I shrug again. “Fuck it.”
He chuckles and looks at me, with pride in his eyes. “You’ve turned my brother into a rebel, Olive.” He taps her hand. “Well done.”
Then he switches spots with me.
Olivia’s arm curls around mine, and her thigh brushes my leg through the fabric of her dress.
“That’s better.” I sigh. Because having her on my arm feels like it always has—like it’s meant to be.
The ball is in full swing. Everyone’s enjoying themselves—the music is less stuffy than in past years, the orchestra mixing renditions of popular music with classical. People are dancing, eating, laughing—and I stand across the room, by myself for a rare moment, watching.
It’s the strangest sensation—the swell of joy in my chest that looking at Olivia always brings. The surging pride I feel as she moves with so much confidence, chatting with the wives of ambassadors, leaders, and assorted royalty like she’s been doing it her whole life—like she was born to do it. And then the inevitable stab of agony lands—when I remember that she’s leaving. That in just another few days, she’ll be gone, lost to me, forever.
“Are you all right, Nicky?” Henry asks, with quiet concern. I didn’t see him approach and I don’t know how long he’s been beside me.
“No, Henry,” I say in a voice that doesn’t sound at all like mine. “I don’t think I am.”
He nods, then squeezes my arm and pats my back—trying to prop me up, lend me strength. It’s all he can do, because, like I told him months ago…we are who we are.
I push off from the wall and walk over to the orchestra leader. We speak for a few seconds, heads bent together. When he eagerly agrees, I head toward Olivia. I reach her just as the opening notes of the song float across the room.
And I hold out my hand. “May I have this dance, Miss Hammond?”
Understanding dawns on her face…and then adoration. It’s the prom song she mentioned, that she loves but never got to dance to—“Everything I Do.”
Her head tilts. “You remembered.”
“I remember it all.”
Olivia takes my hand and I lead her out to the dance floor. We’ve captivated the attention of the entire room. Even the couples already dancing pause and turn our way.
As I take her in my arms and lead her, Olivia whispers nervously, “Everyone’s looking at us.”
People have looked at me my entire life. It’s something I’ve endured begrudgingly, accepted no matter how much it chafed.
Except for now.
In the early morning hours, before dawn, I move inside Olivia—on top of her—with only breath between us, white-hot pleasure coursing and spiking through us both with every long, slow stroke of my hips. It’s making love, in the truest, purest sense of the word.
Our thoughts, our bodies, our souls are not our own. They swirl and blend together, becoming something new and perfect. I hold her face while I kiss her, my tongue sliding against hers, our hearts beating in time. Sparks strike against my spine, tingles of electricity that hint at the shattering orgasm that’s building. But not yet…I don’t want it to end yet.
My hips slow and my pelvis rests against Olivia’s, where I’m buried, touching the deepest part of her.
I feel her hand on my jaw and open my eyes. She’s still wearing the necklace—it shines in the moonlight, but not as brightly as her eyes.
“Ask me again, Nicholas.”
Hope whispers. Blessed, beautiful, thrilling hope.
Her soft lips smile. “For how long?”
My voice is hushed and rough with pleading.
Olivia looks deep into my eyes and her smile grows, her head bobbing in the tiniest of nods.
NICHOLAS IS PRACTICALLY GIDDY the next morning. We both are. Kissing and laughing—we can’t keep our hands off each other. Because it’s a new day. I never really understood that expression before. I mean, isn’t every day a “new day”? But now I get it. Because our future—whatever that future may hold—starts today.
And Nicholas and I are walking into it together.
We have breakfast in his room. We take a long shower together—hot in more ways than one. We finally put our clothes on and venture out late in the afternoon. Nicholas wants to take me biking again. But when we make it downstairs, Winston—the “Head Dark Suit,” as Nicholas calls him—is waiting for us.
“There’s a matter we must speak of, Your Grace,” he tells Nicholas, not looking at me at all.
Nicholas’s thumb slowly caresses the back of my hand. “We’re just on our way out, Winston. Can it wait?”
“I’m afraid not. It’s rather urgent.”
And I try to be helpful. “I’ll hang out in the library until you’re done.”
He nods. “All right.” He kisses my lips, softly, quickly, and then goes to do what he needs to do.
About forty-five minutes later, I’m still in the majestic palace library—it’s two stories, with gleaming wood that smells like lemon polish, the shelves packed with one ancient-looking, leather-bound title after another. I flip through a copy of Sense and Sensibility, not really reading the words.
“We’re ready for you now, Miss Hammond.”