A Game of Hearts

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Chapter 4- Clouds of blue intensity

"Surrender to what is, let go of what was, have faith in what will be."

-Sonia Ricotti

I currently sat in a budget and planning meeting for the new welfare program that we'd be initiating in the coming months and my mind was not in it. My thoughts were being held captive by a certain blue-eyed man who haunted me in my dreams and now in my thoughts.

It had been two days since my first outing with the participants and I couldn't bring myself to go on the second group outing. Instead, I went on my one on one with Noah. He was the perfect gentleman. His wholesome personality and subtle good looks made him a great prospect. He even said and did all the right things, but something kept me from opening up to him.

I didn't have to think much about what kept me from opening up, or rather who. Tobias and Rowan were here and everyone else simply paled in comparison. Maybe I was doing a disservice to these other men that were here to win my heart and the crown. I owed it to them to at least try a bit harder, but until I figured out what to do about Tobias and Rowan they would suffer.

Viktorya, not so subtly, kicked my leg beneath the long oval table. Her soft brown eyes were narrowed in my direction. I turned to the council in front of me. They were all waiting for me to respond to the question Caius had obviously asked. I looked to Viktorya for help.

She leaned in and repeated the question. I sighed, of course, they would ask this.

I turned to Caius and tried to be as civil as I could possibly manage. "The game is going as well as can be expected. I am no closer to selecting anyone as I was when it started a few days ago. I will not be rushed into choosing. You have gotten what you wanted. I am taking part in this archaic system. I will move as quickly or slowly as I please," I said resolutely.

He held his hands in front of him, fingers intertwined. His pointing fingers tapped against each other as he considered my words, attempting to portray some sort of authority. In all honesty, I could care less about what the council wanted or needed. I would do whatever the heck I wanted with the game.

Caius was a bit young to be on the council, only twenty-five, but he'd taken over for his father, who'd been killed in the last attack on the palace. He was eager and trying to find his place amongst everyone else vying for power.

His fresh face and easy good looks only helped him get what he wanted. Thanks to Viktorya, I knew most of what he was up to. She had no problem working him for information. She was all too happy when I broached the subject months ago.

Caius nodded, letting my answer slide.

"Well if that is all," I started, looking around at the rest of the council. No one had anything to add. I said my goodbyes and moved on to the next thing on the agenda.

All I wanted to do was curl up in an empty sofa and take a nap, but naps were a thing of the past. It was well past lunchtime and I had yet to eat. I veered towards the kitchen, ignoring Viktorya's complaints.

Imelda was cooking today and she would have saved me something, just in case I stopped by. She was a sweet lady who reminded me way too much of my mother. It wasn't her looks because they were night and day in that aspect, but it was in the way she treated me. I stopped by any chance I could, needing the feeling she provided.

I hopped onto the empty counter swinging my legs freely. Viktorya tsked before joining me. I chuckled. As much as we tried to dislike one another, we'd found a friend in each other.

Imelda cooed over us, happy to have 'her girls' here. She handed us each a turkey and swiss sandwich. It was simple, but very much appreciated.

Madame Lorrelle swept into the kitchen. Her light brown eyes widened at the lack of decorum Viktorya and I were displaying.

"What is this?" she squawked. "This is no way for the crowned queen of Iron Forge and her hand to be acting. What would people say if they saw you like this?"

Her round cheeks puffed with her admonishment while her chest heaved with displeasure at our behavior.

I finished the last bite of my sandwich and dusted off the crumbs as I stood. I quickly gave Imelda a quick peck on the cheek before turning towards Madame Lorrelle.

"Oh, do lighten up, Madame." I smiled at the woman. "Thank you for keeping my house in order. I appreciate all that you do for me and for Iron Forge," I said patting her arm.

Her cheeks colored with the praise. Viktorya and I slipped out before she could utter another word. Madama Lorrelle was the best at what she did, but I didn't want to be so uptight all the time.

"Smooth," Viktorya laughed as we walked nowhere in particular.

"I try," I chuckled.

Viktorya's smile quickly fell away and I knew serious Viktorya was back. "The Terran dignitaries will be arriving tomorrow morning. Are you ready for what is coming?"

"I'm not exactly sure how I should prepare, to be honest. I don't know what I'm going to say. I'm not going to flat out accuse them of plotting to overthrow us. There has to be a diplomatic way to go about this. I don't want to say the wrong thing and cause an open war."

Viktorya nodded. "You'll figure something out, your highness."

"I hope so," I managed.

Viktorya and I were heading towards my chambers when I heard Killian's voice from an open door to our left. The tone of his voice was what stopped me. I quickly pulled Viktorya to a halt and pulled her towards me. We stood flat against the wall, listening to his conversation.

"He has a chance to be happy, Olivia. You're not going to ruin that for him. If I had known the real reason you came I would have never allowed it. If I have to get you to leave, I will. Leave your history with Tobias in the past where it belongs."

Viktorya and I hurried away from the lounge. I'd heard enough and I wasn't keen on getting caught eavesdropping. Viktorya said nothing on what we heard, but she gave my shoulder an awkward reassuring squeeze before leaving.

I walked into my room completely unprepared for what I found. Georgiana had the full assembly line present with tons of outfits prepped. My dinner with Tobias was tonight and Georgiana was fully on Team Tobias. In her eyes, he was a hero. He sacrificed his happiness for hers and Killian's and she was on a mission to help him get his.

She shouted orders to someone in the bathing room while she motioned her approval or dislike over the outfits being displayed. She dictated comfortably from a sofa with her feet propped up. I did my best not to groan allowed. I knew she meant well, but this was too much.

She hopped out of her chair as quickly as possible for an eight-month pregnant women and waddled over to me. It was obvious she was tired. She only ever waddled when she was at her limit. I guessed it was the reason her feet were propped up. I quickly looked down at her feet and just as I thought, they were swollen. I took hold of her hand and led her back to the sofa.

"What is all this?" I asked.

She smiled coyly and blushed at the extravagant effort that had gone into her scheme.

"I'm just trying to help," she huffed as she tried to get comfortable.

"I don't want to seem ungrateful, Georgiana, but all this is a bit much," I said trying to be as polite as possible.

She hung her head embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I know it is, but I feel responsible for it all."

"You know that isn't true. Tobias had plenty of times to tell me what was going on, but he didn't. It's not your fault."

She sighed in resignation. I didn't think I fully convinced her, but all I could do was continue to chip away at her unreasoned guilt.

She wiped away her frown and plastered a cheery smile on instead. "Shall we?" she motioned towards the assembly line.

I chuckled. "You never give up, do you?"

"You know me."

And I did. I knew her all too well. She wasn't going to stop until she had her way.

One woman pushed me towards the shower while another pulled my hair into a messy bun. I made quick work of my shower and dried off. I dragged my feet into my room and with a final sigh, I put myself into the hands of the well-oiled machine that was the assembly line.

Clothes. Check.

Hair and makeup. Check. Check.

Loss of unneeded facial hair, self-respect, and dignity. Check, check and check.

And it went on and on. Jewelry was the last to go on. Thankfully it was a simple pendant and stud earrings. Georgiana had the final say over my look and as much as I hated it all, I wasn't about to argue with a pregnant woman, especially the mother of my godchild.

After everything was done, she rushed the staff away. I mumbled my thanks for their work. Just because I hated the process didn't mean they didn't deserve appreciation for all they did.

I stood in front of the mirror and took in the hours of their hard work. My hair had been straightened and left to hang lose behind me. My cheeks had been highlighted and my lips had been painted a soft pink. I wore an olive green silk gown that hugged nearly all of my curves. Thin straps on my shoulders held the dress in place while the back was nearly nonexistent. The material hung loosely at the arch of my back. I slipped on the black heels left out for me and turned to face Georgiana.

The sheer happiness on her face kept me from commenting on the extravagance of it all. I wouldn't take this from her. I did love what she and the staff had done for me, but I didn't want Tobias to think....

What didn't I want Tobias to think?

I'd already asked him to dinner. I was ready to put it all behind us and maybe move on. What was I fighting against?

I was fighting against myself and the possibility of getting hurt again.

"Thank you, Georgiana."

She smiled and began to waddle out of my room in search of Killian. Before she was gone I asked the question that had been bugging me since I'd overheard Killian's conversation with his sister.

"Georgiana, before you go."

She poked her head back in. "Hmm?"

"Your sister in law and Tobias," I picked at my nails before looking back at her. "Were they ever serious?"

Georgiana stared at me for a beat before answering. "They were. They were engaged once, but it was called off. Olivia cheated on Tobias."


"Okay, thank you," I mumbled.

"He doesn't love her, Penelope, but I think you know that," she answered before disappearing behind the door.

I stood outside our glass-domed room. Was I sure I wanted to do this?

The simple answer was no. I was scared to open my heart again, to get hurt again. I knew if I wanted to start anew with Tobias that we had to start somewhere.

I couldn't remember exactly why I was so angry with him anymore. What had he really done? Chosen to put his best friend's happiness above his own? He'd chosen to stay quiet instead of telling me the truth.

If I was being honest, I wasn't angry with him. I was angry at myself for falling into another man's arms trying to heal how broken I felt by his rejection.

Mid-thought Tobias pulled open the ornate oak door. "Hi," he smiled.

His eyes gleamed like two stars in the night as he welcomed me in. Our space had been completely made over. Candles had been placed throughout the space, their flames dancing in the dark. A table for two was elegantly set up in the middle of the room.

He'd gone all out and even I could appreciate the effort he'd gone through.

He scratched the back of his head, watching me apprehensively as I walked around the room. The stars shone beautifully, casting a beguiling glow over us.

"Do you like it?" he asked nervously.

I turned to face him. "I love it. Thank you."

The smile that broke across his face was heart-stoppingly mesmerizing.

"Georgiana and Killian helped me," he admitted.

"No wonder she was so tired," I laughed.

He chuckled. "She is one stubborn woman, but I couldn't have done any of this without her."

"She's something," I agreed.

"Wine?" he asked.

"Yes, please."

He poured two glasses of a deep red wine. It was rare for me to drink anything with alcohol in it, but maybe it would help calm my nerves. In a very unladylike manner, I gulped the wine down in two drinks.

"Thirsty?" Tobias grinned.

I nodded and held my glass out for a refill.

"Take it easy. You don't want to get tipsy," he cautioned.

He was right. I was capable of getting woozy off three glasses of the stuff. I took a small sip of my newly filled glass.

Tobias held out a chair for me to take a seat in and I gladly took it. As soon as he sat down across from me the words came pouring out. I couldn't help myself.

"I'm sorry for not hearing you out before, but I'm ready now. What happened? Why didn't you say something sooner? That day at the beach, you should have said something then."

As soon as the words were out, a wave of heat so heavy ran down my body, but I refused to look away from his bright blue eyes.

The intensity of his gaze broke as his eyes fell on the table in front of us. He stared at his reflection in the empty ivory plate in front of him for a second before answering.

"I can't begin to convey how sorry I am for not saying anything then. It was just that I knew it was over before I said anything. The way you were looking at him told me everything I needed to know. I knew you didn't want me, not the way you wanted him. I assumed he told you about Siobhan's blackmail and my letter and that it still wasn't enough. Then you flat out asked me why I hadn't written. It was then that I knew he hadn't given you my letter. I could have said something about it then, but I wanted you to be happy and he could make you happy."

I gripped the edges of the table as he finally told me what I needed to hear. My heartbeat thundered in my chest as he continued.

"My first mistake was not telling you about Siobhan blackmailing me. After that, everything sort of snowballed from there. There are tons of things I wish I could have done differently, but I can't change any of it now. All I can do it be honest about everything from here on out and hope that I'm not too late this time. I should have fought for you then. I should have laid my heart out for you. I'm going to try my best to not repeat past mistakes. If all you want from me is friendship, I can do that, but at least I'll know I tried."

"Why did you finally decide to say something on the boat? I was happy. I'm not saying I preferred Rowan's lie, but why then?" I asked.

"I think almost dying in the Hidden Realm knocked some sense into me. I didn't want to live a life without you and that meant being honest. I owed you the choice of deciding what you wanted, not what I thought you wanted. Can you forgive me, Penelope?"

Tons of thoughts flew through my mind but his question was at the front. Could I forgive him? The answer was as clear as day. Yes. Yes, I could.

"I can do that."

After that, the night went rather smoothly. We laughed and caught up with each other's lives. I filled him in on all the programs being executed throughout Iron forge and he filled me in on his six months after George's death.

A wine glass here and another there colored the night in a happy pink glow. I had missed Tobias terribly. I held onto Tobias's arm as he walked me to my suite. Truth be told, I was stumbling over my own feet. Without his arm, I'd probably have landed face first against the flooring. It was settled, I had drank a bit too much.

"I think I may have overdone it with the wine tonight," I said after a small attack of hiccups.

Tobias chuckled. "Maybe just a bit."

We stood outside my door.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Penelope."

I'd forgotten how seductive he could make my name sound. Hearing my name from his lips curled my toes. My thoughts didn't have far to jump. They were only a step away from the very mature dreams I'd been having.

I was sure he could read my thoughts. My body wasn't being very subtle with its intentions at the moment. My eyes were zeroed onto his lips and both my hands gripped his forearms as I bit my lip hungrily. We were a few spaces away from recreating my dreams.

He yearned for me as much as my body ached for him. It was obvious in the way he watched me. Clouds of blue intensity threatened to devour me as his eyes dilated with passion, but his arms said something else. He slowly pulled his arms from my grip, opened my door, and guided me in.

I was left wanting just as every dream had left me feeling completely unsatisfied, always being woken up just as things were about to tip over the edge.

I removed my dress and snuggled deep within my covers. I was sure tomorrow would bring on a new wave of emotions.

Just before sleep claimed me, I realized Tobias was taking care of me. He wasn't going to take advantage of me in my current state.

It wasn't because he hadn't wanted me and that thought alone sent me to bed with a smile on my face.

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