I went up to my room, my heart still racing from our getaway. I didn’t know whether I should be happy that Leopold was so protective of me or angry that he had overreacted, again. Everything had been going so well up until now. Last night had been magical, and I thought that Leopold had actually been making some progress adjusting to me, us, his new role, our life, until earlier this morning. I took a deep breath. It was still progress. I couldn’t really blame him anyway, I was just as skittish as he was about everything.
“Come, Mademoiselle,” Angela encouraged as I stepped into my bedroom. “You have to get ready for the opening.”
I plopped down in my desk chair and yawned as my maid tried to make some sense of my windblown and tangled hair. I was tired; the clock only read eight in the morning, but I had already been awake for three hours. Maybe I’d have to take a nap later.
My mind drifted to my wake up call this morning, and I smiled. I definitely hoped more of that would happen. Angela finished pinning my hair back and then pointed over to my bed where she had laid out the outfit I was supposed to wear.
“Please hurry and put that on Mademoiselle, then you must meet Prince Leopold at the front entrance,” she curtsied and then slipped out of my room.
I frowned as I slipped on the pale grey sundress that had been laid out for me. I found it strange that Leopold wasn’t going to get me from my room as usual, but I tried to shrug it off; maybe he had gotten held up with Felip. That thought wasn’t too encouraging; maybe this morning’s events had been more detrimental then I had thought. I bit my lip, frowning as I stepped into the strappy gunmetal heels at the foot of my bed, deciding that I would have to wait and see.
I slid into the back seat of the hearse a few minutes later. Leopold was already there, dressed in a suit, aviators on, fully closed off from the world. He seemed distracted. I reached out and put my hand on the back of his neck, playing with the stands of copper hair. “You alright?”
Leopold exhaled deeply, relaxing slightly, and nodded.
“How was Felip?” I asked, prodding for some information, or at the very least a verbal response.
“Fine,” replied Leopold, and took hold of my hand, taking it off of him then lacing his fingers through mine, resting them on the seat between us. He quirked one side of his mouth up apologetically.
“What do we have to do at the opening?” I queried.
“We will shake a lot of hands, cut the official ribbon, and then be given a brief tour. Hopefully it won’t take too long, we have to be somewhere else by two.”
“Okay, sounds doable,” I said with a smirk. “But Leopold?”
“We are going to be inside. I don’t think you will need these,” I told him, reaching up and pulling off his glasses. I folded their arms and tucked them into his breast pocket.
He sighed and ran his free hand through his hair, his mismatched eyes, staring into mine, “Do you plan on taking away all of my defenses?” The question was serious but his tone light.
“You weren’t meant to hide,” I replied as I raised my free hand, resting it on his cheek.
As our car rolled to a stop, I was vaguely aware of shouting outside. Leopold continued to look at me a moment longer, his eyes sad, then pulled back. He played with his cufflinks briefly and then the door opened and we stepped into the crowd.
I followed Leopold up through the tunnel of Solisians, photographers, and news crews, up to a podium set up in front of the main entrance of the hospital. There was a man and a woman behind the podium, both in suits. They smiled brightly at Leopold, as he shook hands with them. Camera flashes popped.
Then, to my surprise, Leopold turned and held his hand in my direction. “Fred, these are M. Turcotte, the Solisian Minister of Health, and Dr. Fleurion, the Chief of Surgery. Monsieur, Doctor, this is my Winifred.”
I shook their hands dutifully.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mlle. Sinclaire,” smiled Dr. Fleurion warmly. The photographers went wild. “Would you like a tour?”
The four of us, as well as a group of what appeared to be a few selected photographers, made our way into the foyer of the hospital. I had to stop myself from laughing at the life size statue of Felip that was at the center of the atrium.
“Welcome to the King Bellamy South Hospital!” said M. Turcotte enthusiastically. “I would like to show you around our state of the art operating rooms, the rehabilitation center, the pediatrics wing, as well as the oncology research facilities. I will however, try to keep this brief, as I know our time with you is limited. Also, I would like to inform you that the hospital already has some long term patients residing here, in case we bump into them or any of our staff during our tour. ”
I tuned M. Turcotte out, looking at the features of the room around me as I followed the little group towards an elevator. We went down a floor and came out into a bleak hallway.
“This floor is the home of our operating suite. There are thirty operating rooms, ten of which have galleries that will be used by our medical students to observe the surgeries. The entire floor is climate controlled and air filtered, and each individual room has its own generator in case of a blackout. There are also washrooms, change rooms, rest rooms, and prep rooms for all of our personnel, as well as offices, recovery rooms, storage, cleaning and processing facilities.”
We ducked into one of the sterile operating rooms, noting all sorts of equipment lining the walls and an operating table in the center. My stomach flipped as I took in the room; I had never been very comfortable in hospitals. My hand itched desperately to reach out for Leopold to steady myself, but I refrained. We were in public, so etiquette was crucial.
I relaxed slightly once we were back in the elevator, hopefully moving on to something slightly less ominous. I was pleased when we stepped out onto a level with brightly colored walls and floors. I could hear laughter somewhere.
“This is our Pediatrics wing,” explained Dr. Fleurion, “It is the biggest children’s medical center in Solis. The wing is currently at a quarter capacity, having accepted some children with chronic conditions into our long term care program last month. We are happy...”
Her voice cut off as the group disappeared around a corner while I paused, waiting. The laughter came again. Curious, I followed the noise down the hall, in the opposite direction that my group had gone. I came to a room that was completely made of windows. As bright sunlight flooded the room from outside, I stood in the hallway and observed what was unfolding inside. There was a group of children, six or seven of them in total, all between five and ten years of age. Some were playing with toys, others sitting in front of a TV, but all of them were in hospital gowns.
A small girl with golden curls, who was hooked up to an IV, turned and looked at me suddenly and smiled. As I smiled back, she waved for me to come inside. I looked back down the hallway in the direction my tour had gone, figuring I probably wasn’t supposed to be here, then slipped inside the room anyway.
“Hi!” said the little girl brightly, “I’m Ella.” She thrust her hand out towards me.
I bent down until I was at her level, taking her hand in mine, “Pleasure to meet you Ella, my name is Fred.”
Her eyes grew wide, mouth falling into a little ‘o’. “I know who you are! My momma showed me pictures of you, you’re the princess!”
That seemed to catch the attention of some of the other children in the room and they started to move closer, making a circle around me.
“Yes, I am,” I told her softly.
“What are you doing here?” asked a little boy with a curly mop of black hair.
“The Prince and I came to see all of you and the new hospital,” I told them.
The little boy wrinkled his nose, “I don’t like him very much.”
Ella nodded her head in agreement. “He is scary,” she said solemnly.
That broke my heart a little.
“He’s not scary, I promise. He’s just scared. He has a very important job to do and isn’t sure if he can do it,” I tried to explain.
Ella frowned. “Like when you are trying to draw a picture but you can’t get it to turn out right?”
“Something like that,” I smiled.
“Is he going to come and see us too?” said the boy. “I hope he has his sword with him.”
I frowned and looked down the hall again. Chances were he would show up, at least I hoped so, because I had no idea where my tour had gone
or how to get back out of the hospital. “I think so,” I told my little group, “How about I tell you a story while we wait for him?”
They all nodded and sat themselves down on the carpet in a circle. There was no way I could sit on the floor gracefully in this outfit, so I walked over to what appeared to be an arts and crafts table, grabbed one of the miniature chairs, and joined the circle of children.
“Once upon a time there was a great lion sleeping in the middle of the forest,” I began, “when suddenly a tiny mouse showed up and climbed up his mane and started jumping on his head. Furious, the lion woke up and caught the mouse between his paws.
‘How dare you wake me up from my sleep!’ roared the lion. ‘I am king of the beasts! Anyone who angers me deserves to die! I will eat you right up!’
‘Please no!’ cried the mouse. ‘I did not mean to upset you, your highness. I was only playing. Please let me go and I will promise to be your friend. Who knows, maybe someday I will save your life.’
The lion laughed, ‘What an absurd idea! But you have entertained me and put me in a good mood so I will let you go.’
He released the mouse from his claws.
’Oh thank you, your highness,” said the mouse, and quickly scurried away.”
Suddenly I became aware of some flashes of light out of the corner of my eye. I looked over to see that my group had found me again. The photographers were avidly taking pictures of me and my little friends. M. Turcotte and Chief Fleurion were smiling brightly. My eyes finally landed on Leopold and my heart sank slightly; he looked angry. I was in trouble.
The kids hadn’t noticed their arrival so I cleared my throat and continued my story.
“A few days later, the lion got caught in a hunter’s net and, try as he might, he could not escape. He roared out in anger, shaking the whole forest.
‘Oh no,’ said the mouse, ‘that’s my friend the lion. He must be in trouble. I have to go and help him.’ The little mouse ran as fast as he could in the direction of the lion’s roar until he found his friend caught up in the hunter’s net.
‘Don’t worry, your highness. I will have you out of there in a jiffy.’”
I suddenly became aware of a hand on my back, resting softly between my shoulder blades. I looked up to see Leopold beside me, his expression softer now. I looked back at the children who were all looking up at him nervously.
“Everyone, I would like you to meet Prince Charming,” I told them brightly. Leopold cocked his eyebrow up at that but didn’t say anything. “Would it be alright if he finished telling you the story?”
They nodded somewhat hesitantly. I looked up at Leopold who pursed his lips but dutifully squatted down beside my chair in the circle, his hand moving to rest on my knee.
“The mouse quickly chewed through the rope of the net, freeing the lion.
‘I didn’t not think you could be of any use to me, little mouse,’ said the lion, ‘but today you proved me wrong and saved my life. I thank you for that.’
‘It was my turn to help you, your highness,’ said the mouse, ‘even the smallest creatures can be important.’” Leopold finished and glanced at me. I smiled in approval.
“I think the Prince and I have to go now,” I told the circle as I stood up from my miniature chair.
“Back to your castle?” asked Ella.
“Back to the castle,” I nodded.
She pouted and then ran towards Leopold, wrapping her arms around his legs in a hug. Leopold looked at me, wide eyed with panic. I had to hold in my laughter. He relaxed slightly after a moment, and gently patted Ella’s hair.
She looked up at him, “You and Princess Fred need to come and visit again, promise?”
Leopold smiled warmly down at her. “Okay, I promise.”
We waved goodbye to them and then made our way back through the maze of hospital corridors and back outside to our hearse.
“Sorry, I worried you,” I told Leopold as we pulled away. “They were just so sweet, I got distracted.”
“Adorable,” he agreed and kissed my hand, his eyes burning into mine. At least he didn’t seem angry anymore.
“So do I get a hint about where we are off to now?” I asked.
“No,” Leopold said. “But you will need to put these on,” he said as he handed me a pair of aviators.
I watched as he pulled off his suit jacket, folding it on the seat between us, then rolled the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows.
“Everything is going according to schedule, Sir,” said M. Lefevre from the front seat. “The package has arrived and the second vehicle is waiting at location C for your direction.”
“Very good, Demetrius,” replied Leopold. I frowned, both because I was trying to decipher their conversation, and because I hadn’t realized M. Lefevre had a first name. It made me wonder what M. Arsnault’s first name is.
My anticipation grew as we turned onto an off-ramp. I looked out the window and saw a sign with an airplane on it.
“We are going to the airport?” I turned to Leopold. He was slightly pale, his lips tight, leg bouncing up and down.
He nodded once, “We are picking someone up.”
My mind reeled, flipping though all the governors and royalty we could be meeting in a few minutes. My stomach turned into a knot. It must be really important or bad if Leopold is nervous. Maybe this wasn’t a good surprise.
We pulled up in front of the arrivals section, stopping beside another hearse which looked identical to ours. A team of airport security and men in black suits were surrounding the car. M. Arsnault rolled down his window and held out the gold card he used to get me through the airport. The barricade of security guards made room for our car to pass through them and we quickly pulled up in front of the other hearse before they encircled both of the cars.
M. Lefevre snapped a command into his intercom device and then he and M. Arsnault got out of our car and joined the fleet of security. If they were going for discreet, this was not the way to do it.
“Stay close to me,” Leopold told me, then put his aviators on and stepped out of the car. I followed dutifully, squirming uncomfortably under the many curious eyes of the people around us who were watching our little shindig.
M. Lefevre and M. Arsnault, along with two other guards, traveled with us through the airport to the baggage claim, where we all came to a stop. I searched the crowed around us, looking for a group of security guards or a face I might recognize from one of my lessons with Phillipa. My heart came to a stop as my eyes traveled across a group of four people. Two of them were middle aged, the other two teenagers. The woman was tall and slim with short dark hair and a big smile. The man was bald, and in good shape for his age. The younger woman had long curly sand colored hair and big blue eyes, her male counterpart well over six feet tall with long, dark hair pulled back into a pony tail. It was my mom, John, Tess, and Alec.
“Fred!” my mom cried when she caught sight of me. My guards tensed slightly as she and Tess came sprinting towards me, leaving the boys behind to find the luggage. I was instantly wrapped into a bone-crushing hug.
“Oh it’s so good to see you, honey,” crooned my mother, kissing my cheek.
“God, Fred, you look fantastic,” said Tess, evaluating me once she had detached herself from me.
I blushed, “Ah, thanks.”
“Hi, Bells,” chirped Alexander, smiling goofily as he and John joined us. I hugged them both briefly.
“I can’t believe it! What are all of you doing here?” I asked as I my eyes watered up. It was just so nice to see them. I hadn’t realized how much I had truly missed everyone.
“Leopold, here, called us up a few days ago,” explained John, “and asked if we could come down for a bit.”
“Oh that reminds me,” I said, my newly acquired manners kicking in, “everyone, this is Leopold. Leopold, these are Grace, John, Tess, and Alec.”
“It is very nice to meet you,” he said as he shook their hands.
My mother leaned in close to me suddenly, “Honey, maybe we should go to the car. We seem to be attracting a crowd.”
I looked around the atrium of the airport, and sure enough, groups of travellers had formed around us, watching to see what was going on, some taking pictures.
“I think you are right,” I smiled, then nodded at Leopold.
The security team instantly enveloped the additions to our group and we made our way back to the cars. My mom, John, and Alec climbed into one of the hearses, and Tess, Leopold and I took the other. The guards dispersed and our fleet took off back towards the castle.
Tess talked animatedly with me the entire ride back as Leopold looked on quietly, a faint smile playing on his lips. He kept his sunglasses on but I didn’t press the subject. I figured he was probably a little skittish with so many new people around.
I couldn’t believe that he had planned all this, let alone that my family was here. It was surreal, so much better then the African prince or Spanish diplomat I had been expecting. I was somewhat tentative at the same time. I wasn’t sure how my family was going to do in my new life style. It was so different then what they were used too. I shrugged it off quickly though. They were here, I should just enjoy it.
“Oh my God,” said Tess suddenly, “Holy crow!”
I looked out the window to see that we were pulling through the front gates of the castle, heading towards the white marble steps of the front entrance of DuMont Castle.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” I asked her softly.
“No kidding. You have been holding out on me,” she cried excitedly. She jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped and stood, staring up at the
palace. I giggled.
“I have a meeting I need to go to. Will you be okay?” asked Leopold softly.
“I will come and find you later,” he said, then walked up the front steps and disappeared into the castle, M. Lefevre at his heels.
I looked over to find that Alec and my mom had joined Tess, in her observance of my new home. John was a few meters away, examining one of the horse statues which stood on either side of the entrance.
“You parents will be staying in the Aphrodite Suite, M. Black in the Hermes Suite, and Mlle. Stanley in the Athena Suite. Would you like me to escort them there?” asked M. Arsnault from beside me.
“I’ll do it, I don’t mind. It would be great if you could look after the luggage though,” I told him.
My guard bowed dutifully. “Of course, Mlle. And I am to inform you that you will be having supper with your family in the casual dinning hall tonight. Their Majesties apologies for not being able to join you, but they have been detained.”
“Mmkay, thank you so much,” I told him.
“Alright guys,” I called trying to get their attention. “Let’s go inside. I am going to show you to your rooms.” They all clustered around me and followed me up into the foyer of the castle.
My mother spun around in the center of the mosaic floor, gawking up at the ceiling, “Look at that fresco, it’s stunning!”
“You should see the busts,” countered Alec as he examined one of Leopold’s great, great, great uncle.
John had been distracted by the massive crystal chandelier.
“What does this represent?” asked Tess, pointing at a tapestry of the DuMont Family Crest.
I rolled my eyes. This was going to be like herding sheep.
“Common, guys, I need to show you where your rooms are before dinner. I promise I will give you a tour later,” I told them.
I lead them up the giant curving staircase.
“That way,” I said pointing to the right, “Is where the Royal living quarters are located, in the North Wing of the castle. That’s were my room is and where we will be having dinner tonight. Your rooms are in the south wing, in the guest suites.”
I lead them left, down a corridor lined with an elaborate Persian runner, and paintings. They ‘ohhhed’ and ‘ahhhed’ over every one.
“Here we are,” I said as I pushed through the carved wood doors and into their group of suites. It consisted of a combined living room and dinning room, with a master suite off one side, and two other bedrooms on the other. “These used to be the rooms of Prince Christian, Duke of L’ Ambrie sometime in the sixteenth century but they are now used for guests. The rooms are all named after Mythological characters, as he was fascinated with them. They also look onto the orchard and each room has its own bathroom, as he had gastrointestinal problems.”
Alec winced at that comment, “Eww.”
Later that night Tess and I were sitting on my bed, decked out in sweats with pints of ice cream in hand. My parents and Alec had already gone to bed, and I hadn’t seen Leopold, or anyone from the Royal Family or their help since this afternoon. I think they were trying to give us space. Dinner and tour had gone well, everyone chatting wondrously about Solis, and the castle, and asking me about everything that had been going on.
“I can’t believe you’re living it up in a palace, while I’m flipping burgers back in Canada,” exclaimed Tess falling back into my mound of pillows.
I shrugged, “It gets old kind of fast. You are always busy with conferences, being followed by photographers and almost never have any privacy because of all the people surrounding you. I have it relatively easy because I’m not important; you should see some of the attention the rest of the family gets.” I frowned, “It’s getting worse now with the end of the media ban here though.”
“So give me all the dirty deets,” gushed Tess, rolling onto her side to face me and licking some Rocky Road off her spoon. “I want to know what’s going on between you and prince charming.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Come on, you gotta give me something good, I’ve got nothing but grease burns and Josh to keep me company,” my friend urged.
“There really isn’t much to tell. We are dating. I mean, its a little strange sometimes because he is off at boot camp a lot, or surrounded by people and politicians constantly, or locked up in meetings, and both of us have lessons, but...”
Tess frowned. “Is everything okay though, I mean, he seemed a little frigid earlier.”
I had to laugh. Tess had very good perception, but could rarely figure out the meanings behind what she saw. “Its just formalities. He has to act like that when he is in public. He was actually much looser earlier than he normally is.”
“Ya, I was looking you up online and noticed that you were behind all of them when you were out in public. Even if it was just Charming and you, you were about a pace behind him and never any physical contact. I don’t know how you can stand it. If he were my boyfriend, I wouldn’t be able to keep my hands off of him. Although I would probably make him wear those sunglasses all the time, those eyes still freak me out.”
“Like I said before, I have little importance and in the eyes of the government, he is my senior so I have walk behind him and go unnoticed unless addressed. It does give a good view of his *** constantly though. And I like his eyes. Leopold is actually quite affectionate, we just don’t have a very public relationship; politics comes first. We haven’t gotten a lot of time together lately except at night.”
“I should go then,” Tess said as she rose from the bed, “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your romantic interludes.” She wiggled her eyebrows at me, making her way to the door.
“Aw Tess, don’t go yet,” I pouted, “Leopold can wait.”
“Don’t worry babe, we have plenty of time in the next few days. I expect a full report on everything that has gone down. Besides, this jet leg has got me down, and I kind of want to try out my giant bed.” She yawned to prove her point.
“Do you want me to walk you back?” I asked.
Tess shook her head, “Getting lost is all part of the fun. Plus, then maybe I can run into some hot French guy who will have to give me directions. Sweet dreams,” she said suggestively and slipped through the large wooden door.
I shook my head at my friend’s crazy antics. I had missed her. I put the remnants from our ice cream party on my desk and then slipped out into the hallway. It was time to find Leopold.
I opened the door to his room and soundlessly stepped inside. The room was dark except for the faint light of the moon coming in through the open balcony doors. I could see Leopold’s form silhouetted where he was lying stretched out across his bed.
I waited in silence, debating whether he was actually asleep or not, and if so whether I should disturb him. I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen Leopold sleep before. He seemed to constantly be awake, or at least awake whenever I was.
As if that thought had cued him, one of Leopold’s hands stretched out and threw back his blankets, inviting me over towards him. I padded across the hardwood floor and crawled under the blankets. Leopold tangled one of his legs through mine, as I curled into his side and placed a kiss under his jaw.
“Your meeting went well?” I whispered.
He nodded, eyes not opening.
“Thank you, so much. It means a lot to me to have them here,” I told him.
He turned, eyes fluttering open, “My pleasure, always.”
“You leave again tomorrow?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said and then wound his arms around my waist, pulling me on top of him. I was surprised to find he was shirtless. “Not until the evening though. I have to attend parliament.”
I hummed and ran my hand down his chest. His abdomen contracted under my touch. “When will you leave?”
“Late, after dinner. I will be back next weekend though, for the Governor’s Ball,” Leopold said and then wound his fingers through the back of my hair and pulled me down to him, kissing me softly.
I responded eagerly, pressing myself closer to him, deepening the kiss.
Leopold’s hand moved down my back as he took hold of my hips, his thumbs digging into the hollows just inside my hipbones. He growled as I bit his lip, and flipped us so that he hovered above me.
I ran my nails down his back, making him shiver, then ran them back up his ribs, across his shoulders and neck, until my fingers twisted into his hair.
“Ohh, you make me crazy,” he breathed between kisses.
I gasped, as his hands were suddenly in my shirt, on the bare skin of my back, his touch burning my skin as he first gently brushed his fingers down my spine until eventually his fingers dug into my skin, palm pressed to my lower back as he held me up against him. I wrapped my legs around his hips, trying to pull myself closer to him.
Leopold was overwhelming in the best possible way; I couldn’t get enough of him. I was surprised though that he was letting me get so close, he was usually so composed and resistant towards my touch. I wasn’t going to complain at this sudden change of heart however.
Our kissing slowed eventually until we were lying side by side with my head on Leopold’s chest, as I slowly traced patterns on his bicep. Leopold lay still beneath me, his eyes closed, breathing even, hand fisted in the back of my t-shirt.
“I should go,” I murmured, placing a kiss on his chest. I figured the maids wouldn’t be too happy finding me here in the morning. I was pretty sure it was probably against etiquette for me to be in bed with Leopold.
Leopold frowned, his lips falling into a pout, and pulled me closer to him so that my back was pressed to his chest, his arms locked around me.
“Stay, Fred,” he whispered. “Please. I don’t want to let go of you yet.”
I smiled, and relaxed, letting myself drift to sleep with Leopold’s scent and body wrapped around me. Screw the rules, how could I say no to that?