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Oma woke with a start, jolting off the bedding. Disorientated, she stared around the strange chamber lit dimly by the grey early morning light.
“Good. You’re awake.”
The deep male voice drew her gaze to the long bench. Jide sat on it, his arms bent at the elbows on the table. The aroma of freshly roasted yam and plantain accosted her nostrils. Her stomach rumbled.
She sat up straight as her face flushed with heat. Draped over her body was a cotton sheet dyed red and blue. She crinkled her face when she remembered she had gone to sleep without a cover.
When did he return to his quarters? She hadn’t heard him last night.
“Just in time for breakfast. Come on before it gets too cold.” He waved her over, his lips lifted in a warm tentative grin that lit up his face.
It was strange seeing him with a smile on his face. Throughout the time she’d being in the palace, she couldn’t recall seeing a smile on his face.
Was she the source of amusement for him?After the way she behaved last night she couldn’t blame him for laughing at her. But she didn’t like it.
“Oma, are we going to have a recurrence of last night?” The smile on his face disappeared.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she replied as she stiffened her spine.
“Me giving orders and you refusing to obey them.”
“I don’t like being ordered about.”
The sound of his deep chuckled resounded in the room. Something within her melted.
“That has to be the oddest thing to hear from a girl who works in a palace as a servant. Do you disobey your superiors?”
“No,” she replied. “Perhaps I dislike receiving orders from you.”
Two lines appeared on his forehead as he frowned.
“Every other servant in this palace cowers before me.”He stood to his full height—tall, large and fierce-looking. His body was bare of clothing except for his loincloth. His muscles lean and tight, his chest covered in scars and magical tattoos. His arms flexed at his sides. His eyes blazed like a furnace.
The trembling returned to her body. She clenched her teeth to stop them from chattering as nervous tension returned to her body. She clasped her palms together over raised knees.
“Perhaps I’m not afraid of you,” she said as her heart battered against her chest.
“You’re not a very good liar, Oma,” he said and walked toward her. “You’re afraid all right. Your body betrays you.”
He leaned over the bed and lifted her, sheet and all.
“Put me down,” she said. It sounded more like a whimper than an order.
Even through the fabric she felt his body heat permeate her skin. His clean spice wrapped around her.
For a brief moment she wanted to succumb to the strength and warmth he radiated. She wanted someone else to help her carry the heavy burden on her shoulders. She wanted to lean her head against his shoulders and forget all her cares.
Instead she kept her back stiffened.
Depositing her on the bench, he sat next to her.
“Now eat. Or I will be forced to feed you myself.”
She shifted as far away from him as possible on the bench and ate the food in silence. He didn’t move to change her position but ate his breakfast.
A myriad of emotions coursed through her. Most of it she couldn’t decipher. All she knew was that this man unsettled her. He saw right through her defenses and that wasn’t good.
“The gods must be playing a joke on me,” he said.
She turned to look at him. His lips were twisted in a wry smile.
“It seems I am to learn a lesson I’m yet to decipher.”
She paused eating and screwed up her face in a frown. “Why do you say that?”
“You bear a great resemblance to my betrothed.”
A vice wrenched at her heart pulling it down in a spiral of pain.
“You—you are spoken for?” Of course he was. It was stupid to ask such an obvious question. It was why he’d rejected her last night.
He closed his eyes for a brief moment. When he opened them, his chest heaved in a sorrowful sigh. He looked at her and she glimpsed the torment that had shadowed his eye last night in their dark depths.
“I was once.”
An odd mix of relief and sadness washed over her.
“Why?” She couldn’t stop the question from slipping out. Curious, she wanted to know who had broken off the engagement.
“She is no more.”
“Oh,” she said. Her heart clenched at the sorrow in his voice. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Without thinking she moved her hand to comfort him, placing it on top of his large hand on the table. A spark of awareness flared in her body through their connection.
Jide stared at her hand.
“Thank you but there is no point in dwelling on the past.”
A true statement. The dead were rarely discussed especially if the events were tragic. Still, she wanted to know more. To understand this man and the darkness that surrounded him.
“How did she die?” she asked.
With furrowed brows marring his expression, he removed his hand from hers quickly.
“I ask the questions here, Oma, and I want to know your reason for being in the prince’s quarter last night.”
Disappointed, she moved her hand onto her lap and looked away.
“Do not think me a weak man for not punishing you for your crimes.”
She didn’t say anything as she fought the tears that clogged her throat.
“I can’t knowingly harbor a spy in the palace. You will go to the servant quarters, take your things and leave the palace this morning.”
“No,” she sobbed. Bowing her head, she slid off the bench and knelt on the stone floor.
“Please don’t send me away. I have nowhere else to go.”
“Oma lift your head up,” he said plainly.
At his instruction, she lifted her head slowly. Tears blurred her view of Jide’s face. She didn’t know if he was angry or compassionate.
“Surely you have a home and family?”
She shook her head, unsure of how much to reveal to this man. The fear of reprisals crippled her.“So who is Aham?”
Her heart thudded in her chest in trepidation. Her eyes widened.
“How do you know him?” The moment the words were out, she regretted the question. She had just confirmed to Jide she’d been lying.
“You spoke his name in your sleep.”
“You came back here last night?”
“Yes. I saw little need in sending someone else to watch over you. I did it myself.”
Heat rose to her cheeks at the thought that he stood guard over her last night. Without touching her. How silly was she to think that he was going to take her to his bed? It was obvious his heart—and body—belonged to another.
“Who is Aham?” he asked again, more sternly. “You will leave this palace if I do not know the truth. All of it. No more lies.”
A deep breath whooshed out of her in resignation. She couldn’t escape this.
“Aham is my younger brother. He has only seen ten New Yam Festivals. He is the only living relative that I care about.”
“Where is he?”
“He lives with my uncle and his family.”
“Good. So he is well taken care of.”
“No, it isn’t good.” Despair enveloped her and her shoulders slumped down. Her tears overflowed. “I’ve just put his life in jeopardy.”
Large hands wrapped around her shoulders and lifted her to the bench.
“Tell me what’s wrong and no harm will come to your brother.”
She shook her head. He lifted her chin with callused fingers and wiped her tears with his coarse thumb, his touch more of a caress.
“I promise you I will protect you and your brother with my life,” his voice was deep and husky.
She met his gaze, his bronze eyes a whirlpool of sincerity, concern and longing. Calmness invaded her body. She believed he truly would give his life for her. He was an honorable man.
“Why would you do that?”
“Because I believe the gods have given me a second chance to atone for my past. I will not mess it up.”
“I do not understand,” she said.
Warm hands squeezed her shoulders. Gently he pulled her closer to him. Her body quaked. Not with terror but with anticipation.
“My betrothed died when a raiding party invaded her village in Umulari,” he spoke calmly. “She chose to kill herself rather than be raped or abducted as a slave. I should’ve taught her how to defend herself. My thoughtlessness cost her life.”
It suddenly made sense to her why he’d reacted so aggressively to her threat to kill herself last night. Anger welled in her stomach for Jide and the girl he lost because of the evil of men.
“It was not your fault,” she said.
“Perhaps. But I see so much of her in you, obele.” Little one.
“And I believe you are my second chance,” he continued.
“You mean…I’m…” For the first time she was truly unable to speak coherently. Her mind jumbled up, not believing his words. His use of an endearment.
He held her chin, caressing her skin with his thumb. His warmth suffused her skin. Tingles and awareness of him spread through her body.
“I believe we are here for a reason. Tell me why your brother’s life is in danger.”
It felt like boulders rolled off her shoulders. For the first time in her life, she felt safe. Secure. She could trust Jide with her life and her brother’s.
“My uncle has plans to destabilize the monarchy,” she said. “With the dissolution of the marriage between Prince Emeka and Princess Nonye, he thinks war is going to break out and he wants to put himself in a position where he can control power.”
“Who is your uncle?”
“He is on the council of elders.” Lines creased Jide’s forehead.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s why he’s so dangerous. At first when he instructed me to spy on the royal family, I refused. Then he threatened to sell my brother into slavery. I told my mother but she died mysterious soon afterward. I became truly afraid that he would carry out his threat on my brother. Aham is the only one I have left. I swore on my life I would protect him.”
She broke down sobbing again. Warm arms enfolded her body and lifted her onto hard thighs. She relaxed her body against the warm firm cocoon of Jide as he rocked her body to tranquility.
“Why did you not report your uncle?” he asked, his voice filled with compassion.
“It is but my word against his. He is a respected member of the council of elders. I am just a servant in the palace. I do not care what happens to me as long as my brother’s life is spared.”
Cool fingers lifted her chin. Fiery eyes peered into hers with possessive intensity.
“Nothing will happen to you or your brother. I will protect both of you. Do you believe me?”
“Yes,” she said.
To prove her words, she lifted her hands, wrapped them around his neck and pulled his head down. Their lips melded together in a burning kiss.
Copyright Kiru Taye 2012