Chapter 7- A whole new world
"I'm much more me when I'm with you."
The sun had yet to rise and the morning dew stuck to everything in sight. My ankles and shoes were soaked with it, but it did nothing to deter me. I stood in front of the newly remodeled temple, ready to say my daily prayer to the Great Mother.
My parents had been devout believers in the Great Mother and her daughters. I felt I owed them this. I'd been praying for the same thing for months, hoping for their safe return. My mother would tell me to have faith and it was hard, but I was trying for them. Only the Great Mother knew why she allowed things to happen the way they did.
Today I made sure to add another request and it was to give me the strength to get through the day. I would be dramatically cutting down the participants in the race to win my heart and I still wasn't sure who I would keep here. I was hoping I would have an answer when I saw them.
After an hour of praying, the sun began to rise, slowly drenching the world in its light. It was time to head back in if I wanted to catch Kealie before her classes. I started the short trek back to the palace, enjoying the morning sounds around me.
Kealie and I had an early breakfast together and it seemed she was slowly warming up to me again. I knew I could never replace her parents but I would try and live up to what she needed.
She reluctantly left with her nanny to start the day just as Viktorya arrived.
I groaned. "Hello, nanny."
She wrinkled her nose. "I am not your nanny."
"But aren't you though?" I asked jokingly. "I mean you make sure I eat when I forget to, you get me everywhere on time, and you're practically with me twenty-four seven."
She took a moment to think about it. "You're right. I need a raise."
I scoffed. "In your dreams."
"Didn't hurt to try," she laughed.
In all honesty, If I thought our budget could afford to give her a raise I would have done it in a heartbeat. She did so much for me and I didn't know how I would have managed without her. If someone had told me that when we first met I would have laughed in their face. Viktorya and I had taken an instant dislike to each other so it would have been a stretch, but it goes to show you that things change.
"Have you heard from Georgiana thing morning?" I asked her.
"Killian sent word that Georgiana wouldn't be around today. Her feet were extremely swollen and the palace physician asked her to stay off her feet."
I nodded. I was glad she was finally getting the rest she needed. She was so close to her due date and she would need every moment of rest she could get.
"Ready?" Viktorya asked.
I sighed. "As I'll ever be."
The gentlemen were having breakfast when I entered the hall. They quickly began to stand when they noticed me, but I waved them off. I casually sat on top of one of the empty tables across from them. If Madame Lorrelle walked in now she'd definitely scold me, but I wasn't going to change who I was.
Thomas grinned as if he knew my line of thinking, which he probably did. He knew me better than anyone.
The group watched me carefully. They could feel that something big was about to happen. There was no point in delaying the announcement. I took a deep breath and began.
"I hope you all had a good evening and it's good to see everyone here this morning."
A few nodded their head and replied, but most waited for what they knew was coming.
"I have decided to do a cut and only four will be remaining."
I expected some to start chattering amongst themselves but no one said a word. They awaited their fate stoically.
"Everyone but these four will be going home today, Thomas, Rowan, Cane, and Tobias."
Finally, the noise I expected came. There were protests and complaints of favoritism and unfair advantages, but I listened to none of it. I took what Thomas said to heart and kept the ones that mattered. Cane was the exception. I didn't know much about him but something about him had caught my interest and I was curious enough to find out more.
Opal and Diamond had slipped into the hall unseen followed by three other Guardians. They escorted the other participants back to their room to prepare for their departure.
I turned back to the final four and finally took in their individual expressions. Thomas looked supportive and overall content, but there was a conversation I would need to have with him soon. Who knew how'd he'd react?
As for Cane, I didn't know what to think of him. He was such a mystery. I hoped to learn more of him on our date. Hopefully, he would agree to tonight.
Rowan and Tobias were currently engaged in a staring contest. I was about to intervene when Tobias took a deep breath and looked away. He turned my way and smiled. His smile was soft and radiant. One he reserved just for me.
Flashes of the previous night invaded my thoughts, causing a faint blush to rise to my cheeks. When it came to Tobias all sanity seemed to disappear. I knew I shouldn't have let last night happen, but I wanted it badly. I wanted to take it further than the heated kisses we shared but he stopped before things escalated. He wanted me to be sure and I couldn't deny that I still had a few doubts about a future with him.
Rowan noticed our shared look and I think he knew something had shifted between Tobias and I. His shoulders tensed but he said nothing.
"I have another announcement to make," I started.
I made sure I had their attention because this might change whether they wanted to stay in the game or not, especially Tobias. I would finally know if he was here for me or for power.
"I have given it plenty of thought and have decided that whoever I choose to marry will not receive the crown matrimonial and will hold the title of King Consort."
I waited for the information to sink in before I continued. "It is now that I give you the opportunity to leave the game if you wish it."
I carefully watched their faces. They ranged from surprise to acceptance. Thomas was obviously surprised. We'd spoken about cutting the extra people from the game but we hadn't discussed this. I felt it was a decision I needed to make on my own. Cane was another whose face could easily be read as surprised while Rowan and Tobias wore twin looks of acceptance.
A breathe I hadn't realized I was holding slowly blew past my lips. The moment had passed and they were all still here.
"I guess that's settled. I'll see you all later through the day. Thomas, may I have a word with you?" I asked, motioning him towards the hall.
He slipped out of his chair bringing his half-eaten toast with him.
"Your Royal Highness," he bowed exaggeratedly once we were alone in the hall.
"Oh, be quiet," I said playfully pushing him.
He chuckled. "Step into my office," he joked as we settled into the small office near the throne room. "What's on your mind, Pen?"
I paced the room nervously. I'd talked myself into having this conversation with Thomas days ago and It was now or never. It was a step I was ready to take
He now sat on the carpeted floor looking up at me. He knew something was up but he thankfully waited for me to begin. I took a long and calming breath before joining him on the ground. I crossed my legs and sat in front of him, knees touching.
He raised a brow.
"So, first of all, I'd like to thank you for the advice and getting me to admit who I could see a possible future with. Second of all, I think we should talk about your presence here."
It was absolute torture getting that second set of words out but I told myself it was necessary. It was necessary to use words like any civilized person would in my place.
"Oh, we're having this conversation, are we? I was wondering when it would happen," he said casually.
His brown hair wasn't combed neatly today but how he used to wear it before becoming his uncle's assistant in merchant trading. It was messy, unruly, and gorgeous. His warm smile and kind brown eyes were home for me. He was someone I could utterly be myself with. Thomas knew all there was to know about me, so of course, he would know I'd get around to this conversation with him eventually, but did he know the direction.
I moved to sit on his right, shoulder to shoulder, leaning back against the burgundy loveseat.
He sighed as he stretched out on the ground and laid his head in my lap. "Just rip the cord, Pen. I'm a grown man. I believe we've had a similar conversation before."
And he was right, we had. He'd asked me to marry him but I was too broken-hearted to see past the pain I was in. There was always chemistry between us but we had never made an effort to see if it could possibly mean anything more than friendship.
We sat in silence unsure of where the conversation would go. I ran my fingers through his unruly hair and enjoyed the feel of it against my fingers. He sighed contently.
He reached up and pulled my right hand into his own, sitting up as he did so. He fingered the white gold ring embellished with sapphires. "You're still wearing this? I thought you might have stored it."
"I thought about it," I answered truthfully.
"Why didn't you?" he asked, gazing at me intently.
"I couldn't bring myself to put away that part of my life."
He stiffened at my words. "What are you saying, Pen?
"I don't know, Thomas," I whispered looking at my still crossed legs.
Things with Thomas had always been simple and the easy thing to do would have been to say we were only friends but a part of me whispered it was a lie. A part that I'd shied away from for years was finally yelling at me to give him a chance. My heart had finally healed and even though it wasn't completely free of Tobias and Rowan, there was space for Thomas.
I owed it to all three of them to figure out what I wanted because in the end only one of them could have all of me.
He lifted my chin with his index finger and we gazed at each other intently. His brown eyes searched my own, willing an answer from them, but I couldn't bring myself to say a word.
He inched a bit closer, still staring at me. "Pen?" he asked softly.
Shivers ran up and down my spine in anticipation of what was to come, of what I was about to agree to.
I bit my bottom lip and nodded my head quickly. Thomas ran his thumb along my bottom lip, pulling it from between my teeth. The agonizingly slow descent upon my lips left me breathless. The soft caress of his lips as they touched mine was just as I remembered. Except then, I hadn't allowed myself to enjoy it and this time I was ready for Thomas. I was ready to reciprocate his intensity. Except there was no intensity. He was holding back, waiting for me to retreat and tell him I couldn't just as I had that day many months ago.
In a surprising move, I pulled his face to mine and smashed my lips against his. His eyes widened, his hands loose on his lap. I groaned. It was going to take more to get him to truly kiss me like I wanted. I needed to cross the line I'd set up between us and I needed to see if he was still willing to cross with me.
I straddled his hips and grabbed the collar of his shirt, placing a light kiss at the edge of his lips. "Now Thomas, I know you can do better than that," I smirked, trying to get the reaction I wanted out of him. His chocolate eyes turned from shock to molten lava in seconds. His hands found my waist, his fingers finding my bare skin. He kissed me the way that I wanted and in a way, I'd never truly expected to be kissing him in.
He groaned seductively as he met my kisses with his own. My heart was on the verge of exploding. I was kissing Thomas and I really really liked it.
What a whole new world this was.