“Monseigneur!” Mike called. I looked over my shoulder to find him chasing after us. Leopold and I had just managed to escape the Governors and were headed back to our wing of the castle.
“Yes?” Leopold consented, sounding a bit bored. I slowed down so that we could wait for Mike to catch up, but Leopold put his hand on my lower back, urging me forward, his thumb beating an impatient rhythm on my spine.
“I have a message from your father,” Mike panted when he finally caught up with us. He walked a few paces behind us, hopping back and forth somewhat agitatedly. “He wishes for you and Mademoiselle Winifred to have dinner with him and your family tonight in order to celebrate your engagement.”
“Sounds great!” Leopold said, his tone becoming very enthusiastic. “But tell everyone we are going to make it an official Skip Night.”
I frowned, confused. This wasn’t a term I was familiar with. I tried to think back through my lessons but kept coming up blank. Mike, however, seemed to understand.
“Who would you like me to have called?” he asked.
“No need,” Leopold told him. “Fred and I are going to go pick it up. Tell everyone to be ready in an hour or so. We will meet in the solarium.”
“Very well, Monsieur. I will have M. Lefevre and M. Arsnault bring the car around,” Mike said and bowed.
“Sure, sure,” Leopold replied dismissively, but his face still held excitement. His eyes were bright, and a faint mischievous smile played at the corners of his lips. “Tell Hector that he is in charge of beverages,” he called to Mike before ducking into my bedroom.
“What’s going on?” I asked, hoping to get a hint as to what was happening. I should have known better by now though, Leopold never gave anything away; he loved to keep me in suspense.
“You will see soon,” he said flashing a bright smile. He pulled me close to him, wrapping his arms around my waist. One hand slid up to caress my shoulder blade, the other ran up my spine to the nape of my neck. In one swift movement, he undid the clasp at the collar of my dress and unzipped the back, his hand coming to rest on my hip. His other hand delved inside the green silk, fingertips brushing the length of my exposed back. I shivered.
He kissed me chastely on the lips and then his hands were gone. “Change into normal clothes, quickly. I will be back in one minute.”
I stared at the empty doorway for a minute after he left. My mind cloudy and lagging as it tried to catch up with what was going on. All I knew was that we were going out, which meant I got to leave the castle. For a bonus, it didn’t sound like we were going to be on any official business.
Excitement blossomed in my stomach as I ran for the closet, kicking off my heels along the way. I slithered out of the suit dress, leaving it in a heap on the Persian rug. I pulled on a pair of skinny jeans, a tank top, and a pair of topsiders.
Leopold was leaning on my doorframe when I emerged. He was dressed completely in black. Black jeans, black t-shirt, black boots. He held his hand out to me.
We went to the far end of the castle and exited through a side door in the service hallways behind the kitchen. There was a low building in front of us, nestled in apple trees, which marked the start of the orchard. It was made out of heavy stone with three sets of heavy wooden doors along the front and no windows.
“The armory?” I asked Leopold. I recognized the building from old blueprints I had been shown. The building used to hold weapons and armor for all of the knights and soldiers in the royal guard. There had even been a blacksmith’s forge inside to do repairs. The big doors allowed for the large flow of men that went in and out to suit up in a hurry, and were tall enough for their warhorses to be brought in to be suited in their own form of ancient kevlar. Once modern warfare came about, the building had lost its purpose. As far as I knew, it had been empty for decades.
Leopold punched a code into the keypad on the brick wall, and the doors, all of them, slowly opened. It was pitch black inside. Leopold winked at me, then he disappeared into the inky gloom, his black clothes only adding to the effect. I followed hesitantly, slightly worried I might trip or walk into something. I didn’t particularly feel like accidentally impaling myself on a sword.
Light suddenly began to flicker as rows of fluorescents fizzled to life and the armory was bathed in light. As my eyes slowly adjusted, my mouth fell open.
Leopold smiled at my reaction from where stood next to the light switch. “We renovated,” he stated simply.
“Apparently,” I murmured, staring down at the line of vehicles before me. It was clear that the armory had been turned into a garage, and a very fancy one at that. I didn’t have a vast knowledge of cars, but even I could tell that these were luxury vehicles.
Leopold selected a key ring out of the many that were hanging on hooks on the wall and strode over to a sleek silver car.
He stroked across its shiny hood. “This is my baby. It’s a Lexus LFA.”
“Ohhh,” I cooed sarcastically.
“Hey, be nice,” Leopold chided jokingly. “You do not have to come.”
“You mean you’re actually going to drive a car?” I asked.
" I have to let M. Lefevre drive me, I do not get an option, but just because I get chauffeured almost everywhere does not mean I am not able to drive. I am qualified to drive lots of things; motorcycles, cars, helicopters, jets, tanks… ” he defended, opening a passenger side door.
I got in obediently. Leopold walked around to enter on the driver’s side and slid the key into the ignition. The car purred to life beneath us.
“Do we have to wait for the guards?” I asked. I was pretty sure that Leopold and I were not allowed off of the property without them since the incident at the Canette Field. “Do they sit in the back?” I added, somewhat amused.
“They will find us. There is a tracking device in my car and cell phone. It is nearly impossible for me to get completely lost for any extended period of time. You will be safe,” He assured me, as he tapped the clutch into gear. We cruised out of the castle gates, a few photographers snapping pictures as they tried to see who was inside, then we took off down the cobblestone streets.
Leopold was quiet as he watched the road ahead. It was nice, normal almost, just a girl and a boy driving in a car. In moments like this, when we are alone and away from all the pageantry that is his life and soon to be mine, things became a lot more clear. I could easily say that I was in this for me and for Leopold, while everything else, all the fear and worry, faded away. Suddenly, where he was taking me didn’t seem to matter.
I watched him as we drove. His long legs sprawled out before him as one hand lightly gripped the steering wheel, sliding along the smooth leather, while the other sat on the clutch, expertly kicking it into command. I traced his profile with my eyes, from the tangled mess of copper, bronze, caramel hair, down the straight slope of his nose, and across his cheekbones and jaw. I was on his right, his green side. He looked calm, completely at ease for once. It was strange to see him so relaxed after being so accustomed to his usual nearly unpredictable and restless state.
Leopold pulled up next to the curb and cut the ignition. I looked out the window to find a tiny, rundown looking restaurant.
“Do you like Chinese food?” Leopold asked me as he opened my door and offered me his hand.
“Love it,” I told him, my stomach growling as if to prove my point. “Does this have something to do with Skip Night?” I wondered.
“Caught that did you?” he asked as we stepped into the warm building. My response was cut off as a small Asian man came running out from behind the counter towards us.
“Hello, Leopold!” he cried happily, bowing multiple times in a row.
Leopold smiled and, to my surprise, embraced the old man warmly, “Chef Lui, how are you doing?”
“Good, good,” Chef Lui nodded animatedly. When he caught sight of me, his grin widened. “Is this your princess I have been hearing so much about?” he asked Leopold in a mock whisper.
“She is,” Leopold told him, wrapping his arm around my waist. “And it will be official soon.”
Chef Lui’s eye grew wide as Leopold lifted my left hand for the man’s inspection. “Oh Leopold, she is beautiful. I am so happy for you both,” he said with a thick voice. He cleared his throat after a moment, becoming chipper again.
“Excellent, excellent!” he cried as he scuttled behind his cash counter. “So what can Chef Lui do for you? I am sure you did not just come to give me this excellent news.”
“My family is celebrating our engagement tonight...” Leopold began.
“Ahh,” Chef Lui cut in, nodding vigorously. “So you are having a Skip Night. The usual then?”
“Better double the Moo Shu and General Tso,” Leopold told him.
“Sure thing,” Chef Lui said as he scribbled everything down on an ordering pad. “Please, take a seat. It won’t take long. I will bring you tea and almond cookies, on the house,” he added with a wink.
Leopold and I ducked into one of the booths, sitting across from each other. He folded his legs through mine and leaned back, resting his arm along the top of the bench.
“You seem to know Chef Lui quite well,” I noted.
“He was a chef in the castle kitchen when I was young. He left a few years back after his father became ill so that he could take over the family business,” Leopold explained.
“That’s right,” Chef Lui said, reappearing. He placed a jade colored teapot, mugs, and a large take-out box full of cookies on the table before us. “I used to have to make so many ham sandwiches. It was one of the only things Leopold would eat when he was little.”
“Eventually Chef Lui got tired of it and taught me how to make my own,” Leopold laughed. The old man shook his head as he wandered back to the kitchen again. I smiled at the image. It explained the sandwiches on our picnic together at the beginning of the summer.
Leopold poured the tea. I held the cup between my hands, the steam floating upwards, warming my face. “So what is Skip Night?” I finally asked, hoping that I had waited long enough to get an answer.
Leopold’s never idle hands reached for the bowl full of creamers in the center of the table. He turned it over, sending the tiny containers spinning across the table top.
“It’s a family tradition,” he began as he grabbed a few with his long finger and began lining them up side by side.
“We used to do it about once every other week. Everyone would take a night off from school and work. We would shut ourselves in a room, order take out food, and would just spend time all together, talking, playing games, watching movies.” Leopold frowned as a few of his stacked creamers toppled over.
“It was a way for us to get together and do normal family things. As we got older though, they have become more sporadic, more like private celebrations with the family, which is why I declared it Skip Night tonight.”
“Sounds perfect,” I told him, and took a sip of my tea. “So you won’t be leaving ’til later tonight then?”
He nodded, pursing his lips as he evaluated the pyramid he had constructed. There was a single creamer left that he spun between his fingers. “Shortly after dinner most likely. I am in no rush though. I am not expected to report for duty until early tomorrow morning.”
“Voila!” cried Chef Lui, placing two large bags down on the table. Leopold masterpiece crumbled, the little creamers flying everywhere. M. Arsnault appeared suddenly, catching one of them before it rolled of the table. M. Lefevre was beside him, appearing as stony as ever, apparently unamused.
“Perfect timing,” Leopold said, giving the pair a cocky grin. He tapped the bill that had been stapled to one of the paper bags.
“Leopold,” Chef Lui chided.
Leopold smiled cheekily and stood, wrapping his arms around Chef Lui again.
“Thank you,” he said pulling away, then dug into one of his pockets and handed a handful of crumpled bills over to Chef Lui. “Will you keep my little secret safe for now?”
“Of course,” Chef Lui said sounding insulted. “I could never spoil all of this for you and your beautiful Winifred.” Then he peeked around Leopold, looking me straight in the eye. “You take care of him okay? Don’t fall for his tricks.”
“I’ll keep him in line,” I promised.
“Good,” M. Lui nodded, appeased. “Now go, before anymore cameras come around, and one of them can see your secret for themselves.”
I looked over my shoulder and sure enough, I could see camera flashes going off on the other side of the restaurant window. Leopold came around to my bench and automatically wrapped his finger around my left hand, hiding the ring from sight. After sliding the box of cookies in the largest bag, we both grabbed one of the bags in our free hands, before being led out of the restaurant by our guards.
“Oh my god!” screamed Phillipa, running straight for us as soon as we entered the solarium. She threw her arms around Leopold’s neck before scrambling over to me and placing a kiss on my cheek. “Congratulations! This is so exciting,” she gushed.
“Phillipa,” Felip said in an effort to calm her down. He smiled brightly at us, striding over and taking the paper bags. “I am very happy for you both. Welcome to the family, Fred.”
“Let’s see the ring!” Rose said. I held up my hand for her and Beatrice to inspect.
Beatrice’s eyes filled with tears as she embraced me softly. “You will be great, my dear,” she told me. She hugged Leopold next, smiling up at him with pride. “You have made a wonderful decision.”
“It’s beautiful,” Rose breathlessly, still examining my hand. “You are going to be a beautiful bride,” she said, then looked to Leopold. “Thank you,” she told him sincerely.
Hector appeared beside her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. “Both of you,” he amended. “We wish you much happiness. Now come and celebrate, I am starving.”
Everyone took their seats on the plush couches as the boxes of food were passed around and Hector handed out beers. I smiled and sunk into Leopold’s side. It was cute seeing them all so relaxed, with all their walls down. Leopold was right, tonight they just seemed like a normal family; all of the pretenses, etiquette, and rules were gone. If this was any clue as to how my life with Leopold would be, I would take it.
My mind wandered as I picked at a box of chicken fried rice. I pictured a young girl with red hair tapping away on the piano in the corner of room. A small boy with chubby pink cheeks and golden curls was seated on Rose’s lap, his tiny hand fisted around her pendant necklace. My eyes fell on Beatrice, a tiny baby bundled in her arms, its eyes flashing brightly; one moss green, the other deep brown.
“Fred,” Leopold said, bringing me back to the present. His hand was on my knee, nails tracing outwards from a point until his whole hand rested on my leg. I choked slightly on my rice and took a swig of beer to wash it down.
“Yes,” I managed after a moment. Hector chuckled.
“I am going to go and get ready to leave,” Leopold said, standing. He placed his empty on the coffee table in front of us and ran his hand down his front, ironing out the wrinkles in his t-shirt. “Would you like to come with me?”
I nodded and placed my rice on the table, before standing and following Leopold out of the Solarium.
“So what happens after we get married?” I asked Leopold. I was sitting on the balcony railing, watching him appear and disappear in the doorway as he ran around inside his room.
“What do you mean?” he said, digging a stray boot out from under his bed.
“Do the coronations happen right away?” I wondered.
“No, we will have some time, but not much. The wedding will be in the spring most likely, and you will have to be sworn in before September next year.”
“Where are we going to live?”
Leopold stopped in the doorway, looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, when I signed up for this, you never told me we would be living with your parents,” I said, my face deadpan.
“You think you are funny, huh?” he said ginning at me.
I shrugged. “Will you be back next weekend?”
“Thursday night,” he replied from somewhere inside. “I was notified that the official engagement announcement will be on Friday.”
Leopold reappeared in the doorway again, his eyes watching me carefully. He had changed into his uniform pants, but was shirtless. His bare feet padded silently across the stone as he walked toward me. He stood between my legs, bracing himself on the banister with his hands on either side of my hips.
“You have been here for over two months now. Next week is the last week of August. Everyone will be expecting the announcement about whether you are staying or leaving. It just makes sense,” he explained softly.
My eyes grew wide. “My parents,” I rasped, suddenly terrified.
Leopold smirked. “Yes, you should probably call them. I do not think it will be as bad as you think. I found Louis to be very supportive.”
“Pardon?” I blanched. My grip tightened on the railing, nails scratching against the stone.
“I asked for your father’s consent to marry you, Fred. I wanted to make sure that I did everything properly. It is the least I owe you and your family after this less then usual... courting,” Leopold reasoned.
“Did he have a heart attack?” I asked, half serious.
“He seems to be quite the reasonable man. He said that as long as it was what you wanted, he would be happy for us,” Leopold assured me. He kissed my forehead, “It will be fine.”
I decided to stay quiet about it for now. I would call my parents, Tess, and Alec later tonight, once Leopold was gone.
“So are you all set?” I asked him. I presumed it was going to be go time once he located a shirt...and his other boot.
“Nearly,” he said, his hands moving to my waist. “There is one more thing I need to do before I leave.”
I suddenly became aware of our close proximity. The small amount of space between us began to charge with electricity. My eyes fell from Leopold’s face to the smooth, hard, bands of muscle that rippled across his shoulders, chest and stomach. Glorious in spite of being adorned with swirling bruised flesh.
I swallowed hard, forcing my gaze back to his face. It was no help though. My stomach only tightened further as I took in his mismatched eyes that were both becoming black.
“What’s that?” I breathed. He smelled of smoke, apples, and mint.
Leopold’s hand twisted through my hair, his teeth scraping my earlobe. “Embrasser ma fiancée.
His breath fanned out across my face as he lowered his mouth to mine, licking my lower lip. My breath caught in my throat, my legs winding around his hips as he slanted his lips over mine and kissed me fully, properly. Expertly, he nipped at my lower lip, sucking it between his own while simultaneously tugging at my hair. He was teasing me, driving me to distraction. I gave a breathless moan and tried to pull him closer to me. This seemed to spark some sort of reaction in Leopold as he lifted me with his good arm and began walking.
We fell backwards onto the bed, Leopold hovering over me. His lips moved to my throat, leaving a scorching trail across the hypersensitive skin. I took the opportunity to run my hands down the perfect planes of his chest. I could feel the muscles in his abdomen tighten as my fingers trailed downwards, exploring the dips and mounds of muscle. My fingers skirted up his sides and I dug my nails into the muscles of his back, trying to pull him down to me. “Attention,” he growled and gently bit the bare skin of my shoulder, hands fisting the comforter on either side of my head.
My hands instantly slid to his lower back. I hooked my thumbs into his waistband in an attempt to keep them still. I went to apologize, but before I could, his mouth was back on mine. He groaned into my slightly parted lips, lowering himself on to me so that I could feel his weight pressing me into the mattress. His tongue licked along my bottom lip, begging for entrance, which I granted eagerly. He took hold of my hands, pinning then above my head. I sensed what he was about to do and my body arched into him on its own accord, trying to resist the inevitable.
“Stay,” I found myself breathing, voice thick.
Leopold groaned, panting against my neck. “You have no idea how tempting that is.” His hand grabbed my thigh, squeezing almost painfully. He seemed to be fighting with himself.
I wriggled beneath him and Leopold released me. He rolled onto his back, eyes closed as he took deep breaths.
“I am going to miss you,” I whispered as I watched him curiously.
Leopold turned to face me, his eyes half open under heavy lids. “You and Phillipa will have so much fun with the wedding stuff, I will be back before you know it.”
“Things are going to change again now, aren’t they?” I asked quietly.
Leopold leaned forward and placed a kiss on my forehead. “I promise to keep you safe.”
“Good morning ladies,” Phillipa smiled as she pranced into the Green Room the next morning. She had a huge, bulging binder in her arms that she placed down on the coffee table with a deep thud. “Ready to get started?”
“What’s that?” asked Rose, leaning forward in her chair so that she could flip the binder open. It opened to a page full of sketches of flowers and bouquets.
“That is the Royal Wedding Binder. It contains the detailed plans of almost all of the Royal Weddings in Solis History. Literally everything: bouquets, jewelry worn, dress patterns and detailing for the Brides, bridesmaids and royal family, locations for the engagement balls, wedding ceremonies, receptions, speeches, guest lists, napkin makers, shoe designers, decorations, gift lists. Basically everything that we could possibly need to source out and also everything we need to know to insure each wedding is unique,” explained Phillipa. “Do you remember the painting of Duchess Annette in her Wedding dress?”
I nodded as the memory of white tulle sleeves that were four feet in circumference came to mind.
“No one wants a repeat of that,” agreed Rose.
“Why do we get wedding gifts?” I asked. “I mean, what could we possibly need? I know for a fact that we do not have to add to the copious amounts of silverware or crystal salad bowls in the castle.”
“Gifts are usually tokens which represent the country who is giving the gift. For example, Mom and Dad got a diamond music box from Russia. There is a ballerina in a sapphire skirt inside that dances when the music is played. Canada often gives us a canoe.”
“Seems like a bit of a waste,” I said as I tried to figure out where all of those canoes must be stored and what you could do with so many of them. “Can’t we just say no gifts?”
“You would probably insult some people,” Phillipa said. “It does not really matter right now. The first thing we have to do is figure out a date. I got a copy of yours and Leopold’s schedules for the next year to plan around.” She pulled out a folder and placed it on the open binder.
I looked at the long list of dates before me, my mouth falling open. Things were not even official yet, and it looked like I was booked in everywhere.
“We need about six months to plan the wedding. That would give us time for the galas, balls, garden parties, lessons, and a bunch of other necessary events, but it must take place before July twenty sixth, because that is Leopold’s eighteenth birthday and his coronation date,” she took a deep breath and pursed her lips. “The earliest I see this working is February and that will be tight.”
“Could we do it in March then? If our wedding takes place over March Break, my Mom and friends won’t have to take type off from school,” I explained.
“Of course. March might still be a little cold,” Phillipa said, “but Kate Middleton made long sleeves popular, so there would be no problem dress-wise. You would be very fashionable and comfortable in long sleeves. There may be snow; the weather then is very unpredictable. Special arrangements will have to be made for all types of weather.” Phillipa rambled as she began to tick off a list in her head. After a moment though, her words stopped dead, her eyes growing wide. “Do you know the dates of the holiday?” she asked.
Rose, who had been frowning beside me, made a little gasp, her full lips falling into a perfect ‘o’ as something clicked in her mind.
“Usually the third week of March,” I told them. “I’m not sure the exact dates though.”
“The eighteenth?” asked Phillipa, eyes glowing with excitement.
“It’s very possible. Why?” I wondered.
“What is the coronation date of Leopold I?” Rose asked me, somewhat impatiently. Apparently I was missing something.
“The eighteenth of March?” I guessed.
“Exactly!” Phillipa said beaming, she had a dreamy look in her eyes. “It would be so romantic, aligning yourselves with your star-crossed relatives like that.”
“Maybe I could wear the necklace,” I said. I wasn’t sure if there was any other occasion it would seem even half acceptable to wear a jewel that large.
“Necklace?” Rose asked.
“The giant blue thing,” I told her. “The one from the painting in the gallery.”
“You don’t mean Queen Winifred’s?” said Phillipa. “That would be impossible. You must be mistaken.”
I shook my head. “That’s exactly what I mean. Governor Richard gave it to me a while ago.”
“That necklace has been lost for centuries. It was taken off of Winifred when her tomb was raided during the French reign of Solis,” said Rose.
“Well it is in the top drawer of my desk down the hall,” I shrugged.
“If that is true, Fred, you need to have M. Arsnault bring it to Felip later tonight. The necklace is a priceless heirloom; I have no idea how Governor Richard would have gotten it, nor why he would have kept it a secret.” Phillipa looked troubled now. Her face had darkened, her eyes focusing on something out the window.
“Phillipa,” Rose said after a moment, giving her a pointed look.
Phillipa shook her head, her usual smile returning. “Right, sorry. The eighteenth sounds perfect. I will have the proper people informed after it is cleared by the council. You should double check with your parents too, Fred.”
“I called them last night,” I said, grimacing slightly at the memory. Louis had taken it well, just as Leopold had said. He had told me that as long as I was sure, and that I was doing this out of love, not duty, then he would stand behind me.
Renée had been another matter. She cried. A lot. First over the fact that she had lost me as a daughter, then because my life was over, that I would not be coming back home to go back to High school or University. Then, about halfway through the call, she shed happy tears as she came to the realization that I was happy and loved Leopold. Her happiness morphed into disbelief as she processed that I was going to be the Queen of two countries. I listened patiently through it all, consoling and reassuring her, until she finally let me go.
I had avoided Tess and Alec so far. My parents were one thing; I knew they could always visit or even live here, and that they would be happy for me no matter what, but I wasn’t sure how to tell my friends that I may never see them again. Between them going to university next year and starting their own lives, and me immersed in royal duties, I didn’t see how much time together would be possible.
“That reminds me,” Phillipa said, and reached down beside her. She pulled two sleek boxes off the ground and passed them to me. “Your cell phone and laptop,” she explained. “Now that you are officially staying, they will help you stay in contact with everyone, and help you keep track of your schedule, not to mention the wedding details. I have taken the liberty to have all of the necessary programs and dates scheduled in already. It will update itself regularly through the castle’s network.”
“The best thing about them,” Rose said smiling, “is that the built-in tracking device makes it impossible to lose them.”