“Are you all right? Truly?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” She nods, her face soft. “Miriam, however, will probably have the vapors for a month.” Then, hesitantly, she asks, “How was your trip?”
“Oh. Does that mean you’ll have to leave again?”
“Perhaps. We’ll see.” I shrug.
I don’t know why I say that—I’m not going anywhere. But then I get to the real problem . . . and my transformation into a horse’s arse is complete.
“What was that about?” My jaw goes hard as I lift it toward the infirmary door.
Lenora blinks, the prettiest picture of pure innocence.
“What was what about?”
“You and the guard. You two seem awfully . . . close. Even more than before I left. Is that why you told me it was all right to go? Just what the hell’s been going on around here?”
“You can’t be serious.” She looks at the door and then back at me, and her eyes darken to the color of sharpened lead. “You leave, for weeks, and now you’re here and . . . you’re jealous of Winston?”
“I don’t get jealous, sweets. But I’m not a fool either.” I try another tack and point at the door. “You realize he’s fucking your sister, don’t you?”
Lenora gasps, eyes going wide.
“Oh, apparently, you didn’t.”
Michael and I saw them humping against a tree in the garden a few days before I left. Miriam is an independent girl and I didn’t get the sense she was being taken advantage of, so I minded my own business. But Lenora is another damn story altogether—she is all my business.
“You can ask Michael if you don’t believe me. I guess it makes sense—she is the spare. Or has he worked his way up through the ranks to you now? Is that how it goes?”
Her dainty hands clench into tight fists. “The only fool here is me. Because I was happy that you were home.” She shakes her head. “It’s a mistake I won’t make again.”
It’s the hurt in her voice that breaks through the asinine. Heartbreak mixed with aching disappointment.
What am I doing? What the fuck am I doing?
“Go to hell.”
“Lenora . . .” I grab her arm, but I barely touch her before she cries out and her face pinches with pain. I let go, breathing hard, looking for how I harmed her.
“What’s wrong with you?”
She lifts that stubborn chin. “Nothing.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
She’s favoring her right arm. As carefully as I can, I grip the sleeve of her cardigan sweater.
And I pull it down her arm. Revealing a thick white bandage wrapped around her bicep. There’s a crimson discoloration in the center where the blood seeped through.
It’s like I’ve taken a sledgehammer to the chest, the kind that smashes your heart to pieces.
“Christ almighty. You were shot?”
She yanks her arm away.
“It’s nothing. It just grazed me.”
“Why wasn’t I told immediately?”
She slips her arm back through the sleeve of her sweater.
“We thought it best to keep it out of the press.”
“I’m not the press! I’m going to be your husband!”
She glares at me, all fiery defensiveness. And then she throws my own words back at me.
“But you’re not—at least not yet.”
Lenora takes a breath and straightens her skirt.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a country to run.”
Head raised and back straight, like a moving stone statue of the perfect queen, she walks away.
Leaving me to watch her go.
My plan is to let Lenora settle down and then in the private quarters, to explain some things to her—hash it all out. And this time, try not to massively fuck it up.
I don’t expect her to be done with her duties for some time; the sun is just setting and the sky is a soft, dove gray. So I walk out past the gardens to visit Thomas’s grave.
But when I arrive, someone else has already beaten me there.
“If you were here, I’d hit you!” Lenora paces in front of the gravestone, shaking her fist. “And it wouldn’t be any dainty-girl slap either. Oh no—it would be a punch right to the balls! Honestly, Thomas, what were you thinking? What have you done?”
She collapses onto the bench beside the grave, the indignation draining out of her.
“He’s going to hate me,” she whispers brokenly. “I’m going to ruin his life and he doesn’t even know it yet. He’s leaving behind a life he loved and I have nothing to offer him in return. Nothing he values. One day he’s going to hate me for that and when he does, it will shatter me.”
I step out of the shadows.
“I’m not going to hate you.”
Lenora jumps up from the bench, wiping at her cheeks. “You shouldn’t listen to private conversations! It’s rude.”
“I know. I’m a very rude man.” I take a step closer. “But I swear, I won’t hate you.”
I gesture toward the bench. “May I sit with you?”
She glances at the empty bench, then back at me, with an unsure nod. I sit down, leaning forward, resting my elbows on my knees. Cautiously, Lenny sits beside me.
“I was angry when Thomas died,” I tell her softly. “At God and the world and the whole fucking universe. But mostly I was angry at myself. Because I should’ve been here.”
I look at his headstone, and it’s still raw, still wrong. My eyes burn and my throat is tight. “And I would’ve ripped my lungs out and given them to him to save him. But there was nothing I could do. Except promise him that I would care for you, protect you . . . marry you.”
Lenora stares at her hands in her lap.
“I don’t want to be an obligation to you. A promise you have to keep. The thought of it turns my stomach,” she says.
I shake my head. “But you’re not. It’s why I was already on my way back to you when the telegram came. Why I couldn’t stand to be away any longer. You are more to me now.”
Her eyes are two round pools of silver in the fading light of the day.
“How can you be sure?”
“You have to trust me, even just a little. You have to try. I’m a man who knows his mind. I know that I want you—that I’ve wanted you from the first. And if that means accepting the life that comes with you . . . then it’s worth it.”
Her delicate brows draw together.
“Won’t you miss it? Won’t you miss the freedom, the adventure?”
I chuckle and shake my head, because she still doesn’t understand. I put my hand over hers.
“Making a life with you will be my greatest adventure, Lenora.”
Her breath hitches in her throat.
“Oh . . . oh my.”
“I want us to start again,” I tell her. “Start over, better. No parliaments or titles or crowns or marriage arrangements. Let’s just be you and I—Edward and Lenora—two people who met in the forest. Can we do that?”
Her words are said in a tone I’ve never heard from her before. Unsure and vulnerable.
“I want to; I want that with you. I’m just not sure how we do that.”
“Then I’ll go first.” I stand and hold my hand out to her. “Hello, I’m Edward Langdon Richard Dorian Rourke. I’ve been to every continent on the globe. I’ve touched the bottom of oceans and the tops of mountains, and in my expert opinion the very best place in the whole wide world . . . is right here.”