The sounds of the busy kitchen outside the archway filled the silence that stretched between them.
We’re getting married tonight.
King’s words reverberated in Serafina’s brain, refusing to be absorbed. “Wh-what?”
His fingers tightened around hers. “We’re getting married tonight,” King repeated softly, his eyes locked on her face. “And then you’re coming home with me.”
Serafina’s heart hammered against her ribs. King didn’t make jokes, not like this, but it had to be. She was only twelve and King was...Serafina didn’t know how old he was. Old. An adult.
“B-but...but you’re...I’m not...” It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. And yet...the dress, Ian’s bad feeling, Elder Roselina’s special preparations. King showing up for her birthday for the first time ever tonight.
“I know it’s a shock,” King began slowly. “You should have been told weeks ago.” Anger flared in his eyes before he tamped it down. “It wasn’t my intention to ambush you, Serafina. I don’t know what the Elders were thinking but I wanted you to have time to prepare.”
The Elders were thinking Serafina wouldn’t have agreed. Hence the big surprise. No wonder they hadn’t told Ian. He wouldn’t have gone along with this in a thousand years. Had Ian figured out what was happening? Is that why he sounded so freaked out when he told her to stay here?
Relief filtered through Serafina knowing Ian was on his way, followed by fear at the thought of him rushing in here and confronting King. Ian was strong, but King could squash him with a single hand.
Your whole life is about to change, King had said earlier. Serafina didn’t notice the tears streaming silently down her face until King reached up gently to wipe them.
“You’re scared.” King’s calloused thumb swept the moisture from her cheeks. “That’s natural. But there’s nothing to be scared of. The wedding is just a formality. Macklin insisted on it, actually.” He spoke the Elder’s name like it disgusted him. “Sweetheart, listen to me. This is a good thing. You’re going to love the trip back home. We’re going to drive to LA and fly from there. You’ve always wanted to go on a plane.” He dipped his head to recapture her lowered gaze. “And you’re going to love Garnet Range. I was going to surprise you, but I had a gallery built for your paintings. They’re already being shipped.”
He was right. That all did sound amazing. But... Serafina stared at the man who had shown her nothing but care and kindness, the closest thing she had to a father or really, any loving adult in her life. The next closest person to him was Deb, who was forced to keep her distance from Serafina by her job and her beliefs.
More than anything Serafina wanted to leave here, leave the Church, see the world outside of Willow Beach. Go to a big city and take a trip in an airplane. King’s mansion sounded amazing, with a pool and an art studio with perfect light at every time of day. And yet...it felt wrong.
“Why do we have to get married?” she blurted. “You’re so old, it’s weird!”
King’s eyes creased and his shoulders relaxed. “I told you. Macklin insisted. I was good with just coming to get you, but he wanted to make it part of the whole—” He dropped one of her hands to gesture dismissively. “—White Goddess thing. It was the least I could do seeing as I’m taking their goddess away.”
King smirked, clearly not feeling bad about that at all. He’d never seemed to have much respect for the Elders or Church doctrine, but over the past few years he’d given up the pretense completely.
“But...but...” Serafina shook her head, trying to settle her whirling thoughts. The sun’s last rays faded through the windows as dusk settled over the sky. Soon it would be dark. And she and King would be married. Her heart started racing again. She didn’t think he meant they would really be married, that he would do anything to her like that. But it just sounded so wrong.
“What if you meet a woman and want to marry her someday?”
King’s amusement grew into a broad smile. “That won’t happen.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’ll grow up one day,” King said. “And when you do, you’ll be my mate.”
“Your mate?” Serafina frowned. “What does that mean?”
King’s eyes darkened as Ian rushed into the room, stopping short when he saw them tucked so closely together. King frowned as Serafina pulled her hands from his and stepped away.
“Ian!” Serafina gasped at Ian’s battered state. His face and arms were scratched and torn and his hair was matted with blood. The white suit and blue shirt that matched his eyes were gone, in their place a pair of black suit pants and a white t-shirt with the letters ‘USFC’ that she’d seen Conrad wear. “Are you okay? What happened?”
Ian’s voice was a low growl. “Ask him.” His eyes were wild, sparking with something Serafina had never seen before as they fixed on King. Something that scared her.
King’s eyes sharpened and narrowed as he returned Ian’s stare. “I’m interested as well.”
“I’m sure you are,” Ian sneered. Serafina’s eyes widened at his tone. Whatever he thought about King, Ian never talked to him like that. No one did. But Ian was different right now. His vibe, the way he was standing, the expression on his face.
Ian, but not Ian. Serafina felt it in his touch when he took her arm and pulled her away from King, her poufy skirt swinging and settling around their legs. “Has he told you about the big surprise yet?”
Serafina nodded, searching Ian’s blood-smeared face. His blue eyes swirled with gold in a way she’d never seen before, like the colours were fighting to take over. She swallowed hard.
“I’m getting married to King.” Serafina’s heart pounded saying the words aloud. “And then we’re going to go live with him in Montana.”
“Not we,” Ian snarled, yanking her closer. “You. Just you. Alone and unprotected.”
King didn’t like that. “Serafina will never be either of things.”
“What-what do you mean?” Serafina’s head turned from one bristling, furious male to the other. “What do you mean, just me?” Panic bloomed inside her.
“Serafina.” King forced his expression to relax. “You don’t need a Guardian anymore. You’ll be with me.” Before she could object to this, he went on smoothly, “Now Ian can have his own life, like a normal seventeen year-old.”
The words struck home, as they were meant to. Serafina wasn’t so naive as not to realize that. King knew how much she hated Ian wasting his life on protecting her from some unseen, probably made-up enemy.
“Serafina, don’t listen to him.” Ian’s voice was low and urgent. “We need to leave now, before the service.”
“But—” Serafina looked from Ian back to King. “What kind of life?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ian gritted out.
King spoke right over him. “He’s going to a training academy. A real school with people his own age.”
“Serafina.” Ian waited for her to look at him. “You’re twelve years old. You don’t need to marry an old man for me to have my own life.”
“Serafina.” King’s voice brought her head around back to him again. “This is everything you wanted. It’s a new life for both of you.” His voice was soothing and hypnotic. “A better life. No more Church, no more White Goddess, just Serafina. Just you.”
“Not just her. She’ll also be your queen,” Ian spat. His eyes blazed blue and gold as he looked down at her. “You’ll be swapping the Elders for the Rogue King.”
Their words swirled through her head like a snowglobe, refusing to settle. “What’s a Rogue King?” Serafina managed to get out.
“Nothing.” King surged to his feet in a single motion, towering over them and instantly making room seem smaller. He held out his hand. “Let’s go, Serafina. It’s time.”
Do not take his hand. Ian’s mindlink was swift and curt. A command. When I count to three, you’re going to run. Or I will throw you over my shoulder in that dress, I swear on the fucking moon, and carry you out.
Serafina suspected King would do the same. His eyes were on hers, his hand extended patiently.
One, Ian said.
The pressure was overwhelming. Whatever Serafina did, someone was going to get hurt. Hurt and very, very angry. She felt Ian’s fingers twitch around her arm.
“Serafina,” King prompted softly.
Tears leapt back into Serafina’s eyes. King really cared about her, she knew he did. But Ian—Ian was Ian. Serafina trusted him completely.
Throwing King an apologetic look, Serafina grabbed her skirts in both fists and ran.
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