The last time Soleil had seen him, it was while battling for her life, and before that, it had always been from afar, with Soleil never risking to come any closer in fear of the marquis recognizing the connection between them.
This was the first time she was able to look at him up close, and though she had mentally prepared herself for such a meeting, one glance at the marquis told her that those endless hours of practice were for naught.
Ilie Marcovici would always take one’s breath away.
He was so much taller than she thought or dreamed of, and his body was built even more lethally than she imagined. His hair, the shade of ice and gold at the same time, shone even more brilliantly under the lights, and his face—-
Every inch of it seemed to have been carved by a grandmaster, and she clasped her hands tightly on her lap lest she forgot herself and reached out to touch his cheek.
Her gaze accidentally clashed with his, and the way his silver eyes gleamed so knowingly made Soleil quickly look away. Then she saw her book held securely in his hand, and her lips parted—-
He said kindly, “You’ll run out of oxygen in my company if you keep that up, milady.”
Her mouth snapped shut, and she reddened and glared up at him at the same time.
“That was quite rude, milord,” Reginald decreed hotly, having recovered from his shock. He knew who the other man was, but what he had never expected was to meet the wicked marquis in this type of establishment. It was a well-known fact the marquis only frequented brothels and other unmentionable places.
“Was it?” the marquis returned idly. “I was only expressing my concern for milady.” He smiled down at Soleil again.
Soleil didn’t smile back. That smile didn’t look good. In fact, it looked downright bad – the kind people had nightmares of.
And it was, as a moment later Soleil was horrified to hear the marquis drawl, “My behavior is but typical of a betrothed, do you not think?”
The silence that descended on the cake shop following the marquis’ announcement was comical, and Soleil had the unforgivable urge to laugh. I am cursed, she thought miserably, with the oddest sense of humor.
“Is this true, milady?” Sir Reginald demanded, hurt confusion in his gaze.
Her heart immediately went out to him, and she started to protest, “Sir Reginald, please—-”
“Keep it a secret,” the marquis finished in a lowered voice.
And of course, with that word, Soleil saw everyone’s ears practically perk up.
“Although I have already asked the baron for her hand and everything has been formalized, I would still like to give my beloved betrothed the kind of courtship she deserves.” The marquis’ voice was gentle, but the gleam in his silver gaze was mocking, daring the other man to take offense and challenge his word.
Sir Reginald was visibly fuming, and her unease grew. She turned to the marquis, but he only responded to her warning glare with a roguish smile.
Liquid heat ran through her body, and she looked away again. Arrogant boor. But the thought lacked heat, and the way her heart was racing so fast made it worse.
“May I have your word as a gentleman on this, sir?”
She took one look at the knight’s face and knew he hadn’t bought one word of it.
And if she let him speak, then they would end up dueling, and it would not be an even match at all. Sir Reginald might be the reigning champion in the city’s sporting hall, but he was still a man. A child even, compared to the likes of Ilie Marcovici.
Sir Reginald began, “You, milord—-”
“—-are telling the truth,” Soleil heard herself say, and she forced herself to meet Sir Reginald’s gaze. He looked crushed, and her conscience stung painfully. “I’m sorry, sir.” As she spoke, the marquis casually took hold of her hand.
For one moment, she froze, the scorching heat of the contact stunning her.
Ilie saw shock flare in his heartkeeper’s eyes and could not fault her. He was similarly stunned as well, only he was better at hiding it.
Merely holding her hand was an exquisite pleasure, and he could not help think of the other and equally pleasurable parts he could touch. He was suddenly impatient, and he looked at Soleil, his eyes boring through hers.
Get rid of him, or I will.
She jumped in her seat at the sudden sound of the marquis’ cold voice inside her head.
Oh, she had forgotten about this stupid blood bond between heartkeepers!
The command still ringing in her ears, Soleil had an inexplicable urge to defy the marquis, just to show him she wasn’t going to submit to him so easily.
But then she saw the marquis glance at Reginald, and this time he was no longer looking at the knight as a mortal to be tolerated. This time, the marquis was looking at the other man the way predators mercilessly viewed their prey—-