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Magda was sure she was ready before she stepped foot into the ballroom for the first time. Her mother had spent years preparing her, and she had one crucial advantage over the noble females.

She had been birthed omega, and with that came a certain allure no beta could possess.

It was the reason her mother selected her for adoption in the first place, though she didn’t doubt the woman had truly grown to love her over the years. Omegas were rare in Finsel, and almost all were members of the nobility. To have one outside the Senate’s control was completely unheard of, and equally unacceptable. So long as she displayed proper etiquette, her status would give her the edge needed to get the Ellenstein’s welcomed back to the Senate.

Of course, it wouldn’t be acceptable to show up and simply announce herself as an omega with the expectation of being accepted. No, she needed to the play the part first. Allow them to think she was just another beta until one or two too many characteristics revealed what she truly was. By then, she might have earned their welcome solely based on who she was rather than what she was. Being an omega would add to their desire to keep her around at that point, solidifying her family's return.

With perfume on the rise, it wouldn’t be such a difficult task to conceal herself in the mean time.

What she hadn’t been prepared for was the blank stare of the head of the Olineaux family on her very first outing. He was an alpha, of course, as were most men in the Four Families. There was something different about him though, something she hadn’t anticipated. Not even Juven and his charm had distracted her so thoroughly from the task at hand, and this man wasn't even trying. There was an effortless appeal about him even as he all but ignored her presence, like she was a nuisance.

“Hello,” she tried, barely able to maintain her composure as his scent hit her for the first time. The moment his eyes were on her, it was like she hit a wall, very nearly losing track of her purpose. “You must be the renowned Duke Olineaux?” He threw her another glance, eyes calculating as he waited for her to continue.” I…I’m Magda Ellenstein of the Ellenstein family.”

And just like that, he wasn’t impressed. Amused would have been a better word. “Oh…?” His eyes flickered up and down her body, sizing her up in a way that left her with goosebumps. “What’s the matter?”

“Duke Olineaux…”

“Young lady, I’ve never seen you before,” he reminded her when she lost track of her words. Why had she approached him in the first place? “Ah! You claim to be a member of the Ellenstein family?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“The Ellenstein…If I am not mistaken, your family as a really long history. It is no longer in the Senate.”

It was almost like he had taken pity, reminding her of her purpose. “My mother believes Finsel’s social circle is grand enough to accommodate the tiny Ellenstein family. I’m sent here to make some friends.”

“Make some friends?” he snorted. “Are you aiming at rejoining the Senate or taking back your fief?”

His gaze was overpowering, but luckily he took pity on her again when she didn’t answer. “Lady Ellenstein, you have shot glance at me too many times. There are already people whispering about that. Haven’t you noticed?”

Her heart pounded in her chest, and it took every effort not to glance around the room as she suddenly felt their eyes on the pair. This couldn’t have gone any worse. “No, I haven’t.”

“Who on earth would send such a careless girl to the ball to get close to me?”

“No one, I just felt…” Her mind was reeling, ready to create any excuse to get out of this misstep. “To be honest, my mother advised me to get on good terms with you. Maybe…you know, your son is still single.”

Duke Olineaux’s stare hardened for a long moment before her broke into a grin. “Someone has her eyes on my silly boy? How wonderful! I’ll pretend to trust you, young lady from the Ellenstein family.”

And just like that, she knew he’d seen through her completely. He was humoring her, perhaps because she had inadvertently humored him. Clearly he was well versed in these social games, and he could sniff out those who didn’t belong with ease. Why had he bothered indulging her in the first place?”

“Well, stop pulling a long face,” he urged, his tone a bit more hushed as he faced her directly. “I don’t want to be accused of bullying a young beauty new to the social circle. We shall have a laugh together and then bid our farewell in a breezy way. What do you say?”

She held his gaze a moment, heat in her cheeks as she nodded. “Thank you.”

“This dress looks great on you,” he told her, eyes raking her body once more like he was gauging her worth this time. “How is the Ellenstein family making a living?”

“My uncle has some land in Lionheart Kingdom.”

“A very classic answer. Who is your patron?” the duke pressed, raising both brows when she stared back helplessly. “Let me take a guess…Sakan?”

“Hmm?”

Duke Olineaux laughed once more, like he knew something else that she didn’t. “They’re chatting about us, you know.”

This time she didn’t even have the urge to glance around the room, too absorbed by the man in front of her. No doubt he was right; people were chatting about them. About how some unknown girl had the duke engaged in a pleasant conversation, with laughter that was much lighter than their conversation warranted.

“Enough for now?” She blinked a few times, not quite grasping the question. “Lady Ellenstein?”

“Yes,” she said with a start, frazzled under his expectant stare. “More than enough. Thank you.”

He stared at her another moment before nodding once, turning on his heel before walking away entirely. It took a few moments before she felt like she could breathe again, his overpowering scent still lingering in the air. She tried to piece together what had just happened, her mind in a state of disarray as one thought stood out starkly from the rest.

When did her heart start racing so wildly in her chest, and why wouldn't it stop?

--

There were many balls after that first one, though none stood out as much in her memories. It had felt like Duke Olineaux was interrogating her, and she had learned a valuable lesson from it. These people were experts on the social circle, and they’d eat her alive if she let them. Duke Olineaux had done her a favor by humoring her instead of calling her out directly, and while she didn’t know why, she couldn’t help but feel grateful every time she saw him. It made him easier and easier to talk to him, though her heart never did stop racing during their conversations.

“You almost look like you belong now,” the Duke told her, his deep timbre eliciting a shudder from the omega as she approached.

It had quickly become a routine for them. She would attend the ball, hoping to find him in the crowd. Her heart would jump when she spotted him, and eventually she’d wander near him as she made her rounds. Sooner rather than later in most cases, as it was becoming increasingly difficult to stay away from this man. Invitations from his family were always priority above all others, as were trips to the Senate or other places she knew he'd be.

“I suppose I should thank you for that.”

“Thank your patron.”

Magda frowned. “Please don’t poke fun at me.”

“Then how would I be entertained at these balls?”

She couldn’t help but read into that, realizing with a start that maybe she wasn’t the only one looking forward to these little encounters. “We’re in a room full of friends. Surely it’s not impossible to find entertainment.”

“Friends?” he scoffed, sipping at his wine. “Is that what you see when you look around this room?”

Rivals was a more accurate as she thought about the other guests, sure that she felt the sting of unwanted gazes on her back as she chatted with the duke. Potential suitors as well, though none of them drew her interest—not even the alphas. Viscount Sakan seemed to be the only other alpha who could catch her attention for more than a moment, and it was clear they were destined to be friends rather than anything else. Sure, he would flirt, but she was no fool. His eyes were on another woman, and she was just fine with that.

“My gaze doesn’t wander when I’m next to you,” she admitted, glancing up at him.

“Would you consider me a friend, then?”

“A dear one,” Magda answered easily, though she hated to call him that.

He was so much more. The first to make her feel welcome when she entered the social circle. The man who kept her on her toes. He was kind and considerate—a man who cared deeply for his family. Every time they stumbled upon one another, she learned something more about him that held her interest. It was getting to be impossible to stay away, especially when thoughts of him followed her home.

“Do you think me a fool, Lady Ellenstein?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“Do you think I don’t see the way you look for me every time you arrive at one of these little gatherings?” he elaborated, raising both brows. “That I don’t notice the way you brighten when you spot me, even as I pretend not to notice you?”

“I had thought myself more subtle.”

“You thought wrong.”

“Have I offended you, Duke Olineaux?”

“You call me a dear friend, yet you hide yourself from me. You tell me stories and gossips about everyone around us, yet nothing of your true nature.”

Her heart was pounding in her chest again, though not for the reason she had grown accustomed to in this man’s presence. “It’s not polite to discuss such topics amongst nobility.”

“Then let us not discuss it. Stop hiding yourself from me. I know it’s not perfume you wear; it’s your natural scent. Why do you hold it back?”

“I’m not hiding myself. It’s not polite to discuss, my lord,” she reminded him once more, though she knew him well enough to know that wouldn’t stop him once his mind was set on a topic. So long as they had some semblance of privacy, he’d say whatever he pleased. “These things are meant to remain unsaid.”

“Yet you claim to desire my son,” the duke reminded her, raising both brows. “My son is an alpha. It’s only natural I’d want to sniff out an omega for him.”

She did her best not to cringe, though not because she had anything against the younger alpha. Balfey was a nice young man who she considered a friend. They seemed to grow closer at each gathering they attended, but in a way that could only be described as platonic.

Surely Duke Olineaux knew by now, just from the way that she looked at him. He was the only alpha she yearned for, and it didn’t matter that he was older. It didn’t matter that he had children. It didn’t even matter that he had mated when he was younger. All she could see when they were together was him, here and now, without a distraction in sight.

“My wife was an omega,” he continued after a pause, his amused expression sobering quickly. “She was the ideal mate right up until her final breath. I want nothing less for my son.”

Magda nodded in understanding, eyes filled with sympathy even as her heart broke. Every time Christie Olineaux was mentioned, she felt the same conflicting emotions. From what the duke told her and from what she gathered in her gossips, it was clear the two had been quite the pair. They’d met young and gotten married quickly. Sometime after, they mated officially—in a way that only an alpha and omega pair could. The thought alone was upsetting to Magda, and so she preferred not to think about at all.

After all, it wasn’t proper to wish ill on a woman who had already passed away.

The reality was, the duchess deserved nothing but praise and kind thoughts. She’d left behind a remarkable family when the illness took her, and she’d left a lasting impression on the entire social circle. It made Magda uncomfortable to think poorly of her, even when she knew she couldn’t help it.

It was her inner omega—the same one Duke Olineaux was prodding at and asking her to stop hiding. That same omega had latched onto him even when she’d begged it not to, and it was easily disgruntled every time she thought about her chosen alpha with another omega.

Why did she have to choose him?

“Balfey always speaks highly of her,” Magda said after a beat, realizing he was gazing at her unrelentingly—like he needed her to respond.

“He still calls you sister.”

She couldn’t help the smile pulling at her lips. “Yes, I suppose he does.”

“That doesn’t bode well for a marriage.”

“No, my lord.”

“Why do you insist on calling me that even now? My name is Zoe.”

“We’re not alone, my lord,” she reminded him, though she yearned to be more than anything. Eyes were on them from the around the room, as usual—people prying and hoping to discern what it was they talked about that kept the duke so fascinated by her. It wasn’t so crazy to think someone may be listening as well. How nice would it be, to be able to speak privately without the sting of their glances? If she could just focus on the duke—his scent and his words. His presence. It consistently took all her focus to remain composed around him, reminding herself of her manners at all times. “An omega shouldn’t call an alpha by his name unless he is her mate.”

Suddenly his wine glass was set aside and he was standing impossibly close, reaching for her hand and pulling her into the crowded floor as if he'd asked her to dance. Not a single ball went by where they didn't share at least one round on the floor, though never without him asking first. Luckily she'd gone through the motion so many times that her feet caught onto him as her mind raced to catch up with what was happening. She didn't even stumble once as they started, the omega meeting the alpha move for move like the dance had been created just for them.

I miss you. She knew the steps as they made their ways through the various parts of the waltz, another pang of sadness striking her as she realized the unspoken words Duke Olineaux was conveying through their motions. It wasn’t Magda he missed, it was his wife. He belonged to Christie, and there was nothing she could do to change that. He didn't even look at her when they were done, his every step stiff as he lead her off the dance floor.

“Thank you for the dance, Lady Ellenstein.”

“You as well, Duke Olineaux.”

Her heart ached as he stepped away, leaving her there with a polite nod. What had just happened?

--

Lord Balfey was aware of Magda’s ‘interest’ in him. Sure, he gave off a certain air of disinterest in the social circle as a whole, but that didn’t mean he was oblivious to it all. When it came to things like his family and their reputation, he was acutely aware to the point where he was a different person. Fierce and protective.

No doubt Balfey cared about the Olineaux name in his own way. He cared about its colors and its future. It was sweet, and it left Magda feeling proud to be his friend, defender, and frequent dance partner at the balls.

“Have you come to play, Sister?”

“Of course,” she indulged him, smiling genuinely for the first time in what felt like weeks. “How have you been, Lord Balfey?”

“I’d rather discuss you. I haven’t seen you at one of our gatherings in quite some time.”

“I fear I’ve offended your father,” she explained vaguely, forcing a tight-lipped smile. Not a single invitation had arrived from the Olineaux’s in some time, and even worse, she hadn’t spotted the duke at any of the other balls she’d attended lately. “I was surprised to learn I’d been invited tonight.”

“He’s upstairs, pretending to be away on business so he won’t have to come down.”

“Oh.” Years of lessons paid off well as she suppressed her disappointment even as her heart plummeted in her chest. “Perhaps I’ll make amends next time.”

“Did you finally admit you’ve no interest in marrying me?”

Her eyes went wide, though why she was surprised, she wasn’t sure. Balfey really was observant in his own way. Had he known all along she had no true interest in his hand? “Nothing of the sort was discussed.”

“You’ve never been interested in me that way, nor I in you, Sister.” Balfey raised his glass, offering a toast which she accepted curiously. “My father’s smarter than he looks. He must have known all along.”

“I suspect he did,” Magda agreed uneasily. The duke had all but laughed when she even suggested interest in his son, though he’d agreed to ‘pretend to trust’ her as a result. “He’s as kind as he is clever. I think he pitied me at the time.”

“And now?”

“I’m not certain. I’d thought us friends, but I seem to have offended him by my lack of familiarity.”

“Ah. He’ll get over it in time.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“I’ve known him longer than you, and I offend him most days.”

She stifled a laugh, knowing that was an understatement. The only thing that could frazzle Duke Olineaux was his children, and Balfey always seemed happy to be the one to do so.

“You’re a dear friend, Lord Balfey.”

“As are you, Sister. I’ll take another tumble to create a distraction. Why don’t you wander upstairs in the mean time?”

Her eyes widened. “I could never allow—”

“I’m going to do it anyway, so you may as well benefit from it.”

“Your father will be furious. He already worries about you, and—”

“One more rumor about the duke’s son tumbling over at the ball won’t change that.”

He wandered off before she could get another word in, and she could already see him tipping back another glass of wine. That boy…he was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. How many times would rumors circulate when he ‘took a little tumble’ or drank too much? Plus the gossip about his weight and clothes. And he didn’t even care! It just rolled off his shoulders so long as the rest of his family wasn’t dragged into it.

Balfey was either careless or too pure for this world.

There wasn’t much time to question it or stop him now, and without following through it would all be for nothing. She could already hear Duke Olineaux’s exasperated sigh when he discovered what happened, and that just made her want to see him even more. To be the one to explain herself, and to put this distance behind them.

She was up the stairs before anyone took their eyes off the Olineaux heir and quickly ducked out of sight. It was only then she realized she had no idea where to go or how she’d get back downstairs without being noticed. Sure, she’d been to the Olineaux estate a number of times, but never had she gone up to the private quarters. This was a very ill-conceived plan.

What would her mother say if she were discovered lurking around the estate on her own?

“Too late to go back now,” she reminded herself, inhaling a steadying breath.

It was then that she realized—finding out where to go wouldn’t be so difficult. The smell of alpha was prominent in the air, and Duke Olineaux’s was easy for her to pick out. It covered her like a blanket, warm and inviting. Soon she was in front of a door, knocking before she could second guess herself.

It flung open a moment later, and she was faced with a wide eyed alpha. "For someone who cares so much about propriety, this is highly improper.”

“I needed to see you,” Magda responded tentatively.

“These are my private chambers. It’s far too late for you to be here unaccompanied, Lady Ellenstein.”

“Magda,” she corrected, heart thumping away in her chest. “My name is Magda.”

“I’m aware of your name.”

“You’re upset I’ve never called you by yours, yet you’ve never done the same for me.”

“You were right on that account. Only a mated pair should speak to each other so casually in public.”

“And when we’re in private?”

The duke leaned in close, his warm breath grazing her ear. “We’re never truly alone, Magda.”

Before she could come up with a retort, she was pulled into the room, her back to the door as he pulled it closed behind her. She blinked in surprise as he hovered over her, his hand still on the knob as she stared up.

“The maid was coming,” he explained, backing away like it was nothing. “I fear she heard your voice.”

“And?”

“Even the best paid maid has a loose tongue. Surely you’ve learned this by now.”

“You called me Magda.”

“It’s your name, as you were kind enough to point out.”

“What am I to you?”

“I should be asking you that. I’m an old man—an alpha. You shouldn’t be here. Not even your most persistent suitor would have you if they heard about this.”

“Nothing’s happened. We’re friends.”

“Are we?” he snorted, raking a hand through his hair. “What do you think I see when I look at you?”

“A naïve girl,” Magda assumed, frowning as he stared her down. “That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”

“It does. You’re infuriating, and you don’t even realize."

“Why? Because I don’t fit the mold as well as the other girls you chat with at these balls? I thought you liked that I was different.”

“You’re not different. You act like you are, but at your core you just want to be the same. You’re afraid of yourself and what you are.”

“I’m an omega,” Magda told him for the first time, forcing herself to hold her head high. “I was adopted into the Ellenstein family after they were run out of Finsel.”

There wasn't even a flicker of surprise on his face, though he did look pleased by the admission. “Who is your patron?”

“My mother never told me. I suspect you were right, though.”

“Sakan,” he grumbled, shaking his head. “What would he think if he knew you were here?”

“I don’t care.”

“No?” Duke Olineaux responded, taking a few steps toward her again. It took all her willpower to stay rooted in place, every nerve in her body tingling in anticipation. “What would my son think?”

“I hope he’d be pleased, considering he’s the one who sent me up here.”

“Did he now?” The duke chuckled again, his amusement was fleeting. “Why did you come here, Magda?”

“I told you…I needed to see you.”

“Why?”

“We haven’t talked in—”

“You’re evading the question. You didn’t risk your reputation for that. You could have cornered me at the next Senate ball if you just wanted to chat.”

She let out a short sigh. “I suppose you’ve always seen right through me.”

“Let me put it plainly for you.” He stepped in close, reaching out and cupping her cheek with his right hand. If he'd been any other man, she would have pushed his hand away because it wouldn't be considered appropriate by anyone's standard. All she could do was lean into his touch though, his soothing scent hitting her in waves and making her believe it would all be okay. “You don't know why you're here; that's why you can't answer. You just can't stay away."

"You didn't have to let me in."

"It's not like I'm heartless. I could smell you from outside the door—how could I send you away in this state?"

Her eyes widened at his words, realizing with a start that he was right. The conscious effort she put into metering her scent had been forgotten in her excitement to see him. It was pouring out of her freely for the first time in ages, in a way that her mother would have scolded her for to no end. She reeled it back in instantly, mortified by her own behavior. This had never happened to her, not even once since she learned to keep it at bay.

“It wasn’t on purpose.”

“I know. Not much that happens between us is intentional,” he presumed, a small smile pulling at his lips. “You should run along now before it’s too late. I could ruin you.”

“How so?”

“One rumor. That’s all it would take for you to be forever known as a widower’s mistress. I’m sure your mother wouldn’t be pleased.”

“I’m doing enough for her. Surely I can do this one thing for myself.”

“This is what you’d choose for yourself? Conversation behind a closed door with an old man?”

“It doesn’t have to be behind a closed door, but…yes. I’d choose you given any option.”

“It’s a good thing I’m not an option for you, then. Goodnight, Magda.”

“You’re kicking me out? What happens when the maid spots me?”

“You say it as if I invited you here. You did this to yourself.”

“We’re friends, Zoe.”

His gaze softened at the use of his name, and he was grinning before she could plead again. “I’ll step out first and distract the maids. You’re on your own getting back down stairs unnoticed.”

"Balfey will help me."

"I suppose you're right. You seem to have made an impact on the whole family."

"Does that mean you won't be avoiding me any more?"

"You win this time, my dear friend. Now hurry along before I change my mind and decide it'd be more interesting to keep you here the night."

Her cheeks were flushed as he winked, not a care in the world on his face as he exited the room ahead of her. Just the usual, undying amusement glittering his eyes like nothing had changed between them at all. And maybe it hadn't. All he'd done was reaffirm their friendship in his own, unique way. It just so happened that way left her heart racing again, like everything else he did.

What had she gotten herself into with this man? Perhaps more importantly, why couldn't she stay away?

Chapter Text

As it turned out, the scent slip wasn’t a one time event. Not even the best scent suppressants her patron could buy helped her keep it at bay, and her mother was at a loss as to why.

“You’ve never had this much trouble in the past.”

“I’m sorry,” Magda muttered, letting out a short sigh. Another balled, missed because they couldn’t risk exposure just yet. “I’m trying my best.”

“I believe you, as does our patron. I need you to be honest with me, Magda,” Eliza said, her tone anything but soothing this time. “Is there an alpha who’s caught your attention?”

Her eyes went wide at the implication, and her immediate reaction was to shake her head. She wasn’t allowed to fall in love; not yet anyway. She was to attend the balls, restore her family’s place in society, and then marry a man who fit her family’s needs. Hopefully one she could learn to love in time.

“Magda,” Eliza said, letting out a sigh of her own. “Who is it? It’s not that Sakan boy, is it? Because I’ve warned you—”

“No, mother,” she interjected, cheeks flaming red under the scrutiny. There was no way out of this conversation without giving a name, and she had no intention of lying to her own mother. “It’s worse than that.”

“Worse than a man with no decency? The only thing worse would be if it were a civilian, and the bulk of them are betas.”

“It’s Zoe. Zoe Olineaux.”

“Zoe?” her mother repeated, incredulous. “You dare call a Duke by his first name? Where are your manners?”

“It’s at his own insistence. We’re…friends,” she attempted to explain, shrinking back a little under her mother’s unimpressed stare. “I know what you’re thinking, and you don’t need to worry. Nothing has happened.”

“Nothing will happen. You’re not the first to yearn for him, and you won’t be the last. That man has no interest in re-marrying; he’s made that much clear through the years.”

“There’s nothing improper about him pursuing a new companion. It’s been a long time since the Duchess—”

“It’s not about what’s proper. Not with him. He adored his wife, Magda.” Eliza’s expression finally softened as her daughter’s hopefilled eyes fell to the floor. “You’re too young for a man of his years and experience. Surely there’s a more appropriate alpha in the circle who’s caught your attention. One we can agree upon when the time is right.”

“There’s no one else. I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me, mother. I’ve made friends and gotten into the good graces of many. He’s the only one I truly look forward to seeing at these balls.”

“You’d be better suited to bond with his son. That man could be your father.”

“There’s nothing improper about an alpha widower choosing to re-marry, and almost none do so while they’re young.”

“Perhaps not, but that doesn’t change the facts. He has no interest in marriage; only in indulging himself. You’ll get hurt if you continue this reckless pursuit.”

“I’m not pursuing him! You asked who caught my eye, and I told you. I understand it’s unlikely anything will come of it.”

“Your erratic scent says otherwise. You’re calling out to him without even realizing. The patron was right; your first heat must be drawing near.”

“Heat?” Magda blinked a few times, sure that couldn’t be right. She was just 18; it was meant to be another two years before she fully bloomed. “That’s not possible.”

“It wouldn’t be if you weren’t entertaining these foolish notions. You’ve fallen further than you care to admit. Your omega has decided its time to prove itself a worthy contender for your chosen alpha.”

Magda shook her head, stubborn as always. She didn’t bother contesting it out loud though, not seeing the point. Heats didn’t work that way. There were only very rare circumstances where an omega would bloom early, and it had always sounded more like a fairy tale than reality to her.

True mates.

It wouldn’t matter how old the omega was if they met their true mate so long as they had already past puberty; their body would finish developing at a rapid rate until an early heat finally set in. An indication of readiness for their alpha. Likewise, the alpha would be pushed into an early rut if they had yet to fully develop upon meeting their true mate.

Even if such a thing truly existed, it couldn’t be the case here because Zoe was clearly a fully developed alpha already. If she were his true mate, he would have known the moment they met, even if she hadn’t matured enough to notice herself. He would have said something—it wasn’t like he was the type to hold back his thoughts.

“I can see what you’re thinking,” Eliza said, knowing her daughter too well. “It’s not about mating; it’s about maturity. The more you surround yourself with fully developed alphas, the more your body will attempt to catch up. True mates are a myth.”

“I know that much.”

“What do you think will happen once you’re fully developed? I know you’re heard the gossips about the Duke already.”

She had heard more than she cared to, but it had been so easy to ignore and deny every time she saw that familiar grin on his face. There was just no way.

“He’s ruined more than one young lady in the social circle. His loyalties are to his family; to his wife. Anything else is just an indulgence. I won’t allow you to become just another tryst to satisfy his alpha during rut.”

“He’s not like that. He would never proposition an omega for selfish reasons. He worries about me—about spending time with me. He knows the damage a rumor could cause someone in my position.”

“Yet he still allows you to spend time by his side. The moment you’ve bloomed, he’ll try to take you. You cannot allow it. An omega in your position must remain pure until her wedding night.”

Magda frowned, realizing there was no point in arguing. There was no way those rumors about Zoe were true; she knew him better than that. He’d rather go through his rut alone than bed someone who wasn’t his wife. Even years after her passing, he spoke of her so softly—so fondly. No one else could compare, and so why would he bother?

If anything, it was the reverse scenario. Those women probably spread the rumors themselves; a risky play done in an attempt to pressure a duke into ‘doing the right thing’ and marrying them. Too bad Zoe wasn’t the type to fold so easily.

Of course, it wouldn’t be proper to ask him about it, and so she’d never truly discussed the subject with him. She remained his loyal friend, certain that she knew his character better than those who would speak of such baseless rumors.

“I don’t want you to see him again. You’re only to speak with him publicly, and you’re to keep it minimal. Do what you must to remain polite, and then leave his side.”

“You can’t—”

“Our patron agrees. You’re not to find a mate so soon.”

“He’s my friend.”

“He’s fickle. He’ll ruin everything we’ve been working toward the moment he loses interest and moves along to the next amusement, even if nothing happens between you. Our family’s reputation is the least of his concerns.”

Magda shook her head, already knowing she wouldn’t be obeying this command. Staying away from Zoe wasn’t an option, not even for her mother’s sake. Instead she just left the room, not seeing the point in further disagreements.

There were more important things for her to ponder right now anyway—like how she was going to get out of this house to attend the next ball. Sitting around was making her antsy even if she understood her mother’s hesitation to let her out while her scent was fluctuating.

There was an open invitation on her wardrobe taunting her when she finally returned to her room, silently swaying her into deciding. The words ‘Olineaux Family Ball’ were written in intricate lettering, detailing her cordial invitation to their estate for yet another social gathering. Her mother had already told her no, but her heart told her otherwise.

Somehow, some way, she was going to that ball.

--

All eyes were on her as she stepped into the Olineaux estate, prompting the nerves to swell inside her like it was her very first ball all over again. Back when she had no idea what to make of any of these people; when she was fumbling over the customs and trying desperately to look and sound like she belonged.

The only good thing was, she knew what to expect now. That and her dress was better—a strapless purple gown, showing off varying in shades of the current trending color. It was a light shade around her bosom, growing darker as the material flowed around her legs.

Of course, it wasn’t the dress drawing their attention this time. It was her sudden reappearance into the social circle after weeks of declined invitations. She kept her head held high as she prepared to make her first round in the room, fidgeting once with the scent suppressing necklace the patron had sent over.

It looked like any other necklace in her wardrobe, beautiful and more expensive than necessary. This one was gold and covered her neck almost entirely, accenting the purple in her dress as if they were meant to be worn together.

“Ah-yah…The young lady from the Ellenstein family?”

Magda tried her best not to laugh, astounded that after all this time Gonzalo still greeted her like he wasn’t quite sure who she was. They’d become friends of sort, in their own way—but only after he realized she had no interest in winning Mr. Alan’s affections.

“Your taste never fails to surprise me,” Gonzalo continued, eyeing her dress appreciatively. “So tell me, what’s brought you back to our little circle?”

Right to the point, then. Magda kept a practiced smile on her face, innocent like she had no idea what he meant. “I accompanied my mother to the Lionheart Kingdom for a time. My uncle has land there, and he fell ill recently. Once he recovered, we came home.”

“Ah, I see. Well, I for one am glad to have you back. These balls have been dreadful without you.”

“How so?”

Gonzalo went on a tangent about the poor behavior of two particular ladies in the circle—Serena and Nicole. Lady A and Lady B, as she and Gonzalo preferred to call them. They were manipulative and rude on their best days. Certainly, two people she did not miss from these gatherings.

“Well, look who decided to show up to his own ball.”

Magda froze where she stood, heart stilling in her chest as she reminded herself not to act too rashly. Not to spin around and run toward the alpha on her mind—the one she’d come here to see even when she should have stayed home.

It was easier said than done.

She’d already scanned the room upon arrival, seeking Zoe’s eyes the way she always did when she walked into any ball. He was nowhere to be seen though. It had looked like Hugh and Vicki were representing the family this time around—not even Balfey was in the room, which was rare.

“Has he?” Magda said after a beat, feigning indifference as she followed Gonzalo’s gaze. Zoe. He looked scruffier than usual, but there was no mistaking him. It almost looked like he’d thrown his clothes on without much care.

“He’s been absent from these gatherings almost as long as you have.”

She heard the words, but couldn’t bring herself to look away from the duke. “What do you mean?”

“His children and niece have been hosting all Olineaux events. Last week was the anniversary, you see.”

“Anniversary?”

“It’s been ten years now since the duchess passed away.”

“I see.” Not even the somber news could stop her heart from jumping in her chest as Zoe’s eyes finally met hers from across the room, and just like that it was like everyone else in the room was gone. “Excuse me, then. I should offer him my condolences.”

Gonzalo may have been surprised or offended—she wasn’t sure because she didn’t stick around to find out. Instead she carefully avoided everyone in the room as she maneuvered her way to the duke’s side.

He was unusually serious when she reached her destination. “You shouldn’t be here, Lady Ellenstein.”

“I came to see you.”

“Weeks of declined invitations, and you show up now?”

“It wasn’t my choice to stay away. My mother feared what may happen if I attended any balls.”

“Your mother was right. Not even that pretty necklace is helping. I could smell you from upstairs.”

Both brows show up at the implication, but a careful glance around the room left her confused. If her scent was so potent, the entire room would be talking about nothing else. “That can’t be.”

“I had no intention of making an appearance until I realized what it was that woke me. You risk too much.”

She blinked, for once at a complete loss about what to say to this man. “I risk nothing. The circle will know what I am soon enough.”

“A scandal isn’t the way for them to discover it. What do you think will happen if you bloom here and now?”

“I won’t. It’s not possible.”

“You’re as naïve as I first assumed. Do you even realize how many alphas are in this room? Even the most civilized among us won’t be able to resist.”

She was taken aback by his rough tone, unused to hearing it directed at her. Many people in the circle were intimidated by the head alpha of the Olineaux family, but not until this very moment did she understand why. The look in his eyes was unrelenting, like every word he was saying was absolute.

“Did you come down here just to send me home?”

“Yes.”

She kept her posture as relaxed as possible even as she felt like crumbling, too aware of the eyes on the two of them as they spoke quietly. “I came here to see you.”

“And?” Zoe challenged, quirking a brow. “You’ve seen me. You’re free to go now.”

“Zoe…”

His harsh expression didn’t falter, even as her composure threatened to crack. “Go home, Magda. Don’t attend any more of these outings until you’ve bloomed.”

“I can’t just leave. I’ve only spoken to two people.”

“You need to focus on yourself for the time being. Let me make the rounds in your stead—I’ll let them know you weren’t feeling well.”

“One dance,” she insisted, eyeing him hopefully. “Please?”

“It’s not proper for a lady to ask for a gentleman for a dance,” he reminded her, his expression finally softening. “I suppose I’m not much of a gentleman anyway.”

Zoe extended a hand to her, returning her small smile when she accepted it without delay. It was only when she was on her way back home replaying the dance in her mind that she realized the story their steps had told that night.

Past. Present. Future.

Warmth filled her body as she dared to hope that his dance choice meant something. That she was important to him in some way—that she would be a part of his future in some capacity, even if he was pushing her away in the moment.

Even her mother’s scolding couldn’t ruin her mood or dash her hopes. She settled into her room with a happy sigh, shedding her dress and changing into her nightgown in record time.

It wasn’t until she was lying down that she realized the warmth in her body wasn’t fading even as her racing thoughts began to settle. In fact, she only seemed to be getting hotter. Her thoughts became less and less coherent as the fever hit her, leaving her dizzy and in disarray.

Something was definitely wrong.

“Zoe,” she muttered absentmindedly, his name a pillar even in her daze. “Please…”

She didn’t know what she was asking for. She didn’t even know why she suddenly felt scared, like she wouldn’t make it through the night alone. All she was sure of was that she wanted him by her side—that he would know what to say and what to do to put her at ease.

--

For the first time in all Magda’s years, she understood the word ‘bloom’.

Growing up as an omega, it had seemed like a silly notion—she was what she was, regardless of having her first heat. Her mannerisms would be the same before and after, as would her scent and appearance. There would be no change.

Technically her assumption was right. Nothing tangible had changed, and not even her biggest admirer or worst critic from Finsel’s many balls would be able to tell the difference at a glance. It was more private than that. Something just for her.

She could feel the difference.

It was in her posture and pace. Her heart and mind. After embarrassing herself at her first ball, she always forced herself to take a deep breath and remain composed before attending any others. Now it was like that forced confidence was real, ingrained in her being.

Her very thoughts felt more matured, lingering on things she had always considered unmentionable before. Some of them were innocent enough while others were anything but. Memories of her heat in particular left her flushed, barely able to believe she had spent days in bed dazed and wanting such things.

And every single want and desire had been centered around one person.

Naturally she avoided Zoe at the next ball, sure he would be able to read the impure thoughts from her mind if she stood too close. The idea of catching his scent now that she had spent her first heat craving it…it was too much. She feared what it might do to her if she weren’t careful.

So she avoided him at the next ball as well. And the next. She fully intended to avoid him at the next as well, but it was a Bavlenka ball that she didn’t expect him to attend anyway.

“Young lady, do I look terrifying?”

Magda couldn’t even bring herself to respond, too startled by object of her desire standing right in front of her after all this time. He looked just as good as she remembered, and it really wasn't fair. Everything about him was so effortless. So enticing. She’d encountered more than one prominent alpha since her heat, and never had a single one threatened to bring her to her knees with just a single glance the way that Zoe did. The moment their eyes locked, she knew that was it. Her feet brought her to his side without delay, and there was no turning back after that. He smelled just as warm and inviting as she remembered, and it took all of her years of training to prevent herself from taking any deep breaths.

Why was everything so much more difficult with him?

Zoe frowned when she didn’t respond at all to his initial question. “What’s the matter?”

“Duke…” She took a deep breath the way she used to when she was feeling nervous, her newfound confidence all but lost. “Do you…”

“Am I scary, young lady? Or is it so difficult to find a suitable topic to chat with an old man?”

So that’s how he wanted to play this—like he didn’t notice the way her hands were trembling or hear the way her heart was beating erratically. Like her struggle was just another amusement, and this was just like any other day. Did she matter at all to him?

“It is actually quite difficult,” she managed, eyes falling to the floor.

“Magda,” he muttered with a short sigh. “I didn’t intend to offend you. I’d heard you were attending balls again, but I hadn’t seen you yet. I was hoping to run into you here.”

“You came here for me?”

“Is it so surprising?”

“It is. Last time we met, you sent me away.”

“That was different,” he insisted, his firm words drawing her eyes back up to meet his. “You know why I sent you away that day.”

“I suppose.”

“It seems I was right, too. You’ve bloomed.”

“Yes,” she admitted quietly, face flushed as he didn’t so much as bat an eye. “That very night.”

“There’s whispering in the circle, you know. Gossiping.”

She raised a brow, surprised that he wanted to talk about such things. Normally she had to choose that type of topic if she wanted to pick his brain for any rumors, and he merely indulged her the way he always did even though he could care less about most of it.

“Gossip,” Magda repeated, her eyes asking the question that she couldn’t.

“They’re saying you might be an omega. That it’s the only explanation for the crowd of admirers you’ve gathered since returning to Finsel. The other ladies seem to think it’s an unfair advantage.”

“And you? What do you think of this rumor?”

“Well, they’re not wrong, are they? We both know what you are, though I do think it’s inaccurate to say it’s the reason you’ve drawn so many admirers. You’ve never once flaunted your scent or revealed yourself in order to gain favor.”

“I revealed myself to you.”

“I knew what you were the moment I laid eyes on you.”

 "How is that? You always seemed to know even when no one else suspected."

"You still don't know?" Zoe asked, chuckling softly. She frowned as he stared down, at a loss for what to say under his gaze. "My wife was beautiful. Powerful and unmatched. She was everything I could have wanted in an omega, and more. Not many omegas would dare to be a knight in this circle."

Magda felt her heart tightening in her chest, forcing a smile the way she always did when Duchess Christie was brought into conversation. "I wish I had known her. She sounds remarkable."

"It's better this way. I fear how such a meeting would have gone."

"What do you mean?"

"Even the most patient omega wouldn't take this situation lightly. My love for her was real, but this...The draw between us is unlike anything I've ever experienced, and I know you feel it too."

"Zoe..." She glanced around the room, too aware that they had been caught up in conversation far longer than protocol dictated. They were starting to draw attention, and as usual, Zoe didn't seem to care. His eyes hadn't left her for even a moment. "Is now really the time to be discussing such a private matter?"

"Now is the only time. I won't stand by another day while these others attempt to sway you into their arms."

"What are you saying?"

"I want you, Magda. I won't fight this anymore, and you shouldn't either.”

She was sure she stopped breathing for a moment, his words leaving her too stunned to even consider being thrilled. “What do you mean you want me?”

“What do you think I mean?” he countered.

“My mother warned me you may say something like this after I bloomed. She seemed to think this is common behavior for an alpha in your position.”

“And you? What do you believe?”

The intensity in his stare was nearly too much, but as the nervousness rose in her, she caught his scent yet again. It was like it was reaching out to her, just enough for her to calm right back down. “If you’d asked me a few weeks back, I would have been certain she was wrong,” Magda admitted carefully.

“I’m asking you today.”

“There are sides of myself I barely recognize right now. If such a thing is possible, then I have to admit it’s possible there are sides of you that I don’t know as well.”

“A wise conclusion.” Zoe folded his arms across his chest, like he was considering it still. “I’d like to see these other sides of you—to show you more of myself.”

She was sure her face was blazing red again at the implication. “That’s hardly appropriate.”

“Any impure conclusions you drew from that statement stem from your own thoughts, not mine. I meant nothing of the sort. I’d like to see you unrestrained—to discover how we can be without the eyes of the circle watching our every move.”

“Oh. Well, that sounds agreeable.”

“I thought so. Though I wouldn’t mind discovering the side of you that you were imagining either,” he admitted, winking as her jaw dropped in a very unladylike fashion. “Tomorrow, then? Perhaps we can share a meal at my estate.”

“I’d like that.”

“Good. I’ll have the letter delivered to your mother first thing in the morning.”

“Letter?” Magda asked, raising a brow.

“I won’t have your mother assuming the worst every time you come to see me. Her opinion has no bearing on me, but I can see that it matters to you—I’ll play the social game and follow the protocols this time.”

“Protocols for what?”

He continued like he didn't hear her question, “Gaining your mother’s permission is the first step.”

“The first step in what?”

The entire room seemed to come to a stop as he reached out for her hand, placing a single, delicate kiss on it. “Until tomorrow, Lady Ellenstein.”

He had barely taken two steps away before she was swarmed by no less than four ladies from the ball, eager to get the first bit of gossip about the obvious display of affection they had just witnessed. A display that could only mean one thing in the Finsel social circle. Suddenly the whole letter thing made a lot more sense.

Zoe Olineaux intended to court her, properly.

Chapter Text

Propriety had never been his strong suit. Sure, he knew the customs and expectations all too well, but it had always seemed so mundane. Being an Olineaux was probably the only thing that had saved his reputation growing up—certainly it was the only thing that kept his status secured when he and Christie had their first child together out of wedlock.

It was just so much more fun to act as he pleased. To say what he meant and to take what he wanted instead of dancing around the subject as social protocol often dictated. He was polite still—he never wished ill on anyone, and he never used his status to take advantage of another. But there were many things he typically got away with that he couldn’t in his current situation.

Madga Ellenstein was different.

As much as he wanted to simply tear off her dress, bend her over, and slam his cock into her until she was begging for his knot, he knew he couldn’t. He wanted desperately to sink his teeth into her pretty little neck and claim her as his own for all to see, but he knew he couldn’t do that either.

Not yet anyway.

Propriety was something she did care about, and so he cared again by default. He wouldn’t allow all her efforts to be in vain, even if bonding with him would solve her family’s troubles in a heartbeat. Many still believed she was just another distraction for him, and unless he did this properly, there would be gossip about their relationship for years to come—something that didn’t bother him but would inevitably upset her.

“So tell me more about your heat,” he tried, keeping his chuckle to himself as Magda’s face lit up and the third person in the room gasped.

“Duke Olineaux!” Eliza exclaimed, eyes narrowing. “If you’re going to court my daughter, you will keep to the agreed upon topics.”

“Mother, perhaps if I could speak with Zoe alone—”

As usual, Magda picked up on his intention. Social customs in Finsel meant they could never truly be alone during the courting process; there always had to be a ‘chaperone’ in the room, despite the fact he was no longer an impulsive young alpha. It was the only way to ensure an unbonded omega would remain pure, and Eliza had volunteered herself as their third on this particular occasion.

He was hoping that she would be easy to run out of the room so that he could speak privately with his future bride and mate.

“I will not be turned away so easily, Duke Olineaux.”

“I dreamt of you,” Magda told him, answering his question with a red but determined face. It was adorable. “I’d never had such thoughts before.”

“Oh?” Zoe raised a brow, wondering how far he could push this. “Such as?”

“You were hovering over me, and—”

“Magda! Cease this behavior immediately.”

Magda didn’t look away from Zoe even once as she addressed her mother. “We’ll talk about more appropriate things if you leave us be, Mother. I promise.”

Eliza didn’t respond for a long minute, glancing between the two before letting out a sigh. “Fine. I’ll be checking in every ten minutes, and I expect to find you exactly as you are right now—on separate ends of the table. If there is a single strand of hair out of place on either of your heads, my permission for this courting will be retracted.”

They watched as she left the room, dignified as always. Then the laughter escaped them both, and for a moment he thought maybe he was still a young, impulsive alpha.

“I didn’t know you had it in you,” Zoe told her, finally lifting his fork to begin the meal Eliza had kindly set out for them. “Saying that in front of your own mother.”

“Yes, well. She wouldn’t have left otherwise.”

“She doesn’t trust me.”

“She doesn’t trust anyone. There’s a lot riding on my success here in Finsel.”

“You’d think she would be encouraging this pairing then. In another six weeks, I’ll wed you and all the Ellenstein’s troubles will be forgotten.”

“Six weeks?” Magda asked curiously.

“We’ve been at this for two weeks already. Six more will put us an acceptable length of time by Finsel’s standards.”

“How are you so sure about this? We’ve barely had a real conversation since all this began. We’re either at the balls with prying ears or sitting at a table being chaperoned.”

The door swung open as if on cue, Eliza peering in indiscreetly despite the fact it had been less than 5 minutes since her departure. She seemed satisfied that neither had moved, closing the door once more.

“I’ve known from the moment we met. This is inevitable, Magda.”

“You always say that, but you’ve never explained.”

“You still don’t know?” he asked, and not for the first time. She looked as puzzled as before, her beautiful eyes clouded with confusion. For once he decided to give her a straight answer instead of beating around the bush. “The pull between us is more than attraction—it’s more than the call between an alpha and omega. You’re my intended mate, Magda. My true mate.”

“There’s no such thing.”

“I never wanted to mate again after my wife passed. At most, I’d spend my rut with anyone willing, and even that felt like a betrayal to her,” he admitted, despite knowing how silly it was. Christie had all but begged him to let her go—to move on after she passed. It was his stubborn alpha pride that had prevented him from allowing it, only caving in to his needs during rut because it was nearly unbearable to endure it alone.

He could see the curiosity in his omega’s eyes, and so he continued, “I spent years turning down invitations and offers to marry, focusing on my family and their future. Nothing less than a true mate would have distracted me from my purpose.” His tone was far more serious than even he was used to, but it was clear she wouldn’t believe him otherwise. Surely, she knew already—surely she felt it on some level. “The moment you walked into that first ball, I knew what you were. Your scent. Your smile. I told myself not to be tempted, but it wasn’t possible to stay away.”

“I’ve always been drawn to you,” she admitted quietly, like she was piecing it together.

“Inexplicably so.”

“I wouldn’t say that. You’re a duke—a well respected alpha. What young omega wouldn’t want to talk to you?”

“Are you saying those are the reasons you’re allowing me to court you? Because I’m a duke?” He already knew the answer was ‘no’, but he waited for her to utter it before continuing, “If you were anything less than my true mate, it never would have gotten this far. I would have bedded you and been done with it.”

She let out an audible gasp, eyes blown wide. “I would never have allowed it.”

“Perhaps,” he mused, shrugging as he tried not to laugh. She was just too much—too cute, looking so flustered. “I know you’re curious. Ever since you bloomed, you look at me differently, with desire in your eyes.”

“That doesn’t mean I would allow—”

“It’s okay to want, Magda. I want you every single day.”

“Zoe…”

“The things your scent does to me,” he muttered, raking a hand through his hair as it grew stronger in the room. Clearly his words were stirring her imagination already, and he’d barely even said anything. His cock was stirring in his pants, and it took all his efforts to ignore it—to stay in his seat even when all he wanted to do was cross the table and take her the way that her scent was inviting him to do. “Do you even know what you’re doing right now?”

She didn’t say anything, instead allowing a low whine to escape her throat. The sound left him rock hard and certain that she had no idea—not even the slightest clue that her omega was calling out to him on a primal level that was near impossible to ignore.

“Perhaps we should call your mother back,” he decided, ignoring her plea to wait.

Maybe society was right about this one. The alpha inside him wasn’t to be trusted—not around Magda Ellenstein. He was feeling young and impulsive, which did not bode well if she wanted to remain pure through their wedding night.

--

Watching Magda dance with another man was unpleasant, even if he knew it was of no consequence. Dancing was a formality in Finsel, and it meant little at the end of the day. Barbalius could look at her longingly for as long as he wanted, and it wouldn’t change the fact that she only wanted Zoe as a mate.

Still, it was frustrating to have another alpha’s scent on his mate, even if it was just faintly. It took him back to the days when he would growl at other alphas—anyone Christie danced with at these ridiculous balls. Perhaps he’d been more insecure back then. He’d glare, growl, and then complain in her ear the minute she was back in his arms. Then she’d tell him she could take care of herself if she felt like any of the others were out of line. The memory made him smile, his eyes never leaving Magda as he thought it over.

They were very different, Magda and Christie. How was it possible he had been so in love back then, and yet this woman…this very different woman was his fated mate?

Sure, they had some similarities—they were both fierce and loyal. They were both beautiful, charming ladies who would capture an entire room’s attention without ever intending to do so. Yet these similarities were broad, and the intricacies of their personalities differed drastically.

He’d given up trying to figure out how he could have been drawn to both the moment he saw Magda after her heat, completely undone and defeated by her fully developed scent. By that point there was no reason to keep pretending—to keep playing their little game, calling each other ‘friends’ and acting like there was nothing else between them.

“Our eyas has truly become an unparalleled beauty.”

Zoe glance over at Juven Sakan, not impressed even as the boy gave him that same dazzling smile that won him favor from nearly everyone else in the room. “Are you hoping to provoke me?”

“I would hope for no such thing,” Juven responded smoothly. “I’m merely stating the facts.”

“If this is about your patronage, it’s no longer required. I’ll replace any funds lost on your investment.”

“Lady Ellenstein is more than an investment. She’s a dear friend.”

“I’m not sure your father would agree.”

Juven shrugged. “It’s not like he’ll be back anytime soon. Don’t worry about the funding. Neither of us predicted she would find a mate so soon, let alone a Duke. It’s fair to say my father’s little experiment paid for itself.”

“How so?”

“In amusement, of course. Did you know we had a bet going? My father said you’d never mate again. I told him if the right omega came along, even you would be defeated. It seems I won. I wasn’t expecting it to be Lady Ellenstein, but that matters little.”

“I suppose you also told your father about your own intended mate?”

Juven’s smirk faded in a heartbeat, suddenly not so amused. “It’s not his concern.”

“Just as my mating is none of your concern, Viscount.”

“I meant what I said. Lady Ellenstein is a dear friend—I’m happy for you both.”

The subject of their conversation was approaching as he spoke, pulling Zoe’s attention effortlessly. A smile pulled at his lips as she finally stood by his side again, all but ignoring the Viscount without even realizing it.

“Would you care for a glass of wine, my beautiful eyas?”

Magda seemed to just realize the boy was there, glancing between them with a polite smile. “I shouldn’t. Thank you for the kind offer, Viscount.”

“Anytime. You know where to find me should you change your mind,” Juven told her, raising his glass to the pair and taking a single sip before sauntering away.

There was a lot that could be said about that man, but he was observant at least. He could tell when his presence wasn’t wanted, and while he could have been a nuisance and stayed despite that, he respected their desire to be alone. No doubt Juven Sakan understood all too well the reprieve these balls could provide.

“How was your dance?” Zoe asked, already knowing the answer.

“Clumsy. I stepped on his toes,” she admitted with a small frown.

“No one expects you to perform perfectly every time. Lionheart dance steps aren’t the same as our own.”

He took Magda’s hand into his own for a moment, just long enough to wipe away the scent Barbalius had left behind during their dance. Unless he’d been imagining it, the foreigner had grasped it just a little more firmly than necessary, but there was only so much he could do about it while they were standing in the Jorcastle Estate surrounded by Finsel’s finest.

“There’s an easier way to scent me, you know.”

He quirked a brow, not surprised she knew what was going through his head. “Oh?”

“You could just invite me to dance. There’s nothing improper about dancing during the courting process.”

“I’ve no intention of making our relationship a show. All eyes would be on us.”

“Since when has that stopped you from doing whatever you wanted?”

“Since I realized it would impact you,” Zoe responded honestly. She was right to think he could care less about any rumors or gossips, but he wasn’t about to fuel any rumors about her. Too many people already assumed he couldn’t resist her simply because she was an omega. “We can dance any time you want after the wedding.”

Magda’s face lit up at the mention of it, despite how far out of reach it still felt. Three more weeks. “I’m not so fragile, you know. I can handle them talking about me if it means I get to dance with you again.”

“I suppose one dance couldn’t do too much damage.”

Because how could he say no to her when she was looking at him with those hope filled eyes? She accepted his arm as he led her to the dance floor, practically beaming even as they stood at a respectable distance and began.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” she mused, meeting him step for step as the music began to pick up. She always did look lovely with her hem weaving in the air like this. “We can touch each other more freely with the eyes of an entire room on us than we can anywhere else.”

Zoe laughed at her assertion, sure she was right. If they went out into town together, a maid or servant always accompanied them. When they were at her estate, her mother would check in on them far too often for him to even take her hand into his own. At his estate, Hugh usually sat in with them, and he took his responsibility as ‘chaperone’ even more seriously than Mrs. Ellenstein—not because he didn’t trust his father, but because it was ‘a knight’s duty’ to perform tasks with integrity.

Needless to say, he had little interest in crossing any lines in front of his own child. Likewise, Magda was most awkward at his estate when Hugh was sitting there watching their every move. They actually had their best conversations at these silly balls when they could steal away to a quiet corner, just the two of them isolated among the many. It reminded him of the many conversations they’d had in the past—the friendship they’d built over time.

It was at these balls that he’d discovered her sharp sense of humor. He’d learned her beauty was more than skin deep, and that she was more than her mother’s puppet. She was passionate—an advocate for the slums. For the orens. For things most young ladies in this society didn’t spend time debating. They didn’t always agree, of course, but that just made her more enticing. Not many omegas would challenge an alpha’s opinion, let alone one from the Four Families.

Zoe had little interest in an omega who would stand by his side nodding in mindless agreement at everything he said. Even if he could never touch her, he was certain he’d be happy so long as they could still have those moments together, talking endlessly about whatever subject came to mind that day. The fact that he knew it was only a matter of time before he could touch her was just an added bonus.

“Maybe we can sneak out to the balcony later?” she asked as the song came to an end, holding onto his arm just a moment longer than necessary. “They say the night sky is lovely from the Jorcastle Estate.”

He smiled down at her, indulging as always. “I think we can manage to slip away if we keep it brief enough.”

“Perhaps we should split up then? I’ll make my rounds and meet you there.”

“How long do you need?”

“Lynna’s been glaring at me all night. I can slip away as soon as she’s had her attempt at challenging me.”

Zoe’s eyes trailed her body in the lovely purple dress he’d bought her and there was no doubt in his mind, “You’ll win easily.”

She did, of course. It took some time for her to make her rounds, and he watched with admiration as she maintained her composure during Lynna’s approach. He still remembered the days when she would get nervous about Lynna, and he never understood why. There was no comparison between the two.

By the time she was sneaking away to the balcony, he was already there waiting. She practically threw herself into his arms, sighing in relief as he held her close.

“You always smell so nice,” she muttered, nuzzling into his chest.

He chuckled at her admission, inwardly pleased to hear it. “I hope so. I’m your alpha, after all.”

“I never get to be this close. It’s different.”

It felt like permission for him to take a deep breath too, and so he did, nosing at her neck as he gripped her just a bit more firmly. “It is different. Intoxicating.” Before he could think better of it, he kissed her neck, her entire body trembling in his arms. “This is where I’ll mark you.”

“Zoe…”

His lips trailed over her scent gland, nipping at it just enough for her to shudder once more. “You want that, don’t you? Crave it, even.”

“I do.”

“Your scent is getting stronger. You know what has to happen for the bond to stick, don’t you? You’re thinking about it.” She nodded into his chest, and goddess, he was thinking about it too. When they’d agreed to meet on the balcony, this had been the furthest thing from his mind, but there was no turning back now. His cock was hard in his slacks, and he was sure she could feel it with how close she was pressed against him. “I’ll bury myself inside you—claim you in every possible way until you’re begging me for more.”

“Your knot,” she whispered, the vulgar word sounding so sexy coming from her innocent lips.

“I won’t be able to hold back when you ask me for it.” He nipped at her neck again, sure this was going too far but not able to give a damn. Not when she was rubbing her body against his, grinding their hips together unconsciously. “You’d let me take you right here and now, wouldn’t you?”

“Please, Alpha…”

He inhaled sharply, her words going straight to his cock. How long had it taken her to call him by his name, and now she freely called him Alpha? “There’s little I wouldn’t give you if you just ask, my pretty little omega.”

“I don’t want to wait anymore. I want to be yours.”

Zoe’s fingers dug into her hips, his mind reeling as he desperately tried to see reason. The hem of her dress was so short tonight…it’d be too easy to let himself out of his slacks, bend her over the balcony, and give her everything she wanted. She wasn’t actually asking for that though. Not yet.

Maybe someday they’d indulge each other at one of these balls, but it wouldn’t be this night.

--

He’d always hated weddings, especially his own. Back then, he remembered it all too clearly. He and Christie had already had Balfey, and the whole thing was just a formality. She’d made him promise not to lose his temper after the ceremony, knowing the celebratory ball that followed would be filled with gossip and lies about their ‘improper’ behavior prior to the wedding. It had been a miracle that he hadn’t snapped at anyone that night, the urge to defend his family nearly too strong to reel in.

This wedding was miserable for a variety of different reasons. Namely, he and Magda were finally wed in a respectable manner and they still couldn’t be together quite yet. Her mother was glued to her side, the pair making rounds to thank their guests while Zoe had to stand idly by as their guests approached him. Some complimented him on a lovely ceremony, others on a lovely bride. Some even compared this wedding to his last, which he didn’t appreciate in the least.

Truly, this night couldn’t end fast enough.

“I’m impressed you held out so long,” Duke Sakan said, nudging him like they were old friends. Maybe they were. The man had come all the way back to Finsel just to attend their ceremony. “Beauty like hers is difficult to find.”

“I didn’t marry her for her beauty. She’s my true mate.”

“I never took you to be a romantic.”

“It’s not a romantic notion—it’s a fact.”

“Yes, well, I trust you’ll remember my role in all this when the time is right,” the Langwon told him, clearly referring to his patronage. “A Sakan and Olineaux alliance would be unstoppable. And you know your lovely wife has the Jorcastle’s support as well. We could take down the Bavlenka’s for good.”

“I’ve little interest in social games.”

Langwon let out a dramatic sigh, though he didn’t appear to care too much. “I suppose there’s little of interest here in Finsel then.”

“You’ll be leaving again?”

“Of course. The world awaits me, my friend.”

“Perhaps I’ll take Magda out of the city.”

“Ah, if I may be so bold, then—Raycora is lovely this time of year.”

Zoe hummed in acknowledgment, not surprised Langwon would have a recommendation. It was probably a good one, too, though he had little intention of taking his bride anywhere until their bond settled. She’d want to be here for now—somewhere surrounded by familiar scents and scenery.

He watched her from across the room, eyes narrowing as she paid her thanks to Barris Sakan. That man…he never missed an opportunity to ask Magda to dance, and tonight was no exception. He was always a step closer than Zoe preferred, and this time he had the nerve to whisper something into her ear as they parted.

“My brother means no harm,” Langwon reasoned, a hand on Zoe’s shoulder. “She’s enticing. You can hardly blame him for looking.”

“Looking and touching are two different things.”

“Your rut must be near if you’re thinking so irrationally.”

“That’s not your business,” Zoe grumbled, glaring at his old friend. “She’s my wife now. It’s natural that I wouldn’t want another alpha breathing down her throat.”

“He was saying his parting words to her as a former suitor. It’s tradition to say farewell on the wedding night.”

“She never accepted him as a suitor.”

“Perhaps not. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying. Relax, Zoe.”

“I am relaxed.”

“Do try to be gentle with her tonight. I’d hate for you to break our delicate flower in the midst of your rut haze.”

Zoe scoffed, glaring at the man as he walked away. As if he could ever hurt Magda, rut or not. Even if his mind was clouded, his body wouldn’t do anything to harm his mate. Plus, his rut wasn’t actually due for another two weeks.

Magda was by his side a moment later, concern etched on her brow like she could sense his displeasure. “I could feel your eyes on me from across the room. What’s wrong?”

“The Sakan Family.”

“Oh?” she laughed softly. “I thought you and the duke were friends?”

“We get along best when he’s out of the city.”

“That’s a strange friendship.”

“And what of your friendship with Barris?”

“What do you mean?”

“He held you too close,” Zoe told her, not giving a damn how petulant he sounded. Surely he was allowed some jealousy on his wedding night. “What did he whisper to you?”

“He wished us luck.”

“Is that all?”

Magda blinked, clearly confused. “Yes.”

“How long before your mother is appeased? I’m ready to ask everyone to leave.”

“She’s been waiting a long time for this day. I don’t want to ruin her fun.”

“Are you required by her side for this to be fun?”

She stared at him curiously a long moment before answering, “I suppose not.”

“You’re a duchess now,” Zoe continued, a smile growing on his face even as the title made her uncomfortable. It was clear she was a bit shy still—like she could barely believe this was all happening to her. He intended to make it very clear this was all real before the night ended. “If you want to disappear with your husband, there’s nothing scandalous about it. The only question is, do you?”

“Do I?”

“Do you want to disappear with me for the night? Or would you prefer to stay with our guests a while longer?”

“I’d choose you given any option,” Magda responded, an echo of a sentiment she had expressed months back. It warmed his heart to hear it now just as it had back then, her smile washing away any lingering jealousy or uneasiness he’d felt throughout the night. “Let’s go.”

“We can announce our departure, if you prefer.”

“Let my mother make the announcement when she realizes we’re gone.”

Zoe grinned, taking her hand into his own. Public displays of affection were considered impolite on most occasions, but not on a wedding night. He kissed the back of her hand proudly before leading her to the stairs, not giving a single damn who saw them as they ascended together. No doubt there were many eyes on them, but his eyes were on her, and he wouldn’t be swayed to look elsewhere.

“How far do you want this to go tonight?” Zoe wondered, kicking off his shoes and loosening his tie the moment they entered his chambers—or, their chambers now, he supposed. She would be moving into the Olineaux estate promptly, of course. “As long as you’re by my side, it matters little what we do. I’d be happy just lying here with you.”

Magda watched as he shed his suit jacket, a faint blush on her cheeks. There was much she wanted, no doubt, but getting her to say it would be trickier from this distance. It was only when he had her in his arms and his scent was putting her at ease that she felt like she could say anything ‘improper’. Still, he wanted to hear it—to hear her consent without relying on their proximity to make it happen.

“It’s okay to speak your desires, Magda. We’re married now, in the privacy of our own chambers.”

“I know, but…”

“I’d like to unlace your gown—to watch it fall to the floor as I pull you into my arms,” Zoe told her, unbuttoning his dress shirt with practiced patience. It was easiest to hold back if he kept his hands busy. “To see what you’re wearing underneath before removing that as well.”

“Zoe!”

Her face was bright red, but he’d only just begun. “Just the thought has gotten me aroused,” he confessed, sure that she could smell it in the air. He watched as her eyes flickered down the obvious bulge in his pants, emboldened by her reaction. Visibly, not much happened, but he could smell her own arousal stirring in the air. The scent of his omega’s slick, sweet and inviting. “I need you to tell me, my pretty little omega. What do you want tonight?”

“I want your mark.”

“You know what that entails.”

“I want it all, Alpha. Please.”

He hummed thoughtfully, finally shedding his shirt and taking a step closer. “Your mother’s downstairs, and so are all our guests. We can wait if that bothers you.”

“We’ve waited long enough,” she insisted, frozen in position as she watched his every move.

He was torn between her words and her actions, debating how to proceed. She would bear his mark by morning—there was no holding back when she was looking at him like that. But that didn’t mean he was so impatient that he had to jump to that point now.  He moved toward her decisively, leaning down to capture her lips without delay.

They’d only ever shared stolen kisses—quick pecks at the balls when they were able to sneak onto the balconies or away from prying eyes while he was courting her. This time he intended to savor her, hands roaming her back and tugging at the strings of her gown. It was almost ironic that something that she took so much time getting into could come off so easily, sliding down and pooling at her feet. His tongue slid into her mouth as she gasped, meeting hers as his hands continued to roam the bare skin of her back.

She wasn’t wearing much underneath, the thin fabric of her slip barely covering her. It didn’t take long before his actions emboldened her, her hands trailing down his chest and toward the button on his slacks. He’d left them on intentionally, not wanting to overwhelm her or pressure her even if they both knew where this night was going.

By the time she had them undone, he’d untied her slip as well, not breaking away from their kiss even when all he wanted to do was step back and look at her uncovered body for the first time. She was trembling in his embrace, and he didn’t want that—he didn’t want her to feel nervous at all. He hoisted her up before she could push his pants down, ignoring the whine she let out as he carried her to the bed.

“All in due time,” he whispered against her, trailing his lips down from her ear to her throat as she held onto him.

He laid her down there, hovering over her body and trying desperately to ignore the ache of his cock. The last thing he wanted to do was pull his slacks down and thrust right in, even if he could smell she was slick enough to take it.

His omega had only gone through one heat. She knew nothing about pleasure yet, and he intended to show her before claiming his own.

“You’re beautiful,” he told her, finally allowing his eyes to wander her bare body. The word felt insufficient, but it would have to do until he could show her just how attractive he found her. She was adorably flustered again, reaching to pull him back for a kiss—likely so that he would stop looking at her. “You’ve nothing to be shy about, love.”

“It’s hard not to feel shy when you’re looking at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like…that,” she responded, gesturing her hand.

“Like I want you, desperately?”

“Like you don’t know what to do with me.”

“Well, there are a lot of options,” Zoe ventured, winking before she could huff at him. “I want to make you feel things you’ve never felt before.”

“You already do.”

“It will be more than that. More intense.”

“Why won’t you take your slacks off then?”

“If they were off, I’d be inside you already,” he admitted, rutting his hips down and groaning as she met his thrust.

“Would that be so bad?”

“I’m an old man, Magda. I won’t last very long,” he deadpanned, only cracking a grin as her light laughter filled the room. That meant she was relaxing, which was good. “Let me please you.”

She whined again as he nipped at her neck but offered no protest, instead running her hands freely on his body as he continued to do as he pleased. His lips trailed lower this time, kissing her collarbone as he let his hands wander more freely. They circled her breasts, pinching at her nipples lightly before swooping in to kiss her lips once more. It was brief this time, her body arching up as he rutted down again.

Maybe speeding things up wouldn’t be so bad. They had a lifetime to explore one another, after all.

He kissed down her body, tongue circling her nipple as his hand circled her sex. He gathered some of her slick with his fingers before circling back up to her clitoris, biting down gently on her nipple as she gasped. The sound was addictive, and he continued to chase after it, his fingers relentless as her little moans became more frequent.

“You don’t need to be so quiet,” he urged.

“They may hear.”

“They may hear what? The sound of a married pair mating in their own home? So what? Let them hear and know you’re mine.”

His words seemed to spur her on, her next moan almost obscene compared to the last. It left him throbbing, sliding a finger into her as he continued to stroke her clit. Goddess he needed to be inside her, the tightness on his finger a promise of the pleasure he’d soon feel.

He began kicking off his slacks as he continued to thrust his finger inside her, patience be damned. She was on the edge, and he was ready to follow her anywhere. Another finger joined the first, his thumb circling her clit nonstop.

“Zoe, please,” she begged, her voice desperate. “I need you.”

“Don’t hold back, Magda. Let me see you come.”

He watched in fascination as his lovely omega lost control, throwing her head back and letting out an uninhibited moan. Her walls were constricting against his fingers as he coaxed the orgasm out of her, her entire body trembling through it. It wasn’t until she was laying there panting, looking up at him with dazed eyes that he knew she’d truly finished, and that was when he removed his fingers.

As much as he wanted to keep teasing her, it just wasn’t going to happen. Not until he was buried inside her and she was begging for more.

“I’d intended to taste you first,” he said, his tone almost apologetic as he ran the head of his cock over her slick entrance. It was too wet—too warm and inviting to wait. He raised the fingers that had been inside her to his lips, licking them clean as she watched him with a flushed face. “This will have to do for now.”

“You don’t have to—”

“I want to. You taste sweet, Magda,” he told her, groaning as he savored every bit of her. To think, she was this wet because of him. His fingers had literally been dripping, her sweet scent saturating the air. “I’ll have my mouth on you next time.”

He dipped down to kiss her, his cock aching at her entrance as the last of his patience began to dissolve. “Zoe,” she whispered into his lips. “Take me.”

Who was he to deny such a request?

He bit his own lip as he eased himself in, holding onto every ounce of refrain he had in his body. All he wanted to do was slam in and take her, to thrust to the hilt before pulling back and doing it over and over again, but he knew better than that with a virgin omega. She needed time to adjust, if only for a minute, so instead he worked his way in slowly, moaning every inch of the way until he was fully sheathed.

Goddess, she felt amazing. Hot and tight, clenching around him in a way that left him breathless.

 “I’m yours, Zoe,” she told him, breathing strained and eyes hooded. “You don’t need to hold back.”

“Be careful what you ask for, omega,” he warned, pulling back just enough to thrust in lightly. She clenched down around him again and this time he growled, the alpha in him slowly coming to the surface.

“M—more. Again,” Magda pleaded.

“I won’t be able to hold back.”

“So don’t.”

Zoe held her hips firmly as he began to thrust into her, brows furrowed as he attempted to pace himself. It became more and more difficult with each thrust into that tight, wet heat, and soon slow and steady became forgotten entirely. It took all the air from him, only moans escaping his lips as he continued to bury himself into his mate.

She didn’t seem to have any objections either, her legs tightening around him. After a few minutes she was jerking up to meet him thrust for thrust, crying out as his thick, hot shaft slammed into her.

“Please,” she begged, the word barely coherent.

“Please what?”

“Please, Alpha.”

Not what he was looking for, but he slammed into her at the plea, her quivering walls nearly too much to bear. He could feel the base of his cock swelling and he knew it was almost time. He leaned down, kissing her fiercely as his body kept her pinned. This time she kissed him back with equal fervor, moaning into his mouth without refrain as he continued to fuck into her.

If this was what she was like on her first time, he couldn’t wait to take her again. The innocent omega he had taken to bed was already gone, and he knew this was just the start of her awakening—no doubt his mate would be a very demanding one in the bedroom once her shyness was gone entirely. She was already writhing beneath him, her gasps needy every time he rubbed right against her clit.

This time he didn’t need to tell her to let go, groaning as his cock pushed her over the edge on its own. The feeling was too much, her walls clenching down and twitching around him.

“Please,” she said, pulling his head down toward her neck instinctively as her legs wrapped around his waist—as if she needed to do that to keep him in place.

He kissed her scent gland as his knot began to swell, his thrusts now limited as she continued to quiver around him. He latched onto her neck as his load shot inside her, knowing this was exactly what she had been asking him for. His teeth broke the skin easily, marking her as his own as he continued to pump his cum into her willing body. The pleasure almost became blinding in that moment, their worlds connecting irrevocably.

“You’re mine now.”

“I already was,” she reminded him, a content look on her face as he stared down fondly.

Zoe hummed in agreement, shuffling onto his side as best he could in their current situation. Next time he would take her from behind; it was always easier to cuddle after that way.

"I don't know how I stayed away from you so long," he mused, chuckling softly at the very idea of it now.

"I don't either. I'm just glad you changed your mind."

Their worlds were blurred due to the bond they now shared, feelings of love and affection flowing endlessly between them. Just like Magda wasn't the delicate flower Langmon Sakan described, their bond wasn't so fragile either. Maybe because they'd taken the time to build on it themselves before jumping to this point—he wasn't certain. All he knew for sure was that he wouldn't change a damn thing that happened between them so long as it brought him right back to this moment.