Caroline set some papers in front of Michael and took her seat at the council table. “I cannot believe you handled it on your own,” she chastised. “It feels as though you did not trust us.”
“I did not trust you,” Michael informed her wearily. “I could only trust Alexis because it was her family at risk. I did not know who the rogue in the council was and I took the necessary steps to protect them.”
Caroline sighed. “Still, it does not surprise me Lady Spencer was behind this treachery. She and Lady Jones have been off center most of the week. What will be done about them?”
“I know what should be done,” Michael told her. “But they are council members and women at that—we cannot hang them for treason the way they deserve.” He frowned. “And I am not altogether sure that Lady Jones deserves the same punishment as her accomplice.”
Caroline twisted her fingers together. “It seems quite clear to me that she was a failsafe for Lady Spencer. Her men immediately volunteered Lady Jones’s name which suggests to me that perhaps Laura only brought Barbara into the plan so that she could be found guilty.”
“Barbara is not the type to act such as this on her own,” Michael agreed. “I believe there is more to her involvement. Laura Spencer did not single her out.” He cleared his throat. “I have sent messengers to everyone in the council save Lady Jones and the Spencer family. We will decide together how to proceed.”
Caroline nodded. “Michael, there is something I must ask your advice on.” She hesitated. “AJ Quartermaine approached me yesterday and he asked permission to court me for marriage.”
Michael hid his smile. “He approached me weeks ago with that intention. It is nice that he finally informed you.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You knew that reprobate had intentions of marrying me?”
“Yes. But I thought it was for him to inform you in his own time. It is a good match, Caroline. I know that you do not believe the rumors about his wife.”
“No, I don’t,” Caroline remarked, “but he thought that I did.” She shifted in her seat. “Michael, it is only because I am a distant cousin of Anthony Jones that I was even considered for the council. I am a peasant’s daughter and surely, Lord and Lady Quartermaine have objections for the marriage.”
“Nay, they are in favor.” Michael shook his head. “You underestimate your worth, Caroline. Make no mistake about it—you are to be the first female ruler of this council. The king has already agreed to it.”
“Then he wants to marry for power I shall hold in the future,” Caroline decided. “He thinks marriage will allow him to influence me.” She stared at her hands once more.
“You have a very suspicious nature, Caroline. Perhaps he wishes to marry you because he cares for you.”
She snorted. “I sincerely doubt it.”
Jasper Jacks arrived then and he was accompanied, as always, by Skye Chandler. Their entrance silenced the discussion as Skye immediately launched into a complaint. “There had better be a good reason why you have called us so early today of all days,” the fiery redhead snipped, crossing her arms tightly.
“Once we have all arrived, I assure you, My Lady, that your questions will be answered,” Michael replied.
The Quartermaines were the next to arrive and Caroline was quite thankful when AJ did not glance in her direction and took his customary seat. Monica Quartermaine, however, did offer her a small smile and the Quartermaine cousin, Ned Ashton, tossed a sympathetic smirk her way.
After the Quartermaines had arrived, only Alexis and Scott were left. Scott was first and like Skye—he grumbled about the early morning meeting before taking his seat at the end of the table.
Alexis was late—but only by a few moments. She told Michael in quiet voice that Chloe had had trouble going back to sleep.
When Alexis was settled, Michael stood and called the meeting to order. “My Lord, the Spencers and Lady Jones have not yet arrived,” Scott told him.
“And they will not for they were not sent messages regarding this meeting.” Michael took a deep breath and briefly summarized the events of the last week—beginning with the attempt to torch the Morgan farm and concluding with the events of the previous night.
There was stunned silence when he was finished and finally, Alan Quartermaine was able to formulate a response. “Are you certain Lady Spencer and Lady Jones are to blame?”
“I know for a fact that Laura Spencer is behind the plot,” Michael admitted. “For when her son was pledged to the maid Summer Holloway, Laura was vehemently against their marriage. Yet—in the past few days, she has become almost docile regarding it. She believes the death of Jason Morgan would force us to marry Lady Robin Scorpio and Sir Lucas Spencer.”
“Aye, it would have,” Jasper Jacks remarked. “It may not have worked but it would have been our only option.”
“Fortunately, I suspected Laura the moment she stopped fighting her son’s betrothal. I did not expect her to have recruited Lady Jones but it does make sense. Lady Jones was her pawn—a willing one, but a pawn nonetheless.”
“Do you believe Lord Spencer was in on the plan?” Ned Ashton asked intently. He shook his head almost as soon as he finished speaking. “Nay, he could not have been for he was the one to petition for his son’s marriage to the maid.”
“I did not feel it appropriate that he learn of his wife’s plot in front of others. I will tell him later, before I speak to Lady Spencer. I apologize for keeping these events from you but when Alexis reported the men with torches, I knew it must be a council member who had broken faith.”
Skye Chandler sighed heavily, “I do not like that you did not trust us but I do understand your motives. I can hardly believe Lady Spencer plotted to kill Jason Morgan and I cannot imagine having to suspect the entirety of the council.” Her ire began to rise. “Those women have destroyed all that this council has stood for since its inception. We are to have Rhigwyn’s best interests at heart, not our own.”
“Hush, Skye,” Jasper patted her hand. “We have sought out the rogues and we will make them rue the day they betrayed us.”
“Which brings me to the next item on the agenda,” Michael remarked. “These are noble born women. We cannot simply hang them for treason. Laura Spencer comes from generations of council members—her father Richard Webber and her grandfather Steven Hardy served on this council until only a few years ago. Lady Jones is the guardian of Lady Robin Scorpio, daughter and niece of the most beloved of Rhigwyn’s citizens. We must tread lightly, my friends.”
“I suggest speaking to Lady Jones first. And I suggest you speak to her alone,” AJ spoke up. “She fought hard to gain Anthony’s seat on this council and I do not see her risking it or her life without good cause. What could she have gained from Lady Spencer’s bid for power?”
“Laura Spencer must have known something that Barbara would like to keep from the rest of us,” Caroline agreed. “And she may only reveal it to you Michael. Perhaps she may shed some light on Laura’s plans and thoughts.”
“And what of her punishment?”
“I propose banishment,” Scott suggested. “Send Laura to serve one of the noble women in Derwyn or another neighboring kingdom. Do not ever allow her to return. Since there is no direct evidence against Lady Jones other than the words of the criminal, give her a temporary banishment. Lady Robin is planning a long visit with her parents in Derwyn. Perhaps Lady Jones should accompany her.”
“And on her return?” Michael asked, his interest piqued.
“Her lands, her status, it will all be lost.” Scott thought for a moment. “Does the Morgan land not border the Jones estate?”
“Yes, it is directly north of it,” Caroline remarked, her eyes lighting up. “Are you suggesting what I think, Lord Baldwin?”
“I propose Lady Jones make her home and land a wedding gift to the Princess and her future husband,” Scott nodded.
“And that would make the Morgan family the second largest land holder in the kingdom,” Skye remarked, “and we could dismiss the petition of the Queen on the merit that Jason Morgan is more than worthy to marry a princess.”
“I was already intending to dismiss it,” Michael admitted. “I have recently repaired my relationship with my niece and she has made it known to me that she wishes to remain married to the Morgan boy and he has informed me his wish is the same. My sister may be the Queen, but she has no heart and merely found Jason below her daughter’s status.”
“But now we can actually have a firm position on denying it,” Alexis told him with a soft smile, “more than an uncle’s wish to see his niece happy.”
“Yes, I agree,” Michael replied. “And the land will belong to the Morgan family though I doubt that they will wish to live in the home since it belonged to one of his would be assassins.” He sat down. “Send a messenger for Lady Jones and the Spencers.” He paused for a moment. “I will speak with Luke privately but I believe that Laura and Barbara should be confronted publicly. We must show a united front so that they will know there are no dissenters.”
Gia shook Elizabeth’s shoulder. “My Lady! It nears the noon hour and you must wake so that you may bathe and ready yourself for your wedding!”
Elizabeth sat up abruptly, surprising the small kitten, which had found a sleeping space on her chest. Morgan bounced off Elizabeth and went to the corner of the bed to sulk. “It is today, then?” she asked hesitantly. “I have not dreamed it?”
“Indeed it is today, My Lady, and I bid you to let me help you ready yourself.” Gia curtsied. “It is my last day as your lady’s maid after all.”
“Of course you may help me. There is much for us to do.” Elizabeth shoved the covers from her legs and stood. “And you still have another week in my service. Do not look so sad, Gia, my brother’s wife is kind and she will treat you well.”
“It is just that I have served you since we were both only five years of age. It will be difficult to adjust to someone new,” Gia replied shyly. “But you have been happier in the last few days than you have been in the fourteen years we have known each other.”
“One day, my dear friend, you will meet someone who reminds you what it is to live,” Elizabeth remarked softly. She moved to her window and touched the glass. “He lives in a simple farm house surrounded by furniture and possessions he and his family have worked hard for. I would not feel comfortable bringing a maid into a home with only three bedrooms.”
“I do understand, My Lady,” Gia assured her. “It is just difficult to accept.” She heard the knock on the outer doors of Elizabeth’s rooms. “That will be the kitchen girls with your bath. Come, we must ready you.”
Elizabeth followed her servant to the sitting room to prepare for her wedding.
Alexander fidgeted as Georgiana Jones adjusted his suit for the wedding. “I do not understand why I must get so dressed up.”
Georgiana threaded her needle and glanced up at him. “You are to be the brother-in-law to the Princess. And after that, a student at the university. You will need something suitable for certain occasions.”
Chloe looked out the window and pursed her lips. “Aunt Alexis should have returned from the palace by now,” she fretted.
“Hush, Chloe,” Alexander murmured. “The council meeting isn’t set until later.”
“Georgiana, what do you know of Lady Spencer?” Chloe asked curiously as she sat on the window seat.
“I know that she is a fair lady, very lovely,” Georgiana said after a moment. “One does not speak ill of the council members, My Lady.”
“She did not ask you to and your reaction tells me that if you had the choice to speak freely, you might speak ill of her,” Alexander mused.
Georgiana smiled thinly. “You are a good judge of character, Sir. It will serve you well in the future. But the fact is that I am not able to speak freely and my opinions of the council members will be kept to myself.”
“There is Alexis!” Chloe announced. “I wonder how the meeting went.”
“As it Michael who leads it, I suspect that it went as exactly as it was planned,” Alexander remarked. He shook his head. “I do not envy him at all.”
“Word has it, Michael, that there was a council meeting this morning,” Luke Spencer remarked as he took a seat in Michael’s private rooms.
“You do not miss much, Luke,” Michael murmured. “So it is rather curious that you missed your wife plotting to murder Jason Morgan.”
Beyond a flaring of his nostrils, Luke showed no outward reaction and Michael was reassured that Luke had had no hand in his wife’s treachery for he knew a guilty man would have leapt into accusations and denials. Luke appeared to be slightly angry but Michael was confident in his old friend’s mind.
After a long moment, Luke sighed heavily and stood. It appeared he had worked it out in his mind. “I would ask if you were certain but you would not accuse unless you were. She took Lesley’s death hard. Harder than I had suspected. She was never supposed to conceive another child—you know that, yes?”
“I was aware.”
“She threw herself into Lucas. He is already grown, but she began to smother him with attention and expectations. A lesser man might have given in to his mother but my boy is a proud man and he would not be swayed when Laura commanded he break his betrothal to Summer.”
“And it was after that argument that your wife became suddenly agreeable,” Michael reminded him.
“I thought she had realized that the girl made Lucas happy.” Luke shook his head and smiled sadly at his old friend. “Wishful thinking. But she had decided to force his hand, hadn’t she?”
“She enlisted Lady Jones in her scheme as to have someone to take the blame if caught. She first sent men to burn the Morgan home to the ground but when that did not work, she hired men to murder him in his sleep. I was fortunate enough to catch wind of the second plot.”
“What is the punishment to be?” Luke asked. “I know you well enough to know it will not be the public hanging those traitorous to the Council and Crown are sentenced with.”
“For Lady Jones, whom it appears had no direct involvement in either plan, it will be temporary banishment and the loss of the Jones lands and home,” Michael said. “For your wife…”
“Permanent banishment,” Luke murmured. “I love this kingdom, Michael, but I do not believe I can live the rest of my days without my wife. She needs help, not banishment. She is disturbed.”
“I agree. But I cannot allow her to remain in Rhigwyn, Luke, and you know that.”
The other man exhaled slowly. “Then I will go with her. We will go to a distant place where no one knows of us. Lucas will remain here. This is his home after all. You will not hold him responsible?”
“Of course not. Luke, I have one request.” Michael folded his hands together. “Wait until Alexander Morgan is of age. He is twenty now and entering the university in the fall. In two short years, he will have graduated and will be eligible for the council. As the brother-in-law to the Prince and the nephew to Alexis, he should be next in line though I had not considered him before.”
“I will wait to join my wife for two years so that you may have time to groom Alexander but you will still need to replace Laura,” Luke reminded him.
“I know this and I have someone in mind but I want Alexander to replace you. As for Laura, I feel that the Quartermaines have been allowed to neglect their relation to young Dillon Hornsby for too long.”
“They never forgave Tracy’s transgression with Paul Hornsby,” Luke sighed. “Even when she abandoned her son and left the kingdom with Paul, they refused to take the boy in. He is engaged to the royal seamstress, you know. Georgiana Jones is a relative of Anthony. I forget exactly how.”
“She is Frisco’s daughter though I am not sure that she is aware of that fact. She does not share the last name of her adopted family but that of her parents—Frisco and Felicia Jones. I know that Felicia regretted letting the man take her daughter from her and then leave her with strangers but there was nothing she could do. That was the law then.”
“And now they are both gone. It means that Georgiana is in line for the council as well.”
“It does,” Michael agreed, “and she will take Barbara’s place.” He smiled sadly. “I will miss you when you are gone, Luke. You understand the people in this council far better than I.”
“That is a lie for you are one of the strongest leaders this council has had in ages,” Luke told him. “But I will miss it, too. I am getting older though and it is time for the old to pass the torch to the young. Perhaps then you will finally lift the enchantress ban you have been struggling with for so long.”
“Perhaps,” Michael murmured. He held out his hand. “To two more years of working alongside one another.”
“To two more years.” Luke shook his hand and even though the Spencer lord intended to serve the two years, they both knew that it would not be the same in this land for him.
It would never be the same again for anyone.
After his meeting with Luke Spencer, Michael adjourned back to the council room where he had called a full-fledged meeting. He had kept the news of the previous night as quiet as possible and hoped that neither Laura nor Barbara suspected anything.
The twelve members of the council were already seated when he entered and he stood at the head of the table, looking at each man and woman in turn. These were the people Rhigwyn had trusted with its very existence. Could there be another with traitorous thoughts?
“I have decided upon the three next candidates for the council,” Michael began. “It comes to my knowledge that there are three retirements coming—two sooner than the other. Alexander Morgan will take Luke Spencer’s place in two years—once he has finished his university education.”
“Michael, I had no idea you were considering him,” Alexis murmured.
“Luke is not retiring!” Laura said shrilly.
“I am, darlin’,” Luke patted her hand. “It will be time.”
“As you may be aware, Dillon Hornsby is a stable hand in the royal stables,” Michael began.
“You cannot mean to make him—” Alan began.
“And he is also the legal son of Tracy Quartermaine and Paul Hornsby, both whom are residents of another kingdom at this time. However, Dillon is not the distant relative you would all like to believe he is. He is equal in status to AJ Quartermaine except that Dillon is not heir.”
“And who is he meant to replace?” Alan asked, irritated. “Imagine a stable hand on this council—”
“He is betrothed to marry Georgiana Jones, the niece of Anthony Jones,” Michael continued, ignoring the irate Quartermaine lord. “She is daughter to Frisco and Felicia Jones. Felicia, if you remember, married Mac Scorpio when her marriage to Frisco was dissolved but the laws of the day gave custody of their young daughter to Frisco who gave her to a family in the village while he was away on assignment. He was killed and Felicia had no way to reclaim her daughter.”
“You mean to say that a seamstress will be joining the council along with the farmer’s son and the stable hand?” Scott asked in disgust. “What will be next? Sir Lucas’s future wife, the former maid?”
“Perhaps.” Michael hesitated. “Georgiana and Dillon will replace Lady Laura Spencer and Lady Barbara Jones immediately.”
“What?” Laura raged. She lunged to her feet. “What is this trickery? What is going on?”
“Ladies Spencer and Jones are accused of treason—specifically, the attempted murder of a member of the royal family.”
Barbara’s face had gone deadly white and she seemed to be swaying slightly in her chair.
“I will have your head for this—I was serving on this council before you were even born!” Laura shrieked.
“The rest of the council is already aware of your crimes,” Michael continued, “and we have decreed the punishment to be as follows. Lady Spencer, you will be banished permanently from this kingdom. Your husband will join you in two years when Alexander Morgan is available to take his place. Lady Jones, you are to accompany Lady Robin to Derwyn to visit with her parents and you are to remain there until I send for you to return. In addition, you will lose your status as a lady of this kingdom and your home and lands.”
Barbara nodded slowly and stood. “I would like to say something,” she said softly.
“Be quiet!” Laura ordered. She moved to go to the redhead but Luke restrained her.
“I did not directly participate in the plot to take Jason Morgan’s life but I had full knowledge of it and said nothing.” Barbara took a step back as Laura again tried to lunge for her. “Lady Spencer arranged for both attacks but she informed me of them. I realize now it was so that I would be the guilty one and she would not be caught.”
“Why did you not report this at once?” Michael demanded.
“Because she’s a whore and didn’t want everyone to know!” Laura declared. “She had an affair with one of the groomsmen on her estate and I arranged to give the child away. She wanted no one to know!”
“Luke, please remove your wife from the room,” Michael ordered. “I will have obedience in this room and she is sorely testing my patience. Call one of the guards if you cannot subdue her.”
“You will not get away with this!” Laura cried as Luke dragged her from the room. “I will return and I will have my revenge!”
The heavy door swung shut on those final words and Michael heaved a sigh. “Lady Jones, it is most disappointing that you did not, at the very least, trust me with this information.”
Barbara lowered her eyes. “It occurs to me now I placed my faith in the wrong person and I am most grateful you discovered the plot and that Jason Morgan is safe. You have my apology and my official resignation from the council. I know that you will not want this to be public so I will merely tell those who ask that I decided I would be lonely without my ward and decided to accompany her to her parent’s home.”
“That would be most wise.”
“I will take my leave now for I am sure you have council business to attend to.” She kept her head bowed until she had exited the room.
“Well—that takes care of that,” Michael took his seat. “Now—as for the agenda today.” He looked at to AJ. “You are on the list to make an announcement?”
“Yes.” The Quartermaine heir stood. “Though I believe it is partially Lady Benson’s announcement as well.”
Caroline’s head snapped up and she gaped at him. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Calling your bluff,” he told her with a smile. “Lady Benson has consented to marry me and with the permission of her father, it seems I will take another wife.”
“Let’s hope Caroline can manage to survive,” Scott Baldwin joked. AJ glared at the older man though Scott was not fazed. He just shrugged. “It is common knowledge, the cause of Keesha Quartermaine’s death.”
Caroline stood and gripped the table so tightly her knuckles turned white. “I see that I was mistaken when I told AJ no one who mattered believed that ugly lie,” she said, her cool tone a direct contradiction to the fury in her dark eyes.
“Anyone who knew Keesha before her marriage to that brute can tell you she never thought of suicide then,” Scott retorted. “He drove her to it!”
AJ moved as if to go to the other council member but Caroline reached over and grabbed the sleeve of his jacket. “Do not do anything stupid,” she hissed. To Scott, she said, “Then I suppose he also drove her to infidelity, Scott? Perhaps it was her lover who drove her to suicide.”
Keesha Quartermaine’s infidelity had never actually been spoken of and the room sank into a deadly silence. Scott, however, looked even more furious than Caroline. “That is a lie!”
“Then perhaps you might know why she took her own life since she was with you at the time that it happened,” Caroline accused.
All eyes were suddenly on Scott Baldwin who sputtered at the blonde. “That is preposterous—”
“Are you telling me that he was her…” AJ trailed off, stunned. “How did you know?”
“Because Michael assigned me to investigate Keesha’s death and I discovered their involvement. The project was assigned the highest code of secrecy and I could tell no one of the results.” She looked to Michael. “I apologize for breaking that seal.”
Michael shrugged. “I suppose it is better that it came out sooner rather than later. Keesha Quartermaine committed suicide because of her guilt over her affair with Scott Baldwin. She was training under him to be a sorcerer’s liaison when she finally took her place on the council. Rather than tell her husband, Keesha threw herself from the second floor of the Quartermaine barn. AJ had nothing to do with her death and the next person who says it—answers to me.” When he saw AJ move towards Scott, he glared at the Quartermaine heir. “There will be no further discussion of that matter in this room.” He looked to Caroline. “Was there anything you needed to add to AJ’s announcement?”
“Only a question for him,” Caroline said softly. “I kept your wife’s lover from you—and did not tell you I investigated her death. Do you still wish to marry me?”
A long moment passed in which Scott and AJ traded nasty looks. The Quartermaine heir turned his attention to his future bride and managed a smile. “Of course,” AJ remarked. “I would not have asked you to begin with if I was not sure that your answer would be yes. Keesha is a part of my past,” he paused and then continued with some hesitation, “and now I can truly put her there.” Caroline still looked unsure but she merely took her seat.
“Well, then, it will be nice to have another council leader in the family,” Alan nodded. “Congratulations, Lady Benson.”
“If the drama has ended, perhaps we might move on to other items on the agenda,” Michael remarked dryly. AJ and Caroline resumed their seats. “I finalized all the wedding arrangements this morning and as of last night, the plans for the Royal Ball were on schedule, yes?”
Alan and Ned nodded in agreement. “This night will go off as planned,” Alan promised. “It will be our crowning achievement.”
“Can anyone think of anything else that needs to be brought to my attention today?” Michael asked. When no one spoke up, he nodded. “Meeting adjourned.”
It would seem that if one were waiting for something to happen, it would take a long time for it to come to pass. It was not as such with the wedding of Jason Morgan to the Crown Princess Elizabeth of Rhigwyn. It was to begin promptly at dusk and it was to end by eight that evening so that the newly married couple could attend the royal ball for a short while before adjourning to Elizabeth’s private rooms where the consummation of their holy union would take place.
Shortly before dusk, Gia was putting the finishing touches on Elizabeth’s elaborately braided hair. She slid a final small flower into place and smiled brightly. “There! Finished!”
“I can hardly believe it is finally here,” Elizabeth murmured as she stepped away from the mirror, the full skirts of her white silk dress rustling with every move. The dress Georgiana had fashioned was truly exquisite from the strapless top to the delicately embroidered flowers scattered throughout the top layer of the skirt. All eyes would be on the bride this day and that had been the seamstress’s intention all along.
“Your betrothed will not be able to take his eyes off you,” Gia said with a dreamy expression on her face. “If he is not in love with you now, he surely will be when he sees you.”
“He says that he loves me and when he says it, he says it in such a way that I have no choice but to believe him,” Elizabeth told her. She smiled until she looked at her hands and realized that she had sent him back his mother’s ring. “I told him that I love him the last time I saw him but I am not quite sure if he believes the feelings are real.”
“Well, you have the rest of your life to convince him that they are.” Gia retrieved the headpiece for the dress—a circle of daisies and baby’s breathe. “Here, let me pin this to your hair.”
She had no sooner finished that then someone knocked on the door. “It cannot be Lord Corinthos just yet,” Gia said, dismayed. “We are not finished.”
She rushed to the door and pulled it open. “Oh, hello.” She frowned. “Who are you?”
“Alexander Morgan.” Alexander tilted his head and smiled at the pretty dark-skinned girl. “You must be the lady’s maid the Princess is leaving behind.”
“Yes, Sir,” Gia curtsied. “My Lady is just finished dressing for the wedding but I am sure she would like to see her future brother.”
“Alexander?” Elizabeth emerged from the bedroom with a curious expression. “Is everything all right?”
“You look beautiful, Elizabeth,” Alexander told her with a smile. “My brother sent me to return this to you.” He held out the silver ring she had sent back to him. “He says that you now have need of it again.”
She took it from him and her face brightened. “Thank you, Alexander. Gia, this is Jason’s brother Alexander, he will be attending the university in the fall and Alexander, and this is Gia Campbell, my lady’s maid and one of my closest friends.”
“High praise,” Alexander said, nodding to the maid. “Campbell—the name is familiar.”
“It ought to be, Sir,” Gia said politely. “My family once owned land adjacent to you—to the west I believe.” She paused. “There was a fire and we lost everything when I just a little girl.”
“I remember—you and your brother were the only survivors,” Alexander said with a touch of regret.
“He is one of the King’s Guard,” Gia reported with a touch of pride. “One of Sir Lucas Spencer’s best men.” She flushed and looked to Elizabeth. “I apologize, My Lady.”
“For what? You speak only the truth.”
“I will take my leave then, Elizabeth, and I will see you again in just a short while.” He nodded to her and to Gia before leaving.
“It is nearly time,” Gia said as she studied the setting sun. “Are you nervous, My Lady?”
Elizabeth slid the ring onto her finger and stared at it, a smile curving on her lips. “Not at all.”
Alexander joined his brother in the middle of the main hall where he was speaking with Susan, Michael and Alexis. “I gave it to her,” he told Jason, pulling him aside.
“And how did she look when you did that?” Jason asked intently. “What was her reaction?”
“She is even more beautiful when she smiles,” Alexander replied. “She looked happy,” he continued, “so I can assume you have convinced her?”
“Convinced her?” Jason questioned.
“When I spoke to her last night, she seemed a little forlorn. She believed that you loved her now but that it would change after tomorrow. Have you convinced her otherwise?” he repeated.
“I believe that I did but we will know for sure tomorrow,” Jason replied. He glanced out the window. “The sun is setting.”
Michael smiled. “I will go retrieve the bride. Alexis, ready the guests. It is time to begin.”
A wedding ceremony in Rhigwyn is like a wedding ceremony anywhere—but when the royal family is involved, everything is larger, more expensive and on a grander scale.
The wedding of Jason Morgan to the Crown Princess Elizabeth took place in the large hall of the palace to an audience of nearly a thousand. When the King found Elizabeth and his brother-in-law outside the doors to the hall, it was the first time Elizabeth had seen her father in more than three months.
“Well, you look every inch the princess,” Geoffrey remarked with a warm smile. “It seems as if only yesterday that you were a small child running after stable hands.”
“Perhaps the last time you saw me, I was a small child,” Elizabeth remarked coolly.
Geoffrey frowned and stepped forward at his daughter’s insolence but Michael stepped in between them. “You remember what I said the last time you put your hands on her,” he warned in a low angry voice.
“Children need discipline,” Geoffrey said smoothly, never letting his glare leave his daughter’s face. “Daughters more so than sons.”
“You’ve never been afraid of her the way Mirielle has,” Michael remarked, “because you understood something my sister could never grasp—that Elizabeth is all too human and she can fear. You gave her a bruise when she was twelve that lasted nearly a month and I broke your arm for it. I warned you what would happen if you touched her again.”
Elizabeth stared at her uncle in blank surprise. “It was you that broke Father’s arm?” she whispered.
“You forget your place, you illegitimate son of a whore,” Geoffrey spat. He shoved Michael away from him. “If you knew what was good for you, you would not treat me as such.”
“Uncle Sonny,” Elizabeth touched his arm. “Please—this will not make me happy. I am leaving this place in a week and I will not have to see them again. Can we concentrate on that?”
“Have you told Jason about what your father has done to you or have you only spoken of your mother’s flaws?” Michael demanded.
“Jason has no need to know of the few times my father has seen me in my life. I would not have told him about Mother if she had not forced my hand,” Elizabeth said frankly. “He already pities my childhood enough; I do not need to give him further cause for concern.”
She looked to her father who was frowning at her. “Father understands that the wedding is about to begin and that causing a scene would not be prudent. I can hardly get married if I have tear stains on my cheeks or a bruise on my face for I can assure you, Father, Jason will not care if you were a deity—he would not tolerate it.”
“Are you actually threatening me?” Geoffrey shook his head. Such things did not happen in his world. His children were obedient, his wife was loyal. They were not supposed to speak back—to challenge him. “I will do whatever I want to you, Daughter.”
“And I shall return the sentiment,” Elizabeth said, a low fury bleeding into her voice. “For I have nothing left to be afraid of. I am escaping this prison and it will not to be to a work camp as I know you and Mother have planned since my birth. It will be to a real home with a real family where I will be loved and wanted. There is nothing you can say now that will take that from me.” She blinked and smiled warmly. “Unless of course, you reveal my gift and that will never do for they will see your blood as tainted and we cannot have that now can we?”
“Michael, take your place inside. It is time for this wedding to be over with,” Geoffrey seethed.
Michael squeezed Elizabeth’s hand and opened the hall doors just a little but it was enough so that she could glimpse the large crowd within. He slipped through the small opening and the doors shut again.
There was some rustling inside the hall and a few moments later, the music began to swell. Geoffrey stepped next to his daughter and stiffly took her arm in his. He nodded to the guardsmen on the doors who had appeared when Michael entered the hall.
They swung the doors open and the music poured out.
At the end of a long walkway, Jason stood next to the sorcerer who would perform the ceremony as one of his last official duties to the kingdom. Alexander was standing next to him and Elizabeth had never felt so light in her life. She did not even feel her father at her side anymore.
“So that is her father,” Alexander murmured under his breath. “The great King of Rhigwyn.”
“Can you imagine being that stiff and formal with one’s own parents?” Jason replied, his eyes never breaking from the woman walking towards him. This woman—this beautiful enchanting princess would be his wife and all he had had to do to be worthy of it was be born.
“If I could find a woman who had just a quarter of the beauty that the Princess does, I would never want for anything more,” Alexander breathed.
The long walk was finally finished and Geoffrey thrust Elizabeth at Jason so abruptly that she stumbled. Jason braced her and frowned at her father. The older man’s cheeks seemed to flush and he stepped aside to stand next to the queen.
Elizabeth smiled at him then, breaking his concentration and he promptly forgot all about her father for he noticed that she was wearing the ring he sent to her.
Having seen where his eyes were trained, Elizabeth smiled. “Thank you for returning my ring,” she murmured.
They turned their attention to the sorcerer at that moment who began the ceremony by first blessing the gods, the heavens, the council, the king and queen and then finally, each of them.
He asked Jason to give his promise to honor and protect his wife while asking Elizabeth for the vow to obey her husband. The sorcerer did not bother to ask Elizabeth to honor her husband for it was expected of a woman and he did not ask Jason to obey his wife for it was expected for Elizabeth to be subservient.
He did not ask for vows of love and cherishing which most in the crowd found interesting for though they had unorthodox reasons for marrying, surely the couple were deserving of an orthodox ceremony.
When Jason first recited his promise to her, he himself added the missing words, promising to honor, protect, love and cherish Elizabeth for all the rest of their days. He squeezed her hands and promised to obey her at times if she would give him the same courtesy.
She laughed and the sound charmed everyone in the room for the princess was so rarely seen—even more rarely did she look happy. She gave Jason the same promises and then promised to try to obey him but reminded him she had a slight temper and a tendency to be stubborn.
Throughout their improvised vows, anyone who looked at the queen would have been surprised—for she was smiling and it was the first time anyone remembered her smiling genuinely.
She had asked the sorcerer to leave out the vows of love and cherishing because she did not want her daughter to have an overly romanticized view of marriage. Mirielle had been a little younger than Elizabeth when she married and thoroughly enchanted with the idea of living out a real live fairy tale. She had been betrothed to Geoffrey since childhood and had fantasized about their life together for as long as she could remember.
She had been so sure he would adore her; it surprised her greatly when he had turned out to be a cold and hard man who did not care for her in the slightest. She had been forced to grow up and face reality that she may be queen but she would never own her husband’s heart.
And as time passed, she realized that she did not want to. Not only did he not love or care for her, but she did not love him either. She had not wanted her son to know that his parents had such little disregard for each other, so she had purposely distanced herself from Nikolas and then later Elizabeth. It was just as well her daughter had been cursed with the powers—it made it easier for Mirielle not to love her.
As the years continued, she had become as cold and hard as her husband and had convinced herself she lived in fear of her daughter but as she watched Elizabeth vow to try and obey her husband but apologize for her temper and her stubbornness, Mirielle realized the fear did not stem from Elizabeth’s powers but from Elizabeth herself for if she had spent any time with her daughter, she surely would have been enchanted with her and unable to hold herself back from loving her.
And if she had loved either of her children, Geoffrey would have seen fit to remove them from her sight somehow. He had a way of taking anything that she valued. He was even having an affair with her personal seamstress, Courtney Matthews, but she’d taught herself not to care about such things. He had known how much she cared for the girl—had taken her under her wing and even invited the girl to bring her younger sister to the palace and then gave Maximilliana a position as a maid. He had seduced the girl and Mirielle was reminded of that every moment she spent with Courtney. No longer was her seamstress a surrogate child but a drone with whom she had to put up with.
She was immensely pleased that her daughter would not gain such a husband.
The sorcerer asked for the rings and Alexander volunteered them. They were matching gold bands though Elizabeth’s was much smaller. She slid his on first and then he slid the gold band to rest next to the silver one already resting on her finger.
The sorcerer did the blessings again, but this time he blessed them each first, then the gods, the heavens, the council and the king and queen. He finished by blessing their marriage.
He proclaimed the ceremony finished and so it was—though it was unorthodox for the ceremony to end so abruptly. There were usually some flowery sentiments and he would tell Jason to kiss his bride so as to seal the marriage.
But Mirielle had told him to strike all such things and now he just announced that they were married and it was time for the king to coronate Jason as a prince.
Jason had not realized there would be an actual coronation ceremony or that he would actually become a prince of the realm.
Geoffrey and the sorcerer exchanged places and the king commanded them both to kneel. It grated Jason slightly to kneel to a man he knew had mistreated Elizabeth but she started to move down and yanked on his hand to get him to follow.
Mirielle stepped forward then instead of Michael and if her brother was surprised, he did not let it show. She removed Elizabeth’s headpiece and handed her husband the slim silver and diamond tiara. Elizabeth knew that as a daughter of a king, she owned one of these crowns but she had never before laid eyes on it.
Geoffrey settled the crown on her head before reaching for the larger gold crown to rest on his new son-in-law’s head. It was as simple as that for Jason Morgan, the son of a peasant farmer, to become the husband to the Crown Princess and then a Crown Prince himself.
Their presence was required at the Royal Dawning Ball for a short time and Elizabeth used the opportunity to finally introduce Jason to her brother.
“We can leave these here, can we not?” Jason asked as he self-consciously touched the ornate crown on his head. “I am not required to wear it often am I?”
“Only for royal functions such as weddings and coronations and funerals.” She kissed his cheek. “It is the first time I have even seen mine much less worn it but I do not think I would want to wear it often either.” She searched the crowd of well-wishers for her brother.
“Why did the sorcerer change the ceremony?” Jason questioned. “He used neither the regulated vows nor structure. Are royal weddings different?”
“No, it is quite odd but it pleased me that you used the right vows anyway.” Her eyes sparkled. “Even the ones that you do not have to say.”
“It pleases me that it pleased you,” he replied. He kissed her fingertips.
“It is gratifying to know that my sister is married to someone who is not adverse to public displays of affection,” a rich voice rang out behind Jason.
“Nikolas!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “I have been looking everywhere for you. And good, Emily is with you.”
“It was such a beautiful if slightly irregular wedding,” Emily told her sister-in-law. “I hope that you are as happy as Nikolas and I.”
“Jason, this is my brother Nikolas and his wife, Emily. Nikolas, this is Jason.” Elizabeth took Jason’s hand in hers and smiled up at him.
Nikolas had never before seen his sister look so radiantly happy and for that, he smiled warmly at his sister’s husband and offered a hand. “Welcome to the family. I hope you that you do not regret it,” he joked.
“We have an announcement we were hoping to make public after you left tonight—we did not want to over shine your wedding,” Emily began, “but Nikolas insisted we tell you personally before you left.” She smiled nervously at her husband.
“It is a little sooner than we had planned and truthfully, until this morning, we did not think that she was but…” Nikolas took Emily’s hand in his. “She is with child.”
Elizabeth’s eyes lit up and she moved forward to hug her brother tightly. “I am so happy for you,” she whispered in his ear. “You have your happy ending after all.”
“I think we both have.” He kissed her cheek as he pulled away. He grimaced. “Lady Quartermaine is calling us over. She may be your mother, Love, but she scares me.”
Emily laughed and bid the newlyweds goodnight as she dragged her husband over to her family.
At the sound of her mother’s voice, Elizabeth stiffened and turned to greet her. “Mother.”
Mirielle glanced at Jason and nodded to him before taking Elizabeth’s arm and pulling her aside. Jason immediately went to follow but his own mother detained him.
“I never wanted to send you to any convent,” Mirielle declared once they were out of earshot of anyone else.
Elizabeth shook her head. “I do not understand.”
“I had to treat you that way—to everyone and anyone who might matter,” Mirielle continued with sad eyes. “You may not be aware of this but your father is not a kind man and he would have found a way to take you from me if he knew that I cared for you. I had to pretend that you frightened me, that you disgusted me because he hated the very sight of you.”
Elizabeth’s eyes swam with tears. “Mother—”
“You were not the boy he wanted and you were a reminder of his own mother.” Mirielle nodded. “Your grandmother was an enchantress but her husband had her—” she closed her eyes. “Sent away. To a convent. I tried to keep the truth about you from him but he found out and it was all I could do to keep you from being sent away. I know that I have hurt you, Elizabeth, but I was only trying to protect you.”
“Why are you telling me this now?” Elizabeth demanded. “Why now, on today of all days?”
“Because there is no way he can take you from me or from anyone. He cannot send you away because you have finally come out into the public eye and you have charmed everyone who has set eyes on you. He cannot chance sending you away now and he knows that my brother would never stand for it.” Mirielle closed her eyes. “Geoffrey fears Michael because he knows my brother would make a better king.”
“He would,” Elizabeth stated firmly. “Mother—”
“I also told the sorcerer to change the ceremony because I did not want you to have a romanticized view of your marriage. You see, I believed in love once but my marriage—it was not what I had hoped and I did not want the same for you.”
“But Jason loves me,” Elizabeth whispered.
Mirielle reached out and touched her face, the first sign of affection that the woman had ever shown her daughter. “I could see that during the ceremony and it pleases me, Elizabeth, to know that you will know the happiness I did not.” Her eyes sharpened. “I must go. I do not have to say anything about tonight for your husband loves you and you need no warning from him.”
Mirielle hurried away and Elizabeth watched her go, finally feeling emotions for her mother. She had not realized how unhappy her mother was and she wondered if she had known all along…could Elizabeth have changed it?
“Are you all right?” Jason demanded, coming up behind her. She turned and he took her hands in his at the sight of her tears. “What did she say?”
“She—” Elizabeth shook her head. “She touched my face and for the first time, it felt like she was my mother.”
He frowned, not understanding what that meant. “Elizabeth—”
“It was nothing bad,” she promised him. She stood on the tip of her toes and kissed his cheek. “It was something good.”
Michael moved over to the two of them. “I think it would be wise if you left now,” he told them quietly. “There are three hours left until the Dawning.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed and she looked away. “Right, of course.”
“Yes, well.” Michael cleared his throat and since there didn’t seem to be any easier way to end the conversation, he just walked away.
Elizabeth’s face was bright red as Jason took her hand and led her out of the hall. She knew that all eyes were on them and the strangeness of the situation hit her. These people would be celebrating the consummation of her marriage—something no one in polite society even mentioned out loud.
“Are we going to your rooms?” Jason asked intently. When she nodded, he headed in that direction and she suddenly wondered what his hurry was.
“Jason, must you go so fast?” she asked, doubling her steps to keep up with him. “What is your hurry?”
He stopped and turned to her. “Do you really not know how long I have been waiting for this night?”
She flushed and looked away. “I did not realize you would be in such a hurry to have it done. Can we not…take our time?”
He took a deep breath and reminded himself that she was still so young and innocent and he must take care of her first. “Of course we can. I apologize.” He kissed her fingertips.
He wound her fingers in his before leading the way to her rooms, a little more slowly this time. When they arrived, Elizabeth’s embarrassment seemed to blossom anew. Her face was flaming red and her hands were trembling. “Could you wait out here while I change?” she asked softly.
Jason nodded and let go of her hands, watching her disappear into her bedroom. He heard some rustling and began to feel slightly…uncomfortable as he pictured her exchanging her dress for a nightgown.
After a few more moments, the door slid open and Elizabeth emerged, wearing nothing more than a cotton shift that matched the one she’d worn the night before. “How…how do we begin this?” she asked.
He stepped towards her—slowly and drew her into his arms before softly kissing her lips. “Quite naturally, actually. Do you remember the picnic? How fast things escalated between us?”
She nodded and he could still feel her trembling in his arms. “It ought to go something like that,” he tried to assure her.
Elizabeth nodded and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him chastely. She drew away from him and took his hand in hers to lead him into the bedroom. Once inside, she slowly unbuttoned his shirt and spread it open. “I have thought of doing this since last night,” she admitted shyly. “You are quite beautiful.”
“Not as beautiful as you,” Jason remarked, burying his hands in her long brown hair before leaning down to capture her lips.
As it always seemed when they touched, the passion ignited between them and before they knew it, he had lifted her into the bed. He knew he had the time to go slow and to really make this special for both of them so he familiarized himself with every smooth and creamy inch of her body. Elizabeth stiffened in surprise when he touched certain places as she had never heard of one being touched there but it quickly passed.
And she, in her innocent curiosity, drove him crazy by exploring his body with her hands and her mouth. By the time he was ready to take her, they were both restless with unreleased passion.
Jason drove into her with one quick thrust, hoping it would alleviate some of the pain. She cried out sharply but a moment later, her eyes darkened and he realized she had removed the sting.
“I did not wish to mar this act with one memory of pain,” she admitted as she wrapped her long legs around his waist.
When the light flashed throughout the land, neither realized it for they were in the throes of their lovemaking and did not hear the cheers of the population of the kingdom.
The kingdom had just been blessed with a thousand years of peace and harmony while Jason made love to his new wife. He was sure that he cared more for the latter rather than the former.
A late night council meeting was called just to confirm that the Dawning had taken place successfully.
Michael looked around at the room of Rhigwyn’s most privileged citizens and marveled at the storm they had just weathered while wondering about the future of the council.
“The light has shone, and the kingdom has been blessed,” Michael announced. “This meeting is adjourned.”
He woke to find her next to him, her long dark hair spilling out over the pillows. He kissed her cheek and shook her slightly. “Elizabeth…”
Her eyes opened and she peered up at him curiously. “Yes? Is something wrong?”
“It is morning and I still love you,” he reported with a smile. “Do you still love me?”
“More than I did yesterday,” she declare, her face glowing with a radiant smile. “But not as much as I will love you tomorrow.”