“Reychel,” a low voice whispered from the doorway. I spun around, not at all surprised to see Grey leaning against the door. His voice, so low and smooth, occupied many of my daydreams. I’d recognize it anywhere. “I’ve got a message for you.”
I wiped my hands on the towel hanging from my waist and attempted a smile. But as always happened in his presence, I couldn’t decide whether to smile or talk. Instead a half smile appeared followed by a tiny noise.
I balled up my fists and pushed my toes into the tips of my shoes. Would I ever be able to control myself around him like Ivy did? It was so easy for her, but me, oh no, I thought I was doomed to a lifetime of stilted words and weird expressions around boys.
“Happy birthday,” Grey said, rubbing the brand he received last year. “You’ll do okay. It’s not that bad.”
“Really?” I asked, stunned. Having seen Ivy’s return, I wondered if her experience was unusual. A small bit of hope rose in my chest. Maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I feared.
His eyebrows, so pale in color they were almost invisible, rose up. “Well, yeah, it hurts. I was just trying to be nice.”
“Oh,” I laughed. Why was I so eager to believe everything everyone told me? “Of course it does. I saw what it did to Ivy.”
“Speaking of - where is Ivy?” he asked. “I haven’t seen her around at all this morning. Usually I pass her in the market while I’m delivering messages.”
The lies rolled around in my brain. Ivy was up early. You probably just missed her. She was asked to run a special errand in regards to today’s party. But none of them would slip easily off of my tongue in front of Grey. Many nights I’d lulled myself to sleep wondering what it would be like if he touched me, even the smallest accidental elbow bump would send me into hours of fantasies. I could barely converse with him on a normal day, how could I lie to him now?
Before I could turn around, a single tear dropped out of my eye. In Eloh’s name, why couldn’t I hold myself together?
“Reychel,” he whispered again as he took a step closer. “If she’s off on some crazy errand then she may not be home in time for your branding ceremony.”
I nodded, not looking at his face. The lie was his, but it fit and explained my tears. It was better than I could do at the moment. His boots shuffled closer and I held my breath as his arms encircled me. His chin rested on my head. As my scalp shifted to accommodate his broad chin, I felt tingles course through my body. It felt better than I’d imagined, not that I ever thought he’d actually take me in his arms.
He moved his mouth down to my ears as he whispered, “If she’s not back in time, will you let me help you?”
I swore I felt his lips brush my earlobe, but I was too overwhelmed to register anything more than the obvious. He wanted to help me, be the one to make sure I was well before and after the ceremony. It was beyond anything I could have dreamed.
“Yes,” I answered into his shoulder, nodding my head slightly.
Grey pulled back, but only far enough so that his arms were still around me. “You’ll do okay, Reychel.”
I glanced at him. His brown eyes wandered my face and lingered on my lips before settling back on my eyes. The skin around his eyes crinkled as a smile sprouted from his lips. He cocked his head to the side and slowly moved in towards me.
“Grey,” Luci screamed from the kitchen. “Are you done delivering that message yet? If you are, then get your butt out of the back room. Reychel has work to do.”