do."
His lighter tone surprises me as much as it delights me. It's another side of him I didn't know existed—a good side—and it gives me an idea. "If you tell me why I can't look at you, I'll tell you what I did."
"Ahh," he says with an amused sigh. "So this is how you work. A secret for a secret. How enticing. No wonder the cottage didn't refuse you. I'll agree to your trade if you agree to go first."
My bottom lip drops. "Absolutely not. If I go first, what assurance do I have that you'll keep your word? You could change your mind and tell me nothing."
"True. I could, but if you trust me, you'll know I won't." He comes up behind me, warming my back. His breath touches my ear. "Can you trust me?"
Tingles run through me and my lips part. Is he teasing me like this on purpose? Should I care? Before him, no boy had this effect on me. I was beginning to think it wasn't possible, that I'm broken. To know I'm not, is as wonderful as it is hopeless. How like me to be tempted by the boy who could be my demise, even if not by his choice.
He wants me to trust him. He thinks I don't. Maybe, he's right. I inhale a breath of courage and choose my words carefully. "I allowed my family to believe I mated with a boy in the village, so they wouldn't worry about losing me to the curse."
Silence. He stays behind me but must straighten away because his heat on my back lessons.
Knots twist and tie in my stomach. Confessing was a mistake.
"How did you lead them to believe this?" Tension rings his voice.
"Does it matter how?" I keep my tone cool. "I didn't do anything, or I wouldn't be here."
"It was a lie?"
"In a way. Yes."
"And the boy? Does he exist?"
I turn my head to the side, resisting the urge to glance at him. "Are you jealous?" It would be a first for me.
"I … I want you to answer the question and turn your head forward."
A small laugh escapes me, but I do as I'm told. "The boy is no one, a random name from the village."
"That's good," he murmurs as if to himself.
"Now you go."
"Very well," he says with ease. "I am forbidden to allow others to look at me."
"Why are you forbidden?"
He doesn't respond.
"A deal is a deal, Dacian. I told you my secret now you have to tell me yours."
He touches my hair and slides his fingers to the end. "Not yet." Sorrow fills each word.
I want to be understanding, but I want my answer, too. "You promised."
"I didn’t promise, but I will promise you this. If you find what we need in the book and there's a way for us to end the curse, I will let you look at me."
I'm about to take my chances and blindly stomp away when his words sink in. "You'll let me look at you because it's within your control? If you decide I can see you, then I can?"
My thoughts spin with this knowledge. He's in control. He decides; therefore, he would be the one to punish me. I trust him enough to know he wouldn't hurt me. Knowing I could break the rule and only have him to deal with is beyond tempting. I could accidentally glimpse him. Once it's done, it's done. You can't take that back. I'll know what he looks like, but how will I react? If his face startles me in a way I’m not prepared for, I could respond in a way that hurts his feelings. I don't want that.
Something nudges my arm.
"You should read," Dacian says.
I take the cool, hard object that can only be the book. "Can you guide me to the chair by the fireplace?" It's much comfier than the wooden chair at the table.
I feel him bend to my ear. "I'll do you one better and leave so you can roam freely."
As much as I hate keeping my eyes closed when he's here, I'm not ready for him to leave. "Don’t go." It's out before I can stop it.
"You want me to stay?"
"Yes." Without opening my eyes, I turn around. "Please." Even though I can't see, I can feel his gaze on my face.
"Very well." There's no enthusiasm to his tone. He guides me to the chair.
I lower onto the plush cushion and rest the book on my lap. "If I bore you too much you don't have to stay." Hurts builds inside me like a dark storm. This is what comes with sharing feelings. "I only offered because I thought I could scan the book and tell you what I see in case anything stands out. But if you have something more important to do, don't let me keep you."
I raise my guard, shielding my emotions from further hurt. Being Stone Beauty is safer than being open. Nothing good can come from caring for Dacian. There is no future for us. There may be no future for me at all if I don't find a way to break the curse.
That needs to be my focus, not my feelings or what Dacian's face looks like. I don't even want to see it anymore. The desire is gone, completely faded.
"Tell yourself what you want," he says as if he knows my thoughts. "Do your best to shut yourself off and act like you don't care, but I know you do."
He strolls around the room as if tempting me to look at him. I don't look up, even though I’m aware of his every move. Instead, I open the book and follow my finger, using it to scan the words on the page for anything out of the ordinary.
"This is new between us," he comments.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"There's tension between us," he explains. "I've never experienced it before. I like it, but I also don't like it, if that makes sense."
"It makes perfect sense."
The sweet vulnerability in his tone reminds me of his innocence. Not that I'm experienced in any way, but I've seen how boys and girls act when they're interested in each other but aren't courting yet. "It's what people do when they like each other. They bicker. It's normal."
"But I've liked other maidens, and I never bickered with them."
My finger halts on the page. He liked other maidens? Jealousy burns in my chest. Uncertain if I want the answer to this, I force myself to ask, "Did you like any of them the way you like me?"
He draws in a loud breath the way I've learned he does when he's thinking.
With each second, I fear the worst. Is he making a list? How many were there?
Finally, he says, "Not at all, not even close."
I sigh with relief, and then laugh at myself for being so worried.
"You are pleased with my answer," he states, pride clear in his voice.
I shake my head and flip through a few pages. A picture catches my eye. I flip back to the page and gasp. "I don't believe it."
"What?" Dacian moves closer.
"It's my mother's brooch." My brooch. Why?