~ Adam gives Isabelle his library ~
“Close your eyes, ma belle.”
Strong hands cupped either side of her face. She felt as Adam’s thumbs tentatively brushed back and forth, stroking her cheeks in reverent caresses. Isabelle shut her eyes and slipped beneath his spell… leaned closer in the darkness until they stood heartbeat to heartbeat. The warmth of his breaths teased her hairline, bringing with them a minty scent. His thumbs descended to just below her chin. She lowered her face… felt a featherlight kiss land on her brow. It happened so subtly and gently—Isabelle wasn’t sure whether she’d imagined it.
She was allowing herself to feel too much. A stab of guilt penetrated her chest as her thoughts crept inward. Yet instincts told her to trust in her gut—to allow her heart to speak over her tumultuous thoughts. So she shoved away her guilt and allowed herself to simply feel.
Pounding footfalls echoed in the room, attesting to its sheer size. Isabelle waited in anticipation under the veil of darkness, her small hands knotted in Stranger’s wiry coat. The steady beat of Adam’s boots floated away from her. A loud whipping noise and a burst of light illuminated the room as he tugged a heavy damask curtain aside.
“Open your eyes, Isabelle.”
She did as he commanded. Shafts of sunlight tore inside, dancing across the marble floor in blaring prisms—though the darkness still obstructed the room’s contents. Isabelle’s imagination soared as she fantasized about what lay in those clotted shadows. Pale light fringed Adam’s formidable shape, contrasting his silhouette against the dim atmosphere.
He paused in front of the opened window and folded both arms behind his ramrod-straight back. Isabelle gazed at the line of his body, unable to tear her eyes away. Indeed, light from the window set him aglow, shrouding him in a cloak of gold. He wore black trousers and a white silk shirt, which fluttered lightly when he moved. Over the past several days, he’d made a habit of abandoning the cloak and hood. Isabelle had become accustomed to the mismatched sides of his face; where she once felt horror and revulsion, she now tingled with curiosity and budding admiration. Alas, the only true revulsion that remained was the memory of that night…
Adam was an undeniably prideful man, and she knew he’d only scorn her pity. Even his stance exuded a sense of importance and authority. Strange, how he was so often shy and almost childlike; then, as if by a flip of a coin, he’d turn regal, confident. It was as though he was battling two separate halves… as if an intricate part of himself kept fighting to emerge.
Not unlike the two contrasting sides of his face, Isabelle mused.
For a suspended moment, he stood in front of the conservatory window, his scarred hands planted on his lean hips as he surveyed the distant gardens. Then he crossed the room, his footfalls amplified by the medallion flooring, and thrust open another curtain.
Whoosh. Light flooded the space and chased away the shadows, and the room’s contents were ushered into view.
Isabelle nearly lost her breath at the sight.
It was a beautiful library—the most stunning sight she’d ever beheld. Ornate, intricately carved shelves towered against the painted walls and reached for a gilded ceiling. A baroque chandelier hung in the heart of the room; its crystals sparkled like diamonds as they drank in morning’s light. Isabelle fought to temper her racing heart as she gaped at the sweeping shelves. An intimate reading nook lined a curved window; lush pillows decorated the chaise, and a brass candelabra towered beside it.
In all her life, she’d never seen so many books. There were far too many to count. Too many books to read in one lifetime. Isabelle couldn’t help but think of the little storekeeper from Ruillé’s bookshop; she imagined his astonishment, how his bushy white brows would rise at the sight of Adam’s vast library. He’d run his wrinkled fingertips over the bindings and spines, reverently caressing each one. Her heart twisted with nostalgia at the thought of her former home. Once Raphael had entered her life, however, Ruillé had transformed into a prison.
This castle should have been just that. A jail cell. Yet she’d never felt more free than in that moment.
The library was larger than her whole cottage; several book-filled rooms connected to it, each one built with floor-to-ceiling shelves. Three sliding ladders were nestled against the circular walls, soaring to the very top of the domed ceiling.
She spun on her heels, twirling in place—watching as the immense collection flurried by in a fantastic mosaic of colorful spines and intricate woodwork.
Her eyes planted on Adam, who stood in front of the large row of glowing, arched windows. His arms were still folded behind his body, his sleek back straighter than an arrow. She couldn’t find her voice, couldn’t move forward, although she ached to reach out and embrace his solid body.
How would it feel to be enveloped inside that commanding strength?
A devastating smile spread across his misshapen features and cut her thought short. He ran a shaky hand through his hair, which was highlighted by the sun’s rays, and then hesitantly strode toward her. His boots rapped against the floor, and the sound swelled through the library. Stranger barked as he approached, the loud noise echoing in the room and jarring Isabelle from her trance.
“Do… do you like it?”
Finally he stood before her, silent and still. Isabelle inhaled a long breath, then laid her palm on the left side of his face. Her fingertips danced over the raised ridges and welts, the reddish scars and shriveled ear. His eyes shuttered closed, and she felt a shudder rake through his tense body.
“Yes. I love it.” And I’m starting to fall in love with you, too…