Someone was watching her, she was sure of it. It was unlike when she left the palace grounds to go into town and was constantly surrounded by armed guards. In those instances, perhaps it makes sense that she could not escape the hawk-like eyes of her security team.
But here, on the archery range at the back of the palace grounds, this was her sanctuary. Even her head of security knew better than to interrupt her here. Giana had been able to hit the bullseye from one hundred yards away since she was ten years old. She was more than capable of taking care of herself while she had a bow in hand.
Careful not to alert her watcher that she was aware of their presence, she carefully placed the arrow within in the bow and lifted her arms to aim at the bullseye, only to spin at the last moment and face her would be attacker, keeping the arrow firmly pointed at the man about her age. “Who are you?”
He was beautiful, with golden hair and piercing turquoise eyes and she didn’t trust him in the slightest. Narrowing her gaze, she kept her arms steady, prepared to release the bow given the right incentive.
He lifted his arms to the side, palms facing outwards to ensure her that he was holding no weapons, and she briefly noted that his emerald green tunic was made of the same fine silk as the gown she wore for her coronation. A rather expensive material for a common intruder.
His lips parted to answer her questions, but before he could speak, Freya appeared, hurrying towards Giana and calling out, “Your Majesty! I’ve been searching for you.”
“No need to be alarmed, Freya,” Giana replied calmly, not taking her eyes of the stranger. “I have the situation under control.”
Despite being surrounded by security for about ninety percent of her waking hours, Giana had often felt helpless. Hating the idea that she would need another person to come to her rescue if she were ever in any real danger, Giana had taken it upon herself to begin combat training as a teenager. Hours of learning to fight with her hands, as well as any weapon she could get her hands on, meant that she was more than prepared for situations such as these.
“You misunderstand me, my lady,” Freya insisted. “I’ve come to tell you that the royal party from Ravenna has arrived early.”
Giana lifted her eyebrows in surprise. She’d received a letter from King Leopold a few weeks prior, accepting her proposal on his son’s behalf. His only stipulation was that he and his son come visit, so that Giana could officially meet the Crown Prince of Ravenna for they wed.
She was told they would arrive just in time for the evening meal, but it seemed they were a few hours early. She glanced at Freya and then returned her gaze to the stranger, tightening her grip on her bow. She assumed he must be a member of the prince’s household. “And you are…”
It was Freya who answered, “The Crown Prince, my lady.”
Giana blinked rapidly in surprise, lowering her bow and feeling immediately guilty for threatening her future husband. “Nicolas?”
To his credit, he looked more amused than offended as he lowered his head in a bow and greeting. “Nico, Your Grace. Only my father calls me Nicolas.”
Placing her bow and arrow on the ground, she removed her archery glove before extending her hand towards the prince. “Giana.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said quietly, taking her hand and pressing a soft kiss to its top.
“I’m sure,” she replied as she withdrew her hand, feeling pleasantly calmed by his presence. She glanced downward and crinkled her nose as she realized her breeches, riding boots, and tunic were completely inappropriate attire. “It seems I am underdressed for the occasion.”
In her limited experience with royal males of her age, she noticed they tended to act more superior than necessary in order to give off an air of importance, so she fully expected him to show disgust at her current lack of propriety, which was why she was surprised when he clasped his hands behind his back and grinned widely. “I assure you, I am not offended by your clothing choice.”
It occurred to her that she was in the midst of a golden opportunity. Once they entered the palace, they would be surrounded by members of the royal household, as well as various nobles, and would not be given the chance to get to know each other properly. Deciding to take full advantage of her current situation, Giana gestured to the stash of bows and arrows to the side of the range. “Do you shoot?”
“Archery?” Nico replied, shaking his head. “Not at all.”
She found that surprising. She had always assumed that being groomed to be king would mean a prince was taught to be proficient with all types of weaponry. “You never learned.”
“I was forced to learn,” he said, not sounding at all thrilled with the memory. “Combat skills are required of future kings, apparently.”
She tilted her head to the side, intrigued by his apparent disgust at his combat training. “But you don’t enjoy it?”
“Not particularly,” he shrugged. “I’ve never thought that violence is a reasonable way to resolve a conflict.”
How utterly fascinating. Not that Giana reveled in violence. However, her observations of the way her mother interacted with Izlia’s generals had taught her that sometimes a ruler had no choice but to go to war. It wasn’t a perfect solution, and always a difficult decision, but one that had to be made under certain circumstances.
“That’s very idealistic of you,” she replied, meaning that as the highest compliment.
Still, he seemed to understand that she didn’t share his views. “But you disagree.”
“I think the world is complicated and there’s never one correct way to handle any situation,” she said carefully. The truth was that she’d never found herself in a position to have to make such a decision in the first place and although she had an idea of how she would respond, she also liked to think that her intuition would play a large part in any tenuous future situation.
His smiled softened and he nodded once, his hands still clasped behind his back, his posture completely relaxed. He possessed a natural lack of tension which she desperately wished she could emulate. “Fair enough.”
She blinked, having expected the beginnings of some sort of argument. Parting her lips, she furrowed her brow in confusion at the surprising turn of events. “This is by far the most civil conversation I’ve had with a man.”
“Have you had many conversations with men?” he asked, his expression betraying nothing about the intent behind his question.
“Why?” She narrowed her gaze, crossing her arms over her chest, not at all fooled by his innocent tone. “Does that trouble you?”
Rather than answer the question, he tilted his head to the side, a soft breeze lifting the blonde locks on his forehead, the sea in his eyes calm and unwavering. “Should it?”
It made her anxious that none of his replies kept to the script she’d written in her head. “I suppose I’d like my husband to have some affection for me.”
He nodded slowly, taking his time to respond. “Jealousy is bred from possession, not affection.”
For the second time in the span of a few minutes, she found herself speechless. Growing up royal hadn’t left Giana a lot of time to form romantic relationships, meaning all her knowledge about them stemmed from hearing palace gossip. And what she’d gleaned so far was that people often went to extraordinary lengths to extract jealousy from a romantic interest. Therefore, jealousy must be a necessary factor to all relationships.
But as she mulled over his words in her head, she came to the conclusion that he may have a point. For if she truly trusted her partner, then she would never have a reason to be jealous. And perhaps trust was the real cornerstone of a healthy relationship.
“I suppose you’re right,” she conceded. Glancing over his head, she noted Freya had positioned herself just outside the entrance to the archery range, close enough to have the ability to alert Giana of any potential visitors, yet far enough away that she was out of earshot. Deciding to take the rare moment of solitude, before other members of the royal household undoubtedly came looking for them, to get to know her future husband better, she asked. “So, how do you occupy your time?”
If he was at all bewildered by the sudden change in conversation topic, he gave no indication, instead, replying softly, “I paint.”
Although his eye contact remained direct, his cheeks reddened at the admission. She found the astounding combination of confidence, modesty, shyness, and quiet strength to be fascinating.
Her smile widened. She found his presence to be calming and she was enjoying the sensation. “You’re an artist?”
“I wouldn’t put it quite like that,” he said quickly, his cheeks tinting darker with each passing second. “It’s more of a hobby than a profession.”
His humility made her smile grow, and she decided she enjoyed seeing him turn that adorable shade of red, so she said, “You’re wonderful, I’m sure.”
As she had hoped, his flush enveloped his entire face. “Thank you.”
She had probably embarrassed him enough for one encounter, so she gestured to indicate they should take a turn around the range and said, “I think my mother would have preferred I have artistic hobbies.”
“Why is that?” he asked, clasping his hands behind his back as they strolled.
“Staying in one place has never been an easy task for me,” she admitted, wondering why she felt so comfortable opening up to a man she’d met not ten minutes prior. “As a child, I was always running off into the forest and climbing trees and getting mud on my dresses. I think my mother spent much of my childhood worrying about my safety.”
He was quiet for a moment before he replied, “Did she ever restrict you from doing as you pleased?”
“No.” She smiled as she responded. Katrina had been many things, but controlling had never been one of them. Despite how often she reminded Giana of her royal duties, Katrina had never once attempted to stifle her daughter’s curious and adventurous nature.
Nico smiled softly, his eyes beautiful and bright and full of hope. “Then perhaps she realized that your spirit was not meant to be contained.”
Giana couldn’t help the smile that stretched her lips in return. “Perhaps.”
In the midst of preparing to ask about the prince’s upbringing, Giana heard her name being called by Freya and looked over Nico’s shoulder to see her handmaiden indicating the arrival of a member of the royal household of Ravenna.
The young man strode with purpose, but was halted at the entrance to the archery range by a determined Freya, who stood her ground, despite the man’s withering glare. Deciding against using his considerable size on Giana’s handmaiden, the man turned his attention to Nico and Giana, bowing as he greeted them and sending a disapproving glare in Nico’s direction as he spoke. “Your Highness. Your Grace.”
Nico looked beyond amused at the sight of his ox-like companion being thwarted by Freya, the copper haired pixie. “This is Felix, my valet.”
“Good to meet you, Felix,” Giana replied with a nod. “This is Freya, my lady-in-waiting. I suppose the two of you will become well acquainted.”
Giana did not intend to have the kind of marriage where all communication was relayed through third parties, however, seeing as Freya was by her side for the majority of her waking hours, it seemed only natural that she would end up interacting with Felix on a regular basis.
Felix still looked slightly miffed as he greeted Freya. “Miss.” He gave her but a second to curtsey in response before returning his attentions to Giana and Nico. “I was sent to fetch you, sir and my lady. Dinner will be served shortly.”
A rumble in her stomach punctuated the timeliness of his declaration.
“I should change,” she said to Nico, knowing it would cause quite a stir among the court if she arrived at dinner in her boots and breeches. “I shall see you shortly.”
She walked briskly towards Freya, and as they exited the archery range, she could have sworn she heard him softly whisper, “I’m looking forward to it.”