Prized Page 49

A tingle started behind her heart and became a small, painful twist.

“I couldn’t decide then,” she said. “That’s all I was saying.”

“I see. So not the hatchet.”

“No,” she said. Is that what it had felt like to him?

He patted Maya’s little back. “So, where does that leave us now?”

She dug the toe of her loafer into the heavy sand while she tried to figure out what to say.

“Gaia,” he said gently. “I kind of need to know.”

The heat of a blush rose in her cheeks. She’d been falling in love with him. She knew that, so why was she holding back? “A lot’s happened lately,” she said. With Peter and everything. She touched a finger to one of the buttons on his shirt, peering at it hard while she smoothed the fabric around it.

He didn’t say anything, which made it worse.

“I don’t think I can give you an answer tonight,” she said.

“Such wild enthusiasm. I think you just did.”

She cringed. “Leon, no. Really. Please, I just need a little time.”

“I’m not going to do well with being kept hanging.” He covered her hand with his to keep it still. “Because, from my side of it, I don’t have any doubts. Maybe I didn’t make that clear.”

“I know,” she said.

“So what is it, then?”

“I don’t know exactly. What if I say yes now and then change my mind or something?”

“You won’t change your mind.”

“But I could hurt you again,” she said. “I don’t ever want to do that.”

“You won’t.”

“I can’t make a commitment until I’m completely sure,” she said. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? For me to be completely sure?”

“And you’re not.”

She’d been tricked by her own feelings before, and the hesitation that held her back now was real. How was she supposed to know if what she felt for him would last, that it wasn’t some mistake that would take them both to disaster? She had to be honest with herself and fair to him, too. “It’s such a big decision. All I need is a little more time,” she said. “Just to be sure. Is that too much to ask?”

“It’s a lot to ask, actually,” he said. He ran his thumb over her fingers, slowly. “I guess I should be happy you’re being honest with me. Would it be different if you weren’t running Sylum?”

She hesitated. “But I am running Sylum now.”

“That’s what I thought.” He was quiet for a moment. “If I give you more time to decide, I want you to give me something, too.”


“Promise me you won’t go sneaking off to be alone with Peter. Or anybody else. Take the time you need to think things over, but just about us, you and me, with nobody else dropping in to say ‘Hey, Mlass Gaia, let’s take a little ride through the woods.’ You know what I mean? You’re the Matrarc now.”

Peter wanted nothing to do with her. There was no danger of any little ride. At least, not another one. She glanced over to the bonfire and could just make out Will through the flames, sitting beside Dinah, splitting seeds for her son. She wondered if Leon ever knew about Will.

“What’s that mean, ‘I’m the Matrarc now.’ Don’t you trust me?” she asked.

“I trust you. But plenty of these men would love to get close to you, and they’ll be trying all the time, especially now that the rules are changing.” His gaze narrowed briefly. “It would kill me to have you peeling off with them. I have to know you won’t do that to me.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“I mean it,” Leon said quietly. “Tell me now. We don’t have to go any further.”

Further. That was where she wanted to go with Leon.

Maybe they could go further while they weren’t getting chased around the Enclave or overthrowing the cuzines of Sylum. Maybe they could have some normal life together while they prepared to lead an exodus of two thousand people across a hundred kilometers of wasteland to a walled city that might very well be hostile when they arrived there. Then again, maybe normal would never be possible.

She slid her arm shyly around his waist and felt his arm go around her, too, drawing her close even as he cradled the sleeping baby in his other arm.

“I can be loyal, Leon. I know what that is.”

He laughed. “Finally, the girl gives me a crumb.”

She focused on the collar of his shirt and the warm gap next to his neck. The truth was, even if she wasn’t brave enough to make a commitment forever, she did love him. She was who she was because of him. Certainly he must know that. She thought of how she’d felt the day he got her sister back for her, and the way he’d kissed her, up in the winner’s cabin, and the way he’d helped her into the stocks and been there when she woke up afterward to turn her bruised hand in his. She knew what it felt like to be with him, right then, with an aching happiness just teetering inside her, ready to spill.

“What is this?” he said. “I know you love me back, Gaia. I can see it in you.”

She nodded. “What I feel for you, it’s like this, right here between us. It’s everything we’ve gone through, and Maya, somehow.”

He tilted his forehead against hers and held her tight. “Don’t be afraid of it, then,” he said. “It could be what’s ahead for us, too.”

“Soon, okay?” she said.

He had to give her a little more time. Had to. She searched his eyes, anxious, until finally his smile eased, turning lazy and warm.

“All right,” he said. “Come here.”

She was already there, but she managed to get closer still. The loon called far out across the marsh, and all along the shore, humans tried to mimic the wild cry, hooting and whistling back from around the bonfires, and then laughing at each other, but Gaia hardly heard them. She was perfectly busy kissing Leon.

When at last she looked down the beach again, scatters of sparks were cascading upward into the deep sky. The moon, a glittering, full orb, was rising over the marsh to illuminate a shimmering path along the water. Dovetailing her fingers with Leon’s, she drew him toward the sweet, shifting smoke of the bonfire.

And for once, she was happy. Very.

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