Page 25

“I’m coming back, Lenora.” He says it in a voice that’s strong and clear, like a vow. “You know that, don’t you?”

I take a breath and exhale with a small smile. “Of course I do.”

But I wonder if it will be all of him that returns. Or if some part of his soul will always be searching, gazing out the window and dreaming of all the adventures he missed out on because he married me.

I put my hand over his and give it a quick squeeze, before stepping back away from him.

“I have to go. I have a meeting. Safe travels, Edward.”

And I walk away.

It’s been three weeks since Edward left, and I try very hard not to think of him. Of course, the not thinking of him requires some effort. Which makes me think of him more. Since he’s been away, it’s as if the world has lost its luster. The walls and rooms, the sky and sun seem dimmer, duller, a bit tarnished.

We’re moving forward with legislation to present to Parliament immediately after the wedding and I’m staying very involved. So I’ve been spending long hours and many days working in my office. For the country and Crown.

I’m not doing it to keep busy. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

I’m not very convincing.

I close the folder on my desk and glance out the window at the moonless black sky. My stomach growls at me for missing lunch. I step out into the hall and Cora isn’t at her desk, but someone else is there looking for her.

“Good evening, Alfie.”

He dips his head.

“How are you tonight, Chicken?”

“Mmm . . . I’m famished, actually.” I glance down at the diamond-and-sapphire broach gleaming on the bodice of my pale blue dress. “So hungry I could eat the crown jewels.”

“Sounds like they’d be hard to swallow.” He winks.

“Would you like to dine with me tonight? The new cook in the private quarters is fantastic.”

Before he can answer, Cora comes scurrying down the hall, her red hair styled beautifully and her purse in hand.

“All right, Dad. I’m ready to go now.”

Alfie kisses Cora’s cheek tenderly. And watching them, my smile slowly fades against my will. Because I’ve never had that—that effortless, easy closeness and affection. It’s always been on the other side of the looking glass. And there’s a hollowness inside me that fears it always will be.

“Cora and I were just heading over to that new place in Winchester everyone’s raving about for dinner. Would you like to join us?” Alfie asks.

I glance down at my shiny shoes. “Thank you, but no.” I ignore the burning in my throat and tight squeeze around my heart.

“Going to a restaurant always causes too much commotion.” I wave my hand. “You can’t take me anywhere.”

Alfie looks at me closely.

“Are you sure, Lenora? We’d love to have you.”

“No, no. I’ll be fine. Go on now—shoo.”

Cora dips in a quick curtsy. “Good night, Your Majesty.”

“Good night.” I smile tightly and turn to walk away first.

The walk to the private quarters seems longer than usual, the halls emptier, the echo of footsteps louder. Winston opens the door and a maid greets me in the foyer. She says Cook will have dinner served shortly.

“Just a light meal, please,” I tell her. “I’m not very hungry.”

I head toward the empty parlor and switch on the television, just to have some noise. And I don’t think about Edward again. I don’t wonder where he is or what he’s doing. I don’t think about what it would be like if he were here—how we would have a drink before dinner and talk about the events of the day, maybe watch that silly Honeymooners show that’s not funny at’all.

I move to the side table and poor myself a sherry. And I can feel Winston watching me. It’s strange—usually I forget he’s even in the room, but tonight, I notice.

“Are you all right, Queen Lenora?”

He speaks. That’s unusual too.

“I’m fine.”

After a moment, he speaks again. Gently persistent.

“It’s my job to protect you from things that could hurt you. If something is, I’d like to know so I can deal with it.”

I glance at the glass in my hand.

“Would you have a drink with me, Winston?”

I should be mortified to have thought the question, let alone asked it out loud. My granny Edwina is spinning like a top in her grave. But what’s the bloody point of being Queen if you can’t make your own rules at least once in a while?

“It would be an honor.”

I hand him a full glass and motion for him to sit on the sofa, while I take the chair by the fireplace.

“Tell me about yourself.”

“Afraid there’s not much to tell, Ma’am. I’m a man who enjoys his work.”

I sip my sherry and the liquid warms my belly.

“What about your life? Your family?”

“I’m not married. I was an orphan before I joined the military.”

“There must be someone? A sweetheart, perhaps?”

For the first time, he glances down and his eyes glitter with memories.

“There was a girl, when I was young. Her name was Melinda and her dad was a fisherman. I joined the military for her, to make something of myself . . . for us. While I was away in training, she went on the boat with her dad to help out. There was an accident at sea and she drowned.”

I cover my mouth. “How tragic—I’m so sorry.”

“It was a long time ago.”

Those glittering eyes fall back on me and he says softly, “You remind me of her.”

“Do I?”

He nods. “She was like a force of nature. Strong, steadfast . . . beautiful.”

My eyes dart up at the compliment. Like some pathetic flower after a long drought—greedy for any drop of rain.

“You think I’m all those things?” I ask.

Winston exhales roughly.

“I think you are . . . magnificent.”

He says it with a sacred awe, the way one whispers a saint’s name in prayer.

I recall Thomas’s words, from so long ago—when things were silly and simple.

I think Winston fancies you.

And I look at the man across from me, the man who would give his life for me—I don’t know if I ever really looked at him before. He’s darkly handsome, powerful, intelligent, dedicated. Desirable in every way a man should be . . .

But not to me.

My pulse doesn’t throb when I look at him.

His eyes are the wrong color. Gray-blue . . . and I dream of dark emerald, like grass after a thunderstorm. His smile is straight and pleasing, not devilish and infuriating. The sound of his voice doesn’t warm me or make my head go light. He doesn’t say things that steal my breath away or make me want to laugh all at the same time.

Only one man does that. Only one ever has. And he’s the one who left.

And I’m the one who let him go.

I set my empty glass on the table and rise.

“Thank you for the company and conversation, Winston. Let Cook know I won’t be eating; I’m going directly to bed. We have a big day tomorrow. Good night.”

He gazes down at me a moment, and then he nods.

“Sleep well, my Queen.”

As I walk alone with my loneliness to my rooms, Alfie’s words echo in my mind.

Love is bloody awful, Chicken.