IX. May 10, 1923

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A gentle hand rests at my waist, and air rich with spice and incense fills my lungs. I open my eyes to see a woman with thick dark hair and brown skin pull a piece of rich blue fabric over my shoulder and tuck it into the waist of my long skirt. I gasp at the intricate golden design woven into the sari I wear.

The room is buzzing with jubilant girls just slightly younger than me. They clap their hands and fuss over my hair as the older woman takes a step back. "You look beautiful, Riya," the woman says in Hindi.

I turn but find no one behind me and realize the woman is talking to me. "Thank you?" I place my palm to my mouth and my eyes widen. I've heard my mother and grandmother speak their native language many times, but I never quite picked up on it like I should have. Now the words flow from my mouth seamlessly.

A woman closer to my age moves behind me and latches a jewel-encrusted necklace around my neck.

The older woman cups my cheeks and looks deep into my eyes. "This is a good union for our family. He will treat you well, and together you will strengthen our dynasty." She spins me to look at my reflection in a gilded mirror.

I gasp and step closer. She's outlined my brown eyes in black liner, and my heart-shaped lips painted a dark red. All of my hair is gathered to one side in a loose bun which showcases the dangling earrings I wear. I look just like my mother when she was my age.

"We must not keep him waiting. Your future husband has traveled a long way to meet you." The woman takes my arm and leads me out of the bedroom and into a hallway with a high ceiling and scalloped archway, the walls burnt orange with hand-painted white vines and floors so shiny I swear no one has walked on them.

We turn down another corridor, and the woman opens the door. With a deep breath, I stroll past her and into a parlor. The room is just as breathtaking as the rest of the house with an Oriental rug, elegant plush furnishing, and a tea set sitting upon a wooden cart.

"May I present my daughter, Riya," says a man in formal military attire with a collection of medals down his chest. He smiles a wide grin and nods, causing his salt and pepper hair to bounce. I follow the woman to his side before he gestures to the older couple on the opposite end of the room. I smile as I gaze upon a familiar face.

Sage looks handsome in his brown suit, plaid vest, and bowtie. He gives me a once over before one side of his lip curls up and he diverts his eyes to the floor.

"I hope she is to your liking," the man who claims to be my father says.

A spark ignites in me and I want to laugh at the new situation Sage and I have been placed in. Who would have thought that we would go from a love fest straight to marriage?

I glance at Sage, whose eyes remain diverted, and I wonder what's brought on the bout of shyness.

The couple with Sage moves toward us, but he doesn't follow. Instead, a dark-haired young man with deep brown eyes and a navy blue Bandhgala steps forward, and my heart sinks.

It is not Sage that I am to marry.

The young man stops when he reaches me and bows at the waist. "Greetings, beautiful Riya. I am Aakil. Thank you for meeting me this evening; it will be my pleasure to share my life with you."

The couple at his side smiles and exchange nods with my "parents."

I am speechless; this man is handsome with kind eyes and seems nice, and by the way the older man and woman by my side are looking at me, I know this is the sort of thing that will not be a choice.

From what I know of East India culture, arranged marriages are not about two individuals coming together but the binding of two families. My grandparent's marriage was the product of an arrangement, and now, it looks as if I'm destined to follow their path. But these are not my grandparents.

The woman next to me nudges me forward, and I mimic Aakil's bow. "Thank you," I murmur, staring over his shoulder at Sage, who has lifted his gaze to meet mine. He shakes his head once and mouths the word later.

My new father claps his hands and says, "Preparations are underway for the wedding. This is a fine union that will unite our territories and strengthen our dynasties."

"Next week cannot come soon enough," Aakil's father says before turning to Aakil and me. "You will bring prosperity to both of our people; their futures will lie within your hands."

My heart plummets further. People are counting on this marriage...counting on me to marry a man I do not know, let alone love.

"Yes, Father. It is our great honor. Thank you to you all for arranging this fine match for us." Aakil bows with his palms pressed together.

"Thank you," I whisper and bow to my elders.

"Perhaps a walk through the gardens together will be a good start to your short courtship," my mother says.

Aakil and I agree and step through the doors at the side of the room.

The gardens are beautiful—manicured rose bushes, ponds, and stone statues. I say little as we walk side by side along the walkways, my mind reeling from the quick announcement of our engagement. But my input is not needed; Aakil merrily carries the conversation. After an hour, I return to the house to prepare for dinner with my new fiancé and his family.

I rush through the corridors to the room I assume is mine, but I fall short when a hand grabs my arm and pulls me into an alcove. Sage meets my gaze and neither of us says a word, each basking in the familiar presence of the other.

My fingers creep up the buttons of his vest, brushing against the chain of a pocket watch, and I say, "Every era we have been transported into appears we have a purpose there, but this one..."

He grabs my wrist before I can wrap my fingers around his neck and holds my hand to his chest. "It might take a moment to figure out the reason we are here."

"But until then...what am I supposed to do? Just pretend I'm okay with marrying this stranger?" I edge closer to him and press my forehead to his. "And act like you don't even exist?"

"Rylan," he says, his voice thick with emotion. "If we were caught together like this, it would be the end of this engagement. This family that you are representing are the royals of this territory; they are extremely wealthy. Aakil's territory has fallen on tough times and the people there are going hungry. The dowry that his family will receive will help them recover. They are relying on this marriage...on you."

I close my eyes and take a step back. "Why can't we save some people's lives again? That would be so much easier than this," I whisper, trying to keep the tears that are pricking my eyes from falling to my cheeks. "All the other places we've been together have only been a day...what if this one lasts longer? I don't know how long I can pretend I'm not attracted to you," I murmur, locking my eyes with his but not moving any closer to him.

He brushes his knuckles along my cheek, and his blue eyes soften. "It won't be easy for me either, but Rylan, can you risk letting children go hungry?"

 "It won't be easy for me either, but Rylan, can you risk letting children go hungry?"

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