The tiny kitten sat up on her hind legs, trying to reach the string Elizabeth was teasing her with. After a moment, Morgan jumped so high, she lost her balance and tumbled backwards.
Elizabeth laughed and reached to scoop her from the ground and hold her in her lap. “So precious,” she cooed, scratching Morgan’s belly.
Someone cleared their throat. Elizabeth looked up to see a smiling Alexis standing a few feet in front of her with Jason Morgan at her side. Elizabeth immediately stood and set Morgan down on the soft green grass. “Alexis, I did not hear you approach.”
“It seems you were slightly occupied,” Alexis replied. She touched Jason’s arm. “Elizabeth, you remember my nephew from yesterday. Jason, this is the princess.”
“My lady,” Jason said, nodding his head.
“Please…Elizabeth,” she prompted. She twisted her fingers and smiled nervously. “Thank you…for the kitten. She’s…she’s wonderful.”
“You’re welcome…Elizabeth.” Jason shifted and glanced at his aunt. “Was that all?” he asked. “I do not like to leave Alexander with all the chores.”
Alexis frowned. “I thought you two might use this opportunity to get to know one another—”
“It’s all right, Alexis,” Elizabeth said. “I’m sure Jason has many responsibilities at home. If he must leave, I understand.” She smoothed her hands over the fabric of her white dress. She felt so foolish—she’d put on her best dress, had even done her hair. “Thank you again for the kitten.” She crouched and picked Morgan up. “I’ll just go inside.”
“Wait,” Alexis told her. She touched her elbow. “This could be your only time outside all day.”
“Mother asked me not to stay out too long,” Elizabeth replied. “She gets nervous when I’m not in my room.”
“You are in your room all day?” Jason asked, curiously. “Why?”
“Because my mother worries for my safety,” Elizabeth replied simply. “I was only able to convince her to let me in the gardens this morning because I was meeting with you.”
“I can stay,” Jason offered. “My brother is capable of doing the chores without me. I just prefer to oversee him.”
“I do not wish to keep you from your responsibilities,” Elizabeth replied, her voice adopting a stiff and cold tone. “Good day, Mr. Morgan.” She nodded in Alexis’s direction. “Alexis.”
Elizabeth exited the gardens then and Alexis sighed. “That girl has more walls than this entire castle,” she murmured. She looked at her nephew. “Jason—you do not understand the female gender at all do you?”
“I don’t believe so, no,” Jason replied. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Well…you do not know Elizabeth so perhaps you did not recognize the signs. She was looking forward to today, Jason. I built you up in her mind and I think she wanted to at least…talk to you today,” Alexis replied. “She wore her best clothes, did more with her hair then just tying it away from her face. She wanted to make a good impression, Jason. And the only thing you could say was, is that all?” Alexis shook her head. “You have no common sense.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Jason tried to assure his aunt. “I just…I did not know what to say to her. She is a member of the royal family—”
“She is Elizabeth, the woman you’re set to wed in five days’ time,” Alexis reminded him. “And I thought you didn’t wish to marry a stranger.”
“I do not—”
“Then do not treat her as one.” Alexis tapped her chin. “Stay here. I will catch up to her and bring her back.”
“Alexis,” Jason protested.
“Wait here,” Alexis instructed sharply.
Elizabeth was just opening the door to her rooms—Morgan tucked inside the crook of her arm—when Alexis called her name. She turned. “Yes?”
“Please come back to the gardens,” Alexis told her. “Jason—he was nervous about meeting you. It is not so easy for him to speak with the crown princess.”
“Is that all that I am?” Elizabeth asked softly. “Just a princess?”
“No, of course not. But you should come back down—give him the chance to apologize.”
“I…give me a few moments. I want to change,” Elizabeth said. “And leave Morgan up here.” She disappeared into her rooms.
When she reappeared in the gardens fifteen minutes later, she wore a more basic tan, long-sleeved cotton dress. Her hair was down and she was without the kitten.
Jason was standing alone in the gardens but he immediately straightened when he caught sight of her. “My lady, I apologize for my rudeness before.”
“Where is Alexis?” Elizabeth asked, rather than acknowledge his apology.
“She never returned. I fear that she is too angry with me,” Jason confessed. “I treated you rather badly and I would like to take it back.”
Elizabeth sighed. “It is all right—I was not very nice to you either yesterday. I might have said some things about you that I did not mean. I spoke in anger.”
“Yesterday was a bit of a surprise. I was not expecting to be brought here and told I was to marry the crown princess of Rhigwyn,” Jason admitted. “I do not hold it against you.”
“Why did you give me the cat?” she asked curiously. “You hardly know me and I can’t imagine Michael going into any detail about the incident.”
“He only mentioned it in passing. My aunt elaborated further on it. I hope it wasn’t too forward…” Jason cleared his throat. “My sister loves animals—there is always a cat or dog trailing after her and every time one of the farm animals dies, she cries. I was thinking more of her when I gave the cat to Alexis for you.”
“Even so, it was very kind of you.” She sat on one of the stone benches. “You mentioned your sister. Is she younger?”
“Her name is Chloe and she is fifteen,” Jason replied. “There is also Alexander, he’s twenty. Do you have any siblings?” He hesitated. “Other than your brother?”
“No, there is just Nikolas. My mother only had a second child to ensure the throne would stay in the family should something happen to my brother,” Elizabeth told him. “But Nikolas is twenty-five and healthy. I do not think my services will be required.”
Jason tentatively sat down on the bench across from her. “Do you want to be queen?”
“No,” Elizabeth said immediately. “It is has never been my dream. To be queen would to be locked up in these walls forever.”
“You mentioned that yesterday—asked if I could put you in such a large cage that you wouldn’t realize you were trapped. What did you mean?”
“I meant that I thought Michael was trying to keep me in check even more so than he was before. Lucas Spencer is the captain of my father’s knights. He is a good man but he fears women with strong minds and he would insist I stay indoors like everyone else in my life. I would be reduced to no more than an instrument for Lucas’s heirs,” Elizabeth said. The longer she spoke, the more her voice trembled.
“It will not be like that with me,” Jason leaned forward, trying to assure her. “I give you my word.”
“You don’t wish to have children?” Elizabeth inquired, arching an eyebrow.
“Well, of course I want a family,” he responded. “But—I don’t understand, my lady, you do not wish to have one at all?”
“I have not decided yet,” Elizabeth sighed. “I just don’t like that because I am a woman, I am expected to have children.”
“Well…yes, that is unfair,” Jason agreed. “But if you were in your brother’s place, you would be expected to have a child would you not?”
“Yes and I would still resent it. I feel sorry for my brother’s wife. She is no more than sixteen years old and thrust into a future she was not ready for. She is married to a man she met the morning of her wedding. Nikolas is nine years older and she is so far from the home she grew up in and to make matters worse, she will be queen one day and she must have a son or the direct line to the throne will be ruined.”
“My lady, how can you not want a family?” Jason pressed.
“Because I have never been part of a family,” Elizabeth said coldly. She stood. “I did not have the opportunity to grow up as you did, Mr. Morgan.”
“I should think that would make you want one of your own all the more,” Jason argued. He stood, towering over her. “I’m sorry you grew up in a privileged home with everything that you could want but—”
“It never ceases to amaze me the perspective peasants have of a life like mine,” Elizabeth seethed. “You, who own your own home and can and go as freely as you wish. You answer to no one and do not have to remain locked away in your room.”
“My lady,” Jason hesitated. “I do not mean to anger or insult you. I—I do not have much experience with your gender beyond my family and a friend. I confess that I only met the woman I was previously engaged to…a few times. And they were not royalty.”
Elizabeth sat back on the bench, her head bowed. “I apologize,” she said softly. “I often forget my place. Please…sit down. I wish—I wish to know more about your family and your home.”
Jason obeyed her request, keeping his eyes on her. She clasped her hands loosely in her lap and kept her eyes down. “What is it you want to know?”
“I have never been further than these walls,” Elizabeth admitted. “But I often go to a turret and it has a rather magnificent view. I can see part of your land from there and it looks so beautiful. There is a stream that runs through it, yes?”
“Yes. We have a good part of the forest on our land and the stream runs through that. Mother and Chloe do some of their washing there if we’re having trouble bringing water from the well. The house isn’t very large but each of us has our own rooms. My father often talked about adding more on but he never…he never managed to do it.” Jason cleared his throat. “My brother is not meant for the life he leads now. We always expected him to attend the university but when my father died, we needed him at home.”
“Of course,” Elizabeth nodded. “A son’s first duty is to his family.” She glanced up then but quickly averted her eyes. “Will he go now? After…the marriage…I mean. Members of the royal family attend free of charge. Male members,” she added.
Jason clenched his jaw. “We don’t accept charity.”
“But it would not be charity,” Elizabeth protested quickly. “My brother attended the university that way and my father did as well. Michael attended university once my mother was promised to my father. It’s just simply the way things are. You said it yourself — you always intended for your brother to attend the university. Why should he not reap the benefits of this marriage? Someone ought to be happy after all of this.”
“I appreciate your words, my lady, but I assure you that my brother would agree with me. He would rather pay his way.”
Elizabeth nodded. “All right then. I only…I only wished to inform you of the possibility. It is of course, his decision in the end.”
Jason shifted and glanced at the position of the sun. Alexander would almost be finished the morning chores. He hoped that his brother remembered to check on the sheep. They were due to lamb soon.
“If you need to be getting home, I understand. I did not wish to keep you,” Elizabeth interrupted his thoughts.
“Alexander is not accustomed to doing the chores by himself,” Jason said with a shrug. “I was merely wondering if he’d remembered to check on the sheep.”
“Sheep?” Elizabeth repeated. Her eyes lit up. “What other sorts of animals do you have?”
“I wouldn’t have thought you to be an animal person, my lady.”
“Could you…please not call me that?” Elizabeth requested. “I so rarely get to hear my own name.”
The idea of not hearing one’s own name was a foreign concept to Jason—almost as foreign as calling a princess by anything other than a formal title. But she’d asked and his father had always taught him to honor women—especially those who were important to him.
And as the woman he was set to marry, she’d become rather important to him. “All right, Elizabeth. Have you ever seen barn animals?”
“Only dogs, cats and horses, I’m afraid,” Elizabeth admitted with an embarrassed smile. “But I read as often as I can and sometimes there are sketches.”
“Sketches can’t compare,” Jason shook his head. “My favorite place anywhere is the loft in the barn. It was where my parents lived when they were first married before my father built the house. It’s a little run down but sometimes when I’m there late, like when a foal is born or a calf, I go sleep up there and I get to wake up and go right to work.”
“I’ve never met anyone who works for a living like you do,” Elizabeth confided. “I think it is so…I think it is incredible.”
“We kind of have to work hard if we want to do more than make ends meet,” Jason remarked. “My sister needs a dowry. Not one the palace provides,” Jason added when he saw Elizabeth open her mouth to respond.
She pressed her lips together and flushed. “I seem to be insulting you with every word out of my mouth.”
“Well, you’ve never had to work for anything in your life. I don’t suppose you’d understand the pride behind something like that.”
The words—although said without judgment and scorn—stung her. She cleared her throat. “I have an appointment to meet my mother for a fitting,” she murmured. “I am grateful that you took the time out of your busy day to come see me.” She stood. “Good day, Mr. Morgan.”
“I did not mean…” Jason stood and followed her to the entrance of the garden. “I am sorry if I said something to upset you. I did not intend to.”
“No…it’s all right.” Elizabeth shrugged her slender shoulders and sighed. “You might as well get used to the fact that I often forget my place. I have already done it a few times in front of you. Your family is your family and I will be sure to keep myself aware of that.”
“I do not mean for you to do that,” he protested. “They will be your family, too.”
“They will be your family,” Elizabeth corrected. “What makes you think they won’t treat me the same way you do?”
“And how do I treat you?” Jason inquired.
“Like I am some dainty doll in a case rather than the woman you’re engaged to marry.” Elizabeth met his eyes briefly before looking away. “Princess is just a title. It is not who I am. Good day, Mr. Morgan.”
Caroline Benson turned to the side and studied her reflection in the three-paneled mirrors. “It feels a bit loose in the back,” she murmured. “Georgiana?”
The petite seamstress tucked a loose piece of russet-colored hair behind her ear and placed a small hand at the small of the council member’s back. “Yes, it does, Lady Benson. It’s odd as this gown fit perfectly just two weeks ago.”
Georgiana Matthews circled the woman with a practiced eye, her coffee gaze taking in all the stitches and seams of the midnight blue silk gown. Georgiana reached up and adjusted the plunging neckline. “I could take it in, my lady, but I think that you ought to look into gaining the weight back.”
“It’s been a trying time,” Caroline sighed. “One thing after another in the council room. I hardly have time to sleep much less come to these fittings.”
“The dawning is too important to miss for the future head of the High Council,” Georgiana teased. “My lady, if you do not take more care for your appearance, how shall you ever marry?”
“I have no need for marriage,” Caroline remarked stiffly.
“Where did you find the design for this dress?” Georgiana asked curiously. “This dress seems so simple for someone of your position and aspirations.”
“So?” Caroline asked haughtily.
“You cannot be seen in a gown that is out of season.” Georgiana shook her head. “My lady, you are one of the most eligible women in the kingdom and people’s opinions matter. You must be almost as well-dressed as the Queen.”
Georgiana moved over to her sketching table and started making some quick movements with her pencil. “Your name must be on the lips of everyone for days—you must stick in their minds, Lady Benson. For the King appoints the head of the council and you will want the good word of the Queen when he makes that decision.”
“You are right, Georgiana. What do you recommend?” Caroline asked, stepping down from the stool and crossing to her.
“The fabric and the color will stay the same.” The pencil was moving as fast as lightening and gradually, a strapless dress was beginning to appear on the paper. A heart-shaped bodice with a tight waistline—the skirt flared and was long.
“It’s rather daring don’t you think?” Caroline asked hesitantly.
“All the better.” Georgiana picked up the sketch. “I’ll be right back. Wait here—I can make some of the adjustments on the dress now.”
She exited and Caroline nervously paced the room. She was nervous about this ball. Nervous about the Dawning.
Nervous about seeing Jason again.
She braced a hand on the small of her back and started to pace. It’d been over a year since she’d left home. The first winter had been difficult. She’d been lonely in her new home. It was much larger than the one she’d left and due to the snow, she couldn’t very well wander the village and get to know her new surroundings.
She’d missed Jason the most during that time—couldn’t understand why he was being so difficult and unrelenting. It wasn’t as though they would have to live in the village full time. A few months out of the year—nothing more.
But he’d remained stubborn on the matter. She could stay and marry him or she could go and fulfill her dream of being a council member.
In the end, it hadn’t been a hard decision. She was the youngest female council member in the history of the realm and she was destined to be the first female leader of the council.
She would not give that up for a thousand Jasons. He could not understand her dreams and she could not understand his. It was better this way.
Now after another winter had passed and they were coming to the end of the spring, Caroline felt more at home within her new life but she could not fight the rising sadness at the thought of attending Jason’s wedding in five days. He would be marrying a woman even less suited for him than Caroline could ever dream of being.
Yet Caroline was terrified that the princess would end up being the woman Jason loved more than his family home.
“I never thought I would find you here of all places.”
The arrogant drawl came from the doorway to Georgiana’s shop and Caroline spun to find AJ Quartermaine leaning against the doorframe, a cocky smile firmly set on his lips.
Caroline arched a slim eyebrow and tried to look as stern and disapproving as she could with the revealing neckline of her dress. “Oh and why is that?” she asked coolly.
“I always thought of you as neutral,” AJ said, stepping forward. He dragged his eyes from her bare feet up the long line of the gown, past her slim waist and small breasts to her face. “You ought to dress like that more often, Caroline.”
All too aware of her shortcomings, Caroline crossed her arms self-consciously over her chest. She had no hips, her arms were too long and her breasts were almost unmentionable.
Her elbows were too knobby as well but that was neither here nor there.
But Caroline Benson cared nothing for being attractive. She only wished for power.
“Is there something you wanted to talk about, Lord Quartermaine?” Caroline demanded as she slid her feet into her plain shoes.
AJ swaggered over to her, that damned smile still present. “Ah…so formal, dear sweet Caroline.” He flicked a piece of her light blonde hair over her shoulder. She’d left it down when removing her earlier garments, Caroline belatedly realized.
“State your business or leave,” Caroline said firmly, taking a step back.
“It’s quite simple, actually. You are in the need of an escort for the ball Saturday and I am in the need of someone to escort. Why not combine our two predicaments?” AJ suggested.
“I would rather eat dirt than be seen on your arm,” Caroline spat.
“So much venom,” AJ shook his head and continued to smile at her. “Everyone in the kingdom knows your shame, Caroline.”
“My shame?” Caroline echoed scornfully. She tried to laugh it off—but the sound came out bitter and strangled.
“That you and the eldest Morgan son were set to be engaged when my grandfather passed away.” A shadow flickered over the Quartermaine heir’s face but it was gone as quickly as it appeared and he continued. “Your number was called up and the fool wouldn’t allow you to have your cake and eat it too.”
“Jason had responsibilities,” Carly remarked coolly. “I knew that he would never leave his home.”
“Yes but you are still a single woman and everyone knows that you will more than likely remain that way. After all—you are twenty-four and few women marry after that age.”
“A woman does not need a man to be complete,” Caroline retorted. “I never intend to marry.”
“So that you may pine for the future prince like Lady Alexis pines for Lord Corinthos?” AJ shook his head. “Everyone knows that Michael Corinthos has only loved one other person in his life and Brenda Barrett has been dead for nearly twenty years. And once your dear sweet Jason is married to the princess…”
“It matters not to me what Jason does or does not do. He could marry Elizabeth, fall madly in love and have a brood of children and I would not give a damn,” Caroline retorted hotly. Her eyes were lit in fury. “What is it that you want from me, AJ? To remind me of my past? Well, what if one were to remind you of your precious Keesha—”
“Do not utter one more word,” AJ seethed in a low voice. The smirk was gone from his countenance and every muscle in his body was tensed. Caroline was almost positive that if she’d been a man—he would have hit her.
“You can throw my painful past in my face but you cannot handle a little payback?” Caroline demanded. “You are a hypocrite, Lord Quartermaine. You may think that you are a better man than Lord Corinthos—that you are more cunning, more intelligent and more lethal—and perhaps you are. But never forget that you both have one weakness in common. You both mourn for women who never loved you.”
“And you lust for a man who only wanted your land,” AJ hissed. “Who would want you, Lady Benson? You look more like a teen-aged boy than a full-grown woman.”
Caroline lifted her chin defiantly in the air and pressed her lips together firmly. “Beauty is overrated,” she managed to say in a strong and clear voice.
“Perhaps one day you will believe that.” AJ spun his heel and slammed out of the dress shop.
Caroline heard a sound behind her and a furious Georgiana stepped back into the main room. “I did not want to appear until he left, my lady, and I most apologize. But I feared if we were to come face to face, I might have stabbed him with my shears,” the young woman seethed.
Caroline closed her eyes against the first rush of tears and fought them back. It was one thing to have come to terms with her looks in her mind. But it was quite another for a handsome man to point it out to her.
No matter how vile he was.
She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. “It is all right, Georgiana. Lord Quartermaine is one of those people who know exactly which button to press to hurt someone.”
“Luckily for you, you also possess that quality.” Georgiana set her sketches down. “The difference between the two of you, my lady, is that you never attack. You merely defend.”
Caroline nodded wearily and sighed. “Let’s get on with this. I would like to return to my home and lay down for the remainder of the day.”
“Yes, of course, Lady Benson—but if I might just say one last thing. Lord Quartermaine is mistaken—you are a beautiful woman and it only takes the right man to see it. You just have not found him yet.”
Caroline smiled and felt her heart lift a little. “You know, Georgiana—perhaps you might call me Caroline. I feel you are the closest thing I have to a friend in my life.”
Contrary to the opinions of some men, the future queen of the kingdom did not spend her time planning some grand ball or an elegant gathering of local women. Instead, Princess Emily of Rhigwyn’s everyday life resembled that of her husband’s sister. Most of her days were spent in the elegant suite of rooms assigned to her and her husband.
Each day was longer than the one before and she longed for the emerald green fields of her childhood home. But this was her future. This was her home now.
Emily smoothed out the canvas of her embroidery project and straightened one of the stitches. She was so tired of endlessly sitting in this room, trying to think of ways to fill the time. She embroidered, she sewed, and she knitted. Day after day.
She knew how she was expected to spend her time. She should be taking every opportunity to conceive the heir to kingdom. The sooner the better, for if the king were made to wait too long for his grandson, well, one could argue that Emily was barren and their marriage would be invalidated.
Unhappy as she was here at the palace, Emily did not wish to leave Nikolas. Though he did not care for her the way she wished, he treated her with respect and the nights that he did reach for her…
A flush rose in her pale cheeks and she dipped her head, hiding her smile. She was alone in the room but she knew it was not proper to think about those nights, much less speak of them.
But those were the nights Emily could pretend her husband loved her and they were the highlights of her life here—the only moments she could remember being happy. He was so kind and gentle and—the flush deepened. They always made love in the dark but she could still feel the rippling muscles of his chest under her fingers.
Her heartbeat quickened as she realized night would be drawing close. Would Nikolas reach for her tonight?
The door to their rooms slid opened and Nikolas entered, his head bent down as studied a sheaf papers in his hands. Emily used the moments between that and when he looked at her to school her features back into the polite mask she wore as a rule.
“Good afternoon, my lord,” she said politely.
Nikolas glanced up, his mouth tightened at the use of proper titles. His mother and father treated each other quite the same way. He did not think they even slept in the same bedroom now—and quite wondered if they ever had.
He didn’t want that for his life but it seemed he was destined for it. “Good afternoon, Emily. Have you eaten lunch?”
“Yes, my lord.” Emily set her embroidery aside. She hesitated. “Was there something that you needed, my lord?”
Nikolas sighed and shook his head. “No, I will just sit here with you and go over these papers. They are plans for the Dawning,” he told her.
Emily nodded. “Is it true that the princess is one of the chosen?” she asked, intrigued.
Nikolas sat down and poured himself a glass of water. “Yes, she is set to wed Jason Morgan on Saturday. Do you know of him?”
“Of course. His land borders my own. Chloe was one of my closest friends before I left.” Emily clasped her hands together in her lap.
“Why do you not visit with her?” Nikolas questioned. “You could send word and she could come here for a few days.”
“I did not want to be a bother.” Emily shifted uncomfortably.
“This is your home,” Nikolas said, his voice bordering on impatient. “You are the princess. Nothing you do or say is a bother to anyone.”
“Well…perhaps one day.” Emily stood. “I am quite tired, my lord, I believe I will nap before supper.” She gathered her things in her arms before disappearing into their bedroom.
Nikolas scrubbed a hand over his face, resigned to a lifetime of awkward days and loving nights.
“Mother!” Chloe called, excitedly. She rushed into the kitchen. “Jason’s coming up the road.”
“Go help your brother finish his chores and tell Jason to come see me,” Susan instructed as she wiped her flour-covered hands on her apron. She moved to the cabinet and pulled a plate of cheese and some bread so that Jason might eat.
When Jason finally entered the kitchen, he’d already put his horse back in the barn and cleaned up from the dusty ride. “Hello, Mother. Chloe said you wished to speak with me.”
“Sit, eat. I can’t imagine you took time during your visit.” She took a seat and her son did the same. “How did it go?”
“Parts of it went well,” Jason admitted. “It seemed at times, however, all we could do was insult one another. I told her Alexander wanted to go to the university and she remarked that members of her family go free so he could take advantage of that.”
Susan’s face lit up. “Well, that’s wonderful news. Alexander could start as soon as next fall.”
Jason frowned. “You cannot accept something like this, Mother. Alexander will pay his way through, just like we always intended.”
“I suppose you said something along these lines to the princess.”
“Yes. She said that she had never met anyone who worked for living as we do and I said that we had to if we wanted to make more than ends meet.” He hesitated. “I might have said that since she hadn’t worked a day in her life, she wouldn’t understand the kind of pride that can be attached.”
Susan closed her eyes. “Oh, Jason. How could you say something so cruel and unnecessary?”
“She was flaunting her privileges,” Jason protested. “I had to say something to put her in her place.”
“Perhaps she was trying too hard,” Susan allowed. “I can only assume she wanted to make a good impression on you and perhaps she was trying to make marriage to her sound better. As though you’d be able to benefit.”
Jason shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“I get the feeling that she might not think highly of herself. My sister has often said the princess is rarely seen and very withdrawn in public. She was born only to assure the throne stays in her family. It must be very difficult to know your entire existence is based on that fact. Perhaps she thought she’s not enough for you.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Jason shook his head. “She’s very beautiful and articulate. She asks about things Caroline never even thought of. She wanted to know about this place, the land, and the animals. How could she think that I’d need more in order to be comfortable with marrying her?”
“I think that’s a question you should ask someone of her age. Perhaps Chloe might be able to provide some insight. Young girls often do strange things when they’re infatuated.”
Jason blinked. “Infatuated?” he repeated. “Elizabeth is not infatuated with me. This is merely a political alliance for her.”
“For her family, yes,” Susan agreed. “But how can you know what this means to her unless you ask?”
“I won’t see her until the wedding. How can I ask her something like that?”
“I think that you should give Alexander more responsibility around this place. Perhaps he could prove himself by taking on the majority of the morning chores for the next few days.”
“Are you suggesting that I visit Elizabeth again?”
“Perhaps.” Susan smiled and touched her eldest son’s cheek. “Out of the three of you, you are most like your father. You love like he does and most of the time, you have a very good head on your shoulders. But your father always had to take the hard way around when it came to understanding me. We were fortunate to have love but it took time to develop that. I want you to have the love that your father and I shared.”
“As you said…it takes time. It could not possibly develop in five days, which is there is before the day of the dawning.”
“But you already care for her. And I can see that you are attracted to her. I think you should have the opportunity to expand on that.”
“I will return to tomorrow on one condition,” Jason said. “You come along and meet Elizabeth.”
“All right,” Susan agreed easily. “I will go and visit with Alexis afterwards then. I should very much like to meet my future daughter-in-law.”
Gia unwound Elizabeth’s braid and reached for the silver-handled brush on her vanity table. “Your new friend seems to be settling in well,” the maid remarked as she watched Morgan make a little bed for herself.
Elizabeth watched it through the mirror as well and smiled. “After wanting a kitten for so long, it is almost hard to believe I have one.”
“That Jason Morgan must be a very kind man to think of a woman he hardly knows.”
Elizabeth pressed lips together and looked away. “He is kind,” she allowed, “but he is like everyone else I have ever known Gia.”
“I know that you wish to be treated the same as everyone else, my lady, but you would be remiss if you did not remember—you are not like everyone else and that is why they treat you as such.”
“But I am not just the princess to him—or I should not be. I am to be his wife and I don’t know if I can survive a marriage like that. Nikolas and Emily can barely be in the same room but a few moments before she flees.” Tears wet her lashes and she closed her eyes. “I live a life of solitude as it is. I do not wish to live in the middle of the nowhere with a man who has more respect for my status than affection for me.”
“I feel for you, my lady, but what can you do? Force him to love you?”
She hesitated. Her powers. She used them so rarely since she’d accidentally blown up a small portion of the stables when she was twelve. There were times when she’d been so angry that she’d been forced to relinquish the argument just to calm herself. Her powers were tied to her emotions.
But she often used them to just heal little scratches on her hands from framing her canvases and she wondered if they wouldn’t be of some help—
No. She must never be discovered for enchantresses such as herself were shipped to work camp upon discovery. Women with powers were feared in this world and if she were found out…
“There.” Gia finished the new braid and fastened it with a ribbon. “Will you be needing anything else?”
Elizabeth sighed and shook her head. “No, that will be all.”
Mirielle patted the side of her perfectly coifed ash-blonde hair and tightened her robe around her body as she joined Michael on the sofa of her sitting room. “Honestly, Michael, this could have waited.”
“No, it could not have.” Michael slid his hands into the pockets of his pants. “Lady Davis has indicated her nephew wishes to visit with your daughter over the next few days.”
“They can visit in her sitting room under supervision of course.” Mirielle rose and sighed. “It will be liberating to know she is out of this palace and we will be out of danger.”
“Danger?” Michael echoed. “What is this danger you speak of?”
“Well, one never knows when she might snap,” Mirielle remarked. “She could kill all of us with just a look.”
Michael peered into his half-sister’s wide blue eyes—eyes that her daughter had inherited. “You really believe that, don’t you?”
“Of course. I am only grateful that we were able to keep her locked away so effectively.”
“I have never been ashamed to call myself your brother before, but in this moment…” Michael sighed deeply. “I came to request your permission for your daughter to visit with her betrothed but I see that you consider her something to suffer through. It is the order of the High Council that Elizabeth may come and go as freely as she pleases and see Jason Morgan whenever she likes.”
Mirielle narrowed her eyes. “You take too many liberties, dear brother,” she seethed. “I say who my daughter sees and who she does not see. You are lucky that we do not contest this ridiculous betrothal. What do you propose I do? Let the peasant move into her bedroom?”
“I propose that you remember who is in charge and who is not,” Michael retorted. “The High Council is the law of the land. You answer to us. This is the way it has always been and this is the way it always be. You would do your best to keep your distance from Elizabeth and I do not wish her to know just how much her own mother fears and loathes her.”