The newcomer’s face betrayed no emotion, nor did his clothes betray his status. Dressed in plain, black trousers, hunting boots, and a loose, black shirt, he could have been anybody. His clothes were identical to Viktor’s. As he stepped closer, my attention settled on his face, his eyes. They were emerald green, looking every bit like the jewel in the moonlight – unyielding, cold. His face, though nothing but sharp angles from his cheeks to his jaw, had a strange openness to it. As if guarded but relaxed all at once. It made for an odd effect as he held my gaze.
Again, I knew I should have bowed, but I couldn’t look away.
“You’re dismissed, Viktor, head back.”
“But your highness-”
Without further protest, Viktor disappeared, leaving me with the prince.
The prince. The thought hit me all at once. I was face-to-face with the vampire prince the night before selection festivities were to begin. Of all the things that could have happened to me, why this? I felt myself shaking, but it wasn’t with fear – I was angry. Angry for being stupid enough to stay out this late, so close to the ceremony. Papa and Greta were probably dying from worry.
“My apologies, Miss…?”
“De La Cruz.” I finally broke eye contact and bowed. “Ariella de La Cruz, your highness.”
“Please allow me to escort you to your destination, Miss de La Cruz.” Though it sounded like a request, it didn’t feel like I had the choice to actually refuse.
“Okay, thank you.” It was a miracle my voice remained steady. Clearing my throat, I finally pushed off the tree and walked to where he stood.
As we made our way through the forest, I couldn’t help but fidget with the edges of my cloak, clenching and unclenching my hands. The prince noticed my nerves.
“Viktor will be reprimanded for frightening you, so there’s no need to be scared anymore.”
“I’m not. I wasn’t.” I struggled to respond as I looked at the vampire.
That must not have been the response he expected. For a brief moment, his eyebrows twitched up as he looked back at me, the beginnings of a smirk quirking the corner of his mouth before the expression disappeared.
“Is that so?”
“Yes.” There was no reason to get defensive – why did I care if he thought I was scared? After all, it was only natural. “Your highness.”
The night continued to grow colder, prompting me to pull the cloak back on. I thought he wouldn’t say anything else, but a few minutes later, his voice caught me off-guard.
“What were you doing out this late?”
Though it wasn’t any of his business, I didn’t want to risk being rude and offending him, so I answered.
“I was visiting a friend and the hour got away from us. I was on my way home.” As soon as the word left my mouth, we neared the edge of the forest, the cottage within sight now. I gestured to the small structure and stopped. “That’s me.”
He nodded. “My apologies, again. I hope Viktor didn’t ruin your night.”
Unsure of how to respond to that, I simply bowed. “Thank you for walking me back.”
The prince nodded, and I took that as my dismissal. Every step I took toward the cottage, I could feel his eyes following me. Still, I kept my gaze forward, unsure of what would happen if I dared a glance back before reaching the cottage. When I finally reached the back door, I let myself turn. He was still there, waiting for me to go inside. Before I could stop myself, I waved. I didn’t think he would wave back, but he gave a brief acknowledgement with his hand.