Page 14

“Would that be an issue for you, Your Majesty?” Tweedledum asks.

“Yes,” I reply, my tone dry as tinder ready to light. “Actually, it would.”

“Seymour Gilfoy, the Duke of Barburry.”

“He’s old enough to be her father,” Thomas objects, then flips through the papers in front of him. “Possibly her grandfather.”

“As long as he’s still able to give her children. That’s all that matters,” my uncle explains.

And it’s the damnedest thing.

It doesn’t feel like we’re discussing me. My future. My husband. The father of my children. It’s as if my heart has been encased in thick, impenetrable ice. I feel no disgust or resentment or fear.

I feel nothing at all.

Marriage is just mechanics now. Calculated choices and transactional obligations.

“No.” I shake my head. “The people want a fairy tale—that is what we must give them.”

Sheffield agrees. “We need a young lord with an old name.”

“Good luck with that.” Thomas snorts. “The aristocrats in Wessco live forever. Like they all made deals with the devil.”

Alfie stares at Thomas for a beat longer than normal.

“You are a young lord with an old name.”

“Yes.” I chuckle. “Pity I can’t marry Thomas.”

And the whole room goes still.

And quiet.

Someone whispers, “Of course.”

And another. “Why didn’t we think of it before?”

Bertram Tweedle holds up his hands, framing Thomas and me with his fingers. “I can already see them on the tea napkins.”

And the ice around my heart cracks. Blood rushes through my ears and I can feel my pulse convulsing in my neck. I don’t look at Thomas—I don’t look at any of them.

“Well . . .” I stand quickly. My words are chipper and rambling, because denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. Denial is now my best friend.

“I believe that’s enough for today. We’ll resume tomorrow. Meeting adjourned, my Lords.”

And I almost trip over my own feet, running from the room.

An hour later, he finds me in the south garden, on the white marble bench near the cherub fountain that I always thought was bit evil looking.

Thomas sits down beside me, resting his elbows on his knees.

“The cherry blossoms are my favorite,” I say quietly. “They’re never here long, though. Only a few days until the petals start to fall. I try to enjoy them as much as I can while I can.”

I know he’s looking at me, but I don’t turn his way.

“There have been several times in the last few months when I’ve had to separate myself as your advisor and your friend. The two opinions haven’t always agreed.”

“And who are you now?”


Thomas turns his gaze toward the cherry blossoms too. And he sighs.

“I think we should get married, Lenora.”

I nod slowly. Because it’s a bang-up idea. Makes perfect sense.

Except not at all.

“I need to have a child, Thomas. Preferably more than one. We’ll have to . . . sleep together, and I don’t mean sharing a bunk.”

He snorts. “That’s occurred to me, yes.”

“And you don’t find it repulsive?”

He squints. “Remind me, why am I your friend again?”

We both laugh. But Thomas’s chuckle descends into a succession of coughs. When he catches his breath, he’s still smiling.

“You know what I mean,” I tell him.

“Yes. I see massive amounts of awkwardness in our future.”

And then his voice drops lower—a gentle whisper of sincerity.

“But . . . I would work very hard every day to make you happy. It would matter to me, Lenora. I worry that it won’t matter at all to any of the others.”

The beauty of that statement slashes through me, making my throat tighten. Because my whole life I’ve been surrounded by people concerned with my decisions, my plans, my train of thought, my opinion of them.

But my true feelings? They don’t really occur to them.

I rest my hand on Thomas’s forearm. Because his feelings matter to me too.

“What about Michael?”

His chin dips and he shakes his head. “I have no illusions about the world we live in. His father is already on him to get married. Michael will understand.”

His hand covers mine on his arm, squeezing.

“My mother is gone; Edward is out there somewhere. You’re already my family. This would just make it official.”

And it’s all there in those gentle green eyes. Warmth, laughter, comfort, trust . . . yes . . . Thomas is already my family too.

“So.” He takes a breath. “What do you say? Wanna tie the knot?”

Slowly, my lips slide into a smile.

“Oh, what the hell . . . I guess so.”

His grin is so bright, it lights up his eyes. Thomas holds out his palm—and I smack it a high-five.

Definitely, “nerds.”

We laugh at ourselves until Thomas starts coughing again. A string of choking coughs like machine gun fire that leave him gasping. He takes his inhaler out of his pocket, puffing on it twice.

I check his forehead, but his skin is cool, clammy, not feverish. “You need to see the doctor. That cough is terrible.”

“I have seen the doctor,” he wheezes. “Nothing he’s given me has helped. I feel like utter shit.”

“Well, see him again. We’ll tell the Council, but we’ll hold off on any public announcement until you’re feeling better.”

WHEN I WAS A GIRL, I didn’t read fairy tales. I know the stories, everyone knows the stories, but the actual reading—I could never finish them. They were too cruel, too sad; no matter how happy the ending might be, it wouldn’t undo the pain the hero and heroine had to go through to reach it. It wouldn’t balance it out.

I’ve always been a practical person, a realist—even when I was a child. I see things as they are, not as I want them to be. Which is why I should have known. I should’ve seen it—it was there in front of me the whole time.

But I didn’t. I didn’t have an inkling.

And that made it so much worse.

Thomas doesn’t get better.

Not the day after our conversation in the garden, or the day after that. In a week, he’s too ill to attend council meetings. In two, he’s admitted to the hospital for treatment and tests.

But I don’t worry, not really. I go through my busy business days, sure that he’ll be well again soon. That he’ll be better than fine.

Because he’s Thomas.

It’s as simple as that.

After a month, when he tells me he’s going home to Anthorp Castle, to properly rest—because it must be the old-man aura wafting over from Parliament that’s making him ill—I laugh and agree with him. When he promises to knock this sickness on its arse and come back as soon as he can, I believe him.

Because I’m a double-damned idiot.

My idiocy continues right up until the head physician of Royal Hastings Hospital comes to my office to brief me on the results of Thomas’s tests. There is no right to medical privacy here—and as the sovereign, it’s my prerogative to know the health of the men who serve in my government. Normally, this information would be conveyed to a secretary, a staff member—but again, this is Thomas.