Day Three

Morning

Elizabeth sipped her tea and watched curiously as Morgan explored the room. The small kitten had already been lost several times in the vastness of Elizabeth’s rooms.

“My lady.”

Elizabeth set her cup down on her breakfast table and stood. “Yes, Gia?”

The young woman couldn’t contain her smile. “Lady Alexis is here to see you and she has brought guests.”

“Guests?” Elizabeth hesitated and belted her robe more securely over her cotton nightgown. “What sort of guests?”

“Her sister, Susan Morgan and her eldest son, Jason.” Gia’s brown eyes twinkled with excitement. “My lady, he is most handsome. Shall I show them in?”

“I—yes. Clear these dishes and I will go get washed and dressed.” Elizabeth touched her tangled curls and disappeared into her bedroom.

Gia moved back into the hallway. “My lady wasn’t expecting visitors,” she told the trio politely. “She is dressing now but you may wait in her sitting room.” The three entered the room and Gia busied herself clearing the breakfast table.

Morgan saw the visitors and dashed over to play with the hanging skirts of Alexis and Susan. “Is this the kitten you brought for her?” Susan asked, lifting the orange pile of fur into her lap.

“Yes,” Jason agreed. “I did not really think she would keep her in her private rooms.”

“Oh, the princess never lets that adorable thing out of her sight,” Gia said cheerfully as she gathered the tray in her arms. “Morgan is one of the few things my lady has to smile about.”

“Morgan?” Susan repeated with smile. “What a sweet name,” she cooed to the cat.

Jason shifted on the lavish sofa, clearly uncomfortable in the luxurious surroundings. After a moment, Elizabeth exited her bedroom, dressed in a plain pink dress and her hair pulled into a twist. “Good morning,” she said politely. “I apologize for taking so long.”

“Nonsense, my lady, you were not expecting us.” Alexis stood and Susan set aside Morgan to stand beside. “I would like to introduce you to my sister, Susan Morgan. Susan, this is Princess Elizabeth.”

“I am very pleased to meet you my lady,” Susan said with a warm smile. “I have heard many things about you.”

“Please, Mrs. Morgan, call me Elizabeth,” she insisted. “And I am very pleased to meet you. Your son speaks so highly of his family—I did not expect the opportunity to meet you before Saturday.”

“When Jason told me he was coming back this morning, I decided to take the opportunity to meet you and visit with my sister as well.”

“I was not aware you were returning,” Elizabeth remarked to Jason.

“I feel there are a few misunderstandings that we must clear up,” Jason answered.

“That will have to wait since I wish to speak with Elizabeth alone. Alexis, show Jason around. Twenty minutes should do it.”

“Mother—” Jason protested but Alexis already had his arm and was leading him out of the rooms.

“Come, let us sit and get to know one another.” Susan took her seat and when Elizabeth sat next to her, Morgan jumped in her lap and curled up to take a nap. “She seems to adore you.”

“And I her,” Elizabeth admitted with a smile. “She is so beautiful. I cannot thank your son enough for being so thoughtful.”

“He has such a large heart. It does not occur to him to hold back and that is part of the reason I wished to speak to you without him.”

“He’s very proud,” Elizabeth said hesitantly. “It is hard to speak to him without sounding as though I am insulting him.”

“It is not you, it is the situation. Two days ago, he was under the impression he was marrying a woman he’d met only a handful a times and now he finds himself betrothed to the crown princess. He is a simple young man and it takes time to adjust.”

“I understand that. I only wish he’d stop treating me as though I am the princess. Once we are married, I do not wish for him to call me ‘my lady’ or anything else and he seems reluctant to call me by my given name.”

“Time will fix that,” Susan remarked. “But I wish to tell you about another woman in Jason’s past. One that he had expected to marry. He was in love with a young girl who grew up on a neighboring farm. I suspect you may know her. Caroline Benson?”

“Jason knows Caroline?” Elizabeth asked surprised. “I did not realize that.”

“She was always a dreamer—hoping that her family line would allow her a position on the High Council. Jason did not think that would happen as she is very young and in addition—a female. He cared very deeply for her and we all thought they would marry. Caroline believed it as well—she was hoping Jason would come to the village and live with her once she was called up for duty.”

“But he speaks so highly of his home. I have known him but two days and I can’t imagine he would ever leave it.”

Susan squeezed Elizabeth’s hands. “I knew that you would understand him. I could feel it. Caroline did not respect his love for his home and they quarreled bitterly. She went to the council and he remained at home. They never reconciled and I think it hurt him very deeply that she did not accept him.’

“Does he still love her?” Elizabeth asked, slightly stricken. Her heart dropped to her feet at the idea of marrying a man pining for another woman.

“No, I do not believe so. I also do not think he was ever really truly in love with her. It was very convenient for the two of them to be together. She is the only child and our land would be joined with theirs. They grew up together…do you understand?”

“Yes. Are you telling me this because you feel I might pressure him to move here to the palace and because our marriage was ordered by the council…he would not have a choice?”

Susan hesitated. “That is not my primary reason for telling you but now that you mention it…”

“Your son is very lucky to have a mother who cares for him the way that you seem to.” Elizabeth stood and crossed to one of her large windows with a view of the winding gardens and the maze. “You need not worry, Mrs. Morgan. This is a very beautiful place to live but I have been here for nineteen years and I relish the idea of escaping these walls.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “Anyhow, I have been raised to understand that the husband makes the decisions and whatever Jason would prefer, I would go along with.”

Susan frowned. “Jason is not that sort of husband. He would ask your opinion.”

“He would not be happy with the answer as I rarely have an opinion about anything. It is easier that way.” Elizabeth cleared her throat. “Mrs. Morgan, I understand if you are disappointed about your son marrying me. I know that I am hardly suitable for a man like him.”

Susan shook her head and smiled. “Elizabeth, I am very happy that this is taking place. You understand my son in a way Caroline did not. And I really do not understand how you could feel that I would be disappointed. How are you unsuitable?”

“I have had everything done for me,” Elizabeth explained. “I have had my own maid since I was a little girl. I have never set foot inside a kitchen. I have never cleaned my own rooms. I know nothing about washing clothing or living on a farm and while I am capable of having children, I fear that I would be no good at raising them.”

“Everyone has to learn these things, you will just have a late start,” Susan said. She crossed to the sullen young woman. “There is nothing that I cannot teach you and as for raising children…you are such a loving person…I can feel that you would make an excellent mother.”

“I doubt it. I have never known affection beyond that of my brother’s. My mother and father can only be bothered with me when I can do something for them.” Elizabeth sighed. “The only thing that I am any good at are my drawings and even they are worthless.”

Drawings. Now that Susan looked around the room, she could see different framed canvases on the walls. Some landscapes, a few portraits. “Did you do all of these?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth admitted. “I have hardly anything else do to sitting in this room rather than reading or drawing.”

“These are wonderful, my dear,” Susan said with a warm smile. “You should not underestimate yourself.” She touched Elizabeth’s shoulder. “You will find many lovely things to draw at our home.”

“You mean…I could continue to draw after I marry?” Elizabeth asked, surprised. “Lucas always expected me to give it up. Said it was a silly past time for little girls.”

“This is what you love to do,” Susan said. “If you do not ask Jason to give up his land, why should he expect you to give up these?”

“I do not believe I have ever met anyone like you, Mrs. Morgan,” Elizabeth said with a touch of wonder in her voice.

Alexis pushed open the door a moment later. “We are done,” she announced. She eyed her sister. “How did it go in here?”

“Quite well,” Susan remarked. She kissed Elizabeth’s cheek. “She’s a wonderful girl and I think we discovered a lot about each other. Alexis, I will tell you all about it, provided you take me to lunch and I don’t have to cook.”

“Of course. Elizabeth, your uncle requests your presence after Jason departs today, all right?”

“Yes.”

Alexis directed Susan out of the room, leaving Elizabeth and Jason alone. Slightly flustered because not even her brother had been in her rooms in the past year or so, Elizabeth sat down and stared at the ground. “Your mother is a wonderful person. You are very fortunate.”

“What did you and my mother speak about?” Jason asked, curiously.

Elizabeth lifted her shoulders into a shrug. “We spoke about your home and you’re…your past.”

Jason nodded. “She told you about Caroline,” he stated, resigned.

“Yes. I suppose she wanted to make it clear that you belong at your home and I should not entertain thoughts of making you leave.” Elizabeth cleared her throat. “That was never my intention.”

“I never thought it was. My lady, I apologize for the things that I said.”

Elizabeth sighed and stared at her hands. He was calling her “lady” again. She stood, suddenly restless. “It is all right. I suppose I can understand that what I said did not come out the way I meant it to.” She crossed to the windows. “I did not tell you yesterday and I believe that I should have…you will not have a choice if your brother enrolls in the university but for him to attend for free. They will not accept payment.”

Jason frowned. “I did not realize that.”

“The council controls enrollment and they would see it as a sign of disrespect to the family if they did. I hope that changes your mind as I know how important a university education can be.”

“Alexander has always dreamt of going. It is good to know that he will have the opportunity.” Jason hesitantly crossed to her side. “Will you show me the maze? I have never been inside one before. Alexis pointed it out while showing me around and it looked interesting.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth agreed with a small smile. “On one condition. Please…never call me anything but Elizabeth, again? I really truly mean that.”

“I’m sorry…Elizabeth…it’s just difficult to get past the things I have always been taught,” Jason apologized.

“All right. Well…let’s go then,” Elizabeth said. “Hopefully we can get out of the palace without anyone seeing us since I do not wish to waste time asking Mother for permission.”

—-

Mirielle examined the white silk fabric before pursing her lips and looking up at her personal seamstress. “This is unacceptable.”

Michael leaned against the door frame of his sister’s personal fitting room and shook his head. “Good morning, sister.”

Mirielle found his eyes in her mirror and arched an eyebrow. “Oh…are you speaking to me again, my dear brother?”

“This is not a personal visit,” Michael remarked. He glanced at the seamstress who immediately vacated the room, eager to be out of reach of the council leader’s intimidating eyes.

Michael strode into the room, anxious to get this mission completed so that he may get back to his more important duties. He was one of those men who made every turn of his limbs seem rehearsed. He wasted no movement and looked confident whether he was conducting a meeting of the High Council or eating breakfast in his rooms.

When he spoke, people listened. When he walked, people moved out of his way. He was in complete control of every being in the realm.

Except, of course, his sister and her daughter.

“If it is not a personal visit, I cannot imagine what you need then.” Mirielle smoothed her hands over the dress that the seamstress Courtney Matthews had been working on before her brother’s interruption. It was of the finest white silk and cut to emphasize the attributes of her still slender waist and long legs while hiding the slightly wrinkled skin of her chest.

“Jason Morgan has arrived for his visit with your daughter and I wanted to remind you that they are not to be disturbed. You have Elizabeth’s measurements—there is no need for her to attend a fitting today.”

“Whatever you want, darling brother.” Mirielle turned to the side and squinted to see if the dress went far enough down her back. “I would think you would remember who recommended you for the position you currently hold and how it easy it would be for me to change that.”

“And who, I ask, would you replace me with?” Michael asked coldly. “Caroline is only twenty-four. She is set to be the next leader and everyone is already aware of that. But twenty-four is barely old enough to be on the council much less to lead it. You should know better than to let petty problems take precedence over more important matters but since the most important problem you seem to face is whether your white silk is pure enough…” Michael shrugged and gave his sister one his famous cold smiles.

Mirielle narrowed her blue eyes at him and lifted her chin. “You are a bastard, Michael, and it is only through my influence and noble birth that you have the privileges you enjoy.”

“Perhaps it is the reason that I received them, but it is not the reason that I keep them. Remember, Mirielle, do not bother your daughter today. Leave her be.”

—-

Luke Spencer lit his cigar and waited for his son to finish leading his men in a drill. He felt his chest swell with pride as he watched his firstborn commanding the knights in the palace courtyard.

He’d had precious little to be happy about in recent years. The death of his mother two years ago, his daughter Lesley had died of the typhoid fever the winter before last and his wife’s continued emotional problems since that tragedy weighed heavily on the senior council member and it was only Lucas’s continued success that kept the man going.

Finally, Lucas dismissed the knights and joined his father in the box seats reserved for council members during tournaments. “You wished to speak with me, father?” Lucas inquired.

“Yes. We need to speak of your future,” Luke sat down and took another long puff of his cigar before removing it from his mouth. “Now that you are no longer betrothed to the Princess, we must discover an alternate plan that might appease your mother.”

Lucas sighed and looked away. “There is no one that mother would approve of,” he murmured quietly.

“Is there someone she would not approve of?” Luke asked curiously. He followed his son’s gaze and found a group of chamber maids crossing the courtyard. “Ah…son, it is not uncommon to find a peasant girl charming but one never weds them.”

“I know but it seems unfair that the Princess will wed a peasant and it is overlooked simply because they are chosen.”

“Jason Morgan is noble born,” Luke corrected. “He has neither the money nor the desire to live as such.” He stood. “Which one is she, son?”

“The blonde,” Lucas remarked. He gestured towards the group again. “In blue. She is one of the Queen’s personal maids. Summer Holloway.”

“You know that your mother would never consent to a marriage,” Luke told his son with obvious regret. “But if it were up to me, I would give you anything you asked for.”

“Because you truly wish to see me happy or you miss Lesley and are looking for any reason to clear your conscience about not being there when she passed?” Lucas asked shrewdly.

“A little from Column A, a little from Column B.” Luke managed a smile. “I will speak to your mother but I cannot promise anything.”

“I was not expecting even that.” The bells of chapel rang, signaling the top of the hour. “I must take my leave, Father. If you’ll excuse me.”

Late Morning

“My mother said something odd when I told her of our conversation yesterday,” Jason remarked as Elizabeth led him around one of the turns.

“Oh?”

“She said that you didn’t think you were…well…enough for me,” Jason remarked. “She’s wrong, right?”

Elizabeth turned and faced him, walking backwards a little. “I…must admit that she and I discussed it earlier and she has a point. I don’t think I will make you a very good wife, Jason, or even a mother for that matter.”

She disappeared around another corner and Jason took a few extra steps to keep up with her. “Wait a minute, Elizabeth, what does that mean?”

“Well…look at me…” Elizabeth spread her arms at her sides. “What kind of mother or wife would I make? I know nothing about living the life that you do.”

“I know nothing about living your life, either,” Jason pointed out. He reached for her hand and drew her a few inches closer. “I suspect parts of my life will change as much as yours.”

“Well…my mother is already planning a week of grand balls to welcome your family back into the inner circle,” Elizabeth said with a weak smile. “I tried to talk her out of it.”

“Balls,” Jason repeated. “As in dances and parties?”

“Yes. But once those are over…I suspect we would be left alone unless something important happens.” Elizabeth twisted her hands together.

Jason tilted his head to the side. “I don’t believe I have ever danced before.”

She laughed. “You mean…you do not know how?”

It was the first time he’d made her laugh and the knowledge as well as the sound sent a little flush of warmth straight down to his toes. “It is not exactly a skill that you are born with.”

“True but it is not exactly as hard as riding a horse,” Elizabeth remarked.

“Have you have ever ridden a horse?” Jason asked pointedly.

She laughed again and flushed. “Well, no. But how hard can it be?”

“What about a trade?” he suggested. “You teach me how to dance for one of these parties and I will teach you to ride a horse.”

“All right,” Elizabeth agreed.

“So, where do my hands go?” Jason asked. She blinked as if surprised he’d meant teach him now but after a moment, she changed her grip on his one hand and drew his other one around her waist.

“Typically, the male leads,” Elizabeth said, setting her hand on her shoulder. “But until you know how…I do not wish for my toes to be crushed.”

“You are so little, I would do more than crush your toes,” Jason remarked and it was true. His entire hand spanned the small of her back and his hand engulfed hers. Her head barely came to his shoulders and at this close range she had to tilt her head all the way back to look at him.

Elizabeth frowned. “I hate my height,” she complained. “It makes people think that I am nothing more than a little girl. Okay, follow my lead.”

She took a step back with her left foot and he followed with his right. “You kind of just do that but swing in a circle,” she told him, moving a little as she stepped with her other foot. “You always start with your left.”

“Yes, but I started with my right,” Jason pointed out.

“Because you are not leading at this moment.” She stepped again and Jason stumbled a little. “Count it…one, two, three, one, two, and three…”

He counted under his breath and when he stumbled again, it brought her just an inch or two closer and she was near enough for the scent of her hair to fill his nostrils. “You smell nice,” he blurted out.

“What?” Elizabeth asked, concentrating on her feet and keeping them out of range of his.

“Nothing,” Jason mumbled. After a few more moments, he seemed to pick up the rhythm. “This is not so hard.”

“This is just a simple waltz,” Elizabeth pointed out. “I have not shown you a more complicated dance.” She stopped. “Okay, you lead. Left first.”

He stepped forward with his left foot and she followed. He’d known she would but it still felt strangely pleasing and he wanted to do this right for her. He counted under his breath and he only stumbled once but he didn’t step on her toes at all.

“With a little more practice, I think you will almost be good,” she teased. “You are a little stiff in your movements but it is fine. Most men at these parties are stiff anyway,” she joked.

“Thank you,” Jason said, “for teaching me.” He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. He realized that he wanted to kiss her and he hadn’t felt that particular need since Caroline had left him.

He stepped away then, releasing her. “I presume that if we went to the stables, your parents would find out about it?”

“Yes. I assumed that part of our bargain would have to wait,” Elizabeth replied. “There is still so much of the maze to show you—”

“We could use my aunt’s stables,” Jason suggested. “It is only fair since you have shown me to dance.”

Elizabeth hesitated. “If my mother should go by my rooms and not find me…” she trailed off.  “I suppose I could ask Alexis to tell her that she requested my company. Would she do that?”

“Yes, I think that she would.” Jason offered her his arm and Elizabeth wound hers through his and they left the maze.

—-

Emily hummed under her breath as she wandered one of the many abandoned wings in the palace. When Rhigwyn had been warring constantly with neighboring kingdoms, the palace had offered refuge for those who lived in the border lands. But once peace came, these rooms were abandoned.

It was truly one of the few areas in the entire palace where Emily could be alone in her thoughts. No one ventured here any longer, not even the chamber maids and often Emily would be covered head to toe in dust when she emerged.

But to escape her suffocating life—it was worth it.

She trailed her fingers over the cool red bricks used to build the hallways. This was not the grand mahogany walls of the main wings but the hasty building of carpenters eager to shelter those rendered homeless by the wars.

Her own family home had been built with bricks like these and if she closed her eyes, she could almost believe she was back there—helping her grandmother in the gardens or reading with her grandfather in the library.

Footsteps echoed in the distant corridors but Emily paid no heed, only wandered further into the wings.

There was an old makeshift library here, created by some of the more literate peasants who’d stayed here. When they’d vacated the palace and returned to rebuild their homes, they’d left many books and Emily passed the time in that room quite often.

She went there now and pulled open one of the large windows, shoving the dusty tapestry aside so that the sun might give her both light and warmth. She’d cleaned the room up a bit since she’d discovered it during one of her walks. She crossed to the settee and picked up the book she’d been reading the previous day, a romance about a prince and a peasant girl.

She was so immersed in her reading that she never heard his footsteps approach the room or saw him stand in the doorway.

Nikolas had come to their rooms once when she’d been on one of her walks and for some reason, he could not get it out of his head that he wanted to see her. He’d searched many of the places he’d assumed she would be and was scouring the maze when he had seen movement in an area of the palace few frequented. He had concentrated on that window for a moment and then there she was pulling it open.

By his recollection, she went to the small library-like room a few times a week. He followed her when he had the chance. Not just to look at her but to watch over her. There were weak spots in the floor by those rooms and he was always afraid she might fall through.

But he would not deny he envied the relaxation and peace she found in here—away from him, away from the life she lead daily. He had yet to find an escape such as that.

Nikolas was about to move and leave her in peace when his foot hit a creaking board. Her head snapped up and when she caught sight of him, she scrambled to her feet.

“My lord, I did not—I did not hear your approach.” She marked her place and set the book aside. “How did you know where to find me?”

There was no mistaking the disappointment in her voice—disappointment that her private heaven had been discovered and was no longer her own secret.

“I have known for a while that you come here. I did not mean to disturb you, Emily,” Nikolas said, careful to keep his tone as polite and formal as she kept her own. It did little good to be friendly with her or pretend that they were anything more than awkward acquaintances thrust into a marriage.

“Then…then why did you come if you need nothing?” she asked suspiciously. “I did not think I was not allowed in this area but if that is true—”

“This is your home,” Nikolas told her yet again, growing tiresome of explaining that fact to her. “You are free to roam wherever you like. But I should caution you that some of the flooring is weak and I…I like to check on you so that I know you have not fallen through.”

Pleased that he would take time out of his day to do so, she smiled warmly. “That is very kind of you, my lord.” Emily wiped her dusty hands on her dress and cleared her throat, finding the tension in the room to be more thick than uncomfortable.

“I will leave you to your book then,” Nikolas told her after another moment. He turned back at the doorway. “You know…I enjoy reading as well. Perhaps…one day I might join you?”

“Whatever you wish, my lord,” Emily said politely.

His shoulders slumped and he sighed deeply. “Good day, Emily.”

—-

Skye Chandler set another stack of papers in front of Jasper Jacks. “How much more of this must we go through?” she sighed dejectedly.

“As much as Michael commands,” Caroline remarked from the other side of the council table, flipping through her own paperwork. “He wishes nothing to go wrong this week. So much is at stake.”

“I agree that we must be extra cautious but surely we need not do so much research,” Skye replied, taking a seat next to Jasper.

“You do not find the history of our kingdom interesting?” Jasper spoke up. He slid an aged document in front of her. “That is the wedding license of Sir Harold Morgan, the first captain of the guard.”

“Fascinating,” Skye said dryly. She slid it back. “I do not see what that has to do with the Dawning.”

“Skye, you certainly have not been paying attention. Harold Morgan’s first born son was the chosen man a thousand years ago,” Caroline dictated. “Michael wishes us to discover a pattern and this is the first link we have made.”

“Granted it is very interesting that one of Jason’s ancestors was chosen but records indicate that the girl was a mere peasant whose noble line had passed years ago. How can she be connected to the Princess?”

“Perhaps she is not,” Jasper said. “We perhaps may be looking at it wrong. The peasant girl might represent Jason this time while the second captain of the guard might represent the Princess.”

“Do we have any records of Dawnings previous to that one?” Skye asked, finally intrigued by their mission.

“Two thousand years ago, the pair was both noble born and of high society,” a new voice declared. AJ closed the door behind him and strode towards the table, taking a seat one over from Caroline. “She was the Princess Adelaide and he was Hugh Quartermaine, grandson of the head of the council. So perhaps there is no pattern.”

“You are late,” Caroline said airily.

“This is a waste of our time and resources,” AJ said sharply. “I took my time in coming because I was seeing to other things. I doubt that I missed much.”

“Well, at least we will be able provide future generations with a more clear record,” Skye said. She picked up her quill and began transcribing some of the notes Jasper had made. The two made an excellent team—he did the research and she put it into order. Michael had assigned them to this task and then added Caroline to supervise. AJ was an afterthought and everyone was aware of that fact.

“Did your seamstress fix your dress?” AJ asked Caroline in an almost snide manner.

“Yes,” Caroline replied stiffly. She leaned across the table and took one of Jasper’s stacks from him. “Michael is considering another betrothal for Lucas Spencer and he was hoping for some opinions.”

Skye glanced up momentarily. “What business is it of the council’s whom Sir Lucas marries?”

“I suppose since Michael feels guilty about breaking the betrothal between Lucas and the Princess.”

AJ snorted. “Unlikely. Michael prefers to control everything that goes on in Rhigwyn. He would regulate a man and woman sharing the marital bed if he could.”

Caroline sent a scathing glare in his direction. “You are crude,” she accused.

“I am also right.”

“You are also pig-headed and without a doubt, the most useless man I have ever laid eyes on!” Caroline raged.

“Pardon the lady but she has just been informed she is destined by to be a spinster and I believe it is weighing on her a bit,” AJ told Skye and Jasper in a confiding yet malicious tone.

Caroline stood abruptly and cleared her throat. “I do not believe my presence is required here any longer,” she murmured. She excused herself and left the room.

“She could not have gone any more quickly if she’d been running.” Skye glared at AJ. “You have no right to speak to her as you do.”

“She will have to develop a thicker skin if she entertains the idea of leading the council one day.”

Jasper glanced up from one of the ledgers he was now poring over. His jade green eyes found AJ’s darker ones and he smirked. “You do have the oddest way of courting a lady.”

AJ frowned. “I beg your pardon?”

“Of course,” Skye murmured. “You know, I do believe the art of wooing a woman by insulting her is no longer useful after the age of nine, my Lord Quartermaine.”

“You two are ridiculous,” AJ muttered. He stood and exited the room.

“Good, now that they are gone, perhaps we might get some real work done,” Jasper said.

——-

“She seems so lonely,” Susan murmured, sipping the tea that her sister had given her.

Alexis sat on the luxurious sofa in her sitting room and nodded. “She is. She is close to her brother but with Nikolas’s marriage and his responsibilities to his father, it is hard for him to find time for her. And her mother only showed interest when she was to marry Lucas.”

“I could not imagine treating my beloved Chloe as an afterthought or go keep her locked in her rooms, lovely as though they may be. I feel that Elizabeth would do well in my home, with people who care for her.”

Alexis smiled. “Anyone would do well in your home. Do you think that Elizabeth will be the one to make Jason forget Caroline Benson?”

“I dearly hope so for Caroline could never understand his love for the land, for his home and family. I cannot discern if Elizabeth wishes to merely escape the palace or if she truly believes she has no say in where she will live.”

“Raised by Mirielle, it would not surprise me if it were both,” Alexis remarked. “Perhaps you should try and get a better reading in her mind.”

Susan shook her head. “I will not prod where I am not wanted. It is enough for me to know that Elizabeth will eventually grow to love my son.” Her blue eyes grew distant. “And he will love her,” she continued in a softer voice. “Despite many obstacles.”

When Susan blinked, Alexis knew her visions had ended. “Do you suppose you might have to tell Elizabeth of your abilities?”

“Eventually, if she is going to live in my home, yes. I do not fear she will tell the wrong people. She does not strike me as one to be afraid of such a thing.”

“My lady, Jason Morgan has arrived in the company of the princess,” her butler Reginald called from the doorway. “Shall I show them in?”

“Oh…he cannot be ready to leave just yet,” Susan remarked mournfully. “I so rarely get a chance to visit you in your home.”

“Yes, show them in, Reginald,” Alexis replied. She looked at her sister. “If you are not ready to leave, say so. I do not think that is the reason for this visit. Elizabeth has never been to my home before. In fact, she has never been outside the palace walls.”

Jason entered and the sisters were pleasantly surprised to see Elizabeth trailing after him, their hands entwined. “Aunt Alexis, I was wondering if we might have the use of two of your horses.”

“My horses?” Alexis hesitated and looked at the princess. “But you have never ridden, my lady.”

“It is part of an agreement that Jason and I have,” Elizabeth answered. “I am teaching him to dance and he has promised to teach me to ride.”

“My son, learning how to dance…” Susan’s eyes twinkled. “Well, if you’d wanted to know…you could have asked me.”

“Well…apparently the queen is planning a week of parties and I only found out about it a little while ago. The princess was there and it seemed wise at the time.”

Alexis laughed. “Oh, Susan, I neglected to tell you of Mirielle’s grand plans to welcome you and your family back into society.” She looked back at the young couple. “You may have the use of the horses. Ask Kyle to ready them. But be careful, my lady, as you do not want your mother to know that you have been riding.”

“If she asks, will you tell her you requested my company? I do not think she would approve of me being outside the gardens otherwise,” Elizabeth asked hesitantly.

“Of course,” Alexis replied with a smile.

—-

Kyle was brushing down Zeus when the princess and Jason entered the stables. He did not know Jason by sight but everyone knew the princess. He caught sight of her and hastily dropped his eyes. “My lady,” he said nervously. “I did not know you were coming.”

Elizabeth hesitated and glanced at Jason, unsure of what to say or how to handle this situation.

“You are Kyle?” Jason inquired. “My aunt has given us permission for the use of two of her horses. The princess requires a gentle mount and it does not matter what I ride.”

“Y-yes, sir,” Kyle mumbled as he moved to bridle two of the horses. When he was out of ear shot, some of the tension bled from her body.

“I am never quite sure how to handle moments like that,” she admitted. “I rarely come across people that I do not know.”

“How long do you suppose we will have before you must return to your rooms?” Jason asked as Kyle brought one of the horses towards them.

“On a good day, my mother does not come to check on me and Gia will never breathe a word to anyone. She is very loyal to me. So…you might say we have the rest of the day.”

“Good.”

Once both horses were ready, Jason helped Elizabeth sit in the side saddle of the smaller horse. “Grip the reins like this, all right?”

“All right,” Elizabeth said nervously. Jason swung up onto his own horse and brought it next to hers.

“We’re going to start slowly,” he told her. “Bring the reins back a little and give just a tiny kick to the horse’s side. She will move into a walk.”

Elizabeth did so and after a few tries, Jason had them both on the long dusty road, trotting. “This is not so bad.”

“No, you catch on very quickly,” Jason praised. “I have a surprise for you.”

“A surprise?” Elizabeth asked, startled as she looked at him. “What sort of surprise?”

“This is the road that leads to my family home. I thought you might like to see the house and meet my siblings,” Jason told her.

Elizabeth’s eyes lit up. “We are going all the way to your land? Really?”

“Yes. So when you return home tonight, you will have gone far and beyond the palace walls,” Jason replied, pleased with the exuberant smile she’d given him. “It should not take too long and I will have you home by dark I should think if the weather holds.”

Afternoon

“Alexander!”

“Ow,” Alexander muttered. His sister’s shout had startled him and he’d slipped, smacking his hand against the fence post he was repairing. “Chloe, how many times has Jason asked you not to do that?”

“Sorry. But Jason is riding up the road and he has a female rider with him that is not Mother,” Chloe announced gleefully. “He is also just trotting which makes me think he has the princess.”

“Why would Jason bring the princess here?” Alexander asked. “Are you sure that it was not Mother with him?”

“Yes,” Chloe said, rolling her eyes. “He took Mother in the wagon, remember? He is on a separate horse. Come…if it is the princess, he will want us to meet her.”

Alexander set his tools down and obediently followed his sister to the front of the house. True enough—Jason was making his way through the entrance to their farm with a young female rider.

A few moments later, they’d arrived in front of the house. Jason got off his horse and then moved to help the girl. He slid his hands around her waist and slowly slid her to the ground.

“That was not so bad, was it?” Alexander heard Jason ask. The girl laughed and shook her head.

“Jason, we were not expecting you home so soon,” Chloe called impatiently. “Where is Mother?”

“Still visiting with Aunt Alexis.” Jason tugged the girl towards the porch. “And I am just showing Elizabeth the house.”

“So this is the princess?” Chloe asked. She nodded. “It is a great pleasure to meet you, my lady.”

“Chloe, Alexander, this is Elizabeth,” Jason introduced. “Elizabeth, these are my siblings.”

“Jason has told me so many wonderful things about you,” Elizabeth remarked. “Please—do not treat me with such respect that I have not yet earned.”

Alexander smiled and met his brother’s eyes. Elizabeth was very beautiful, indeed and he could tell Jason was smitten. “Well, then if Jason has brought you for a tour, let us begin it.”

“It is not as nice as the palace,” Chloe said shyly as she pushed open the front door to their home and led Elizabeth inside.

True—it was neither luxurious nor lavish, but the simple furniture was handmade, the home self-decorated and Elizabeth could feel the love flooding from every corner of the living room. “No…it is so much better,” she breathed, taking it all in with huge eyes.

“Better?” Chloe repeated. She traded a confused look with Alexander. “My lady?”

“It is one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever been in,” Elizabeth explained as she crossed to one of the large windows. Sunshine streamed into the room, lighting every corner. “It is full of memories…you do not have to know those memories to know that they are here.”

Chloe beamed as Elizabeth’s fingertips brushed over the rocking chair in the corner with reverence. “I made that,” she announced, proudly. “It is a little crooked but Mother refused to throw it out.”

“You made this?” Elizabeth blinked. “I did not realize women could do something such as this…how did you get the wood to bend without breaking?” she asked in awe.

“You steam it,” Alexander informed her. “So that it is slightly malleable. Perhaps…Jason could show you one day.”

Jason took Elizabeth’s elbow and directed her into another room—the largest in the house actually— the dining room. “These are the first pieces of furniture that my father made for my mother after their marriage,” he told her. “And they are still the strongest pieces in the house.”

“It is beautiful…I have never seen anything like it.” Elizabeth touched the surface of the long table. “Oak, yes?”

“Strongest of the woods,” Alexander said, staring at the princess in wonder as she took in their home. He could not understand how such a refined and polished young woman could find such delight in their shabby furniture and dilapidated home. Was she trying to impress Jason?

Elizabeth suddenly became aware of the trio’s odd looks and she flushed with embarrassment, ducking her head. “You must think that I am so strange.”

“Not strange…but my lady, you must have so many more beautiful possessions in the palace,” Chloe blurted out. “How can you think these are better?”

“Because they are,” Elizabeth stated, uncomfortably. “You have made them yourselves. Things are always more beautiful when there is that certain pride attached to them. I can do nothing more than draw but even I felt a little proud of myself when I managed to frame a few of my canvases.”

“You draw?” Jason asked. “You said nothing of this.”

“I do not tell everyone. It seemed easier since I was planning on giving it up after I marry,” Elizabeth admitted. She clasped her hands nervously. “I am not very good but it is a way to pass the time.”

“Why would you give it up?” Alexander questioned.

“Because the man I was planning on marrying commanded it,” Elizabeth remarked. “He said that I would be too busy raising our family for such a silly past time.”

“That is ridiculous,” Chloe said scornfully. “I would never let a man order me around like I was a dog.”

Chloe’s comment was not intended to hurt her, but it stung nonetheless and her shoulders stiffened. She cleared her throat. “Perhaps we should start back,” she said, her voice distant and devoid of emotion. She moved away from the siblings and a few moments later, the front door gently shut.

Jason closed his eyes. “Chloe…”

“Jason, come on,” Chloe sighed. “She was just being strange. Looking around at our home like she thinks it is better than the palace.”

“She was obviously just trying to gain our confidence,” Alexander remarked. “Noble cause but it was embarrassing watching her fawn over simple furniture like that. Jason, you might want to tell her she need not try so hard.”

“She was not trying,” Jason retorted. “She was being honest. And you were unnecessarily cruel to her, Chloe, when all she was doing was complimenting our home. You did not grow up in the way that she did.”

“Jason,” Chloe protested. “She’s a princess. I think it is s a lovely idea for you two to marry but we must be realistic. She is not suited for this life. Yes—maybe she thinks these things are charming now but it will not take her long to want to change them.”

He shook his head. “I want the two of you remain in this house until Elizabeth and I leave. I promised to show her the land. She has never been outside the palace walls and I will not allow the two of you to ruin this.”

He turned and followed Elizabeth out of the house. He found her standing stiffly on the porch. “Elizabeth?”

“I am sorry if I was rude,” she remarked softly not looking at him.

“You have nothing to apologize for.” Jason took her hand and pulled her off the porch. “Come, you wanted to see the barn right?”

“I was not lying inside,” Elizabeth told him as they crossed the distance between the house and the barn. “I really think your home is beautiful.”

“I know.” Jason led her inside the large structure. “What do you want to see first?”

She tilted her head up, taking in the high ceilings before turning side to side, taking in the many stabled animals. “There are so many,” she murmured. She moved towards one of the larger fenced in pens where there was a large bull. She kept her distance warily.

“He will not hurt you,” Jason said, stepping behind her. “As long as he doesn’t feel you’re intruding on his personal space. We keep him around for breeding purposes.”

“I know how he feels,” Elizabeth remarked ruefully before wandering towards some of the milk cows. “Sketches in books really do not do them justice,” she told him. “They are so much…bigger in person.” She reached a hand out but hesitated. “Can I touch her?”

Jason took her hand in his and placed it on the top of one of the cows. “They are gentle unless you give them reason not to be.”

His hand felt warm on hers and the contact sent tingles down her spine. Elizabeth could feel his body pressed against her back. She wondered if what she was feeling was what she’d described to her brother the other day.

 

“I have yet to find someone who makes my blood run hot and all of the nerve endings in my skin stand on end. I want someone who excites me, who challenges me…”

She turned abruptly, finding their faces only inches apart. “Jason?” she asked hesitantly.

He knew he should step back and give her some space but he found his feet unable to move. This woman had been in his life for a barely three days and yet—it felt so much longer. He had met Robin Scorpio a handful of times and she had never made him feel this way—unsure and nervous. His skin felt as though it were stretched too tightly over his bones. He could not think, could not concentrate on anything other than the fact she was a few inches away.

His light blue eyes had darkened a little and that bewildered her. She licked her lips nervously; her heart skipped a beat and then started pounding in her chest as she saw his eyes drop to her mouth and then rise back to her eyes. “Could…could…” she hesitated.  “Could you kiss me?”

Jason blinked as if hardly able to believe she’d voiced that desire. Had she been reading his mind? He hesitantly brought his hands up and cupped her face. He was so much larger than she was and her cheeks almost disappeared under his grasp.

His touch felt even better now, Elizabeth decided. But he was hesitating—almost as if he seemed reluctant to acquiesce. Maybe he didn’t want to kiss her—maybe she’d misread the entire encounter.

But she hadn’t and a few seconds later, his lips brushed hers. Once, twice. The third time, his mouth settled on hers. Elizabeth closed her eyes. She felt so aware of everything around her right now—the calloused feeling of his hands on her smooth skin, his hot breath against her face, the coarse texture of his shirt as her hands curled into its sleeves.

Elizabeth decided that she could stay right here for the rest of her life. But another moment later, Jason pulled away and took a deep breath. “We should probably get you back to the palace.”

Elizabeth frowned and shook her head. “But—”

“I should not have done that and I apologize,” Jason said stiffly. He stepped back, placing much needed distance between them. “One should have more respect for someone of your station.”

“My station?” Elizabeth echoed, bewildered. Tears stung her eyes. “I thought we had gotten past that—am I still only the princess to you?”

“You are what you are,” Jason said. “And who you are…is a girl who does not understand what you asked of me.”

“What nonsense are you speaking?” she demanded. “I asked you to kiss me. I understand what I asked you and what is more, I would do it again. Why are you saying these things, Jason?”

Jason shook his head. “I cannot—I cannot explain it, Elizabeth. I am not trying to hurt you, I promise. Please…I need to take you home before it gets dark.”

“I am not going anywhere until you tell me what I did wrong,” Elizabeth said stubbornly.

Jason took a deep breath. “You did nothing wrong. It is just…it…you’re very beautiful and sometimes…an innocent kiss turns into something more. And it just—” he dragged a hand through his hair. “I do not know what I’m saying, Elizabeth. I just do not think we should have done that.”

“All right,” she cautiously. “We will not do it again then. You’re right. We should get back.”

Bowing her head, she moved past him and left the barn.

—-

“It is our recommendation there is no tangible link between those who are chosen and those who will be chosen,” Skye concluded.

Michael nodded. “I’d still like you to continue looking into it. There is always more to learn,” he advised. He cleared his throat. “Matters of the Dawning are under control so I feel that it is safe to move on to other business. As you know, due to the Dawning, Sir Lucas Spencer finds himself without a betrothal.”

“As I said to others earlier, I do not see where this is your concern,” AJ remarked.

“Lord Spencer asked for my approval,” Michael informed the other man with a glare. “He felt that if the marriage were approved and blessed by the council, it might not be met with scorn.”

Laura Spencer frowned and straightened in her seat. “I have not heard of a new possibility for Lucas’s wife.” She glared at her husband. “You talked to Michael before coming to me?”

Luke cleared his throat. “Well, I knew that you would refuse and I did not want to take that chance.”

“Why would I refuse?” Laura asked haughtily.

“Sir Lucas Spencer wishes to marry a woman who is not suitable by our standards but it is a woman whom he loves and I will make it clear that she is a good woman.” Michael cleared his throat. “Very lovely and from a good family…but she is a working woman and works here in the palace.”

“Absolutely not,” Laura fumed. “My son will marry a lady. If he cannot have the Princess, he will have someone of her status.”

“Angel,” Luke began softly as he put a hand on top of hers. She yanked it away. “He wishes to marry one of the Queen’s personal maids. Her name is Summer Holloway and I approached Michael before the meeting, hoping he would see fit to arrange this.”

“Lucas will not marry a maid,” Laura said scathingly. “That is the end of it.”

“I understand, Lady Spencer. However, now that Luke has brought the rest of the council into it, it is not the end of it. Rather—it is only the beginning. Luke, you may tell your son he has permission to wed Miss Holloway. I will speak with my sister personally and release the girl from her employ.”

“Thank you, Michael,” Luke said graciously.

They moved on to other matters but Laura sat still and silent as a statue—furious.

—-

“This is unacceptable,” Laura seethed as she stormed into Barbara’s sitting room. All council members had their own set of rooms in the palace but few made use of them unless council meetings ran late.

Barbara arched an eyebrow. “Lady Spencer, I was not expecting you.”

“How can you sit there calmly while your ward faces the same situation as my son?” Laura demanded. “My son to wed a commoner,” she moaned.

Barbara shook her head. “Robin is in no danger of such an event. She was to marry Jason Morgan and he is barely above a peasant. I am sorry that you have so little control over your son, Laura but I do not see why you are coming to me.”

“It is Jason Morgan’s fault,” Laura said, ignoring most of Barbara’s statement. “If not for him, my son would wed the Princess.”

“Laura,” Barbara began.

“I need your help,” Laura decided. “I must get rid of Jason Morgan and then it will all be okay again. With Jason out of the picture, Michael will have to set a wedding for my son to your ward. She is not the Princess but she is far better than some maid.”

Alarmed, Barbara stood. “I will grant you no help whatsoever and furthermore, I am going to Michael this instant—”

Laura wrapped her hand around Barbara’s arm and whirled around her around. “Do you remember who supported you when you made your petition to take Anthony’s council seat?”

“So?” Barbara asked. “What does that have to do with this?”

“Do you remember whom you came to when you were with child—a child who was not Anthony’s?” Laura continued shrewdly.

Barbara paled. “You said you would never speak of her.”

“I will not—if you grant me your allegiance. You have more to gain than lose, my dear Barbara,” Laura told her. “Your ward, the chosen. You will never want for anything.”

“It is not right, Laura,” Barbara replied nervously. “We should not plot against the wishes of the council.”

“Michael cares nothing for us, only for the little twits who follow him blindly. He is the reason I have lost everything!” Laura raged.

Barbara cleared her throat and looked away, stalling for time. She remembered all too well the emergency council meeting that had taken place the winter before last. Laura and Luke had been forced to leave their young daughter in the care of her nanny, though Lesley was suffering from typhoid fever. She died while her parents were gone.

Since her death, Laura had become increasingly unstable and was no longer allowed to make decisions on the council. But out of respect for her and her family, she was not removed.

She was not in her right mind as she spoke of plans to rid Rhigwyn of Jason Morgan and yet, Barbara knew she must protect her own secret at any cost. Four years previous, she’d become pregnant with one of her stable hand’s children. Laura Spencer had been one of her few allies in society and she’d arranged for Barbara to deliver the child in secret. She never knew what became of her daughter.

To protect herself, her position and perhaps even her young ward, Barbara found herself considering Laura’s plan.

“What will it be?” Laura demanded. “Who are you loyal to?”

Barbara hesitated only briefly. “You, my lady,” she whispered.

“Good. We will act immediately.”

Evening

Emily nervously knocked on the bedroom door and immediately took a step back when Nikolas pulled it open. He frowned, seeing his wife standing there. “Emily…why are you knocking on our own door?”

“I thought you might be busy,” Emily said softly. She sighed and looked at the floor. “Gia is here—she says that your sister has requested to speak with you at your earliest convenience.”

Nikolas nodded and stepped into the sitting room. “Emily, what have I said or done that you makes you so nervous around me?”

“I—nothing, my lord,” Emily said. She clasped her hands behind her back. “I apologize.”

Nikolas sighed in frustration and closed their door. “Six months, Emily. Six months since our marriage and you still do not call me Nikolas unless I prompt you. You’re skittish when I enter the room, you never look me in the eye and when we sleep at night…” his voice broke, “you sleep so close to the edge of the bed, that I think you might almost fall off one night.”

Emily lowered her eyes. “I am but sixteen a-and the first day that I saw you, it was the day we wed. I apologize for my behavior, my lord, but I do not understand why it bothers you so. I do not—I do not fight you when you wish to exercise your marital rights and I make no demands on your time.”

“Exercise my marital rights,” Nikolas repeated softly. “I did not realize it was such a chore for you, my lady. I had always assumed you…that you did not mind.” He took a deep breath. “All right. There is no need for an heir at this moment. My father and I are both healthy. You are released from your obligations until one is needed. I shall find other sleeping arrangements.”

Emily blinked. “My lord—”

“Nikolas,” he blurted out. He took her shoulders and gripped them tightly. “My name is Nikolas, Emily.”

“N-Nikolas,” Emily said softly. “You are scaring me.”

Instantly, he released her and stepped back. “I—I am sorry. I should go see to my sister.”

He hurried from the room and Emily found her way to one of the chairs at their breakfast table. Her hands were shaking and she clenched them into fists to stop the movement.

He hadn’t been angry, she belatedly realized. Upset—not angry. She didn’t realize that her behavior had been so—so extreme. And…the nights when he touched her—made love to her…those had been the good nights. She hadn’t let him do it—she’d participated. Why—why had she brought those moments up to him?

She had been so scared of her future as his wife—as the newly anointed princess of the realm and the future queen that she hadn’t concentrated on being a wife to her husband in the present.

She took a deep breath. Well—that ended tonight. She would…she would fix this and make him understand that she was sorry.

——

“My lady, the prince is here to speak with you,” Gia said, knocking on the open bedroom door. Elizabeth set her sketch pad aside and moved into the sitting room where her brother was waiting.

“Thank you, Gia. That will be all for the night.”

Gia frowned. “But you have not changed for the night, my lady.”

“After my marriage, I do not think I will require a maid with me,” Elizabeth informed her. “The Morgan Estate is lovely but I will hardly gain the respect of my future family if I bring a maid along with me.”

Gia paled. “But what shall become of me?”

“My wife could use a handmaiden,” Nikolas volunteered. “She has yet to find one that suits her since she had to leave her own behind at her family home.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Gia said. “I will leave you then.” She exited the room.

“I could grow to hate that title,” he murmured.

Elizabeth nodded. “I sympathize. If Jason calls me ‘my lady’ just once more, I believe I will truly scream.” She sat on her sofa. “Does Emily still speak to you so formally?”

“She knocked on our bedroom door, tonight, Elizabeth. Knocked on the door to the room we share as man and wife.” Nikolas started to pace. “I—I broke tonight. I asked her—I had to know what I had done to make her act that way around me. Yes at first, perhaps I understand why. But six months and—I thought she enjoyed at least the…private moments in…” he flushed. “Well, you know of what I speak.”

“Yes, I do,” Elizabeth frowned. “Nikolas—did she say something about it?”

“She did not know why her behavior bothered me. Said that she did fight me when I wanted to exercise my marital rights and she made no demands on my time.” He shook his head. “I love her, Elizabeth and I would do anything for her. There is no need for an heir so I will sleep elsewhere until the time comes and once we have a child to inherit the throne…I will arrange for her to return to her home.”

“Nikolas—” Elizabeth stood and crossed to him. “What you want matters too. You love her—say so. Just because we have royal blood in our veins it does not negate us as human beings. I am so sick of pretending that I am something that I am not.”

Nikolas frowned and took his sister’s hand. “Did something happen today?”

“Jason came again,” she told him. “He brought his mother and she is so wonderful, Nikolas. She loves him so dearly and I am so jealous that he has her while I have…Mother…” Elizabeth looked away. “He asked to see the maze and we were talking and he mentioned that he did not know how to dance so I offered to teach him and he agreed. And in return, he would teach me to ride a horse.”

“That sounds promising. At least you are able to converse with your intended.”

“It seemed so much better than yesterday,” Elizabeth continued. “He even took me to their home so that I could see the house and meet his siblings—but they—they treat me like I am some sort of…strange object to be stared at. Their home is so beautiful, Nikolas. Everything is hand-crafted and made with so much love…but when I tried to compliment them…and then I mentioned that Lucas expected me to give up my drawings…” Elizabeth’s eyes flooded with tears. “I just…how am I to live with people who resent me?”

“Come here.” Nikolas enfolded her into his embrace. “It’s all right, it’s all right…”

“But that is not even the worst of it. I thought…Jason had at least…accepted me…we were in the barn a-and I asked him to kiss me.” Her cheeks flushed. “He did and Nikolas—it was everything I had wanted it to be. You remember what I told you about my blood running hot and my nerves and standing on end?”

“And this Jason Morgan makes this happen?” Nikolas asked smoothing her hair from her forehead.

Elizabeth nodded miserably. “Yes, but he—he just…he stopped and then he said it should not have happened. He apologized and said someone of my station deserved more respect.”

“Oh…Elizabeth…”

“And I did not really understand that—I asked him why he was saying these things—he told me that I didn’t understand what I had asked of him—he told me that I was very beautiful and that sometimes an innocent kiss led to more. And then he told me he did not know what he saying. He brought me home then and the last I saw of him was at the stables before Alexis escorted me home.” Elizabeth grasped his hands tightly. “What did he mean, Nikolas?”

“It is simple, my dear sister. You are so young and sheltered. You do not understand what runs through the male mind.” Nikolas sighed. “It is not that he did not want to kiss you but he was afraid of what would have happened if he did not stop or if he did it again.”

“I do…I do not understand,” Elizabeth shook her head.

“He desires you, Elizabeth. He wants to do more than kiss you and he knows that it is not appropriate before marriage especially since you are the chosen two and consummation of your relationship must take place on that night.”

“Why did he just not state that?” Elizabeth sighed. “Why did he have to make me feel so unwanted and rejected?”

“Perhaps he is not accustomed to these feelings or maybe he did not know how to put it into words. I’m sure his intention was not to hurt you.” Nikolas sighed. “As for his family…I wish I could say that time will help but as you can see…it has not done so for me.”

“Perhaps she will come around,” Elizabeth remarked hopefully.

“Perhaps.”

——

When Nikolas reentered his sitting room, he frowned. The room was dimly lit by a few candles scattered around. “Emily?” he called.

The bedroom door opened and his wife peeked out. “Oh…y-you are back sooner than I thought.”

“I—” he swallowed hard at the sight of her dressed for bed in her usual thin cotton nightgown. “I just need to get a few things and I will sleep out here tonight.”

“No,” Emily blurted out. She stepped into the sitting room. “I don’t want you to sleep anywhere but our room,” she said softly.

Nikolas frowned. “Emily, I do not understand—”

“I have been living in terror since the moment my mother told me that the man I had been betrothed to was you…the heir to the throne. Not in terror of you,” Emily added quickly seeing the pain flash in his eyes. “But of what it means for me.”

“Emily…I apologize but I am not following you.”

Emily glanced away and twisted the slim gold wedding band around her finger. “One day, you will become king a-and that will make me the queen.”

Nikolas felt some of the tension bleed from his shoulders. “So it was not me—it was our position, or the one we will hold one day.”

“Yes. All of my life…you have been one thing to me. The crown prince. When we saw one another at balls and social events…I was always expected to treat you as such and now…you are my husband, the man I am expected to share everything with—not just my body, but my heart and my soul and it is a very difficult transition, Nikolas. I just…I did not expect you to be hurt by my distance.”

“I thought it was something that I had done,” Nikolas admitted. “That perhaps…you were not happy with me, in particular. I do not think of my role as prince or future king very often, Emily. It is part of who I am, but not all of it.”

“You have been wonderful to me…in every way,” Emily hesitated, “I did not mean what I said earlier. It is not as though I detested the nights we have spent together.” Her cheeks flushed. “It is rather the opposite of that a-and I thought I might prove that to you tonight.” She stepped towards him and nervously raised her hands to his chest.

He caught her trembling hands in his. “You have nothing to prove to me, Emily.”

Emily’s chocolate brown eyes met his caramel ones and she saw the desire and the longing in them and hoped he recognized the same in her own gaze. Standing this close to him, she could feel the slight tremors in his own body and it helped her relax a little. “Then let me show you,” she whispered. She stood on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his smooth warm ones.

He released her hands and gripped her shoulders to draw her closer. She was giving herself to him completely this time—in a way she hadn’t before. He tore his mouth from hers and trailed it down her slender neck. Her breath was hot against his face and she was panting by the time he reached the neckline of her nightgown. “I love you,” she murmured.

He pulled away and looked into her eyes, stunned. “Do you really?” he asked.

“Y-yes,” Emily stammered.

The last of the tension left his body and Nikolas leaned his forehead against hers. “I love you, too,” he confided. He bent down and swept her into his arms before carrying her into their bedroom.

Comments

  • Oh this was so good. Innocents is hard to live with. And when no one is willing to talk and tell the other person what they want or like, problems of misunderstanding occur

    According to leasmom on March 29, 2014