As if he owns the place.
“Sorry to interrupt.” He stands beside my chair with a sack slung over his shoulder, all tall and broad-shouldered and arrogant—and not the least bit sorry. “I’ll be kidnapping the Queen for the day.”
This is new. I’ve never been kidnapped before. I don’t know whether I should stand my ground and insist that he let us get back to work or grab his hand and run out the door. That happens a lot around Edward. He’s a very confusing man.
“But—” Sheffield begins.
Edward cuts him off.
Norfolk tries. “Duke Anthorp, we need the Q—”
“She’ll do it tomorrow,” Edward replies in a way that dares them to argue.
Or more to the point, he confuses me. I feel a mixture of frustration and fascination, because he hardly ever does what he should. He’s not my friend like Thomas was . . . but sometimes it feels like he could be, like he wants to be.
Like he wants to be so much more. And in the most locked-away parts of myself, that I’ve never shown to anyone . . . I want that too.
So many thoughts, so many new and swirly, upside-down sorts of feelings.
And I thought being Queen was difficult.
Edward takes the decision out of my hands—he does that a lot too. He grabs my hand and before I know it, we’re walking through the door. On the way out, I hear the Tweedle brothers chattering like two meddling aunties.
“They do make a stunning couple, Bertram.”
“Indeed, Bartholomew. The tea napkins will be lovely.”
Oh for God’s sake.
Edward and I descend the large, curved staircase that Miriam used to tempt death sliding down when she was small and her nanny wasn’t paying attention. And each step feels like I’m walking on one of those giant billowy clouds, like my feet aren’t really even touching the ground.
So this is what “playing hooky” feels like. Thomas said he used to do it often when he was in school—and he was right.
“Where are we going?” I ask Edward.
He opens the sack and shows me what’s inside—a blanket, food and a bottle of wine. “We’re going riding and then on a picnic.” Edward winks. “You love picnics.”
I laugh as I recall my answer to one of the many interview questions.
“Ah, but that’s nice,” Edward says.
“What’s nice?” I glance around to see what he’s talking about. What’s made his eyes go dark and his voice rough.
But he’s only looking at me.
He strokes his thumb across the apple of my cheek.
“That smile. I’ll call it . . . your giddy, girlish smile. Very, very nice.”
And just like that, my knees go squishy, and my stomach contracts, and I feel like I may just pass right out. Swooning is real . . . and it’s rather brilliant too.
It’s noon when we arrive at the royal estate in East Leopold, a large brick mansion with stunning grounds—oak trees and apple orchards and acres and acres of forested land. After I change into riding clothes, we go out to the stables. Edward chooses a mammoth black stallion, while I opt for a camel-colored mare who looks like she has a penchant for speed.
Security rides ahead and behind us, far enough away to give us privacy.
Once we’re both mounted our horses dance around each other, and the sunlight glints off Edward’s hair, giving him a golden glow.
“Do you want to race?” he asks in a taunting tone.
“All right. To the tree line?”
Edward nods. “But fair warning, Lenny. I’m not going to let you win.”
I tsk, shaking my head.
“Fair warning, silly man . . .” I grip the reins and set my feet. “You won’t have to.”
I tap my horse’s flanks with my heels and I’m off. Flying. With the sun on my face and the wind in my hair.
In a gallop of hooves that sound like approaching thunder, Edward gains ground, coming up alongside me. He’s very good. I want to look over at him—to watch the way those large hands grip the reins and the wind tousles his hair—but I don’t take my eyes off what’s right in front of me.
We approach the tree line fast, our horses barreling down, neck-in-neck for several strides. Drops of dirt kick up behind us and then, nearly at the same time, we rumble past the trees.
But . . . I cross it first.
I slow my horse and turn to face Edward, with laughter in my lungs and smiling so wide my cheeks ache. I pat my horse and whisper praise for her.
Edward dips his chin, his gaze shining. “Well done, lass.”
I shrug, lifting my nose. “I told you I was an excellent rider.”
We ride slowly side by side, down a rocky path that leads to a noisy stream. The bright sun peeks between the branches of the trees, making odd shadows on the forest floor.
“What does a Consort to the Queen do exactly?” Edward asks. “Am I just the stud of the kingdom? The cock for the Queen to ride?”
I thought I wasn’t a blusher, but Edward just might be turning me into one. My cheeks blaze like there’s a fire beneath my skin. When I glance up at him, the bastard is smirking.
I defend myself—and my blush.
“I don’t remember you sounding so crass in your letters.”
“Maybe Thomas kept a few from you.”
“Anyway.” I shrug, straightening my spine. “Historically, the wife of the king spends her time on philanthropic work. What the kingdom needs and what’s close to her heart. Social programs, charities, that sort of thing.”
I gauge his reaction, because Edward Rourke is a man’s man—rugged and capable. “Would you think that’s beneath you?”
He snorts. “Only a genuine article of an arse would find altruism beneath him. Many of the places I’ve traveled would’ve been wiped off the earth without charities. Philanthropy makes the world go ’round.”
We emerge from the canopy of the forest at the top of a hill. Without speaking, we stop at the same time, gazing at nature’s beauty—the way the long grass sways with the wind, making waves in a great green sea.
“Thomas was lonely,” Edward says quietly. “Before he met you.”
“Yes, I think he was. I think that part of him found a kindred spirit in that part of me . . . and then neither of us was alone anymore.”
Edward squints against the sunlight, shaking his head slightly. “I didn’t know. I hate that I didn’t know that.” He clears his throat roughly. “I’ve been thinking—I’d like to do something in his honor. Create something permanent. A boys’ club. An organization that would pair up lads who don’t have anyone. And they won’t have to be alone anymore either. What do you think of that?”
My eyes go warm and wet, even while I smile.
“I think that would be lovely. Thomas would be just chuffed to bits.”
Later, we sit beside each other under a tree on the blanket, eating grapes and cheese and drinking blackberry wine. Edward seems to get a strange enjoyment out of watching me eat—I feel his gaze on me the whole time.
“Did it bother you when I held your hand during the interview?” Edward asks. “I’m not talking about the frowns of the Palace or the should and should nots . . . I’m asking you. Did you not like it?”
I think for a moment, and tell him the truth.
“I didn’t dislike it, no. But . . . I’m not an affectionate person. It’s not how I was raised. I don’t know how it’s done.”