“What a special human you must be.” Nikolai Aslanov gave Shannon a friendly grin, one I could tell was fake. Shannon must have been able to tell too, as her eyes hardened at his words. “Is the Halifax family not attending dinner? I was under the impression they were residing here for the time being, same goes for the other young Royal.”
“Erik.” I pointed out, pressing my lips together gently.
“Yes, Erik.” Nikolai smiled at me, as though the two of us were old friends.
“Geoff and Elena Halifax are in mourning.” Dad grunted; his voice laced with sympathy. “Their son recently passed.”
“Is that so?” Nikolai’s eyes widened in false surprise; his voice laced with the emotion. He was an expert alright, yet I could still see the curiosity in his gaze. “And how did that happen in a house with the Alpha King?”
“He took his own life.” I pressed my lips together tightly, letting my voice crack on the last word. I averted my eyes, looking down at my half-eaten plate of dinner.
“Such a shame.” Nikolai Aslanov frowned, giving a short shake of his head. “To lose a young Royal that way. Give the Halifax family my condolences, won’t you?”
“That’s very generous of you.” I murmured, “I’ll pass the message along.”
Suspicion was a part of Nikolai’s life as it was Elena’s. The two of them would never fully believe what had happened, but that didn’t matter. Elena had seen August’s body for herself, and I hoped that would be enough to ease her wandering mind.
Dinner finished slowly, suffering through the two-sided conversations left me tired and irritated. Every so often the necklace would heat against my chest, only to cool a moment later. I learned it responded to my own emotions. The more irritated I became, the more it would heat. It kept me in constant control, out of fear someone would end up dead.
“Might I have a moment alone with you Princess?” Nikolai Aslanov smiled at me from across the table, his eyes glistening with innocence. I could visibly see Dad stiffen at the end of the table, Uncle Jaspar following closely behind.
‘Let me.’ I told Dad through the mind-link.
“Of course.” I nodded politely, excusing myself from the table.
I placed a hand on Shannon’s shoulder as she went to stand from the table. I gave her a quick look, hoping she would understand what I was trying to tell her.
This one time, I was better off without Shannon following. I wasn’t sure what Nikolai Aslanov had to say, but I knew he would be more inclined to speak freely without a human present. Shannon remained at the table, giving me one last pained look before I left the dining room.
Nikolai Aslanov’s bodyguard remained where he stood, not following Nikolai or I out of the dining room.
The two of us walked in silence over to the backdoor. I stepped out onto the patio and breathed in the night air greedily. I felt like I was being suffocated during dinner. The air was thick with tension from my Dad and Uncle Jaspar.
The moment we stepped out into the night; Nikolai Aslanov turned to me. A knowing smile formed on his lips, something dark flashing in his eyes.
“Princess Arabella Adair.” Nikolai recited my full name, a sly smile playing on his lips.
My heart hammered in my chest, the necklace heating against my skin as his eyes began to wander. They ran down the length of my face, traveling my neck slowly. For just a second, I thought he was looking down at my necklace.
He was looking down at the covered mark on my neck.
“Mated, though you try to hide it.” Nikolai murmured thoughtfully, rueful irony pouring into his gaze. Nikolai was a very controlled man. Any emotion I witnessed was because he wanted me to.
My voice shriveled in my throat, unable to talk my way out of this situation. What would there be for me to say? I knew this was a possibility. My scent was noticeably different, not that Nikolai Aslanov would recognize Viktor’s scent.
“I am.” Instead of denying what we both knew was truth, I embraced the decision I made in a cloud of desire.
Nikolai’s eyes were locked on my neck, “Would you mind?” His eyes twinkled slyly; his hand reached towards my neck.
“Go ahead.” I nodded, swallowing down my fear and discomfort.
Nikolai Aslanov’s finger grazed against my skin. His finger pressed lightly on my covered mark, knowing exactly where it hid beneath the makeup. Without another word, Nikolai trailed his finger across my collar bones and trailed the edge of my necklace.
“Mated to the bodyguard.” Nikolai retracted his hand, his eyes reading the shock in my own.
My own shock had broken through my shield as though it were a flimsy barrier. Nikolai’s tone was strong, he was sure in what he was saying.
“How did you know?” I spoke once I could fully trust my own voice. The cool air stung my skin, but I could hardly notice. I was much too sucked into the conversation.
“I’ll answer your question, providing you hear me out.” Nikolai Aslanov smirked slyly, a hand lifting to run through his dark hair.
“I’ll hear you out.” I nodded, remembering my conversation with Elena a few days ago. I promised her I would hear what Nikolai had to say but gave no promises I would join their side.
“Thank you, little Princess.” Nikolai’s smirk deepened, his eyes twinkling. “You have all the Royal’s clamoring after you. A little girl with so much to offer the world. Born into power she could never fully understand.”
Nikolai’s voice was soft, his eyes burning into my own with the intensity of his words. His voice held a familiar roughness, yet his words were spoken clearly.
“I understand what I’ve been given.” I frowned, “And it’s not my fault everyone is clamoring after me, I never wanted that.”
“You never expected any of this, of the calculated games we play when no one is looking.” Nikolai murmured, looking ethereal under the brightly lit moon. “And yet you joined right in, even when your Father refused to participate.”
My jaw clenched at the mention of my Dad. It was clear Nikolai, and my Dad knew each other well, and that the distaste was mutual. If Nikolai planned on turning me against my Dad, he had another thing coming.
“My Dad did what he thought was best.” My eyes narrowed at Nikolai, “He’s an amazing ruler. Our Kingdom can attest to that.”
“Mm, yet your Father continues to treat you like a child.” Nikolai shook his head, his eyes burning with sympathy, “He tells you a secret here and there, making you feel trusted and strong. Your Father tells you what you can handle, little Princess.”
Anger burned in the back of my throat, the feeling like acid. “That’s not true.”
“It isn’t?” Nikolai’s dark eyebrow lifted, “If you insist. Do me a favor, will you? When the lies get too overbearing, ask your Father about Sofia Antonov.”
Aela committed the name to memory, while I stood on in silence. I wouldn’t let myself believe what he was saying about my Dad. Whatever past they had with each other didn’t involve me, and I refused to let him tear us apart.
“You live in a Kingdom based on trust and familiarity. Humans are equal to those above them, respect and authority has diminished.” Nikolai Aslanov murmured regretfully, “Little Princess, if you were to join my side, I would never lie to you. I would tell you everything you wished to know, a gift I have given none other.”
“And what would you want in return?” I scoffed, “Information isn’t free, that was one of my first lessons.”
I wasn’t trusting Nikolai for a split second. His intentions were clear, and my patience was running thin. I listened to what he had to say. He wanted my Kingdom, my allegiance. He wanted to undo what my Dad did. He wanted to combine our Kingdom’s, taking mine under his wing.
“I want you, Arabella.” Nikolai Aslanov’s voice was strong and clear, his eyes burning with honesty as he investigated my own. I couldn’t tell if the emotion in his eyes was true, or simply placed there to ignite my own emotions.
I couldn’t deny Nikolai Aslanov had an ethereal attractiveness that was appealing, but the mate-bond between Viktor and I was a living thing. It spanned the length of the world, connecting the two of us together. My stomach clenched painfully at the thought of tossing Viktor to the side, leaving him for the likes of Nikolai Aslanov.
“You know I have a mate.” I choked out, my tongue tripping over the words. Nikolai Aslanov was standing just a few feet away, all his attention on me.
“Mates are easily disposed of.” Nikolai Aslanov murmured, his eyes once again trailing down my face. “As are mate-bonds.”
“And if I don’t want to leave my mate?” I forced my eyes to look into his own. The necklace was warm against my chest, reassuring the words I spoke.
“Then I will consider that a great loss. Such a beauty should belong to someone better than—Viktor.” Nikolai Aslanov shook his head, “But I do not give up easily, little Princess. I am a very patient man, and I always get what I want.
The way Nikolai spoke Viktor’s name made a strange sense of unease swirl in my stomach. Nikolai’s distaste seeped through his voice. The distaste was personal. It was more than hating a man for stealing the woman he wanted. This distaste formed over years, melting into hate and fury.
“You know Viktor?” I frowned, desperately searching for the emotion hidden in his eyes.
Nikolai Aslanov’s face turned up in a reptilian smile. His voice was friendly, but I could hear the chill in his words.
“Yes, I know Viktor though he was once called something else. I on the other hand, called him big brother.”