1. Two Roads
Kade Reifenberg was the youngest male and most introverted of the royal brood. It was only partially for that reason that he was hesitant to have his Coming of Age Ball. Invitations had gone out months ago, some preparations had been made, but Kade had a huge reason not to want the ball to take place. The huge reason was in the form of a person—his person.
After King Kane had taken Alexandria to be his wife and his older brother, Kolton—ever the reluctant lover—took a female of his own, he would have thought his mother’s overexuberance in finding a mate for her youngest son would have been on the wane. Let her fret about Louisa’s mating in another year. He was perfectly happy with whom he wished to be with, though he was irritated that he had to hide in the shadows and sneak away to be with the one he felt fit him best.
He didn’t need a fancy ball to find her, and he didn’t even have to sneak off the island like Kolt used to in order to see her. The only thing he needed to do was send a note to the kitchens or the servant’s quarters, and she would come running.
Not that he made her do his bidding with a simple note that he needed or wanted to see her. It was just their way—the only way.
Notes were often given to servants by proxy of another servant, and if his female was unavailable at the time, the messenger simply brought back a new note in his female’s soft, hasty scribble, smelling strongly of her citrusy scent—the one he enjoyed so very much.
He wondered what he smelled like to her. Perhaps books or fresh ink. He read a lot, wrote a fair amount in his journal, and was sure he had spilled more ink on himself than anything other fluid.
Well…maybe. After all, he was a healthy, hormonal wolf, strong of blood and royal of birth. Though he was closest in age with Louisa, he was a loner at heart. He supposed that if he had to hazard a guess, he had the most in common with his sister-in-mating, the Queen Alexandria—or as Kolton liked to call her, little sis, on account of her diminutive frame.
They were both bookworms, though Kade preferred the term bibliophile. He had a great respect for the written word, whether it was a book of children’s stories or the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien. Everything had its merit, even the steamy erotica Lexi had taken to reading a couple of years ago. He supposed she was using tips from the novels to keep her mate happy, though Kade didn’t like to think about that too much.
And to think, just a year ago or so when Kolton took Eliza to mate, he had been looking forward to the time when he would choose a future bride. As a matter of fact, it was around the time that Kolton was falling for his female when he met with the woman who would change his life.
Meredith Bruner was Eliza’s lady’s maid. A small, blonde female that stood at exactly 5 feet tall with light blue eyes and a petite build. She had grown up on the castle grounds, her father and mother both working for the Reifenbergs since she was a wee thing in a diaper and baby doll dresses in pale pastel colors. Like all other servant children, she was kept away from the royal’s progeny and stayed in the nurseries as a baby before going to school in the small classrooms on the ground floor of the west wing of the palace. When she’d turned 18 about a year ago, she was given the job as lady’s maid to Eliza, so he saw her more often than not since he lived in the boudoir next to Kolton and Eliza.
At first, he wasn’t sure what to make of her, and only knew that she was the most stunning creature he’d ever seen. He had tried to stay away at first, but found himself lurking near his bedroom door whenever she came by to tend to her mistress’ needs. It was only a shame that Eliza was quite independent and often sent her away to do as she pleased.
But now that Eliza was six months pregnant, Meredith was around more often than not. It had been that way since she was only two months along and dealing with horrible morning sickness all hours of the day and night. Tempting her mistress with fruits or little dainties, she seemed to always be near, smelling like ripe lemons and rich oranges—and making Kade’s aching cock harder than stone in his trousers whenever her scent wafted to his nose.
At first, Meredith had been a little hesitant to take up a relationship with Kade. If they were found out, it could be the end of her employment at the palace. She wouldn’t have minded so much if her parents didn’t already live there and…well, Kade as well, of course. She had tried not to get too attached to him, but he’d promised he would try to make it work, for better or worse.
Kade, you see, was a romantic at heart. Many people who read as voraciously as he did were. How could one not be when all they had to do to slip into another world was to open a book and dive into the minds and worlds of another’s imagination? Well, maybe not textbooks, which Kade loved as well. But his true passion was for the classics. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. And now George R.R. Martin, for whom he was dying for the next installment in the A Song of Fire and Ice series. Places that didn’t exist or where more than met the eye were his thing as of late. It should have told him all he needed to know about his present situation—the Coming of Age Ball.
How could he tell his mother and father that he had already made his decision on whom he wished to mate with? And that she was a servant. His mother—livid. Father—most likely blustering and waxing idiotic with protestations. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and his wanted Meredith Bruner, his little Meri—just like that idiotic and meddlesome hobbit from The Lord of the Rings.
59 days before The Coming of Age Ball
“Kade, could you come in here please? I’d like to discuss the arrangements for the ball,” his mother’s voice called from the pink sitting room.
Kade hated that room. It was like Easter had thrown up all over it. Or that horrible pink Energizer Bunny from the TV.
“Not now, Mother,” he called back. He was on his way to see Meredith, and he didn’t like to keep her waiting.
“Then when, Kade?” she asked. “You keep running away every time I try to sit you down to discuss the ball. It’s less than two months away, and catering needs to be taken care of, and the orchestra—”
“I don’t care about the catering,” Kade snapped. “And I don’t care if you ask Nicki Minaj to rap the whole damn time so people will dance. I don’t even care if there is no ball. I certainly don’t want one. Kolton didn’t have one, so why should I?”
“Kolton’s case was different, and you know that,” she asserted chidingly. “And Kane found Lexi at his ball.”
“I don’t enjoy dancing. I’m more…sedentary than that,” he told her, conjuring up any excuse to delay or completely forego the ball his mother so desperately wanted him to have.
“It’s only one night,” Margot scolded. “What’s wrong with you? If I had asked you about the Coming of Age Ball a year ago, you would have been thrilled with the idea. What’s changed since then?”
Kade’s lips twitched, irritated that he couldn’t give her the answer he so desperately wanted to. I already have who I want. Just give us the elixir and we’ll be on our way.
In all actuality, Kade didn’t care all that much if he was properly mated to Meri or not. He wanted her, and no one else. He’d told his female as much, though he didn’t think she held much hope in his words. A servant mated to royalty? The idea was absurd. This wasn’t Cinderella. A servant was a servant was a servant. They lived to serve, and like married like in the low-ranking wolves. Kade couldn’t be her happily-ever-after.
“People change, Mother,” Kade said, standing from the hard-as-rock upholstered chair that looked like someone had spilled Pepto Bismol all over it. “It’s not that I don’t want to choose, it’s—” No. He couldn’t tell her. Not yet anyway. “I have to go,” he said, hurrying to the door. “I have an online college course I need to get to.”
“I thought those were the kind you could take at any time,” she rebuffed, her elegant brows knitting over grey eyes.
“It’s a lecture,” he explained dismissively. “Can’t miss it. Its material counts for fifty percent of the grade.”
Margot said something else, but Kade was already out the door and making his way to the east wing where he had planned to meet with Meredith.
“Sorry I’m late, darling,” Kade said, closing and locking the office door behind him. “My mother is a bother, talking about the ball like it’s set in stone. I don’t want it. I will never want it unless you’re to be there.”
Meredith’s eyes saddened. Even if she could attend, she wouldn’t have had anything to wear to it. Balls were made for silks and satins, not the cotton and muslin she wore every day.
“You know that can’t happen, Kade,” Meredith’s sweet voice rang out softly. “And your mother and father would never allow for you to mark and mate with a servant. It…it’s unheard of!”
“I don’t care,” he told her, coming close to her diminutive figure and gripping her shoulders tightly in his large hands. “Haven’t you ever heard of that poem by Robert Frost? The Road Not Taken?”
She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head, smiling slightly. “No. Tell it to me.”
He cleared his throat and started. ’Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” Then, Kade continued to recite the poem by heart. It was obvious he’d thought a lot about its meaning, and Meredith sighed before granting him a mischievous tilt of her lips and chin.
“Are you telling me I’m ‘grassy and need the wear’?” she asked.
Kade mirrored her smile. “No. I’m saying that I want to walk down that less-than-usually-traveled road with you, and I don’t give a damn about what other people think of me,” Kade admitted. “If my parents have a problem with whom I shall marry, I will abdicate as prince and live as a commoner. That’s how serious I am about you.”
Meredith gasped audibly, her mouth pursing before she wet her lips with her tongue. “Kade, I couldn’t ask you to do that for me,” she told him. “This… Royalty, a life of luxury—is all you’ve ever known. I…I think I could get by if I were ever tossed out on my ass, but you—what would you do?”
He paused, letting her words sink in before he spoke. “Why do you think I work so hard at my studies?” he asked. “In the event that I need to flee, I will have a degree—a way to get a job. To support you—support us as a family. I mean it, Meri. I don’t want to be picking and choosing from the finest as society sees it. I already chose when I met you.”
His mouth descended on hers, his kiss stealing her breath away in a panting gasp before she moaned into his mouth, at his touch. She didn’t know how she would live without him, but if anyone ever found out about them, that is just what she would be forced to do.