I wanted to cover my neck immediately, but something told me that wouldn't help matters, that ship had sailed.
Damn, damn, damn.
I cursed myself for my carelessness.
While I'd all but forgotten the incident - which seemed like a dim memory in light of everything else that had happened since - the bruises had been too obvious to forget. I'd taken great pains while dressing to ensure they were hidden, and not just because I didn't want any questions from people. I hadn't wanted him to see them.
Mate or not, I had had an inkling that he wouldn't react well.
And, judging by the hard stare burning into me, I had been right.
"Who?" He demanded again, still in that deep growl.
"It's nothing." I said, keeping my tone casual and calm.
"Nothing." His voice was low.
And then he was next to me.
He had moved so quickly I hadn't even seen him coming, and had my arm in his grip while he pulled the scarf from me with his other hand, in one swift motion, so that my throat was exposed fully.
He became still, eyes fixed on my throat.
The silence was thick, tense.
After a long pause, he lifted his gaze to mine.
"Nothing?" He said softly, too softly. "Try again."
"It's not a lover, don't worry." I tried to laugh it off, but I knew I hadn't succeeded, it sounded forced even to my own ears.
He didn't even blink, just continued to pin me with his intent gaze.
"I'm fine." I said, trying for calm and soothing this time.
"I know you are. Who did it?" He asked quietly.
"Let it go." I said equally quietly. "It's not important."
And that was the truth as far as I was concerned. It was a random incident, it was done and dusted, with no ill effects, and the bruises would fade. The less fuss the better. I didn't think anything could be achieved by telling him about it, so I wasn't planning on getting into it. He had to accept that.
He said nothing, lowering his gaze to my throat.
That's it. Enough staring at it.
I reached for the scarf, intending to wrap it around my neck again.
His hand clamped around my wrist, stopping me.
I looked at him, but his eyes, still more green than ocean, were still on my throat. I was about to say something when he lowered his head, leaning slowly towards me. I stiffened.
And then I felt it.
The lightest touch of his lips at the base of my throat.
Followed by another, further up.
He was tracing my bruises with his mouth, I realised dimly, as my pulse began accelerating erratically. I could feel his lips moving gently over my skin, as soft as butterfly flutters. Slowly, with exquisite care, his mouth caressed the contours of my throat, stroking over the sensitive skin and gently easing my head back, giving him more access.
I could feel every single touch, and not just on my throat. My whole body was alive with sensation, my matemark burning hot as he moved, his fresh scent invading my senses, his silky white-blonde hair brushing my chin with every touch, the feel of his breath warm on my skin and his hard body hovering mere inches from mine.
I felt powerless to resist him - but I couldn't have moved, even if I wanted to. He had me enclosed in the circle of his body, gently but firmly holding me there, and I had the oddest sense that he was trying to soothe and heal my bruises.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he lifted his head, his face so close to mine that I could see my reflection in those remarkable eyes. As I held my breath, he brushed my lips with his own, the slightest of kisses, before he pulled back.
"It is important." He said quietly, the fingers of one hand stroking my throat where his lips had so recently been, "And I will find out." His eyes locked with mine.
My mouth was suddenly dry.
"I need to get back." I gently moved his hand from me, pushing him back and putting some distance between us before getting to my feet. His scent was starting to play havoc with my already wildly throbbing pulse rate and I knew it was time to go before things got out of hand.
More out of hand.
Without waiting for him, I ducked under the boughs of the tree I'd been sitting under, heading for the path that would lead back to the holding.
"Not so fast." He was right behind me and caught the sleeve of my robe, forcing me to a stop.
I turned back to look at him.
"Our usual time this evening." He said, calmly.
"That's not a good idea." I said. "Your Clan knows you have a mate now. They'll be watching."
"The advantage of being Clan Leader," He said almost conversationally as he walked past me, towards the edge of the trees, "is that I have ways and means even my own Clan doesn't know about. Our usual time this evening." He repeated, turning to look at me, his expression implacable. "Or I'll come looking." He put his hand behind his neck.
Immediately, I felt my matemark throb, a surge of heat rising through my body, answering his call, robbing me of breath and making my hands clench with need.
"Are we clear?" He asked softly, his face hard, not a hint of a smile on it.
I nodded slowly.
He stepped back.
As I walked past him, moving towards the path, I was acutely aware of him, of the tautness of his muscular frame, the tight control he was exercising, the flare of his scent as I passed him and of his gaze following my every step as I walked away.
A gaze I could still feel hours later.
I kept my eyes fixed on my opponent as we circled slowly, watching for his next move, which I knew would come from the left. Sure enough, he moved suddenly, raising his pole as he did, aiming for my shoulder. I was ready, evading the blow and striking with my own pole at his side before he recovered and moved forward on the attack. I focused on defending myself, hearing nothing but the sound of our poles cracking again and again and the thud of feet as we darted around each other in an almost choreographed effort.
I'd returned from my morning rendezvous with him, just in time for my usual session with Iola. She hadn't noticed anything amiss, hadn't remarked upon any difference in me, and I felt assured that I'd managed to keep things the same - even though everything was different.
It had felt surreal to be sitting there, drinking tea with her as always, catching up as we had done every day, as if nothing had changed since last night, when I'd last seen her at the celebration meal.
I hadn't known it then, but that celebration meal had been about me.
Not a helpful line of thinking. That and the intensity of my interaction with him in the morning had left me in dire need of an outlet.
So here I was, in a practice room off the Guard Quarters, sparring with one of our Guard in an effort to work off some of the energy building within me.
I was holding back, of-course, not exerting my whole strength or skills, because I was Lio, the Council aide, whose skills were perhaps above average but not exceptional. I could not allow anyone to guess my real capabilities. Holding back was necessary - and it added another level of challenge for me, forcing me to work harder, to think about every move I was making. Which, at the moment, was a welcome distraction.
"Cease!" The Guard called an end to our match, holding his pole up with a smile before bowing. I returned his bow and then followed him to the barricade of the practice square where several Guard, from our Clan and the others, had been watching us while they waited their turn.
"A good match." One of our Guard said, handing me a towel and taking my pole from me.
"Very good for a civilian." A muscular blonde giant, whom I recognised as one of the Vargan Guard at the holding, nodded at me approvingly.
"It comes in useful from time to time." I smiled, wiping the sweat from my face, careful not to dislodge the scarf I had wound extra tightly around my neck.
"Fending off your legion of admirers, no doubt."
I turned as I heard the familiar voice.
"My Lord Alen." The Vargan Guard bowed slightly in greeting, as did a few other Vargans.
"Lio of Enarda." He inclined his head, smiling slightly.
"Alen of Vargas." I said gravely, inclining my own head.
He grinned at me, nodding at the Guard, who turned their attention back to the square where the next two challengers were preparing.
"Here." He handed me an earthen drinking pot. "You look like you could do with this."
I accepted the pot, taking a quick sniff before I drank deep of the cooled fruit water, its sweetness a much welcome refresher after my exertions.
"I agree with Vanor." Alen said, indicating the square. "For a civilian, you are more than a fair challenger."
I shrugged, taking another swallow of the water, walking towards the door of the practice room, away from the noisier centre.
"You know how to move, how to use your body, how to manage your opponent." He said, walking alongside me, "And what you lack in physical strength, you make up for in agility and reflexes."
I covered my reaction by drinking again.
I'd been doing this too long to make mistakes with my cover. If he had noticed, it said more about him than it did about me. He had picked up what only a skilled and experienced observer could have. Beneath the charm and flirtation, there was clearly more to Alen than met the eye. I had to wonder in what capacity he served Vargas.
"No different from my day job." I smiled casually. "Managing people involves playing to your strengths too."
"Very true." He opened his mouth to say something and then stopped and stared at me.
I looked at him enquiringly.
"Your scent is different."
"I think I need a shower." I wrinkled my nose as I sniffed myself, laughing it off deliberately.
"No, it's not that--"
I turned as someone hailed me.
"Cael." I nodded in greeting at the small female who was approaching, an acquaintance from Clan Petral whom I'd gotten to know during the Congress.
"Sorry to interrupt you, but I need a word." She said, glancing at my companion.
"Of-course." I was only too glad to have the opportunity to escape the discerning eye of the all too watchful Vargan. "If you will excuse me--" I turned to say goodbye.
Only to find him staring at me, his face a little pale, an unfathomable expression on it.
"Until the next time." I inclined my head at him.
It took him a moment to reply.
"Until the next time. Brother." He said, his voice sounding a little odd, thicker than usual.
It made me frown, but I didn't linger, walking with Cael out of the practice room and across the frontyard towards the holding.
"What can I do for you?" I asked as we walked.
"I was just informed there is to be a delegation from Petral visiting Enarda in a few weeks, to meet with your Clan's Son."
I nodded. I knew what that was about. There were some issues with our Clan's Son's matemark and we'd quietly asked for help from the most senior Healer of all the Clans, who happened to be from Clan Petral. This delegation must mean they'd agreed.
"I'm managing logistics for that visit. Leader Iola mentioned to my Lord Davis that I should speak with you, since you are more familiar with Clanholme."
I nodded again in assent. We began discussing logistics, with me confirming who was the Clan liaison and whom she should contact in Clanholme, as well as answering her questions about which route to take, what to expect enroute and what facilities Clanholme could provide. As we spoke, I happened to glance back at the practice room.
Alen hadn't moved from where I'd left him, his eyes fixed on us.
I turned my attention back to Cael, aware of that gaze, but thinking suddenly of another, more vivid gaze that had stared at me with similar fixity.
Another Vargan watching like a hawk. You're attracting too much attention in Vargas, Lio.
As I thought of him, I felt it.
A gentle tingling at the nape of my neck, intensifying slowly, almost as if he had touched me there himself.
I knew it for what it was. A reminder.
It was nearly twilight after all.
I rounded up my conversation with Cael as politely as I could, promising to send messages to the Clan liaison in Clanholme to expect contact and offering to answer any questions she had in the meantime.
And then I headed for my chambers to wash and change robes, making sure to leave well ahead of time.
Because I couldn't be late.
After all, I didn't want him to come looking.