Chapter 3- And just like that
"Trusting someone is my decision, then proving me right is their choice."
As much as I wanted and had planned to go to bed after visiting Kealie, it wasn't what I did. Instead, I went to pay Lucas a visit. It had been a month since my last one. I hated visiting the cells we kept in the palace.
I could have sent him to Belkrain, Iron Forge's main prison fort, but I wanted him close. The part he played in King Stefan's death, no matter how small, was a crime. He deserved the time he was sentenced, but he had also saved our lives that night on the boat. He came forward and helped bring down most of the thugs that were hired by Thelonious.
And now he would help me again.
I entered the six-cell jail. The Guardians gave a swift salute before returning to their stiff positions. The stench of someone who hadn't bathed in months hit me before I saw him. He occupied the only cell. Lucas's red hair was matted to his head. His hazel eyes were dull and missing the feisty spark he'd once had. He laid on the floor staring at the ceiling muttering under his breath.
I leaned against the wall, across from his cell, and waited until he acknowledged my existence.
"I'm not going to bow if that's what you're waiting for," he said, finally turning his head to look at me.
He was angry with me. He'd expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing, but it wasn't what we had agreed to, the council and I. I'd tried to make it as easy on him as possible, but he'd refused any of the extra amenities I had offered.
I'd offered three meals a day, daily showers, books, small supervised jobs around the palace, and time outside; but he wasn't having any of it. He was being stubborn, refusing anything and everything but his freedom.
Looked like he was finally going to get what he wanted. As long as he did what I asked.
"I don't know how much you've been paying attention when I talk during my visits down here, but my parents have been missing for some time now. "
He picked himself up onto his elbows, legs still stretched out in front of him. The tilt of his head let me know he was listening, so I continued. "I have a deal for you. I'll let you out of your sentence on one condition."
I definitely had his attention now. He jumped up from the ground to lean against the small bolted down table. His face urged me to continue.
"I'd like you to use any remaining connections you may have in the Terran territory to find out any more information you can about my parents. If possible, to help bring them home," I pleaded.
"You do realize if my old gang finds me, I'm as good as dead?" He crossed his arms, waiting for me to respond.
"Then don't get caught," I stated simply.
He took his time in answering, considering my deal. A spark of hope had entered his eyes.
"What makes you think I'll hold up my end of the bargain?" he asked exactly what I thought he would.
"Because Trixie will be going with you," I smiled.
He groaned. "That old hag?"
I laughed. Trixie was anything but old or a hag. She'd just turned twenty-four. Lucas was only two years younger than her.
"This deal disappears when I do, Lucas. Take it or leave it."
I turned to face away from him as if I was leaving the suffocating room. I took a step.
"Penny, wait." A pause and a blink later he continued, "I'll do it. Thank you for the opportunity."
I nodded without looking back at him. I delegated orders to help get him cleaned up and set up in one of the modest guest bedrooms under guard.
I still had to tell Trixie and she wouldn't be happy about it.
I'd been right to think Trixie would be upset by her new orders. She walked around her chambers packing in deadly silence. Her whip of a braid snapped with every sharp turn she made. She tried to assure me she would find more out on her own, but I pulled rank on her and ordered her.
I hated enforcing my hand, but it had to be done. Not only were my parents lives on the line, but all of Iron Forge as well. There was a possibility that they could uncover more about the secret plot to overtake us.
I fell asleep that night too exhausted to dream and it was a relief. I wasn't prepared to have dreams about Tobias while he was under the same roof as me. That was a dangerous game to play.
Morning came and for once I was up before Georgiana burst in with the assembly line. I'd already chosen my outfit and had done my makeup. The only thing left was my hair and Georgiana was happy to do it. She shooed the assembly line away.
I'd donned a simple white cotton dress with minimal makeup. Georgiana expertly braided my hair into a crown with small strands of hair left out to frame my face. This updo had been my favorite in the game and it wasn't a coincidence that she'd done it today.
Today I was taking a group of four guys out to Rose Suite Orphanage and Tobias was part of it. I thought he would enjoy visiting the place he'd started.
"Is Kealie ready?" I asked Georgiana.
She stared at me in the mirror behind me as she rubbed her stomach lovingly. "She is."
"Thank you, Georgiana."
She smiled, but there was something troubling her.
"Everything okay with Jasmine?" I asked, turning to face her.
"About Killian's sister..." she started.
"What is it?"
"She might be here for more than just a simple visit with her brother. I think she means to get Tobias to leave with her," she finally answered.
What was I supposed to say to that?
"If he wants to leave, he can. You know that Georgiana, but I don't think he will. There is one thing I'm sure I know about Tobias. The crown matters most to him, so I'm not worried, but he's free to go if he chooses. I'm not forcing anyone to stay here. You know this."
Her face was pained. I knew I'd said too much. She'd begun to silently root for Tobias ever since she found out the reason he hadn't left the competition in the beginning. She blamed herself for my loss at happiness with him. I'd reassured her over and over again that it wasn't meant to be and that I was fine with how things turned out.
It was a lie I'd told myself until I one hundred percent believed it. It was a silent mantra I repeated to myself over and over again until it began to help... until I no longer felt I was being shattered into a million pieces.
I was never in love with Rowan or Tobias. It wasn't meant to be with either of them. I was capable of moving on.
I repeated it until I believed it to be true.
"If you say so," she responded quietly. "Ready to go?"
I took hold of her hand and squeezed it gently. "Let's go."
Kealie, Georgiana, and I shared a car to the orphanage, while the four guys followed in their own.
The extra security drove ahead and behind us, ensuring our safety.
"Why do I have to come?" Kealie whined.
"Because I miss you, butterfly. I thought we would spend some time together today and you could play with some of the other kids at the orphanage."
She wrinkled her nose at my term of endearment. She seemed to reject any form of attachment I had tried to make, but I wasn't giving up.
"I guess I could play," she answered.
She didn't want to spend time with me. I knew that, but I wasn't going to let George down. I'd find a way to connect with her. Six months wasn't enough time to mourn and I wasn't going to rush her into loving me or wanting me around. I would let her set the pace. I wasn't above saying that it hurt that she didn't want anything to do with me. The little six-year-old had grown on me and I'd come to love her, even if she wasn't playing nice.
Our driver stopped in front of the nondescript white limestone building with a simple sign that read, The Rose Suite Orphanage. I had only visited twice since becoming queen and a part of me felt guilty. There was never enough time to do everything I wanted. I just hoped no one suffered because I was alone.
The guys stood waiting for us outside. Our driver opened the door for us, offering a hand to Georgiana. She quietly grunted as she pulled herself out of the vehicle. Kealie quickly followed.
I stepped out onto the pavement and stared at the small group of men. Noah, Wyatt, John, and Tobias made up the group. I wanted to get a sense of how they were around children. As much as I said I didn't want to take part of this stupid mandate, a part of me was curious about the group of men still participating.
I motioned for my driver to begin unloading the supplies we'd brought with us while I spoke with the group.
"Today we'll be visiting a local orphanage and spending some time with the kids. Throughout the day, I'll make an effort to get some one on one time with you all."
They all nodded. Until this point, I'd made a conscious effort of avoiding Tobias's gaze. Standing here in this spot reminded me of the hopes and dreams I'd had for us. It was in this spot that I realized we could be so much more and accomplish amazing things together. It was the moment I'd fallen in love with him. Not that I knew it at the time.
If I concentrated hard enough, I could imagine the feel of his hands on my hips and the taste of his lips on my own. If I tried hard enough I could forgive him for everything and I didn't want to do that, because if I did....
I'd be in danger of falling in love with him all over again.
I finally looked at him. His blue eyes blazed with the echo of the same memory. I tore my eyes away from him and offered a smile to everyone else.
"Be kind. Some have been adopted since the beginning of the program, but it's not as quick as I'd like it to be. Some of these kids are starting to lose hope. We're here to help invigorate their little souls," I said passionately. "Let's do this."
Everyone picked up a bag of supplies and followed Kealie, Georgiana, and I inside. Headmistress Luna stood waiting for us, her reed-thin frame a bit fuller than before. She gave a stiff formal curtsy.
"It's nice to see you again, your highness. We are ever grateful for your continued patronage of Rose Suite Orphanage," she rambled.
She turned to face Tobias. "As well as yours, Sir Carter. We love having you here every month and have received everything you have been sending. The kids love the new clothes and toys you've sent them," she praised.
Tobias turned a fascinating shade of red. He hadn't wanted the praise. I hadn't known he continued to come here or had continued to help out. It warmed my heart.
Three pairs of envy filled eyes bored into Tobias's back. They may have considered this a play for the crown, but I knew he truly cared about these kids.
The day had gone without a hitch. The kids were as welcoming as always and it was a pleasant way to spend the day. I spent time with both John and Wyatt and they were both nice enough and easy on the eyes; but If I were truly considering choosing someone to spend the rest of my life with, it wouldn't be them. There was no connection.
Just as she did on our first visit, Georgiana sat braiding every single girl's hair here to resemble my own. They were giddy at being pampered over.
All of the guys were out in the backyard of the building playing ball games with the boys. Everyone except Noah. He sat with Kealie, Gwen, and Summer, playing teddy bear dress up. It was the cutest thing to see.
"Hey Noah, can you come help me with serving some drinks for the girls?" I asked.
He nodded. "I'll be back," he reassured the three pouting faces that sat beside him.
The girls had taken a liking to him.
Noah swiped his blonde hair away from his face and offered a nervous smile as he came to stand beside me.
"Hi," I offered.
"Hi," he repeated.
I cracked a grin. This guy was turning out to be worth spending time with. I found his nervousness endearing.
"So, what makes you the right choice for king?" I asked bluntly.
Cold liquid splashed everywhere. Some landed on me, soaking into the cotton of my white dress.
He was the first one to get me to laugh. Even if it happened accidentally or at his expense. I giggled at the dumbstruck and embarrassed look on his face. I knew the question would shake him, but I hadn't expected this.
Headmistress Luna rushed over to offer her assistance but I quickly denied it.
"We have this," I assured her.
I took the towels in her hands and split them with Noah and get to work cleaning the mess he made.
"I'm sorry," he stammered as we wiped up the lemonade.
"You don't have to answer that question now, but I would like an answer. We can talk more about it on our date," I said, slipping in our date.
His brown eyes widened. He was the first to secure a one on one date with me and it would certainly be his chance to shine.
"I look forward to it," he said sounding more confident.
"Good," I smiled.
I left Georgiana with the girls and Noah cleaning the remainder of the spill and head out to where Tobias and I planted the small sapling tree for the opening of the orphanage. The guys are no longer outside and I'm grateful for the quiet.
Although, I knew I wasn't completely alone. I knew he stood somewhere watching me.
"You going to join me or stalk me from afar?" I asked cheekily.
He chuckled and a second later, Tobias stood by my side. We stood in silence as we stared at the growing tree. A lot had changed since our first visit here together and I'm sure he was thinking about it just as I was.
I had plenty of time to think about how things had played out between us and how things could have gone differently. I was ready to forgive him for the small lies. I missed having him as a friend. Although, I wasn't naive enough to be ready believe he wasn't here for the crown. That would take time.
Only spending time with him would I be able to find out his true motives. Still looking at the tree, I asked, "Would you like to have dinner with me tomorrow night?"
I heard the sharp intake of his breath and I knew he was watching me. His piercing blue eyes ever vigilant as they examined my face for some hint of emotion.
"I would love to," he answered.
And just like that, I'd allowed him back in.