I clasped my hands together in front of me. “You heard?”
When Zinnia nodded, I hung my head, staring at my lap. She crept out from under the covers, but I stopped her before she could get to her feet.
“Take it easy, you just-”
“I know, I know, but I wanna get some fresh air. Come with me?”
I nodded without looking at her, shifting out of bed and rounding her side. I offered my arm as she slipped her legs over the side, and she slung her arm around my shoulders. I let her lean on me, guiding her out the door.
“You know where I wanna go.” A smile spread across her face when my lips quirked up. “It’ll do us both some good.”
I laughed. “Alright, but no working. Just a walk around.”
“Yes, your majesty.” Zinnia stuck her tongue out.
“Don’t be smart or I’ll take you back to bed.”
She pursed her lips for a moment before we both grinned. Zinnia released my shoulder and tested her weight before crossing the threshold into the garden. She took a deep breath, and everything bloomed to greet her. I met her at her side as she stared out, watching as the garden brought itself back from its own slumber. The plants took a moment to shake the haze of rest away before they revitalized, brightening before our eyes.
I shook my head, taking her hand. “I said no working.”
“I swear to Zelien that wasn’t me.” She let her bare feet touch the stone. “I’m still too tired to do that.”
“I can take you back-”
“No way, I wanna stay out here awhile.” She led me to the center of the garden. “Besides, eating out here would be a nice change of pace.”
She patted a space next to her and she sat on the outer edge of the ring of steps leading down to an infinity symbol carved into a marble cover. I joined her and opened my mouth, but she stopped me.
“I’ll have to show you when it’s done. Our fortress isn’t quite ready yet.”
I grasped her shoulder. “Don’t push. I need you to get better.”
“I will. I-”
“Your majesty!” Helena’s voice echoed from across the garden as her footsteps pounded on the pathway. “Zinnia, she’s- Oh, there you are!”
I turned to greet her, squeezing Zinnia’s hand. “She wanted to get some fresh air. I’m sorry we scared you, Helena.”
She sighed. “As long as I know where you are. Oh, and a certain someone is looking for you.”
I took a quick look at Zinnia, giving her hand one more squeeze. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back for breakfast. It shouldn’t take long.”
She nodded without saying a word, letting go of my hand as I stood up. Helena took my place beside her, striking up a conversation about her garden as I rushed toward the doorway. I peeked around the corner of the hallway and Damien caught my eye. He stood by my bedroom door, waiting for me as I made my way down the corridor.
“Are you through avoiding me?”
My head popped up to face him. “I haven’t been avoiding you. You know very well where I’ve been.”
“Well, now that she’s finally awake, you can get back to your reality. We need to talk about-”
I pointed at him. “No, we don’t. You and the advisors do not get to decide my future for me. We’ll talk about this when I feel I’m ready to discuss marriage.”
He gripped my wrist before I could escape to my bedroom to change. “I told you already, there’s nothing to discuss. It’s been decided whether you like it or not.”
“What, they’ve started the search for someone already?”
He smirked as he held me against the wall. “No search, they’ve chosen.”
My eyes flicked up to meet his, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. “You can’t be serious.” I braced my arms against his chest as he leaned in.
His arm slithered around my waist, clutching my closer to him. “I wouldn’t lie about getting what I deserve.” His breath pricked at my ear. “I told you I could control you.”
I tried to push him away. “You do not control me. Let go.”
“How about we make it official? Seal the deal with a kiss.”
Before I could protest, his crushed his lips to mine, tangling his fingers in my hair as he clenched in it his fist. I whimpered into the kiss as he forced his tongue into my mouth, pushing more of his weight on me. I froze as he locked his arm around my waist and pulled my hair back, daring me to fight against him. My teeth grazed his tongue, but a gasp tore from my throat as his fingers found their way around the back of my neck. With one more swipe of his tongue, he pulled away, licking his lips as he towered over me. I trembled as his touch lingered, crumpling to the floor when he released me.
He strolled away without saying a word, and I watched him travel down the hall. As soon as he turned right, distancing himself from the garden, I scrambled up and locked myself in my room. I slumped against the door for a moment before lifting myself back up and stealing away to the bathroom. I shed my clothes and scrubbed my skin raw, freeing myself from his touch, his scent. I touched my lips, gritting my teeth and taking a deep breath before I slipped soap into my mouth and washed his taste away. I gagged as I rinsed my mouth out, gripping a towel around my body as I went to my wardrobe and chose a cobalt gown. I pulled it on, yanking the sleeves past down to cover my wrists as I caught sight of a bruising ring around the right one. I smoothed the dress out as I approached the door, peeking out before I crossed the threshold.
I raced down the hall and back into the garden, slowing my pace as I made my way to the center. I gasped as I heard Zinnia’s voice behind me.
“Looks like you beat me here after all. You haven’t been waiting long, have you?”
I whirled around to her standing alone in a white sundress that glowed in the light. “No, no. I just got here.”
She smiled, sitting down on the stone after she brushed the dirt and fallen petals away. “Helena made me get cleaned up before she’d let me eat. Looks like you had the same idea.”
I had to look down at my own dress before sitting beside her. “I told you I’d be back in time.”
She nodded, offering her hand. “I knew you would. I trust you.”
I wrung my fingers in my lap. “Even after everything that happened?”
“It wasn’t your fault. I chose to do this for you.”
“I turned you away. I was supposed to help you-”
She placed her hand on mine to stop me, and I froze as she touched my wrist. “You were scared, but you accepted me anyway.” Her thumb trailed across the back of my hand. “You told me you trusted me, and you stayed with me for days. That’s more help than I could’ve ever asked for.”
Tears streamed down my face as I forced myself to look at her. She shifted, using her free hand to wipe them away. Zinnia froze when I gasp escaped my lips. I pulled my wrist out from under her hand, and her eyes widened at the purple ring the wound around it. I hid it under my sleeve and rested my hands in my lap as she stared at me.
I shook my head, wrapping my arms around myself. “It’s nothing, don’t worry.”
She held her hand out. “Let me see.”
I crossed my arms. “It’s nothing, really.”
Her eyes met mine one last time, and she rested her open hand on my knee. I hesitated, unfolding my arms and gazing at her offered hand before I let my wrist rest there. She reached her other arm around, slipping my sleeve up far enough to see the bruise in the light. Her fingertips grazed it, tracing the mark Damien left with his vice grip.
“Will you tell me what happened?”
My eyes flicked up to meet hers for a moment before they landed on the hand-shaped bruise again. “This must stay between us.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
“Even Helena cannot know. It’d only make things worse.”
Her eyes widened, and it took her a moment longer before she nodded again. “You can trust me.”
“Damien and I got into an argument. He told he and the advisors had agreed to have me married.”
“Don’t you get a say?”
I shook my head. “I might’ve, but he did this while I stayed with you.”
Zinnia hung her head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault! I told him it could’ve waited, but he went ahead and decided my future for me.”
“You’re the queen. Can’t you just reject the decision?”
I hung my head. “I wish it were that simple.”
“Did he threaten you?” Zinnia tilted my chin up. “Alexandra?”
A sob burst from my throat, and she wrapped her arms around me as I collapsed against her. “He wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t get away.” Ragged breaths broke the confession into pieces. “My first kiss… he stole my first kiss.”
She held me closer, rubbing my back as I buried my head into the crook of her neck. Her arm wrapped around my waist, and I shook as she laced her fingers in my hair, pressing my head to her. I gripped my arms in a circle around her, letting my tears soak the shoulder of her dress. As the sobs died down, she pulled away, bringing her hands around to cup my face as she thumbed away the stains of my tears.
“That wasn’t a kiss. It was an attack!”
She brought my head down to rest over her heart, letting us stay there like that until I heard nothing but the lull of her heartbeat and the sound of her steady breathing. I closed my eyes and let myself rest in her arms as the smell of lilac and peppermint took over my senses. I raised my head back up as she moved her hands to grip mine, and the sparkle in her eyes stole the air from my lungs.
“May I show you a true kiss?”
I squeezed her hands, nodding. She leaned in, closing the gap between us as she laid one hand on the small of my back and rested the other on my cheek. Her lips touched mine as cupped her face in my hands, deepening the kiss. Her arm moved up my back to wrap around me as she threaded her fingers through my hair. One last moment, and she pulled back, gazing at me as my eyes flickered open. I leaned forward, and we held each other, resting under the golden rays of the sun.
Zinnia’s breath tickled my ear. “That was your real first kiss.”