“All right. All right.” Lenora nods, her face pinched. “I’ll consider it.”

Thomas rests back on the pillows, breathing hard, but short of breath.

“Thank you.”

She nods, giving me the barest glance, then looking back to my brother. “I have to . . . I’ll be gone for the day. I’ll be back later.”

Then she’s gone, the click of the door echoing in her wake.

My eyebrows lift. “That went well.”

“She’ll come around. She’s stubborn but logical; she’ll see the reason in it. She always does.”

I watch my brother, trying to see the answer on his face.

“Do you love her, Thomas?”

He doesn’t even hesitate. “Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking. The first time I saw her, I knew she would get me. That she was just like me.”

“Just like you, how?”

“Lonely.”

And I hate myself more than I ever thought possible. The guilt is suffocating and irrevocable, and deserved.

“But it’s worse for her, Edward. She’s the most alone person in the whole world.”

“She’s the bloody Queen! She’s surrounded by people every moment of every day.”

“And yet she has no one. No one who cares about her. Not really. No one but me . . . and I hope, soon . . . you.”

I GO TO ALFIE’S ESTATE in Averdeen. To the back of the house, to that old monster of a tree and the rickety swing. Eventually, when Alfie comes out he finds me there, my forehead resting on the rope. And the words pour out, hushed and awful.

“Thomas is dying, Alfie.”

“I know, Chicken. I’m so sorry.”

“He wants me to marry Edward.”

“Edward who?”

“Edward Rourke.”

“No one’s seen Edward Rourke for years. He’s practically a legend these days—like William Wallace, the rogue adventurer.”

“He’s at Anthorp Castle right now. Thomas sent him a telegram and—poof—he came home, just like that.”

Alfie looks up at the cloudy sky. “Thomas always was a sharp one. Edward has the right name, and when his brother passes, he’ll have the title once again. He’ll be a suitable match for you.”

“I don’t know him,” I argue harshly.

“You won’t know any of them.”

My head snaps up. “But I would know of them. Their motivations, their goals . . . I would have information. Edward is a blank slate to me. I won’t be able to anticipate him.”

“You mean you won’t be able to control him.”

“That too.” I nod.

He chuckles then, shaking his head, and his voice goes soft.

“You are your father’s daughter.”

And suddenly I’m just so tired. From the weight of it all—the choices and changes. It’s exhausting.

“What do I do, Alfie? What would Father tell me to do?”

He rubs his chin, considering the question. “He would tell you to make a decision, don’t dawdle. He could never abide dawdlers. Your father would want you to look at your options and make the best choice.”

“What if there is no best choice?”

“Then choose the least worst.” He looks down at me with kind affection. A fatherly look. “If you want my opinion, from what I know of the man he is, you could do worse than Edward. It says a lot about a woman, a queen, the man she chooses to tie herself to.”

I stare at the ground and there’s a bitterness on my tongue, flavoring my words.

“And what would Edward Rourke say about me?”

“That you are fearless, bold, unpredictable . . . perhaps a bit wicked. In your position, those are not bad things to be, Lenora.”

“No . . .”

I cannot disagree.

“Not bad at’all.”

It’s dark by the time I return to Anthorp Castle. I step softly into Thomas’s dimly lit room and walk to the bed where he’s sleeping, propped up on pillows. Edward sits beside the bed, following my every move. I don’t look at him, but I can feel the intensity of his gaze. The questioning.

I put my hand over Thomas’s and slowly he opens his eyes.

“I accept,” I tell him.

And it feels like a failure. Like accepting defeat. Because this fight for his life is one we can’t win.

Thomas’s voice is barely a whisper. “Smart girl. Thank you.”

Only then do I turn to Edward and meet his gaze straight on.

“I accept,” I tell him too, but it feels very different.

It’s like accepting a challenge.

For a moment, his intense green eyes hold me possessively as I wait for his response.

It comes in the form of a sharp, deliberate nod.

And quick as that, the course of my life is set.

THINGS GO QUICKLY AFTER THAT, as if Thomas was just holding on, to set things straight. A doctor comes and stays at the castle, monitoring his condition, setting up an intravenous drip to treat him for pain. I’m there as much as I can be—putting aside everything but the most urgent, unavoidable business. Michael is there, doing anything he can for him, whispering to him, holding his hand. Most of the time Thomas sleeps. Occasionally, he’ll open his eyes and give me a smile when he can manage it.

Give us a smile.

Edward is always there as well, always in the room. He takes his meals there; he rests in the chair beside the bed—when he rests at all. He’s showered and wears fresh clothes, but otherwise, he doesn’t leave Thomas’s side.

One evening, Thomas opens his eyes and turns toward his brother. And in a reedy voice, he tells him, “Don’t be sad, Edward. This time I’ll be the one traveling. I’ll try to write and tell you all about it.”

Edward gives him a smile—and it’s a beautiful smile. Then he presses his hand against Thomas’s cheek, patting him gently.

I don’t think about the country, the Advising Council or Parliament. I don’t think about the “after” or the promises I’ve made. And Edward must feel the same. Because we only speak to each other about Thomas.

The rest will be for another time, another life . . . another us.

Early on Saturday morning, the heavy drapes are shut, and Michael has finally given in to his exhaustion and is napping on the sofa in the sitting room. Thomas’s eyes are closed, his lips moving soundlessly, his skin pale with a bluish hue, despite the oxygen mask that rests over his face.

The maid moves to turn the light down. And Edward practically bites her head off.

“Leave it!”

She startles, but then recovers, and lifts the tray from the night table before silently leaving the room. And we go back to waiting, watching the slow rise and fall of Thomas’s chest.

“He didn’t like the dark,” Edward says quietly. “When we were young, before I left, he would come into my room at night because he was afraid. He’d always ask me to leave the lights on. And I did.”

“He’s not afraid of the dark anymore,” I tell him, just as quietly.

He turns his eyes to me. “How do you know?”

“There are catacombs below the Palace of Wessco. I’ve lived there my whole life but never stepped foot in them. Until last year, when he talked me into going exploring. He had a flashlight, but otherwise it was pitch black. And he told me a ghost story—about a man wanting his golden arm—the whole time. Thomas thought it was hilarious . . . I didn’t sleep for a week.”


Tags: Emma Chase Royally Erotic
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