I ignore her, and pet Olivia’s hair reassuringly. “Go on now, I’ll be along shortly.”
She nods, and then, because she is naturally polite, Olivia peeks around me and says to the Queen, “Thank you for having me here. You have a lovely home.”
Henry lowers his chin to his chest, muffling a chuckle. And Fergus leads Olivia away.
After Henry goes off to his own quarters, Bridget exits with a bow to my grandmother and me—and then we’re left alone.
In a staring contest.
Surprisingly, she blinks first.
“What are you playing at, Nicholas?”
“I’m not playing at all, Your Majesty.”
Her voice slices the air, bordering on shrill. “You have a duty. We agreed—”
“I’m well aware of my duty and our agreement.” My tone is no less sharp, but respectful. “You gave me five months—I have three left.”
“You should be spending that time reviewing the list I gave you. Vetting the women who may one day take their place at your side. Becoming familiar with—”
“I will spend the time I have left as I see fit. And I see fit to spend it with Olivia.”
Even when my parents died, I’ve never seen my grandmother lose her composure. And she doesn’t entirely lose it now—but she’s close.
“I will not entertain one of your whores!”
I take two steps closer to her, dropping my voice.
“Be very careful, Grandmother.”
“Careful?” she says the word like it’s foreign. A foreign, dirty word. “Are you…are you warning me?”
“I won’t have her insulted—not by anyone. Even you.” Our eyes clash like swords, throwing sparks. “I can make life very difficult for you. I don’t want to do that, but understand—I will if you do not treat her with the respect I’m telling you she deserves.”
With that, I release a breath and turn to leave the room.
Behind me, the Queen asks softly, “What in the world has gotten into you, Nicholas?”
It’s a decent question. I’m not feeling at all like myself lately. My arms rise at my sides, a helpless shrug. “The beginning of the end has gotten into me.”
With a curt bow, I excuse myself and walk away.
I find Olivia in the white bedroom, standing in the middle of the room, turning slowly—gazing at the walls and curtains and furniture. I try to imagine how it looks to her. The drapes are a gauzy opal, light enough to lift on a breeze from the floor-to-ceiling windows. The dresser, vanity and four-poster bed shine in the light of the crystal chandelier with an almost silvery sheen, the wallpaper is soft white with a ribbon of satin overlay and the antique artwork on the walls is framed in bleached wood.
She startles a bit when she catches me watching her. “Jesus, you’re like a ninja—give a girl some warning, will you?”
I knew she’d look beautiful in this room, that the color palette would accentuate all her exquisite features. But she’s even more stunning than I imagined—stealing my breath. Her wavy hair is an even deeper shimmery black, her eyes a darker blue, shining at me like two sapphires on a bed of velvet.
“Do you like it?” I finally manage to ask. “The room?”
Her gaze climbs up and all around. “I love it. It’s…magical.”
I walk in closer.
“So, did you get reprimanded?” she asks, only half joking. “Your grandmother sounded just like my mom used to when she was waiting for our friends to leave so she could yell at us.”
I shrug. “I survived.”
“What’s the deal with the white bedroom? When you said it, her face turned so hard I thought it’d crack.”
I wander over toward the window, leaning on the sill. “It was my mother’s. No one’s stayed in here since her.”
And I hear the way my words must sound.
“But don’t take that in a creepy Norman Bates, mummy-issues kind of way—it’s just…it’s the prettiest room in the palace. It suits you.”
Olivia nibbles at her bottom lip. “But your grandmother’s not happy about that, is she? Is that why I’m here, Nicholas? Am I a big fuck-you to the Queen?”
“No.” I wrap one arm around her waist, melding our bodies together. My other hand delves into her hair, holding it with my fingers, tilting her face up to look at me. “No. I want you here because I want you. And I’d still want you here even if my grandmother was thrilled about it.”
“She doesn’t like me.”
“She doesn’t like anyone. Most days, she doesn’t even like me.”
That gets a smile out of her.
I step backward, leading Olivia by her hands. “This room is magical in other ways, you know.” I turn around to the bookshelf along the wall behind me. I give the corner a tug, and swing it open to reveal the passageway. “Look.”
Olivia’s eyes go round and excited, like a child on Christmas morning first glimpsing the presents under the tree.
“It’s a secret passage!”
She ducks her head inside, flicking the light switch there, illuminating the thirty-foot corridor leading to the closed door on the other end.
“That’s so awesome! I didn’t know palaces really had these!”
Her joy makes me laugh, makes my chest feel light.
“They do. And this one leads to an even more magical place.” I wink. “My bedroom.”