In The Dining Hall:
At the dinner table that evening Serena and Kyra were moved down several seats. In their places were Blake and Cassandra.
It wouldn't have mattered to Kyra except that Serena was in a relatively quiet mood tonight. Sitting beside her in awkward silence, Kyra felt she was missing some of the fun of the dinner. At Caleb's end of the table, laughter filled the air. Kyra wished she were sitting closer since the men were in such a lighthearted mood. Beside her, Serena seemed pensive and that unnerved Kyra.
She'd been so quiet since Kyra returned from her outing. Deep in her own thoughts at the time, she hadn't noticed how quiet Serena was. Now she was concerned that something might be troubling her friend.
Eating with their own gaiety Caleb, Jacob, and Blake cheered in merriment over tales of their terrorist youth. Their bouts of laughter rose high above the rest of the noise in the crowded room.
As the meal came to a close, Jacob suddenly pushed back his chair and stood stiffly. He looked rather perturbed as he said, "Blake, it's good to have you back at Damon Manor. I shall enjoy beating you soundly later."
"Jacob," Blake retorted, "you will never win that bet whether I accept your challenge now or two hours after your meal settles. You're merely leaving as an easy way to back out of your threat."
"I tell you again, Blake. Age makes no difference now that we are fully-grown. I have gained strength since we were younger. Tell him, Caleb."
Caleb shook his head in amusement. "You're on your own with this one, Jake."
Huffing at his brother's defiance, Jacob grumbled loudly. Caleb never sided with him on anything where Blake was concerned. "Alright! Then I'll bet you too," he shouted. Several curious stares turned towards him.
"Now, you are talking out of your ears," Blake jibed. He was again rejoicing some of the pleasing qualities he had so enjoyed about his childhood here at the manor. Goading Jacob had always been fun, because he was the youngest of them all. Turning his eyes innocently on Caleb, he smirked, "I wouldn't feel right taking money from the cradle."
Rising to his own feet, Caleb remarked, "There is only one way to prove yourself, Jake. Either you are serious or you're not." Crossing his arms together he cocked one eyebrow mockingly.
"Well?" Blake copied Caleb's gesture as he sat back in his chair. Crossing his arms over his chest, he looked quite satisfied at the turn of events. He was certain Jacob would back down now.
Knowing he was cornered, Jacob patted his full stomach and suggested, "We should just wait a while. Just until my dinner sets, then'"
"I knew it!" Blake laughed and bounded out of his chair. He rounded the table and clapped Jacob on the back. "Boy, I thought you were actually serious there for a minute, but you wouldn't want to damage that fragile pride by losing to me. Would you?" Knowing he was pushing Jacob's buttons, he grinned widely and added, "I was a bit worried for a moment there, you know that?" There was no fear in his voice, however, just heightened amusement.
A snarl curled over Jacob's lips. Knowing he'd been suckered into the bet, there was no way he could let Blake gain such a cheap victory. He was not about to back down from him now. Nodding determinedly, he shouted, "All right, let's go! Right now."
Looking mildly surprised, Blake asked, "Are you sure?"
"Of course I am! I can beat your hide any day. Just give me one'"
Caleb watched his brother stomp off, fuming down the hall with Blake following in laughter. His brother was so easily riled at times. It was hard to believe that he still let Blake goad him so.
Whispering some words to one of the servants, Caleb quickly followed behind the arguing men. The servant turned away from him and began making his rounds with the male population in the room.
Both Serena and Kyra were left gasping in wonder. Jacob had looked terribly upset. Kyra watched the servant moving from guest to guest. His body language told her it was some secret message that he relayed. He cupped his hand over his mouth as he repeated his words to each man in the room. She tried to read his lips as he whispered in their ears, but his hand blocked most of the words from her view.
"Let's follow them," Kyra signed to Serena.
They shared a conspiring glance and watched the doorway as male after male hurriedly left the room. They turned to invite Cassandra, but she seemed to show no interest in the event. She kept her eyes fixed on her plate as she continued to nibble on the remains of her meal. Casually standing from her seat, Kyra tapped Serena's shoulder and turned to leave the room.
Serena frowned at Cassandra, who still hadn't looked up. She finally shrugged and stood to follow Kyra, afraid she might miss out on some of the fun. They wandered at a safe distance, behind one of the older men. He was heading up the staircase.
He seemed to make haste once he was out of view of the dining hall. Once he reached the top of the steps, he hurriedly walked to a room far off the main hall. Sending a questioning glance back to Serena, Kyra held back for an instant before following the man to the room.
A small crowd of men had gathered within a dimly lit room. A series of grunts and groans emanated from inside.
Moving beside Kyra, Serena whispered, "This is the gaming room." Together they stared in confusion at the backs of the many men who blocked the entrance. No one noticed their presence.
Kyra stepped up on her tiptoes as she tried to peak over the shoulders of two men. She could discern nothing. Only the continuous groaning of men gave a clue.
Glimpsing the frame of a second door across the room, Kyra tugged on Serena's sleeve and quickly strode down the hall. The other entrance to the room could not be far off. Just as they rounded the corner of the hall, cheers rose up, startling them backward as they reached the door. Just as quickly, groans of displeasure followed.
Squaring her shoulders, Kyra stepped forward, determined to see what was happening. Stepping inside the room, she watched a struggle ensuing at the table in a corner of the room. She couldn't understand what all the fuss had been about. Why had the women been kept in the dark?
Jacob and Blake were locked in an arm to arm struggle. As both tried to claim victory, their faces cringed and snarled, casting both men in a hideous appearance. Their faces were bloodshot and sweat poured from their veins. You could hear their shuddered breaths as each tried to push down the others hand first.
All of the spectators continued holding their breaths. Their wide eyes followed the interlocked hands that were swaying one way and then the other. For the moment it seemed they had reached a stalemate. Kyra snickered as she saw several men mimicking the struggle with empty arms. Some of them looked as tense as the two men sitting at the table. At one point you could have heard a pin drop.
Jacob's hand began sinking slowly toward the table. Shouts and cheers erupted. The force of it almost knocked the women back out of the room. Serena watched Jacob struggling to keep his hand upright and she found herself clutching her own hand in response. She didn't dare breathe as she bit her lip at the sight of his hand dropping.
Meeting her gaze, Jacob was startled. His hand inched further towards the table, but her look of disappointment gave him a boost of determination. He was not about to lose in front of her!
Tightening his grip on Blake's hand, he heaved and heaved until finally they were once again on even ground. Now the sound of muttered curses erupted from the crowd, along with renewed cheers. The noise added to the intensity of the struggle. Kyra and Serena were as involved as the men and they cheered Jacob on.
Like an explosion, Jacob's hand suddenly surged forward and Blake's crashed onto the table. Weary from their struggle, both men gasped and bent forward as many of the men rushed to clap Jacob on the back.
"You gave up too easy," Jacob gasped at Blake. His breathing grew labored as he spoke.
With a quick shake of his head, Blake denied it. "No, you won that one fair and square." Before Jacob could dispute it further, Blake stood and graciously bowed away from the table. Before turning away, he winked at Jacob with a wide grin.
"Now wait a'"
"Uh-uh!" Blake laughed and placed a hand on Jacob's shoulder to keep him seated. He slowly raised a finger to his eyes and jibed, "I had sweat in my eye." He wiped away the offending moisture and flicked it away before his eyes began to dance with new laughter.
The cheers died down and suddenly some of the men were heard grumbling as they handed over great amounts of money to waiting hands. Serena saw this and gasped in disgust.
So, that was the secret! They were gambling. It was a sin of man. A deed from which women shied away and men of good faith denied taking part in.
Kyra laughed it off, but Serena looked scandalized. Kyra might have been as well, but she actually found it quite funny. Seeing men lose such a good deal of money in minutes seemed fit punishment. Their mourning faces showed their penance. Still, Serena was of fairer heritage than she. She could not allow her to witness such things.
Just as she turned to lead Serena from the room, Blake called out her name. Kyra's head spun back around to see him approaching. She was curious what he wanted, but Serena's displeasure demanded her attention. Thoughtfully, she suggested, "You should return to our rooms, Serena. It is not appropriate for you to be seen here."
Nodding, she turned her nose up at the men pointedly. Flippantly she turned around and stormed off. Jacob, who had been watching from the table, caught that look. He quickly stood and ran past the men to follow her out the door.
Blake felt Jacob push past him. He grinned as he saw Jacob rushing out the door. In a little bit of a hurry, he wondered curiously. Of course, knowing Jacob as he did, he had no doubt the man would soon return for more. Jacob was a good sport. He was a little perturbed now, but Blake wasn't concerned.
Turning his thoughts to the woman standing before him, Blake faced Kyra. He was more than a little intrigued to find her in the room. If he'd known she was watching, he might not have thrown the fight. It was for Caleb that he'd allowed Jacob to win.
Standing across the table from him, Caleb had nodded that he should do so. Knowing he could beat Jacob in his own mind was enough of a prize. For Caleb's younger brother, he could stand the loss of a little pride. There was no harm in it.
Cocking his head to the side just a bit, he teased, "Aren't you a little too young to be joining such activities as this?" A playful smile crossed his lips as he watched her blush adorably, casting her eyes down from his.
Though he hadn't spent as much energy in the struggle as he'd pretended, Blake was still feeling a little flushed. His white blonde hair was plastered to the front of his face where his normal color was only just beginning to return.
Feeling a little crowded in the small room, he suggested, "I'uh... I could use some air just now. Would you care to join me?" His breathing had nearly returned to normal, but he needed a bit of refreshing.
Jumping at the unexpected invitation, Kyra's own breathing quickened. Taken aback by the question, she was slow to answer. Staring up at him in wonderment, she smiled and nodded in agreement.
Earlier in the day he had said he would like to talk with her again, but she hadn't let herself believe he would actually return to her that evening. No one ever held an entire conversation with her, much less two in the same day!
With a pleased nod, he held out his arm for her and she took it hesitantly.
"You look somewhat stunned that I'd ask for your company again," he noted aloud.
Kyra raised her brows in surprise. It seemed he shared some of Cassandra's power for observation. It's true, she nodded. She hadn't believed he would keep his word.
"I imagine others do not bother with you unless they want something. I can sympathize with that," he commented.
Caleb listened to Blake from a small distance away. He wondered how Blake had learned to read Kyra's thoughts so easily. What made his friend such an expert on Kyra all of a sudden? It shouldn't have bothered him, but it did.
His first day with Kyra had been filled with nothing but frustration between them. He hadn't been able to understand her at all, which led to most of the trouble. Hell, he hadn't even known her ten minutes when he'd managed to misjudge her so badly'kissing her as though he'd had every right to do so. His eyes closed in frustration for a moment as he forced the memory of it away.
When he looked back to the door, he saw that they had already left the room. He was supposed to be her guardian, yet he had let her walk off into the night with a man infamous for seducing women. He knew he would have to follow them. He was not fool enough to let Blake spend time alone with her, friend or no.
Following their footsteps to the end of the hall, he felt a small breeze graze his cheek. It came from the open balcony that faced the courtyard.
Outside, Kyra leaned against the stone wall and watched Blake breathe in the fresh air. The wind had dried most of the sweat from his hair, but it curled the ends so that his hair was now an unruly mess. One tendril stuck like a thick weed to the side of his face and she suddenly burst out laughing.
Her silence mystified him. For a moment, he wasn't sure if she was crying or laughing. The sparkle in her eyes told him the truth. Not knowing why, he began to laugh too.
Kyra could see that she would have to fix that clump of hair or she would never be able to stop giggling. She reached out to touch his face, but his hand snaked out halfway to stop her. His reaction had been instinctive, for he hadn't known what she was about to do, but she was still laughing. Puzzled, he let her push past his hand. When he felt the hair peel off his cheek, he blushed deeply.
His embarrassment sobered her. She pulled back, but he still held her hand. They both looked down and he released it slowly. Then without thinking better of it he reached up to touch her face.
Blake was curious to know if his interest in her was merely physical or perhaps something more. For a reason he couldn't fully understand, he found himself strangely drawn to her. It was a curious thing, because since breaking up with his fianc', he had not been captivated by any woman in the slightest. So his attraction for Kyra was something he wanted to explore to make sense of.
Being the man he was, he suspected his interest in her was merely physical. He'd never been able to resist such a beautiful young woman. He wanted to test himself'to know if there was something more to it all.
Kyra saw his eyes lower to her lips. She could see that he wanted to kiss her. The light in his eyes mirrored the look in Caleb's whenever he was about to kiss her. She couldn't help wondering what it would be like. Would it be so much different than kissing Caleb? Something deep inside warned her it would be wrong to allow it, especially after allowing Caleb such leisure the night before.
Misreading the confusion in her eyes, he whispered, "You are very beautiful, Kyra."
His words deepened her uncertainty, but in the end her natural curiosity to test the waters won out over her fear. She allowed him to draw nearer, closing her eyes for an instant as head lowered and his lips brushed lightly against hers. His hand reached up between them to caress the soft skin of her cheek before he suddenly froze and withdrew from her altogether.
A chill seemed to race through him as he quickly pulled away from her. As she tried to make sense of his confusing behavior, Kyra felt herself freezing in motion as well. As she looked past Blake's shoulder, she saw Caleb standing in the doorway. Only his shadow could be seen against the brightness of the interior light, but she knew it was him.
She gasped at the same moment that Caleb angrily inquired, "Am I interrupting something?"
Startled out of his thoughts, Blake turned around sharply. Hearing the fury in Caleb's voice, he blocked Kyra instinctively.
"You needn't try to protect her, Blake. I have no words for her. She is too innocent to know better. You however'"
"Caleb," he began apologetically, "I know what you're about to say and you have every right. I will not behave so boldly with your lovely charge again. I duly apologize to the both of you."
Turning back to Kyra, he wondered what he should say to her at that moment. He could only hope she hadn't experienced any pleasure in the kiss. That was something he never would have wished on any woman before, but he would never be able to make her understand what he had felt just now. Perhaps it was a godsend that Caleb had come along when he did. At least it was an easy way out of this awkward situation.
It was apparent to him that his former fianc' had muddled his mind against the fairer sex far worse than he'd realized with all of her games. There was no doubt that she had seriously wounded his ability to let himself relax and enjoy the taste of another woman'even one so lovely as Kyra was. Not even the hint of a spark had lit within him when their lips met. In his mind, that was cause for immediate alarm. Feeling slightly ill, he turned and walked past Caleb without another word to either of them.
As she watched Blake walk back inside, Kyra's eyes opened wide with fright. She realized that she had just been left alone to deal with her keeper. Caleb's dark form continued to loom in the doorway, increasing the tension she felt with each passing minute.
All she could do was continue to stand in wait of his explosion.
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