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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?