Chapter 19- Fear of the unknown
“There is my heart, and then there is you, and I’m not sure there is a difference.”
Tobias and I sat watching the butterflies as they flitted across the glass room. The doors that led into the garden had been left open, allowing a small breeze to drift into the room. We’d been here several times together and it seemed that we had most of our important conversations in this room and this time would be no different.
I rubbed my palms down my thighs, attempting to dry the moisture on my hands. My body had broken out into a cold sweat. My heart thumped erratically in sync with the wings of the butterflies we watched. I peeked over at Tobias, who sat beside me, to see if he had caught my frantic state, but he hadn’t been watching me. His eyes were still on the butterflies.
“What now?” he asked, breaking the silence and surprising me as I watched him.
I said nothing, still trying to soothe the beating my heart was giving my chest.
He turned to face me. “Penelope?”
The intensity of his gaze shot down my body, springing me into motion. I jumped up from the stone bench and paced back and forth in front of him, going as far as ripping off my white blazer and tossing it on the ground in a very unladylike manner. This was it. The moment had finally arrived. I was terrified to the point of nearly being paralyzed so I forced myself to keep moving as I gathered my courage.
“Penelope,” he called again.
I could do this. I was terrified of voicing my feelings aloud to Tobias again. We didn’t have a great record for this kind of thing. The last time I’d told him how I felt I was dragged out of the room by palace guards, although it was unrelated to my feelings, it had left a scar.
My mind trembled in fear of the unknown, yet my heart eagerly anticipated and hoped for reciprocation of my feelings. If I didn’t dare to jump would Tobias and I ever really take that first step we’d need if we wanted to be more than just dinner dates, secret hugs, and stolen kisses.
Tobias grabbed hold of my wrist, looking up at me from beneath his long dark lashes. He smiled. I inhaled roughly as he stood and looked down at me with a steady gaze. He took hold of my chin as he stared deeply into my eyes. “Penelope.”
“Hmm,” I finally responded.
“I love you,” he said softly. “I know the game isn’t over and that Thomas and Cane are still valid options but I didn’t want to let another moment pass without telling you exactly what you mean to me.”
I could only stare at him, eager to hear the rest of what he had to say.
“You’re home to me, a family I thought I’d never have again,” he said, kissing my cheek sweetly. “I want you to trust me and I want you to love me without restraint just as I do you. I want you to give me your heart and feel secure that I won’t mishandle it,” he said, kissing my forehead. “I want a future with you. You’re all I think about and when I close my eyes you are all I see.”
His gaze rattled me to my bones, shaking the very core of me. His words settled my racing heart, bringing it to a slow and steady rhythm. My eyes roamed his face, a million thoughts and questions at the tip of my tongue, but he cut off anything I could say with his mouth. He was kissing me and all my thoughts dissolved as I stopped trying to make sense of anything but the touch of his lips on mine.
He had completely unraveled and disarmed all the protection I had placed around my heart and I could only smile because it was exactly what I wanted. I wanted him and all he had to give me. I needed him like I needed to breathe. His arms snaked around my waist, lifting me a few inches off the ground as he continued to kiss me. My fingers curled into his hair as I kissed him back, pouring every single thing that I felt for him into that one kiss so that he’d know that I loved him too.
We reluctantly pulled apart.
I laughed, still trying to fully catch my breath. “Just in case you didn’t understand my response with that kiss, I love you too.”
He happily smiled down at me. “I understood but it’s nice to hear. To be honest, I feared I’d never hear those words from you again.”
His words from earlier pierced the moment, about Thomas and Cane being valid options. “Tobias.”
He raised a brow, waiting.
I continued, “There’s no one else. It’s just you. I chose you. I’ve already spoken with Thomas and Cane is just a means to keep the council quiet until I can officially cut him from the game.”
His eyes widened for a moment before an ear to ear smile transformed his face. He picked me up and swung me around before placing me on the ground and burying his face in the crook of my neck.
“Penelope,” he breathed.
Tears welled in the corners of my eyes at the emotion in his voice as he whispered my name. He wanted me as much as I needed him.
He quickly pulled away, his eyes brightly gleaming. “Meet me back here tonight. After the sun sets.”
He playfully pinched my cheek before rushing off.
Since Viktorya and I had been avoiding each other it was difficult to find her now that I was ready to talk. She was only present for meetings in the war room and official business. Thankfully, Madame Lorelle let it slip that she saw her speaking with the Minister of Coin in her office. We collided with each other as I rounded the last corner on my way to see her.
“Your majesty,” she said, quickly bowing.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
We regarded each other for a few moments before giving in and smiling awkwardly.
“Shall we go for a walk?” I asked.
She sighed, rubbing her eyes. “Sure.”
Her appearance was immaculate as ever but the signs of fatigue could be seen by those who knew her. It was in the way her shoulders drooped an inch, in the way her usually bright eyes had dimmed, or in the way she smiled languidly instead of the normal seductive grin she constantly wore.
We walked in silence with no destination in mind, but our feet seemed to carry us in the general direction of her room. I’d only ever visited her chambers twice in our time together and only ever to her door, but today I was invited in.
Her rooms were very feminine splashed in pale pink and draped with white lace curtains. A small writing desk was filled with letters from other territories and influential people in Iron Forge. Letters in which she helped me sort through daily. A round table in the center of her room held a lilac stained vase full of peonies that I was sure Thomas had picked a few days ago.
I hid the smile growing on lips behind a hand as I continued my perusal of her living areas. Dresses, blouses, and jeans littered the sitting area. She laughed as she hurried to pick up the discarded clothing to make room for us to sit. “I only let the cleaning staff in twice a week.”
I took a seat and waited for her to do the same. She wrung her fingers together and bit her bottom lip as she waited for me to speak.
“I think this conversation is a bit overdue.”
She sighed, deflating and letting herself fall back into the armchair. “You’re dismissing me, right?” she asked, not looking at me. “I understand. I’m completely at fault for looking at Thomas in the first place when he was here for you.”
She gasped and clutched her hands over her mouth, realizing too late what she’d just admitted. Her wide brown eyes watched me cautiously.
I laughed. “I figured that out, eventually.”
She let her hands fall from her mouth to her lap and looked away. “I’m sorry.”
“Why? Don’t be. We can’t help who our heart goes to.”
“I didn’t intentionally set out to like him. He sort of crept up on me. It was too late by the time I realized he had made his way into my heart,” she smiled.
I laughed. “Thomas is like that. Once he gets a hold of you, there is no letting go.”
“So, what now?”
“Well, firstly, you’re not dismissed.”
“No. I need you, Viktorya. You’re my partner. You’re basically my king.”
She scoffed, eying me disbelievingly.
I chuckled. “It’s true. Without you, I’d get nothing done.”
She lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders. “That’s true.”
“In all seriousness though, I don’t blame you for having feelings for Thomas. He’s great. I was just surprised. No. I was hurt that you kept it from me. Putting our positions aside, you’re one of my closest friends, if not one of my best. I felt betrayed because I thought we’d grown closer than that.”
Her shoulders fell again. “We are. I was terrified of what I was feeling and wasn’t ready to put those feelings into words, especially because of our situation.”
I nodded. “I can understand that.”
“Have you spoken with Thomas?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I wanted to speak with you first.”
“Thomas and I agreed that it was best to end his participation in the game.”
Her eyes snapped to meet my own and scoffed. “I don’t need to be anyone’s second choice.”
“We both agreed to remain friends.”
“He hasn’t approached me,” she said, smoothing out the wrinkles in her pants.
“Are you sure about that?” I asked, eyeing the lilac vase filled with pink peonies.
She followed my gaze and gasped.
“I saw him picking those a few days ago.”
A smile pulled at her lips while her eyes filled with happiness.
I stood, ready to leave. It was a few hours till sunset and I wanted to visit my parents before meeting with Tobias.
“By the way, I just met with the Minister of Coin and it seems that Cane has asked the council to allow the game participants to visit his territory.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course, he had. Now that his position was known he was trying to sway the council more in his favor hoping they would have some influence over my decision. He wanted me to see what I would miss out on if I rejected him. I was sure of it. If he was willing to give me entrance into the heart of his kingdom, I was going to take it. I’d find out all I could about the rogue sect in his territory and more about the uncle who raised him. I would find out who hurt my family.
“Thank you for letting me know.”
I continued towards the door but Viktorya’s voice stopped me but I didn’t turn.
“I am sorry for not telling you sooner about Thomas and don’t plan on hearing this aloud again, but you are my best friend. That’s what made it all the more difficult.”
I grinned, not looking back at her. “Make sure you get your man. There aren’t many that are better than Thomas.”
“I plan on it.”
Good, I thought and walked out the door.