She raised her head. Nagrad sat very still.
“That’s an extraordinary offer.” A slow kind smile softened the Duke’s face. “You won’t get a better one.”
“Done,” Nagrad breathed.
There. The odd look on his face, relief mixed with surprise, brought out her own smile. We did it, she thought. We saved the cluster and we saved you and your people. She watched the beginning of a smile curl his lips. In this moment of joy, he seemed almost vulnerable.
“Thirty six billion, if you abandon your claim to Deirdre,” the Duke said.
Cold washed over her. That’s it. It’s over. I will never see him again.
“No,” Nagrad said.
“We both know it was never about the girl. Let her go.”
Nagrad’s face snapped back into an impenetrable mask. “She stays or the deal is off.”
The Duke drew himself to his full height, suddenly regal and terrifying. “Ask yourself, would you truly force yourself on this woman?”
Nagrad looked at her. “Do you want out?”
“She has a brilliant career ahead of her,” the Duke said. “Don’t stand in her way.”
Nagrad took her hand and swept her off the chair. “A minute of your time, my Lady.” He pushed past the Duke and drew her outside.
I’m so sick of running onto this balcony, a thought flashed through her head.
Nagrad ran his hand through his hair. “I’m past my undergrowth years.”
“I’m not an adolescent anymore. What I mean to say is, women no longer unsettle me.” He held up his hands, seemingly lost or words. “This is harder than I thought.”
He looked so lost that she laughed softly. “Did I unsettle you?”
“Yes,” he said, relieved. “I… miss you when you’re away. I think of you. I don’t want you to leave.”
“You were ready to trade me in for the Vunta billions.”
“Yes,” he admitted. “I would’ve done whatever was best for the Branch. What would you have done in my place?”
Deirdre looked at the forest beyond the balcony. “In your place I would’ve auctioned myself off if I thought I’d get more than one bid.”
The Duke and the bodyguards were watching them.
“I wish I knew what to say,” Nagrad said. “But if you give me a chance, I think I would come to love you very much. Marry me and I promise you I’ll be as loyal to you as my father was to me. I’ll do everything I can to make you happy.”
The way he looked at her made Deirdre’s heart flutter.
He took a deep breath and glanced at the audience waiting in the room. “They will only see it once.”
Slowly, deliberately he knelt before her. “Stay,” he said. “Please.”
“Well that won’t do,” she murmured. “The Reigh Lord doesn’t kneel before anyone.” She knelt next to him. “That’s better.”
“Is that a yes?”
She brushed his lips with hers and he kissed her, her mouth eager and warm. “It’s a yes,” she murmured when they came up for air. “On one condition. You have to tell me your name, because I am not moaning ‘lord Nagrad’ on our wedding night.”