One Step Ahead Ch 10
Read from the beginning here!
“You’re in?” Aelin stared at him suspiciously. “Just like that?”
Rowan nodded, not trusting himself yet to speak.
Aelin opened her mouth, then closed it quickly. She looked like she wanted to push him further, learn what his motives were. But, deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, instead she said, “Well then. Let’s get to work.”
Rowan and Aelin re-entered the manor side by side. He was relieved by her lack of questions, unsure how he’d handle any more scrutiny tonight.
When they returned, it looked like no one had moved an inch. There were no open seats left in the room—and even if there were, Rowan would never put himself in such a compromising position—so he leaned against a wall instead. Looking around at the rag tag force Aelin had managed to muster together, he pursed his lips and asked, “So what’s the plan?”
Clearing his throat, Athril leaned forward. “The only way we’ll even have a shot at putting Maeve away is if we have hard evidence putting her in the house the night of the murder.”
Looking over at Aelin, Rowan raised a brow. Sounds easy enough to me, he told her. You’d just have to testify.
Noticing their exchange, Arthil shook his head. “I can’t put Aelin on the stand. For starters she was only a child when it happened. Any good lawyer will argue she misremembered Maeve being there that night, or thought it was Maeve when it was someone else. And then of course there’s the fact that Aelin Galathynius is still considered a missing person.” He rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced. “The only form of identification she has is as Celaena Sardothian.”
“So we’d just have to prove she’s Aelin,” Rowan shrugged. “That can’t be too hard. We’d just have to match her DNA to a sample of her parents.”
“Or to mine,” Aedion shrugged. “Your mom was an Ashryver, so that’d work, right?”
“Look,” Athril snapped, “I’m not putting Adarlan’s Assassin on the stand. I’m taking a big enough gamble as it is. If someone leaks your identity as a wanted killer then we’ll be laughed out of court.” Looking around the room, daring anyone to object, he said, “We need to do this without Aelin.”
“Then tell us what we should do,” the old man in the chair said calmly, though the young man behind him looked like he was ready to start throwing punches.
Aelin stepped forward, her eyes zoned in on Rowan’s, “We need someone on the inside. Someone who can gather intel and evidence.”
Rowan lifted his chin, and Aelin nodded.
“No one is perfect,” Athril continued. “Maeve may have an army of killers and cleaners at her disposal, but there’s got to be a misstep somewhere.”
Westfall raised his hand, as if he were in class about to ask a question, “I’ll keep reviewing the old case files and see if any of the neighbors or staff have anything new to add.”
“This was personal, too,” Faliq added quietly. To the untrained eye, she looked bored as she stared blankly ahead of her. But Rowan could see the intensity behind her eyes. She was planning something. “Maeve might have kept a memento, or a keepsake.”
Aelin walked over to where Rowan stood, looked into his green eyes for a long moment, then reached out for his hand. His fist was clenched, but it wasn’t until Aelin’s fingers pushed his apart that he realized how tightly he’d been holding onto the ring. “I know this is a lot to ask,” Aelin said quietly, too quietly for anyone else to hear. “But you’re the only person who Maeve trusts enough. If I give this to you, if I trust you to take it to her,” the golden ring in her eyes flashed, “can I trust you to help us?”
Heart stuttering in his chest, Rowan couldn’t tear his gaze away no matter how hard he tried. She was trusting him. This girl who had been betrayed so many times—by her family, by Arobynn, by her friends—and she was trusting him. Suddenly the ring in his hand felt much too heavy.
Curling his hand around hers, the ring locked between their grasp, Rowan nodded. You can trust me.
Aelin’s eyes softened. Good, they said.
“Good job, cuz,” Aedion said, standing up suddenly and coming to sling an arm around Aelin, “Sounds like you’ve got everything covered.”
“Not everything,” Havilliard chimed in. Everyone looked back at him. “How do you plan on regaining your family’s fortunes once this is all over?”
Grinning slyly, Aelin said, “You don’t have to worry about that.”
More than mildly concerned, Rowan narrowed his eyes at the young assassin, but didn’t ask. This wasn’t the time or the place.
Rolling his eyes, Havilliard pressed, “Fine, but then what about back up? If Maeve finds out what we’re up to before we get to trial, or tries to off us during trial, we need to be ready, and like Athril said, she has an army of killers.”
“The police will protect us,” Westfall said, so confident and sincere.
Faliq snorted, drawing Westfall’s glare. She raised her hands to signal peace. “Look, the police might protect some of us but definitely not all of us.”
“And some of us don’t need protection,” Aedion grinned, his face almost identical to the one Aelin made earlier but with a touch more teeth. “Besides, we’ve got the Bane to back us.”
Havilliard hummed. Then, ever so delicately, he pulled out his phone and began to type. “If you say so.”
“Hey,” Aedion frowned, “who’re you texting?”
Looking over his shoulder, Westfall sighed and shook his head, “He’s just on Tindr.”
Faliq slapped a hand over her eyes and Aelin laughed.
“What is Tindr?” The old man asked.
Shaking his head, the young man behind him patted him on his shoulder, “I’ll tell you tomorrow, grandpa. It’s late though, let’s get you to bed.” He looked up at Aelin, “We’re done for tonight, right?”
“Yeah, Ren,” Aelin nodded. “Thanks for letting us crash here.”
Rolling his eyes, his responded blithely, “Anytime.”
Once Ren and the old man, Rowan looked around the room. There were only a couple of couches and he didn’t see any blankets or pillow. Holding back a grimace, he resigned himself to a night on the hard floor. “So who’s taking first shift?”
“No one,” Aelin answered him, opening a closet door and pulling out some blankets and pillows. “This house may look like its about to fall over, but Ren’s done a good job with the security system.”
Havilliard got up and stretched. “Besides,” he yawned, “I need my eight hours or else I’m useless come morning.”
Rowan had to wonder if the mayor’s son was truly ever useful.
“Come on, Chaol,” the dark-haired man called over his shoulder as he headed for the door.
“I’ll come up in a few minutes,” Westfall went to follow, pulling out his phone, “I just need to call Yrene first.”
Faliq snorted, “A few minutes—yeah, right.” She went to follow them out. “You two have never had a conversation shorter than two hours.”
Sputtering, the police officer blushed a ruddy red, “That’s just—we have a lot to catch up on, okay?”
And then Rowan was alone with the cousins.
Aelin pulled the cushions off one of the couches, throwing them all about the room without a care. Looking at Aedion, Rowan raised a brow.
Aedion sneered back. “What she we do with the Cleaner? Everywhere’s full.” And you’re not bunking with me, his eyes practically screamed.
Crossing his arms, Rowan silently replied, I’m heartbroken.
“He’ll sleep down here with me,” Aelin said simply.
Rowan blinked, looking back at the young assassin and watching her pull on a handle to bring out a pull-out bed.
“What?” Aedion barked, his brows raised. “But he could—”
“What?” Aelin repeated, standing straight to look at her cousin. Placing a hand on her hip, she continued, “Try to kill me? If he’s going to try anything like that then it’s best he’s near me.” Her blue eyes locked onto his green ones. Try anything buzzard and I’ll end you.
Rowan’s eyes narrowed, I’d expect nothing less.
“Now go on,” Aelin shooed Aedion out of the room. “You still have to check in on the Bane.”
Obviously unhappy with the situation, Aedion gave Rowan once last glare before heading out.
When Aelin turned back to him, he cleared his throat, “I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“Yeah, you will,” she tossed him a couple blankets.
They spent the rest of the time preparing their beds in silence. Aelin kept trying to fluff up her pillow with no luck.
Laying down on his back, Rowan made sure both Aelin and the room’s entrance were within his eyeline. He didn’t really think Aelin would try to slit his throat in his sleep—she could have done that easily in the car—but there were too many people underneath this roof for him to let his guard down even an inch.
Sighing, Aelin gave up on her pillow and flopped onto her back. “What do you say, buzzard?” She asked, “Light on or off?”
“On,” he replied easily.
Aelin snorted but then rolled over, facing away from him. Staring up at the ceiling, Rowan thought of what tomorrow would bring. He and Aelin would return to the city and part ways. She’d return to her shadows and he would return to Maeve with her ring. He wondered how she’d react. Would she be happy? Would she celebrate him and praise him?
Lorcan would be furious. Connall too, probably. Vaughan wouldn’t care, fully expecting Rowan’s return. Fenrys would make a joke, most likely calling Rowan an errand boy or something equally trivial. Gavriel though, he’d smile kindly and raise a glass in Rowan’s honor.
Chest tightening, Rowan thought of how they’d react once they learned of his betrayal. The six of them had been together for years now. They’d fought together, killed together, helped each other survive. They were a cadre. And even though Gavriel was the only one Rowan could safely call his friend, he would miss them.
He’d been relieved, earlier, when Aelin hadn’t pushed him for a motive. If she had, Rowan didn’t know what he’d say. That he knew what it was like to lose someone you loved? That if he could he’d tear the people responsible apart with his bare hands? No, he shook his head, dispelling the thoughts of a soft smile turned bloody, of dark eyes looking vacantly up at him. Swallowing thickly, Rowan took a deep breath.
“Rowan?” Aelin’s voice, so soft and quiet, called out to him. Rowan blinked, having thought she’d fallen asleep already. “I,” she paused. Then, “Thank you.”
Brows furrowing, he asked, “For what?”
Aelin turned over but didn’t look him in the eyes. “For believing me. For helping me.” Finally, her blue and gold eyes met his, and something inside Rowan’s chest loosened. “Thank you.”
Rowan held her gaze for a few moments longer, then he nodded.
Turning over again, Aelin’s breathing soon evened out. Rowan wasn’t sure if she were truly asleep or if she were just pretending to be and found himself not caring. Closing his eyes, Rowan listened to the rhythmic beating of his heart and let it lull him into a light sleep.
He woke up a few times in the night. First because Westfall was trying to find his way in the dark to what Rowan could only guess was the kitchen for some water. Then around midnight Aedion snuck in to check in on him. The third time was just as the sun was cresting over the horizon, and it was because Aelin rolled over to get out of bed and the mattress creaked.
Looking over at him with a wince, Aelin whispered, “Sorry.”
Dragging a hand down his face, Rowan shook his head, “It’s fine.” He should get up anyway. They had a long day ahead of them. “Any chance I can take a hot shower?”
Aelin nodded, “Yeah,” she stretched, showing a bit of skin along her belly. “The bathroom upstairs works fine.”
Pursing his lips, Rowan was more than a little suspicious at Aelin’s words but left the room all the same. In the light of day, the house looked even worse. Rowan could see scorch marks along the stairs and was pretty sure there was mold growing in the hallway. To his surprise, though, the bathroom was completed rehabilitated with white tile, stainless steel faucets, and even a glass shower. Frowning around at the room, he tried to figure out why this one room was perfectly up to date and untouched by the decay that plagued the rest of the house. Knowing there really wasn’t time to dive into that mystery, Rowan quickly disrobed and jumped into the shower, thanking whatever gods existed for the scalding hot water that came from the pipes.
After finishing, Rowan put his clothes back on and then found some mouthwash to swish in his mouth. Feeling more like a human, he headed back downstairs and found Aelin, Havilliard, and Aedion in the kitchen.
It was surprising to find the mayor’s son up and awake so early. According to his sources, the modern-day prince liked to live a life of luxury and rarely got out of bed before ten.
“Still alive, huh?” Aedion grunted around a mouth full of toast.
Ignoring the pup, Rowan asked Aelin, “What time are we leaving?”
Buttering her own slice of toast, Aelin shrugged, “Once everyone’s up and ready. Before noon. I want to make sure we have on last check in.”
Nodding, Rowan grabbed what he hoped was a clean mug from a cabinet and filled it with coffee. He was just about to sit down when a knock came at the front door.
The room snapped to attention.
“What the hell?” Aedion snarled.
The person knocked again. Louder this time. Footsteps were heavy and frantic overhead.
Havilliard, looking much too relaxed, took a sip of his coffee and asked, “Should someone answer that?”
“That’s not our knock,” Aelin answered, pulling a pair steak knife out from a drawer and handing one to Rowan. “Bane?” She asked her cousin.
Shaking his head, Aedion looked at his phone. “No one could’ve gotten past them.”
Barreling down the stairs, Westfall ran into the room with wide eyes and a gun in his hand. “What’s happening? Are we being attacked?”
The knock turned into a slam, the person on the other side obviously not happy about being left waiting.
“Oh fine,” Havilliard sighed. And then, with a surprising burst of speed, he slipped past the four of them and bee lined it for the door. “I’ll see who it is.”
“Dorian!” Westfall hissed. He reached for his friend but was too late.
Opening the door without a care in the world, Havilliard greeted the stranger. “You’re just in time!”
“What,” Chaol took in a deep breath before continuing, “the fuck, Dorian?”
Rowan stepped forward to see a young woman standing across from Dorian. Her hair was whiter than snow and she barred her teeth at them in an iron-like smile.
“Rutting hell,” Aedion swore, looking pale.
Aelin stepped forward, a glare on her face, and said, “Manon.”
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this was solely inspired by the lyric “with you i’d dance in a storm in my best dress, fearless.” go taylor for inspiring writing. and you all thought i would go straight for the angst.
for one word prompts someone also submitted wedding and storm and white which are all included in this one so i’m counting that as a success.
masterlist // rowaelin // 5285 words // follow @highqueenofelfhamewrites and turn on post notifs. i might be doing away with tags soon. kinda over it lol. love u xoxo
Rowan Whitethorn wasn’t sure how many times he had heard his fiancée say the words I just want it to be perfect regarding their upcoming wedding.
At the bare minimum, it was once a day as she flopped onto the couch with a sigh about one thing or another going wrong. The caterers she initially wanted to go with couldn’t feed that many people because they were too small of a company or that the cost of flowers was way more than she had initially budgeted. Her patience was thin, and the vendors weren’t getting back with her as quickly as she hoped in some cases, and Rowan had to spend a half-hour de-escalating her stress.
She wasn’t always like this. Most of the time, she could roll with the punches. If something went wrong, it was fine. When Rowan had stepped on the hem of her prom dress senior year and tore the skirt from the bodice as they were going to leave her house, and Aelin had laughed about it. At that point in his life, or even now as a twenty-nine-year-old man, he couldn’t think of any eighteen-year-old girl that would laugh about a ruined prom dress. But Aelin had, flouncing back upstairs to change into the gown she’d worn for homecoming instead.
No, Aelin’s obsession with everything being perfect was new. Rowan couldn’t help but feel like it was primarily because of their family and friends. Rowan also thought it had something to do with her parents having passed away when she was in college. She didn’t have a mother to guide her through the ins and outs of a wedding. Aelin didn’t really have any parental figures to guide her through it. Rowan didn’t, either. Everything they did, they pulled from wedding magazines and articles. They’d watched a hundred episodes of wedding planning reality television. Both of them kind of hated it, but neither of them really had anywhere else to turn.
There was a bizarre amount of pressure to have a perfect wedding day where everything went off without a hitch. Lysandra was constantly muttering about perfect centerpieces and perfect cakes, perfect glassware, and perfect napkins. It made it all feel like it mattered so much more than it probably did. Like the napkins weren’t going to end up in the trash at the end of the night anyway. Why did it matter if they were monogrammed and memorable or not? People would be wiping their mouths with it or cleaning up spilled wine.
With all of the pressure surrounding the big day, it was easy to see how some women slipped into a bridezilla persona. Not that she was a bridezilla— Aelin would set him on fire if he uttered the word to her. She was just being so much more particular about everything involving the wedding than Rowan ever really thought she would be. From flowers to alterations, from catering to place cards, she was neck-deep in details and planning— and getting a little too obsessed with all of it. Aelin didn’t see anything as a bigger picture anymore. Everything was seen through a very magnified microscope, every detail blown up times ten.
So when her photo began flashing on the screen of his phone as it buzzed against his glass of whiskey on the table, Rowan hadn’t been all that surprised.
“Fireheart,” he said warmly. Affection oozed from every syllable, and she sighed on the other end of the line. It was quiet for a few seconds, so he added, “What’s wrong, baby?”
“Can we just elope?”
“We’ve already spent so much money that I don’t think that would be wise, but I will run away with you right now if that’s what you want to do.” And he would. Rowan would flush tens of thousands of dollars down the drain if it made this woman happy. He would do absolutely anything if it made her smile for half a second. Aelin was definitely his kryptonite. He definitely didn’t care.
“It’s just so much stress that I feel like I’m going to implode. Lysandra has been throwing up all morning; Dorian has a hickey from Fenrys the size of a silver-fucking-dollar that the makeup artist can’t seem to cover. Like what kind of sucker-fish ass bullshit is that? Did I need to mention that I didn’t want hickeys in my bridal photos? Because he’s about to be booted out of my bridal party, and Fenrys is going to get his ass kicked with a Kingsflame bouquet.”
Rowan’s eyes cut to his best man across the room, who seemed to have an inkling for what was being said about him. He mouthed an apology, and Rowan rolled his eyes, pressing his fingers into his temple as Aelin continued. “I left the rings at home this morning after you told me three times last night to not forget them, and I swore I wouldn’t.” Aelin sighed heavily, and Rowan knew that she was likely rubbing between her eyebrows or gnawing at her lip. Rowan was making a similar gesture, his fingernail scratching at his eyebrow while he debated if he should kick Fenrys’ ass so Aelin wouldn’t have to get her hands dirty. Manicures, as it turned out, were obscenely expensive, and he didn’t want hers to be tarnished with blood.
“What do you need me to do right now, love?” He wasn’t asking because he didn’t know. He knew what she was going to say before she said it. Rowan was simply asking because he knew she’d already sent someone out for the rings, and there was little to nothing he could do about the other hiccups.
“Can you just come here for a minute? You don’t have to see me; I’m not even in my dress yet. Nehemia can blindfold you, and—”
“I’ll be right there.”
With a relieved sigh and a thank you, Aelin hung up. Rowan could imagine her pacing in the suite, staring at her dress and wondering what mishap was going to plague the day next. Rowan adjusted his dark emerald jacket while he left the room, tossing a warning to Fenrys over his shoulder as he slipped out the door.
It was a cloudy day, but neither bride nor groom was too bothered by it. Terrasen had many overcast days that resulted in absolutely nothing. Yesterday had been an example of that. It was basically the blueprint of autumn in Orynth. The photographer had also promised that overcast skies were like nature’s own lighting filter. No, they may not have those stunning golden hour pictures that so many sought after, but the dark and moody feel of their jewel-tone colors would tie in quite nicely with the gloom of the sky. Aelin had seemed at peace with it, knowing that the sun was one thing she couldn’t control.
It took him a handful of minutes to get to the other side of the property. The groom’s suite was far enough away from the bridal suite that Rowan had absolutely no chance of accidentally seeing Aelin through a window from any distance. He would have had to be perched on the highest branch of the tallest tree with the vision of a hawk to see her at all. Rowan didn’t have that. He had contacts in and still found the other side of the room to be a bit blurry most of the time.
Outside, Nehemia was waiting with a tie in her hands. It likely belonged to Aedion or Dorian, the color a rich green that matched Rowan’s suit perfectly. She offered him a small smile, running the tie through her fingers as he came to a stop in front of her.
“How is she?” Rowan inquired, turning so Nehemia could wrap the tie around his head to shield his eyes. Aelin had wanted to keep things traditional the night before their wedding. Rowan had stayed in a hotel last night after taking Aelin back to their apartment as close to midnight as she would allow. Still, she called him two hours later because she couldn’t sleep from nerves and excitement.
“Stressed. Aedion is on his way back with the rings, Lysandra is hungover and dozing on the couch until the ceremony, and Dorian is still in the process of having the hickey covered.” Rowan sighed as Nehemia dropped her hands from his head and placed them on his shoulders, turning him around to guide him into the suite.
As soon as he stepped in, he could smell her perfume. In fact, it was the only warning he had before her body slammed into his and her arms wrapped around him tightly. Rowan chuckled, ducking his head down to place a kiss on the top of her head as she squeezed him tighter, resting her cheek against his chest. Knowing Aelin, she was doing her best to listen to the thumping of his heart. It was her favorite sound, she claimed. It was so steady and soothing that she often fell asleep like this while they lay on the couch.
“Hi, baby,” he said quietly, hands sliding around her back. Rowan knew she was wearing the silky ivory robe she had special ordered for the day, his calloused fingertips catching on the fabric as he ran them up and down her spine. Aelin’s body pressed against his as she rocked up on her toes. Soft lips pressed against Rowan’s once, twice, three times before she dropped back down and laid her head against his chest. “Better?”
“You have no idea,” she murmured, hands sliding beneath his jacket and locking around his waist. “You look so good. You’re so handsome.”
“Are you crying?”
“No,” she sniffled, moving one of her hands from his back. He could tell by the movement that Aelin was wiping at her nose, maybe even the corner of her eyes. It made his lips quirk up into a smirk that he pressed to her hair. “That would be ridiculous and dramatic.”
“You are nothing if not ridiculous and dramatic.” Rowan couldn’t stop the bubble of laughter that burst from his lips as she pinched his side, her own laugh flooding him with relief as it harmonized with his own. The sound made his soul sing a song that only she ever managed to coax from him.
The laugh was short-lived, though. It died off into a sigh as she said, “I just wanted today to be perfect.”
“It will be. I promise.” Aelin hummed in response, her fingers wrapping around his neck to pull him down for another kiss. It was more intimate than her greeting had been, and his hands tightened on her back. The tie of the robe twisted around his fingers as he pulled her closer to him, a soft sigh falling from her lips as his tongue carefully brushed her bottom lip.
Somewhere to Rowan’s left, Dorian cleared his throat, and Aelin pulled her mouth from his. Rowan felt her twist in his arms to look at the interruption, and it was all too easy to imagine her eyebrows raised while she stared him down.
“I get that you two might be into exhibitionism, but none of us consented to this little peep show you’re trying to give.” If Rowan knew his bride-to-be, and he did, her eyes were likely rolling in annoyance as she turned back in his arms. Aelin’s fingers laced on the back of his head, and she kissed him again— softer this time.
“Thank you. I think I just needed to see you and know I hadn’t driven you away with my wedding insanity.” There was a teasing tone to her voice, but Rowan knew she likely wasn’t all that kidding. “You should get back. I need to get dressed.”
“I’ll see you at the end of the aisle?” He asked, pressing a kiss to her mouth that he knew hovered near his. Rowan felt her nod, pieces of her hair catching on his five o’clock shadow she’d begged him not to shave. “Promise?”
“I promise.” Her voice was a whisper, more so a feeling against his mouth as she spoke. Rowan smiled and kissed her a final time before removing his hands from her back. Aelin’s stayed on his sides, turning him and leading him toward the door that she ushered him out of. “Leave the tie on the doorknob.”
“Yes ma’am.” He stepped out into slightly-chilled air, beginning to undo the tie from his eyes, raising his voice slightly to say, “I love you.”
The only response he got was a soft click of the door shutting and Aelin’s bright laughter on the other side.
Rowan had hoped that in the hour leading up to the ceremony, things would be smooth sailing. Aelin had even been laughing as he left, something that proved to be a balm for his soul. But he had received a text from Aedion while Aelin was being zipped into her dress that gave him cause for concern.
>> The petals for the Evangeline aren’t peonies like Aelin wanted. They’re ranunculus. She said it’s fine, but I can’t tell if she means it or if she’s saying it’s fine because she’s Aelin.
Rowan had sighed, pausing to adjust his bow-tie in the mirror before sending back a message asking Aedion to keep an eye on her. At the first sign of distress, he would intervene. Worst case scenario, Rowan would march across the grounds to get back to her before she cried about something as trivial as flower petals. It was not that she would usually fall to pieces over, but Rowan wasn’t putting anything off-limits today. It was Aelin’s perfect day that wasn’t going perfectly, and if his future wife wanted to cry over flower petals, that was fine. But he would try to stop it before she ruined her makeup and cried about that, too.
Aedion hadn’t sent another text, though, which seemed to point to everything being just fine. By the time Rowan had to walk down the aisle in front of their friends and family, he had received no new updates about his bride being upset, and he was glad of it.
His own nerves were starting to settle as he took his place at the front. They were getting married in an outdoor chapel, their guests seated below a canopy of trees on old stumps. The leaves were turning as fall began to roll through Terrasen, the colors of the floral arrangements all greens and burgundies and soft whites pulling in nicely with the elegant stain glass that made up the back wall of the chapel. It hadn’t been what they’d been looking for initially. Until they’d stumbled upon this place in a magazine, Aelin had been fine getting married at Orynth Castle as an homage to her ancestry and the country she loved so fiercely.
But something about the Orynth Legacy Ranch had seemed… perfect. The grounds with its gorgeous florals and twenty-five sprawling acres, with the bridges that overlooked streams, and the reception hall that seemed to have a magic of its own, it was all perfect. So perfect that they didn’t even need to discuss it, not really. They booked their wedding date before they left and hadn’t thought twice about it since.
It was still proving to be the perfect venue as Rowan looked out at their family and friends. Nervously, his fingers fiddled with his watchband while he offered small smiles and waves. The butterflies that he’d managed to keep at bay all day seemed to be in full force now, his stomach doing flips while he tried to imagine what it would feel like to finally see Aelin coming toward him as his bride.
Even as the music started and the bridal party made their way down the aisle, he could think of little else but the lump in his throat at the thought of Aelin coming down next. Aelin, dressed in white, ready to join their lives together. His best friend. His lover. His soulmate. His wife.
Aelin’s entrance song started, and Rowan’s heart rate increased tenfold. He smoothed his sweaty palms over the front of his jacket, doing his best to swallow the knot in his throat that seemed to get tighter with every breath. A thousand thoughts were waging in his mind, all of them centered around his would-be wife. Rowan was absolutely going to cry, and he felt no shame about it.
Except that the song kept playing, and the doors at the end of the walk never opened to reveal his wife-to-be. It became alarming enough after the music started over that everyone exchanged glances between themselves like Rowan had been left at the altar. He knew it wasn’t the case, but he still found himself looking to Dorian.
“Was she okay when you left?”
“She was fine; she was just getting into her shoes when we left. Aedion was helping her with the little buckles,” he explained, shaking his head as Rowan pulled his phone out of his pocket. He managed to get to Aedion’s message, finger hovering over the call button when Fenrys nudged him. Rowan looked at Fenrys first, then followed his gaze. At the end of the aisle, the wooden doors were pulled open to reveal Aedion and Aelin arm in arm.
And Aelin had never been so beautiful.
Rowan would have thought his heart stopped beating if he couldn’t hear it pounding, feel its thundering beneath his ribs. The dress itself was white, as to be expected, and toed the line between sexy and elegant in a way that was so inexplicably Aelin. She would probably hit him for it later, but he didn’t care about the dress. Not really. From where he stood, he couldn’t make out all the details and didn’t care to. Maybe later, when they were alone, and he was running his hands over what looked like lace, perhaps then he would care. But right now, all that mattered was the woman wearing the dress. The way the veil floated behind her while she walked, the way her blue eyes twinkled in the late afternoon light. There had never been someone so beautiful.
Emotionally, he was wrecked. So much that he knelt for a moment as if it would help him catch his breath. The maneuver had Aelin smiling, a tinkling laugh falling from her perfectly painted lips as he righted himself. He hadn’t realized he was crying until Fen nudged him and gave him the pocket square from his suit, the satin quickly darkening in color from his tears. Aelin had a few of her own falling down her cheeks that she wiped away as they came to a stop before Rowan and Rolfe, the officiant and a long-time friend.
Most of the words exchanged were a blur. Aedion passed her hand to his, and Rowan kissed it immediately as she stepped directly in front of him. Aelin was grinning widely, brushing a curl back from her face.
“You’re late,” he whispered, low enough that the microphones in the space wouldn’t pick it up.
“My heel broke,” she whispered back, gathered the bottom of her dress and lifting it so he could see her shoes. Indeed, these were not the pair of heels they had purchased from the mall last week. In their place was a pair of Dr. Martin’s combat boots, white with a thick black sole. Rowan, along with the rest of the audience, laughed. It somehow seemed more perfect this way. Aelin smiled, wiggling her nose while she sniffed back a tear and looked at Rolfe.
In truth, the ceremony was a blur. Rowan stumbled over his vows to the point that his ears were pink and on fire. Aelin’s came out more smoothly, save for when she got choked up halfway through and had to take a deep breath to get through the rest. Rowan pocketed the pieces of paper they had written their vows onto, tucking them inside his jacket pocket. He would keep Aelin’s in his wallet until he died.
By the time they were pronounced husband and wife, and he could kiss his bride, Rowan was dying to have his mouth on hers. It resulted in a deeply passionate kiss, one where he dipped her down, and all their friends cheered them on. Both bride and groom were grinning into the kiss, and as Rowan righted them, he was glad she wasn’t in her tiny, stiletto heels anymore. They both stumbled the slightest bit, but he managed to steady them while he gave her a second kiss. He didn’t want to stop. Truthfully, he wanted to be alone with her somewhere to kiss her until they were both sick of it, until her dress was a puddled mess on the floor and his shirt was lost behind the furniture.
Rowan knew it would have to wait, and he did his best to keep his hands to himself after he led her back down the aisle and to a private alcove to wait a few moments before they would take all the pictures. As soon as they were alone, Aelin’s hands were on either side of his face, pulling him down to press a series of wine-colored kisses to his lips. It barely lasted four minutes— Manon’s gunmetal nails tapping on the door, an interruption that had Rowan sighing heavily through his nose. Aelin had smiled, wiping her finger over his kiss swollen lips as she opened the door and led them back outside.
They spent a good half hour trekking over the property, Rowan keeping the skirts of Aelin’s dress off the ground while they walked to keep it from collecting twigs, leaves, and dirt. More than once, he tripped her up, his bride smacking his shoulder while she fought back a smile. Rowan had sheepishly apologized with a kiss on her cheek.
Manon proved to be excellent at her job, directing and posing the couple on one of the many bridges overlooking a full creek. Aelin was facing the camera, and Rowan had his lips pressed to her temple when he felt the first cold drop his cheek. Rowan stiffened, hoping it was some sort of fluke. Like maybe, somehow, something splashed the water so hard it popped up to hit his face— which made absolutely no sense, but Rowan was grasping at straws. It couldn't rain, not until they were inside, at least.
Except that it was, a steady stream of sprinkles beginning to fall as Manon cursed and shoved her camera under her jacket. Rowan gripped Aelin’s hand in his and hoisted one side of her skirt up so they could begin to run as quickly as they could through the woods back toward the reception hall.
Only the rain came down harder, weighing down the already-heavy fabric of Aelin’s gown. The hem was a dingy brown now, a mess of twigs and leaves stuck in the tulle. A glimpse of her white boots proved them to be splashed with dirt. Rowan pulled Aelin under a tree for a little bit of cover while he worked himself out of his jacket to hold over her, despite her wet hair plastered to her head.
Perfection. It was what Aelin had been striving for over the last several months. How many times had he heard her sigh that she wanted it to be perfect? And now they were standing under a tree, her dress entirely ruined by the change in weather. His chest was squeezing while he struggled to get his arms free, Aelin’s blue eyes downcast and taking in her dress. Her hands were fidgeting with the veil, pulling it loose from her tangled mass of wet hair. Rowan’s heart stopped when she looked up at him; her bottom lip tucked between her teeth in what he was sure was an attempt to keep her lip from tremoring.
But then she smiled. A wide, brilliant thing as she tipped her head back and began to laugh. Her arms stretched out to the sides, palms toward the sky like she was welcoming the impromptu shower. Every string of his soul tugged at his heart as he listened to that wild laughter. The kind of laughter that could only be brought on by sheer, unadulterated joy.
Aelin looked at him, giggles still pouring from her lips like champagne while she smoothed her hand over his now see-through shirt. Looking down where her hand touched his chest, he could see the sharp outline of his tattoo straight through it. Her hands went to the lapels of his jacket, forcing it back up his arms. The emerald on her finger winked as she slid it up his chest and to his neck, pulling him down for a searing kiss that had him backing her up against the tree.
Both of them grinned, nipping at each other’s lips and indulging in sinful kisses until they heard Aedion shouting, jogging toward them with a clear umbrella that they obviously didn’t need anymore. Aedion’s sigh could barely be heard through the rain as Rowan laced his fingers with Aelin, and they began to walk back toward the bridal suite. When Rowan tried to keep her train off the ground, she’d swatted at his hands and told him to leave it. There was no saving the dress. There was no saving her hair, either.
“Thankfully, the makeup was mostly waterproof,” she joked as they stepped into the suite. Rowan rolled his eyes, turning her around to unzip the gown. It fell to the floor with a solid, heavy smack that sent both of them laughing, even as she turned and revealed a striking white lingerie set. “I think I’m more upset that this was ruined.”
“We have to stop doing formal occasions. Every time I manage to fuck up your expensive dresses,” he teased, hands going to her hips.
“I promise to only blame this one on you when I’m really, really mad.” Rowan couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of him as he pressed his lips to hers, using one hand to tilt her head back to deepen the kiss after a moment. Completely unable to help himself, his hand tightened on her hip, drifting over her side to the back of the corseted top that she wore. His fingers twisted around the tie as he grazed his teeth over her tongue, something that made her groan and pull her head back.
“No,” she chided, pulling away entirely, much to his chagrin. Aelin picked up a handful of garments and disappeared into the bathroom as she called over her shoulder, “We have a party to get to.”
That, they did. As much as he wanted to celebrate with their family and friends, he also wanted to escape the frivolity and drown in her kisses somewhere very far away. It was all in due time— soon enough they would leave for their hotel, and tomorrow they would be flying to Benjali for a week on the white sand beaches. Still, he was already aching to have his hands all over his wife, to kiss every inch of her like she deserved.
“The dress I’m going to the hotel in is burgundy. I don’t want to look like a wedding guest, so this will have to do,” Aelin said, stepping out of the bathroom with her hands on her hips. Rowan smiled, eyes tracing over the white, silk robe that she’d been wearing to get ready for the day in. The sash was tied around her waist in a delicate bow, and Aelin had cleaned the muck from her boots. “Just don’t let anyone see me indecent. I don’t have anything under this except a very boring bra and panty set. It barely even has any lace.”
Rowan smiled at her grumbling, making his way over to her and kissing the corner of her mouth as a knock at the door startled them both. Aedion tentatively peaked his head in after Aelin gave him the go-ahead. He carried a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt that he held out for Rowan.
“Had this in my car. I figured it would be more comfortable than being in a sopping wet suit all night.” Rowan nodded, graciously accepting the change of clothes. Anything would have been better than trying to enjoy his evening with the weight of his velvet jacket weighing him down.
At some point, Rowan wasn’t sure when, but Aelin had taken off her shoes. His new wife was drunk on champagne, spinning in circles with her friends in the center of the dance floor. The groom stood with his friends, watching her free spirit run completely free while she yelled the lyrics to songs at the top of her lungs, using her champagne flute as a makeshift microphone.
Despite the wardrobe change, the evening was the best he could remember having in his entire life. There had been many dances the two of them shared, several where he had to remind her that her robe was very thin, and if she kept grinding against him like that he was going to carry her off to the hotel much sooner than she’d originally planned.
By the time the DJ was calling for a last dance, Aelin was tipsy enough that she stumbled into Rowan’s arms with a lazy grin on her face. A slow little folk song that they both loved played through the speakers, Aelin’s lips mouthing the words to her new husband while they swayed in the center of the dance floor.
“I’m sorry about your dress,” he said for the hundredth time. Rowan’s fingers ran up her back, then back down. Somehow, she wasn’t close enough despite being pressed flush against his body. Aelin rose up on her bare toes and kissed him, extending her arms out behind his head before draping them back down. Her fingers were scratching his scalp in lazy motions, dragging through his strands of silver hair. Rowan was so happy he thought he could die from it. But he needed to get this off his chest. “I’m sorry about the rain, and about the flowers, and your shoes, and fucking Fenrys leaving that mark on Dorian’s neck— I mean, we’re almost thirty and he’s leaving hickeys before a wedding?” Rowan’s eyes cut to his best friend, whose lips were mouthing something into his boyfriend’s ear across the room. Rowan still had plans to kick his ass for stressing his wife out so bad this morning.
Aelin cut him off with a kiss, her faded berry lips catching his in a kiss that he felt down to his toes. “I know that I was kind of… insane for the last few months. I’m not sure how you managed to deal with it all and not leave me.”
“I was a little concerned you had decided to not show up when your shoe broke.” Aelin laughed at that, her fingers twisting in the hair at the nape of his neck.
“It would take more than a broken shoe to get me to throw in the towel with you,” she promised, another soft kiss landing on his chin. Aelin sighed, resting her head against his chest while her arms tightened around his waist. The feeling of her fingernails making small circles over his lower back were enough to send goosebumps rising over his arms.
“I’m still sorry,” Rowan said softly, dropping a delicate kiss to the top of her head.
“I’m not," Aelin replied, turning her head to look up at him, a brilliant smile beaming on her face. "Today was perfect."
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