“Why are you still standing here?” Nicholas hissed at Levi. “Go after her!”
Levi shook himself out of his trance, glanced at Tiani’s father, whose face had a similar startled expression, then hurried to catch up to Tiani. She was heading toward the tunnel and entered the darkness before he could reach her.
“Tiani, wait,” Levi called out in Yucatec. Neither of them had a lantern or flashlight so they were plunged into near blackness almost immediately and Levi plowed into her when she stopped suddenly. He grabbed her arms to hold her upright and keep himself from faceplanting into the tunnel. He quickly pulled his hands off her arms. “I’m sorry!”
She spun around to face him and was suddenly close enough that he could have kissed her if he’d been so bold. He would never disrespect her that way.
As if the move was involuntary, Tiani lifted both hands and placed them on his chest again, leaving them there. Her breath had increased, and she glanced up into his eyes.
“Tiani,” Levi whispered, not sure what else to say.
“My father will force me to marry you because I touched you.”
“I would marry you this minute.” Levi’s hands moved as if on their own volition and he rested them on her hips, his eyes searching hers. “But is that what you want? In my culture women have a choice who to marry.”
“I do not live in your culture.” She shook her head, not answering his question.
“I will speak to your father,” Levi said, still with his hands on her hips and her hands on his chest. “As long as he knows that I’m willing to marry you, he won’t force us. I’ll tell him that I need time to prove to him that I’m worthy of his daughter. And then, once we get to know each other, if you want to marry me, I will marry you. But only if that’s what you want. If you don’t want to marry me, I will find a way to get you out of the commitment.”
“How will I know if I want to marry you?”
“You’ll feel a powerful pull towards me in your heart,” Levi explained, realizing his hands had subtly pulled her closer. “You’ll feel as if you want to be near me all the time.” He was mostly describing how he felt about her.
“I feel that way already,” she said. He suspected that.
“Let’s continue to get to know one another and learn to communicate better, just without touching each other.” Neither of them moved their hands.
“Will you still teach me English?” Her vulnerability was endearing.
“Of course,” Levi whispered. “I will do anything for you, princess.”
“Will you kiss me? Like a girlfriend?”
“After you marry me,” he said, raising his eyebrows seductively. “I will not defile you in any way.”
“You are already touching me. That, according to our traditions, is defiling me.” Her hands subtly kneaded his chest, reminding him that she touched him first, and still had her hands on him.
“I can’t seem to pull my hands away.” His words were barely a breath.
Her hands travelled up his shoulders to his neck and gently pulled him closer. Tempting. So tempting.
“Tiani, we mustn’t do this.” His willpower finally caught up to his brain and he reached up to pull her hands from around his neck, holding them in his and lifting them to kiss her knuckles. She nearly fell into his arms. He caught her by the elbows and held her upright. “I don’t want to cause you any more trouble. Let’s go back out into the sun and I’ll talk to your father, okay?”
“Okay,” she agreed with a sigh.
Before letting her go, Levi allowed himself one more tiny indulgence. He pulled her into his arms and she laid her head on his chest while he held her, breathing deeply to capture the scent of whatever natural oils she used to create the thickness and sheen of her chestnut hair. Around her crown, she wore a complex arrangement of braiding that cascaded down her back. She was elegant and regal and completely off-limits until the day they shared vows before the tribe, and the chief pronounced them as married.
She took a step back and folded her arms across her chest as if forcing herself not to touch him again.
Levi tucked his hands behind his back like an old-fashioned gentleman and followed her out of the tunnel.
Without allowing his gaze to pull to the left or right, Levi strode directly toward Chief Gabor Sayid.
“Your highness, may I have a word with you?” Levi purposely looked him in the eye, lifting his chin and pulling bravery from somewhere deep inside.
The chief grunted and fell in line beside Levi, waiting to speak until they walked away from earshot of the others, not that any of them would understand Yucatec.
“Tiani has explained to me your tribe’s requirement that she marry me after having placed her hands on my chest in such a familial way.” Levi brought his own hand up to his chest as if demonstrating. “I am willing to take on the responsibility, but not until I prove myself worthy of your daughter. What would you have me do to prove my worth?” Levi waited, fearful the chief would force the marriage now, taking away Tiani’s agency. Or worse, forbid Levi from seeing her again.
“I don’t know,” Chief Gabor said, turning to face him and looking him up and down. “You are not a warrior. How will you protect her?”
Levi wanted to list all the reasons she wouldn’t need protection living in his world, but that would imply he intended to take Tiani from her home and force her to live his lifestyle.
What the heck was he doing? She would never leave her tribe, especially not for a geeky professor. What could she possibly see in him? Why was he pursuing a relationship with her when they could never make it work?
He would find a way to make this work. Somehow.
“I will use the skills of my intelligence to protect her.” Levi pointed to his own head. “I may not be large in stature, but I am very smart. Search your heart and decide how you would like me to prove my worth. When you have come to a conclusion, tell me what you would have me do, and I will do that.”
Levi bowed his head reverently to Chief Gabor, a prince in the Sayid royal bloodline, the man who would someday become his father-in-law. Lifting his gaze, Levi met the chief’s eyes again and waited.
“I will search my heart and give you my decision at a later time,” Chief Gabor said. “Your quest to prove your worth begins now.”
The chief shouldered past Levi and strode with intention toward his daughter, who still waited by the entrance to the tunnel.
Before she followed her father back to the village, Tiani met Levi’s gaze and he nodded subtly, telling her in a nonverbal way that the chief had agreed to their plan.
She allowed a tiny smile to break her façade before pulling her features back into place and turned to follow her father.