Sebastian knew he ought to have been sleeping. Truly, of all the nights to lose sleep, this had to be one of the worst possible. He would do no one any favors if he nodded off over dinner—or worse, during his vows. But sleep would not come. The past few days had been a blur of arriving dignitaries and endless meetings with the Eyes and the guard, who told him the palace was safe and everything that could be done for protection had been, but he couldn't help worrying. His first weeks as Starkhaven's prince had been anything but peaceful, and he didn't want to invite disaster by being less than vigilant now. Unfortunately, constant vigilance—even knowing a great deal of that vigilance rested on capable shoulders not his own—translated into constant insomnia. So Sebastian poured himself a healthy finger or two of Starkhaven's finest—too much of that would be just as detrimental as any lack of sleep—and settled himself by the fire with a pile of correspondence deemed important enough for him to read, but not so vital it required his immediate attention.

After several letters, he found himself smiling. Corwin had pressed the bundle on him earlier, and now he suspected the Steward had, in fact, been attempting to impress upon his prince a unique brand of soporific. Words swam before Sebastian's eyes, accounts and requests and reports of very thin rumors, each duller than the next. Every time he blinked, it took a moment longer for his eyes to open again, and he thought he would have fallen asleep in his chair by the hearth if not for the sound of a knock at his window.

Sebastian jumped, instantly awake and mouth open to call for his guards, until he realized it was very unlikely a potential assassin would have done the courtesy of knocking. He knew only one other person who might think climbing walls and knocking on windows late into the night was acceptable behavior. Well. Perhaps two, but he suspected his visitor was not Isabela. So he rose, crossed the room, and pushed back the curtains to reveal his betrothed, jammed onto the narrow window ledge, raising her arm to knock a second time.

"You keep your window bolted shut?" she asked without preamble, the moment he flung said bolt and opened the panel of glass wide enough for her to slip through.

"You don't?" he replied, trying to keep his voice light, even as anxiety twisted his stomach into knots. She wasn't wearing her bow or her armor, and he knew the late dinner would have kept her from her habitual jaunt out into the city given how early the morrow's events were set to begin, but he could not fathom why she would come to him via scaling a wall when the hallways were available. Unless… unless she had something troubling to say, and she wanted to be certain she had no audience. His hands went cold at the thought, and he was forced to clench them into fists to keep her from seeing them tremble.

She sent him a tremulous smile—and oh, he could see the strain—and huffed an uncomfortable little laugh. Then, without another word, she crossed to the sideboard and poured herself a more-than-healthy finger or four of whiskey. He did not miss how her hands trembled.

"Kiara," he began, hating the uncertainty in the word.

She wrinkled her nose and downed the entire glass of whiskey in a single gulp, coughing at the burn and slamming the crystal down so hard he thought it might shatter at the onslaught. It did not. "I can't do this," she said. Simply. Firmly. Inarguably.

Sebastian felt the world drop away from him. For a moment, he felt certain he would fall himself, as he was too numb even to reach out for something to hold him up.

Whatever she saw on his face was enough to widen her eyes and bring a violent flush to her cheeks. "Oh, Maker, love. That's not what I meant. Not at all. Not even the slightest bit. Oh, my bloody mouth, always getting me into trouble!" She crossed the room in several swift strides, reaching up to take his face between her palms. Her hands were cold from the night air. Or perhaps it was only he was too warm. "Sebastian. Never. I promise."

He swallowed hard, but his heart was still racing and the embarrassing prickle of unshed tears burned his eyes.

She raised herself onto her toes and pressed a brief, chaste kiss to his lips. She tasted of smoky alcohol and sweet autumn air and her, but still he could not wrestle his fear into submission. "Tomorrow is a… a formality, my heart," she whispered, still close enough he could feel the softness of her lips against his, could taste the tenor of her words on the tip of his tongue. "I'm afraid you're stuck with me."

As if these words were the key necessary to break his paralysis, he swept his arms around her, pulling her tight to his breast and burying his face in her hair.

"I'm sorry," she murmured against him. "I should have thought how it would—" Stopping abruptly, she squeezed him back just as tightly before adding, "I can't breathe, Sebastian."

Very reluctantly he loosened his grip, but did not release her from the circle of his arms. She had enough space to tilt her chin up, and though her gaze was still strained, her lips were smiling. He shook his head and managed to say, "Why? You could have used the door."

She lowered her head again, but not before he saw the brightness of a fresh blush overspread her cheeks. "It's late," she mumbled, pressing her forehead to his chest. "I… I didn't want half the palace to know I was here."

"We're getting married tomorrow. The gossip could hardly destroy your reputation."

She snorted, and because it was almost a laugh, he found himself smiling and breathing again. "Hardly is not the same as not at all. It's just… I…"

When several moments passed and she did not continue, Sebastian lowered his arms and stepped backward until he could see her. She didn't raise her head, and he couldn't make sense of her posture. She looked… nervous. And embarrassed. Neither an emotion she wore often. "Is there something wrong, Kiara? Is something the matter?"

She sighed, twisting her hands together and scuffing one foot against the lush carpet. "Yes. And no. It's… it seems…"

Again she drifted into silence.

"My love," he urged gently, resting his hands on her shoulders, "you are aware you're not actually finishing your sentences?"

She nodded. And then shook her head. And then kicked the floor again.

"And you swear you're not here to tell me you've hired Isabela to take you to Rivain on the morning tide? I know you had fun with her the other evening, but…"

A brief smile flickered across her lips. "Funny you should mention Isabela, but no."

Sebastian narrowed his eyes. "Why is it funny I should mention Isabela?"

"I… she…" Kiara sighed again, deeply. "This was… sort of her idea."

He blinked at her, his hands reflexively clenching. "Sweet Andraste, Kiara Hawke. If you've ever spoken more frightening words than those, I have no idea what they were."

This finally, brought her face up, and she smiled. Not her usual grin, or the smirk he loved so well, but a smile nonetheless. And given how… strangely she was behaving, he was glad even for a small sign of mirth.

"Pray tell," he added gently, "how could you breaking into my chambers via the window be in any way our pirate friend's doing?"

Kiara took a deep breath and released it slowly, looking wistfully back toward the whiskey.

"Shall we make a deal?" he asked. "If you manage to finish an entire sentence, I will let you have more of that."

If he'd thought his little bargain would startle a laugh out of her, he was disappointed. Instead she only nodded, and chewed thoughtfully on her bottom lip. "Okay," she said at length. "The thing is, I went to ask Isabela some… advice. And after she… laughed at me, a lot, she… advised me."

He arched an incredulous eyebrow. "And now you've succeeded in uttering even more frightening words, a feat I did not feel was possible. What advice did you require from Isabela of all people? Surely you don't fear Aileene Caddell will challenge you to a duel tomorrow?"

Kiara rolled her eyes at him, even as she wrapped her arms tightly, almost protectively, around herself. "Maker, you're a bloody idiot, Sebastian Vael. What else is Isabela… known for… being… good at? And just to be clear? I… I don't mean dueling or piracy or cheating at cards."

His cheeks burned hot, and sadly the heat had nothing whatsoever to do with his proximity to the fire. "You… Kiara, you're not…"

This, this made her laugh. "Now who can't finish their sentences?"

He gaped at her, utterly speechless, and she winced, burying her face in her hands. "I know, I know," she mumbled. "Isabela. But…" Here she peered through her fingers, and he could see the amusement in her eyes. "I… who else was I supposed to ask?"

"Me, perhaps?" he choked out. "Are you—what the—Maker's breath, Kiara! Isabela?"

She closed the gaps between her fingers, once again hiding her eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to ask you. I wanted… pointers. You know. From… from another woman. Oh, Maker."

Closing his eyes, Sebastian shook his head. He was forced to bite the insides of his lips to keep from laughing in a way that would doubtless do little to reassure his anxious betrothed.

"Dare I—dare I—ask what… pointers she gave?"

Kiara uttered a brief, despairing moan. "Oh, I don't know. A lot of things about ships and rudders and… laughing. So much laughing. And then she offered to show me, and—"

Sebastian lifted his chin and prayed for strength. "Presumably you didn't take her up on that offer?"

Kiara swatted at his shoulder, and he allowed himself a brief laugh when her fist connected. "Of course I didn't. It's just… she told me I was an idiot for not—I won't tell you what she said, because it was distressingly blasphemous—for not… taking care of things sooner and then she told me to just… get it over with. So that's why I'm here. To get this over with."

"So let me get this straight, love. You snuck out of your room, traversed the palace in the dark, and scaled my wall because you… want to 'get this over with'? On Isabela's advice?"

"When you say it like that… it doesn't sound… that's not what I meant."

He smiled. "What do you mean, then?"

"I'm… scared. N-not of you. Of… being a disappointment. Of-of not being—I don't want to spend our wedding day worrying about… this. I just want it to be—Maker's bloody balls, Sebastian, just… please don't make me say it out loud. I already wish the floor would open up and swallow me whole."

Perhaps the floor wasn't obliging, but he did swallow his smile. He didn't want her to think he was smiling at her, when truly, if she were standing a little closer she'd have been able to feel all the proof of his desire for her.

"Very well," he said, serious. "Our… abstinence wasn't intended to make you more nervous, love."

"I know that. It's just one thing led to another and now it seems like such a… a vast undertaking, and I want to be… I want to be thinking about us tomorrow. I don't want to be wracked with—"

He kissed her. If her startled squeak was any indication, she hadn't been expecting it. When he pulled away, her lips were pink and her cheeks were flushed—though not from embarrassment, he thought. Her smile seemed less strained. "I'm being ridiculous, aren't I?"

"Aye," he said, kissing the tip of her nose. "And no. You're being you."

She chuckled. "I'm not sure how I should take that."

"As the compliment it is?"

This time instead of swinging at him, she reached up and ran her fingers through his hair. It was innocently done, but her fingertips were gentle and he shivered under the touch. Smiling, she repeated the gesture before resting her hand at the nape of his neck. "You know what you're doing. I don't," she admitted. "And I hate that."

"It was long ago, love," he soothed, and she laughed, shaking her head. "I daresay I'm out of practice."

Shaking her head, she laughed again, but didn't remove the hand from his neck. Her fingertips traced lazy circles against his skin. "I don't hate that you know what you're doing. I hate that I don't. Idiot."

Without pulling away from her hand, he bent his head until he could kiss her again. She responded instantly, lips soft and pliant beneath his, but he could feel the tremor in her, the thoughts swirling just beneath the surface.

"Ahh," he sighed against her mouth. "This won't do."

Her brow furrowed and he felt her lower lip tremble. "Am I—?"

Crooking his finger, he rapped her lightly on the forehead with his knuckle. "You're thinking too much, is what you're doing. And you're worrying about something you have no business worrying about."

"But I—"

He silenced her by lowering the same finger and pressing it to her open lips. On a breath of laughter, she smiled and kissed his fingertip. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "This is not at all romantic, is it?"

His lips twitched in a smirk. "My love, whatever could you mean? You break into my rooms—"

"You let me in," she protested, trailing her fingers from the base of his neck down the loose collar of his linen shirt. His skin tingled everywhere she touched, and he thought if just for a moment she could feel what he was feeling at the mere touch of her fingers on his collarbone, she would have no cause whatsoever to doubt herself.

He leaned his head, touching his cheek to the back of her hand, still smirking. "Technicalities. You come calling at my window in the middle of the night, wound tighter than a spring, desperately nervous and very nearly unhappy, on the eve of our wedding. Ever so romantic, Kiara."

Her expression turned pained. "You are making fun of me."

"Just a little." Sliding the same finger from her lips to her chin, he tilted her face up, pressing light kisses to first temple, then cheekbone, then the corner of her troubled mouth. "Stay with me, love."

She blinked, started. "What?"

Chuckling, he ran his hand back through her hair, reveling in the way she shuddered just as he had done. Winding a strand of coppery silk around his fingers, he tugged very slightly. "My own one, as flattering as it is to have you burst into my chambers in order to tell me you want to 'get this over with' I'm afraid you shall have to meet me in the middle. This is not The Blooming Rose, after all. Stay with me. We'll see what happens from there, shall we?"

Her cheeks flushed so hot he could feel the heat of them even from an inch away. "But—won't they—the gossip and… and Tasia will—"

"Tasia's a clever girl. I have no doubt she'll figure it out." He bent his head until his lips were nearly brushing her ear. "And for all your protestations, you had no qualms about moving your own sister into her lover's room in full sight of the entire court. Stay with me."

Arms snaking around his neck, she pressed her face into his neck. He felt some of the tension slip from her as he returned the embrace. Finally, she nodded and whispered, "I'll… I'll stay."

His breath caught, and for a moment he couldn't fathom even the possibility of being happier than he was in that moment. The joy was a pressure in his chest, very nearly painful. Then, in a swift motion, he captured her, hooking one arm around her shoulders and the other beneath her knees, sweeping her up into his arms. She yelped, arms tightening around his neck. Crossing the room, he sat in his chair by the fire, next to his nearly untouched glass of whiskey, and settled her in his lap. "Now," he said lightly, loosening the laces of her tunic very slowly, but only until he could slide the fabric down, baring one shoulder, "shall I show you what all kissing being under good regulation actually means?"

Her giggle became a moan as he lowered his mouth to her shoulder, pressing delicate kisses along the pale flesh until he reached her collarbone. Tilting her head back, she bared her neck, and he sucked gently at a spot he already knew was sensitive. She squirmed in his lap, all delightful, delighted noises and hooded eyes. He groaned, a heady mixture of pleasure and desire, and redoubled his efforts. Then those huge pale eyes widened sharply and she said, "Maker's balls, Sebastian Vael, if you mark me, I will never hear the end of it. Don't you dare."

Smirking into the side of her neck, he pressed a much more chaste kiss atop the mark he feared she'd been too late to prevent.


With his princely bearing and faultless knowledge of the Chant, it was, at times, easy to forget Sebastian was a rogue. Oh, his choice of weapon might throw him into the class, but no one—no one—ever looked at him and thought, "There's a man who's going to pick my pocket and stab me in the back for good measure." Stories of his misspent youth aside, if he was a rogue, it was a noble one. So noble it had never occurred to Kiara to ask him to pick locks or disarm traps, but she was being forced to question her reluctance now. He was probably better at it than she'd ever given him credit for.

Sebastian Vael had very nimble fingers.

At the moment, those fingers were doing everything except what she wanted them to be doing. They traced patterns along the flesh of her shoulder, her neck, her hands—the only skin left bare by her tunic. When she reached down to rid herself of the garment, Sebastian chuckled, gently swatting her away. She pouted at him, but he was implacable, catching her wrists and pressing her hands tightly between them after brushing kisses to her knuckles.

"Sebastian," she pleaded, in a tone dangerously close to a whine.

"Mmm?" he murmured into the side of her neck, kissing a trail from ear to collarbone while his blighted fingers slipped beneath the hem of her tunic to draw feather-light whorls against the sensitive skin at her lower back. For a moment she was so lost to the sensation she made no reply save pressing closer, her hands flat against his chest, and she felt his smug smile against her shoulder.

"Bed," she commanded.

This time the laugh was no mere chuckle. It emerged full-bodied and rich and, combined with the maddening patterns his fingers were drawing, made her feel distinctly and uncomfortably overdressed.

She wanted to make him laugh that way again. She wanted to make him laugh that way all the time.

She also wanted to not be sitting on his lap in a chair, with so very many layers of clothing between them.

"As you wish, my lady." Before she could move he rose, his arms very firmly around her, and carried her across the room to the vast bed. When he settled her there, she had a moment to be surprised his bed was somehow even more comfortable than her own before he sat and reached for the buttons at the throat of his shirt.

"No," she whispered, pushing herself onto one elbow and reaching for him with her other hand. He let his arms drop, and she circled her fingers around his wrist, tugging him to lay beside her. He submitted easily enough, but as soon as he turned the full weight of his gaze on her, she felt the tremor of familiar fear once again. She bit her lip. It wasn't about him, and it wasn't about this; the fear was borne of something far more intangible and far more difficult to name. Old things. Selflessness. Safety and running and hiding. The years she'd spent surreptitiously watching him, so certain her wishes could only ever be wishes, that any dreams she had could never come to fruition, that any feelings could never be acted upon.

The belief that to love something meant it would be taken away.

As if reading these thoughts, his expression turned soft—not pitying, thank the Maker not pitying, but somehow patient—and he reached up to card his fingers through her hair. Closing her eyes, she leaned into his hand, trying to focus on the feel of him. Him. This. Now. His fingertips against her scalp, his palm against her cheekbone, soothing.

She didn't want to remember the hurried, adolescent fumbling of her previous experience, and yet she couldn't help it. She was so woefully underprepared. Thinking back, she wasn't certain she'd ever even seen Jaran entirely naked. He'd certainly never spent half an hour kissing her lips and neck and shoulders, gentle fingertips tracing patterns on her skin without insistence, and without once drifting toward breasts or hips or thighs. They'd always been afraid of getting caught, and so had always come together with a mix of youthful desire and desperation, but nothing very close to intimacy. It had left her entirely unprepared for this. Just being so close to Sebastian, having his eyes on her, made her feel naked. Naked and nervous. His sureness only highlighted her blighted anxiety.

She couldn't hide from him. He wouldn't let her.

Kiara didn't realize how furrowed her brow had become until Sebastian kissed her there and she felt the tension beneath his lips. Her throat was tight with tears, and she fisted her hands in the sheets, forcing herself to inhale deeply and smooth out the crease between her eyes.

He didn't say anything, and she was glad of it. His hand kept moving through her hair, and she could feel the warmth of his breath against her forehead. One by one, she uncurled her fingers, until once again her hands lay flat. Then, after another moment and another breath, she pushed herself to sitting. He followed suit, eyes still watching her carefully. Swallowing the last vestiges of her nervousness, Kiara reached out and began slowly unbuttoning his shirt. Her fingers trembled, making the polished buttons hard to grasp, but he held himself perfectly, carefully still, and little by little the shirt opened.

She had seen him shirtless before, of course. She'd changed his bandages countless times in the weeks his wound had bothered him. She was already familiar with the way his broad shoulders tapered to his waist, the way the red-brown hair dusted his chest, the lean curves and lines of his muscles—fuller now than they'd been then; Starkhaven had repaired so much of the damage done by his long convalescence. But this was the first time she was allowed to look without adopting the distance of a healer, and somehow it was entirely, entirely different. By the time she reached the last of the buttons, the shaking in her hands was desire and not nerves, and when she pushed the fabric from his shoulders, she allowed her palms to linger, she allowed her fingers to echo his, tracing imaginary sigils and swirls lightly across his clavicle. When her wandering hands reached his chest, he groaned, gazing at her with hooded eyes.

Very slowly, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to the scar at his breast. She felt him shudder, and his hands jerked—almost involuntarily, she thought—to her waist. Smiling against him, she kissed him again before flicking her tongue out to taste the warmth of his skin. "Maker, Kiara," he whispered, his voice rough, his accent heavy. Her lips followed the line of his scar, and his hands tightened when she reached the end and scraped her teeth lightly, so very lightly, across his nipple. She soothed the gentle bite with the flat of her tongue, and again he groaned, low and needy, his fingers catching in the fabric of her tunic, pulling her close enough she could feel how desperately he wanted her.


He leaned forward until his lips were nearly touching her ear, growling, "You are wearing too many clothes."

Grinning, she curled her arms around his neck, twisting her fingers into the hair at his nape. "What are you going to do about that, Your Highness?" she retorted, tugging his hair just enough to bare his neck, and she nuzzled the chiseled line of his jaw. When he chuckled, she retaliated by capturing his earlobe, pulling the soft flesh between her lips.

The sound he made might have contained words—curses or prayers—but they weren't in any way recognizable. And it certainly wasn't a laugh.


She giggled. "It's the hair. I can't help it."

His eyes met hers, and just for an instant she was frozen by the intensity of the emotion she saw there. Which was, evidently, his plan all along. His roguish plan. Because one moment she was gazing rather helplessly into his eyes, and the next she was once again flat on her back, with her tunic pulled up over her head, and just as swiftly flung to the floor. She blushed, and then splayed her hands protectively over her belly. Sebastian's gaze followed the motion, and she saw his expression darken, turn sad.

"The Arishok?" he asked, running his fingers over a scar much longer and much, much uglier than the one at his breast.

"And Amelle," she said, flattening her palm over the faint ripples of very old burn-scars. "When we were young. It was an accident. Papa—Papa did what he could."

She had long since grown used to her scars—she hardly noticed them anymore—but with him looking down at her it was almost as if they were new again, and she turned her face away, her cheeks hot.

"Kiara," he said softly, reaching down to touch her face. After a moment, he used the caress to turn her countenance back to his.

"I know they're—"

"No," he interrupted. "They're you. And you are perfect."

She rolled her eyes, but he only shook his head. "If you could see what I see, love, you'd understand." He was straddling her now, but sitting back on his heels, careful to keep the full weight of his body off her legs. He was looking at her again, his blue, blue eyes missing nothing. Capturing one of her hands, he raised it to his lips, kissing each fingertip before turning it over and pressing his mouth to the center of her palm. "You are beautiful." Higher then, to the pulse at her wrist, and then to the inside of her elbow. She shuddered. "Strong." Bending at the waist, he continued his path by lowering his mouth to the slight dip where her shoulder and collarbone met. "Brave." His tongue lapped at the hollow of her throat, before once again turning to the familiar territory of her neck and jaw. She heard him laugh slightly before he repeated her trick with the earlobe, and she moaned as every bloody nerve in her body started singing at the heat and presence of him. "Perfect."

She caressed his waist, his ribs, dragging her blunt fingernails down his back until she could pull at his hips. "Sebastian," she whispered. "Take these off."

The noise he made hinted at assent, but he didn't immediately oblige her. Bringing his hand to her cheek once again, he tilted her face so he could kiss her deeply, pulling yet another whimper from her parted lips. His tongue was as nimble as his fingers, and the fingers were working nearly as hard, cleverly unlacing her breastband. She gasped when the scrap of fabric followed her tunic, and her bare, over-sensitized skin brushed against his warmth and the soft hair of his chest.

His hands swept down her sides, coming to rest at her hips, even as his lips began as slow a southern journey as the northern had been, teasing, teasing, and never quite going where she wished. Her breastbone. The swell but not the peak. She jumped when his tongue found her navel. All the while, his fingers worked at the laces of her breeches. She wiggled her hips. Groaning at her movement, he stilled momentarily. Smiling, pleased with herself, Kiara arched her back and wriggled her hips again, slowly.

Two could play his game, after all.

Then, when he was distracted, she executed a rather beautiful move—one she'd learned as a counter to being pinned in hand-to-hand combat, but strangely just as effective in the current scenario—flipping their positions so she was the one straddling his legs, and hers the hands reaching for the laces of his breeches. He didn't fight her. He laughed again, the sweet, rough laugh she was learning very swiftly to love best of all, and his hands reached up to cup her breasts, his thumbs finally, finally grazing her nipples. His hands were sure against her, strong and certain, their tan dark against her milky skin. She whimpered, pressing her hips against his in a futile attempt at relief, and was gratified to feel him involuntarily press back, echoing her moan.

Once she loosened the laces at last, she hooked her thumbs beneath the waistband and tugged. He raised his hips to help, but didn't cease his attentions to her breasts. She stopped a moment to admire the freed length of him, and this time it was his turn to blush, but he did not attempt to cover himself. His breeches followed her tunic and breastband, and after a moment she managed to rid herself of the last of her own clothing as well. Then she pressed a kiss to each of his hipbones. He twitched, and she smiled.

"Enough teasing," she whispered, using her own deft hands to guide him precisely where she wanted him to be.

She moved slowly at first, so slowly, luxuriating at the feel of him. He let her set the pace, keeping one hand on her waist, but allowing the other to slip between them, almost teasing but not, because no teasing had ever, ever felt so good, and she found she had to move faster, deeper, more until—oh, Maker, the entire world was only this feeling and this moment: Sebastian's flushed, handsome face, his hands, his body; her racing heart, her fingers clutching his shoulders, her hair falling to veil both their faces. He moaned her name over and over, reverent and pleading, and she replied in kind, whispering endearments, whispering promises, whispering, whispering, as the world coalesced into this this this: the trembling in her limbs and his nimble, nimble fingers and then she threw her head back and shouted as everything came apart, came apart and was put back together even more beautiful than it had been before.

He flipped her, then, and rested on his forearms, his forehead pressed to hers, holding himself within her, but motionless as she returned to herself. When he began to move again, the feeling—Maker's breath, the feeling—was almost too intense, too much, but she met him stroke for stroke, giving her hips an experimental little twist that made them both gasp.

She felt when he began to lose himself, his pace quickening, his breath turning turning ragged. She wrapped her arms around his back, hooking a leg over his hip and arching her back for better leverage.

It was just enough to pull him over the precipice, her name torn from his throat on a hoarse cry.

She clutched him more tightly as he shuddered in her arms, pressing kisses to his chest, his collarbone, his shoulder. "I love you," he whispered, once he'd found his voice again, though it was still rough and breathless. "I love you. I love you."

Her eyes prickled with tears, but these were not ones of fear. Tilting her head, she captured his lips and put as much feeling as she could manage into the gesture. Meeting his eyes, not caring if he saw the dampness in hers, she said, "I love you."

He pulled her tight to his chest, his hand cradling the back of her skull with such exquisite tenderness the prickle became fully-formed tears. She didn't attempt to stop them. So close, she could feel his heart racing, mirroring her own, and they lay entwined until those heartbeats once again slowed, returned to normal. Finally, pressing a kiss to her brow, he roused himself enough to roll onto his back, pillowing his head on one bent arm.

Maker, but she loved his smile. Even when it tread dangerously close to the territory of the smirk. And even when that smirk was just a hair shy of smug.

"You did that on purpose," Kiara said, poking him in the ribs.

One eyebrow arched. "I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about."

Laughing, she propped herself up on one elbow, the better to glare down at him. "You can't fool me, Sebastian Vael. You knew exactly what you were doing."

His smile was definitely smug. Insufferably. "That's the rumor, anyway."

She poked him again, harder, and this time he jerked, and his smugness faded into a mock scowl. She said, "You goaded me. By teasing. You… you tricked me into being… I don't know. Wanton."

"Did I?" Both eyebrows rose now, and he blinked guilelessly. "That sounds unfair of me. Are you certain?"

She giggled, pressing herself close to his side, hooking one bare leg over his and flinging an arm around his waist. With her cheek pillowed on his chest, she murmured, "Sebastian?"

"Aye, love?"

"Will you marry me?"

He chuckled. "Does tomorrow work for you?"

"I have no other pressing engagements."

"I'll see if we can't throw something together, then." His laugh was interrupted by a yawn. "We'd best get some sleep, though, if we're to have such a busy day."

It felt different, of course, wearing one of Sebastian's over-sized shirts as a nightgown, sharing a bed, having him curled up against her back with one arm snug around her waist. Different, but… but wonderful. Different, but perfect. Kiara spared a momentary thought for how startled Tasia would be to find an empty bed in the morning, but then Sebastian pressed a sleepy kiss to the nape of her neck, whispered, "Good night, love," and Kiara's eyes drifted shut, her worries forgotten.

Bloody Isabela. She'd been right all along.

Smiling her own smug, satisfied smile, Kiara slept.