King Loren approached, pausing to kiss his wife’s flame-haired temple. “You did us proud, vertenya. I would introduce you to some special guests who traveled here from Shamar with Cianan. Daq Aryk, Valkyn, this is Verdeen, the young graduate you saw triumph in the tournament this morn.”
Verdeen blinked. They’d watched the tournament? She vaguely remembered seeing unfamiliar faces in the royal box. What were humans even doing in Poshnari-Unai? Why had King Loren allowed them, utter strangers, at tonight’s celebration? She inclined her head, flustered by their bold perusal. Warriors both. She read it in their assertive stance, their hyperawareness of everything around them. The taller of the two, Valkyn, had golden blond hair and a braided beard to match.
Daq—was that a title or his name?—Aryk had no beard to hide his granite jaw. His tawny mane looked to be the one soft thing about him. His gaze captured hers as he took her hand, and she gasped at the shock of awareness that zinged through her, making even her fingertips tingle. The rest of the room just faded into the background. No one had ever caused such a reaction, not in a century surrounded by elven warriors and princes. What made this one mere human different?
She studied his eyes, trying to see the man behind the gaze. She read intelligence and resolve in the shifting depths. What color were they? They blurred from hazel green to golden brown. Calloused fingers caressed the skin on the back of her hand, making her gasp. His gaze dropped to her parted lips, and she shivered at the heat in his languid perusal. For a single wild moment, she thought he might kiss her—and was shocked to find herself disappointed when he didn’t. What madness was this? Her heart pounded in her throat at the warmth of his hand, the strength in the hard planes of his body. She needed to breathe. Where was all the air?
“The honor’s mine, kyra,” he murmured. “I’ve looked forward to meeting you this evening. Congratulations on your victory today. You were remarkable.”
She didn’t feel victorious or remarkable, more like exposed, oddly vulnerable. What did kyra mean? His intent interest stole her breath. Stars, they stole her wits. Time for some distance. She pulled her hand free, hoping it didn’t look like the confused retreat ’twas.
“My lords.” Verdeen had worked too hard at being a warrior to revert back to a mere woman. But Aryk was so primal. The harsh angles of his face, strengthened by that rugged jaw and the firm, uncompromising line of his mouth, riveted her. Solidly human, with layers of muscle rippling beneath weathered skin covered in short, sun-burnt hairs. So unlike the long, lean hairless elven males.
So unlike pesky, refined Prince Brannan, who even now headed her way. His pale healer robes stood out in the deep green sea of military uniforms. Verdeen groaned and glanced around for an exit. No such luck, hemmed in as she was. Dara and Cianan appeared sympathetic. Amusement shone in King Loren’s leaf-green eyes. The king knew how she felt about his younger brother’s pursuit. Empaths knew everything.
Aryk, in contrast, looked ready. She feared to speculate for what.
Brannan-the-Oblivious smiled and handed her a green-to-rose changling-glass goblet of golden wine. “Congratulations, Verdeen. Graduation day. ’Tis what you always wanted.”
Not quite. Not hardly. “Thank you.” Verdeen sipped, trying to ignore Aryk’s rude stare. Prince Brannan’s persistence baffled her. She wasn’t his lifemate, and naught would ruin her warrior reputation faster than becoming a prince’s sensuri. She’d avoided any and all romantic liaisons. She hadn’t met anyone worth fueling more gossip. But Brannan wouldn’t take a hint.
Stars, Aryk was distracting. Too intense. Too there. She clenched her fingers around her goblet to stop their trembling. Did no one else feel the challenge pulsing off Aryk’s hard, too-still body? Her gaze slid to Loren, who raised a pale eyebrow and looked bemused.
Dracken rue, there was no way to hide from an empath. If he caught the attraction sizzling in the air…
“Excuse me.” Unable to take the tension another moment, Verdeen slipped around Cianan and fled to the buffet table. Let them make of it what they would.