Prized Page 38

“You’re back,” he said.

She came down the two steps. “Your bread was done.”

He rubbed his nose inelegantly and nodded. “There isn’t any cinnamon here. Have you noticed that? It won’t taste right, but I had a craving—” His voice trailed off and his gaze turned attentive. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve done something terrible.”

“Is the baby okay?”

She moved nearer into the lamplight. “The baby and mother are fine. It’s Peter.”

Leon lifted his eyebrows, then he hitched his blanket over his shoulder and leaned back, crossing his arms. He was fully awake now. “This would be Chardo Peter. Boyfriend Number Two. Am I right?” His voice turned lazy. “Or is he Boyfriend Number One now?”

“Don’t tease me.” She spread her fingers on the table and slumped into a chair kitty-corner to his. “This is really bad. I have to go down again in the morning. There’s going to be a trial.”

“What did he do?”

Until that moment, she had not guessed how impossible it was going to be to tell Leon what had happened. Telling Will, by comparison, had been nothing. She loosened her hair from behind her left ear to let it slide forward and ducked her face down.

“You always do that. That thing with your hair, when you’re upset,” he said quietly, and leaned forward. She felt his touch skim her hair, and then he gently tucked the loose lock back behind her ear again. Her scar tingled. She held still, frozen, while his hand slid down her white sleeve to her hand. It made it even worse that he was being nice.

She curled her fingers into a ball and drew back from him.

“Don’t, Gaia. Just tell me what’s wrong,” he said. “It can’t be that bad, unless you did something stupid, like kiss him in public.”

She thunked her face into her hands.

“You didn’t,” he said.

“I didn’t mean to.”

Leon stood, pushing his chair back. “I’m going to get a shirt on,” he said. “Don’t you move.”

“They’re going to put him in the stocks, Leon! And then prison! I don’t know for how long.”

“And this is what bothers you? That he’s going to prison?” he demanded.

“It’s the whole thing!” she exploded. “All I did was kiss him. One kiss! It just happened. And now he’s accused of attempted rape. I can’t take this place anymore. It’s just not right. Any of it.”

“Now you see.”

She glared up at him. “Don’t give me that,” she said. “I saw it before, too, but I didn’t see any way to make it change. Now we don’t have a choice.”

“‘We,’” he echoed. His expression was a mix of mockery, confusion, and anguish. “How could you do it, Gaia?”

She faltered back in her chair. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“What did he do, that it just ‘happened’?”

She gripped the armrests, hard. To her alarm, he hitched his chair nearer and sat again so that his face was level with hers. He set his warm hands over hers, lightly pinning hers to the armrests, and the motion left his blanket to slide loose from his shoulders again. Warmth like she’d never felt before traveled up her arms.

“Was it like this?” he asked, leaning nearer.

She licked her lips, shaking her head. “Leon,” she said. She leaned back in the chair, but somehow that only brought him nearer, so that she could almost feel the smooth warmth in his chest. She tried to draw away her hands, but instead her fingers intertwined with his and ended up on her lap, where the fabric of her skirt rumpled slowly up her legs.

“What I wouldn’t give to know what you’re thinking,” he said.

Just whatever you do, don’t kiss me right now, she thought.

But he leaned forward until no more than a millimeter of lamplight separated them. For a long moment, she resisted the appeal of his intent gaze, wondering how he could feel for her what she saw there, and fearing what he did to her. If anybody could use her own instincts against herself, it was Leon.

“I lied, all those weeks ago. About my wish,” he said. His eyes gleamed with a quiet, private light. “This is what I was really thinking.”

His lips touched hers and she closed her eyes, letting her head sink back against the chair. With unhurried restraint, he kissed her softly, and long, and slow, until she was a tangle of melting pleasure and frustration.

“That,” she murmured, stopping to swallow and catch her breath. “Is not fair.”

“Good,” he said.

He kissed her again, only not so softly anymore.

She didn’t know quite how it happened, but she was fully on his lap, with his bare arms around her, and everything about him felt warm and strong under her fingertips, even the scar lines she found across the back of his shoulders. She shifted her weight, and he broke away suddenly, holding her quite still.

“I think we’re going to have a little problem,” he said. “Hold still.”

She looked into his face, surprised. Her eyes felt hazy, as if she were coming back from another land. She touched a finger to his jaw, liking his faint, tactile shadow of beard. “What’s the matter?”

His laugh was low and rumbly. “Nothing. It’s just funny that Peter’s the one going to the stocks for what he did.”

She’d forgotten about Peter. She’d forgotten about everything. Now she tried to disentangle her arms from around him.

“No, you don’t,” he said. “Stay there.”

“What is wrong with me?” she asked. “It’s like I have no self-restraint at all.”

He laughed again. “I see. Please tell me you didn’t get this far with him.”

“I can’t be on your lap,” she said.

“Well, excuse me. You are. I would know.”

She brushed her hair back around her ears and tried to straighten her blouse, but it was hard with his arms still around her, and even worse when he tried to help a little. She gave him a shy, embarrassed smile.

“I’m really sorry,” she said. She badly wanted to kiss him again.

“Don’t say that.”

Slowly she got up, steadying one hand against the table. He dropped the blanket across his lap, and as she guessed the significance of that particular gesture, her embarrassment quadrupled. Her gaze flew up to his face, and he shrugged, relaxing his arm casually around the back of the chair.

She wanted to die.

“It’s okay, Gaia,” he said.

She threw out a hand. “I’m just so bad at this.”

“As if I’m any good at it?” He laughed, his smile sweet. “Don’t be embarrassed. I’m fine. In fact, I have a good idea.”

“What?” she asked, still mortified.

“Why don’t you marry me?”



“MARRY YOU? Are you out of your mind?” she asked.

“Not at all. Think about it. It would solve all kinds of problems.”

“Like what?”

“Like Peter won’t kiss you again and get sent to the stocks. I’d kill him first.”

“Leon! This is not helpful.”

“It makes perfect sense to me. Have you thought about what will happen next month, when I’m not here?”

“What do you mean?”

He ran a hand around his jaw. “I doubt the next thirty-two captains will pick me to be on either team. If I can’t play, I can’t win again, either.”

She was still missing something.

“You really don’t see it, do you?” he asked. He braced his hands on his knees. “So modest. Forgive me if I point out the obvious. You’ll get chosen by the next winner. Someone else will have the same opportunities with you that I’ve just had.”

Her mind went blank white. Then it slammed back on and horror shot through her. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t be the prize.”

“You don’t think so?” he asked. “Not even for Peter if he’s out of prison by then? Or how about that other one who was captain last time. The big blond. Xave.”

The idea repulsed her. She hadn’t been thinking forward at all. Now it all hit her: the cycle of the thirty-two games drove things not only for the men who had a chance to compete, but for all of the mlasses, too.

“The only way to not be eligible,” she said slowly, “is for me to pick someone. To get engaged. Or become a libby.” That’s what Dinah had done, and Gaia began to see what it had been like for her, getting picked as the prize month after month. Gaia couldn’t let that happen to her, especially not now. “What am I going to do?”

“At last you see the brilliance of my proposal.”

She studied his watchful blue eyes, and now she saw he really meant it.

A tiny voice in the back of her head reminded her that Peter had warned her of such a moment, the same Peter who was now in prison because of her. She’d messed up everything.

“I can’t,” she said. “You must know I can’t. We’ve hardly been talking to each other.”

His expression became grave. “It isn’t always easy between us. I admit that. But it’s right between us, always.”

She held very still.

“Every tiny, happy thing makes me want to share it with you,” he went on, leaning forward. “I thought I would get over this, but I can’t, and I’m done trying. I understand you like no one else here ever can. Even now, you’re just afraid. You’re worried you’ll hurt Peter’s feelings if you rush into something. Right?”

“It isn’t fear,” she said. “It isn’t that simple.”

“Then what is it?” he asked. “You can’t really like him. Not more than me. Do you?”

“No.” Not more. Differently.

His eyes flicked in the light. “You can’t believe what this is like for me, living up here with you, getting pushed away every other minute. You belong with me. When will you see that?”

She didn’t understand how he could be so sure. It was actually freaking her out a little. She leaned back against the table, frowning. “You aren’t even that nice to me all the time,” she said.

He choked out a laugh. “Like when? When you lie to me?”

“I don’t lie to you. I just can’t tell you everything. And why should I? You scare me sometimes.”


“What about after the thirty-two games?” she reminded him.

“Do I really even need to apologize for that?” He stood, pacing away from her toward the window. She watched him lean his head against the glass for a long moment. In the kitchen, the oven made a ticking noise as it cooled, and inside her, a knot twisted itself even tighter. He turned finally, his eyes troubled. “All right,” he said in a low voice. “I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for the next morning, too. Of course I am. And for everything I ever said when my heart—” he stopped. He ran a hand back through his hair, glanced to the side, and then back to her. “Don’t make me do this. Leave me some pride.”

She gripped the edge of the table, stunned by the enormity of what he’d admitted. He’d loved her all that time, when she hadn’t even known, when loving her had brought him suffering and prison and heartache.

“I’m sorry, too. About a lot of things,” she said. Her cheeks grew warm with shame. “Including what happened with Peter tonight.” She did regret that. Already her moment of happiness with Peter seemed ages past, permanently obscured by what had happened since. “I’m sorry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, too.”

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