We were waiting in the antechamber to the Gold Room. Two royal guards stood at attention before us and MM. Arsnault and Lefevre stood at our backs silently, as always. We were waiting for our cue to enter the Gold Room where the news crew had set up for our interview. I ran a hand down my dress anxiously.
Long fingers laced through mine suddenly, making me look up. Leopold was beside me, stunning in his navy suit and charcoal tie. He had arrived late last night, stumbling into his room and collapsing onto the bed beside me well after midnight. He must be exhausted. Mike and Angela had woken us up at six and pulled us apart to prep us for the day.
I smiled gently as he stifled a yawn and raised our linked hands to his lips, placing a single kiss on the back of my hand. My skin warmed at his touch. I couldn’t help my desire for this to be over; I wanted to have him all to myself again.
A clock chimed eight somewhere in the castle and the royal guards pulled the doors to the Gold Room open. I took a deep breath, before walking hand in hand with Leopold into the room.
I plastered a smile on my face as the news crew bowed. My cheeks warmed and I tried not to stumble as we made our way toward the fireplace and chairs at the center of the room.
“Hello,” Leopold said as he stepped forward to shake the hand of a small man with broad shoulders and salt and pepper hair. “It is a pleasure to meet you M. LaFlamme.”
“The honor is ours, your Highness. Thank you very much for having us here today,” said LaFlamme.
I recognized the name. He was the one who would be interviewing us. I offered him my hand next, smiling softly. “Thank you for coming M. LaFlamme.”
He smiled broadly at me. “It is my pleasure, Mademoiselle. I could not believe my ears when I heard that I had the magnificent honor of conducting the first interview announcing your engagement.”
“How about we get started,” Leopold said, and guided me over to the chairs. I was surprised at how cordial he was being. He seemed much more content and comfortable here then he had at any of our other appearances.
The three of us took our positions in front of the cameras. A little light on top of the largest camera was flashing red, but after a crew member with a headset counted down, the light turned green.
“First,” began LaFlamme, “I would like to congratulate you on your engagement.”
“Yes, we are both very excited,” replied Leopold.
“If it’s alright with you, I think I would just like to start at the beginning. I know that this will be the first time that many people will have heard about your unique situation. Maybe you could clarify things for them,” said LaFlamme. Speaking directly to me, he continued, “You are from the United States?”
“Yes,” I said, “From Scottsdale, Arizona.
“That’s a long way away,” LaFlamme smiled. “How did you end up here?”
“It’s kind of funny, actually” I told him. I looked over to Leopold who gave me a short nod. “Two big body guards showed up at my house and told me I was the last heir of the lost Arcadian Royals and that they were there to take me to Solis to fulfill the terms of the Accord our families had made.”
“And what is this Accord?” he said, his brows knit together feigning that he did not know.
I stayed quiet, figuring it was better to let Leopold field this one.
Leopold ran a hand through his hair, shifting in his seat. “Solis and Arcadis have been allied for centuries. The Sinclaires and DuMont were always very close, so our ancient relatives signed a contract to assure their continued relationship. It declared that if the heirs of either kingdom were not married by the time they had to ascend the throne at the age of eighteen, that they would marry each other. And six hundred years later, here we are.”
“And now you’re going to be married,” smiled LaFlamme. “Just like in a fairytale.”
“That’s right,” conceded Leopold.
“So is it love,” asked LaFlamme, “or are you just fulfilling the terms of the contract?”
“For me,” Leopold started, “it is love, without any question.”
“And you, Mademoiselle?”
“Love,” I told him without hesitation. “It has always been my choice whether or not to stay. The contract had nothing to do with my decision, but it was the reason we were introduced.”
“And how did he propose?” LaFlamme asked me.
This was where things were going to get more difficult. We had to bend the truth a little so that certain details remained private, at least for a little longer. I was glad I had read over Phillipa’s cheat sheet.
“It was here in the castle. I am sure you have heard about the meetings between France and Arcadis regarding Arcadis’ independence and everything else. Well, Leopold was home from the base for the weekend when the liaison between France and Arcadis arrived. He was pulled into some secretive meeting at an incredibly late time of the night. I was awakened a couple hours later and pulled into the meeting as well. The liaison told us that France had agreed to give me a title,” I explained. This was the truth so far. It was easy enough to leave out the bits about sleeping in Leopold’s bed and the situation against the fridge before he had been pulled into his meeting.
“And this is something you had been waiting for?” LaFlamme clarified.
Leopold nodded. “Winifred needed to be given the title in order to marry me.”
“So what happened next?” the reporter pressed.
I smiled. “Well, Leopold was being very gentlemanly and was walking me back to my room after the meeting. Both of us were in pajamas because we had been woken up and been pulled straight to the meeting. We made it halfway back, when all of a sudden, he pulled me to a stop and dropped to his knee.”
“So clearly you didn’t have it planned out?” LaFlamme said to Leopold, laughing gently.
“I had actually!” laughed Leopold as he tried to defend himself. “We did not know for sure if France was going to come through or not, so it was not a sure thing that I would be able to marry Fred. I was really hoping though, so I had been carrying the ring around with me for weeks, trying to plan everything out, figure out the best spot and time and so forth, but as soon as I heard the announcement, I could not wait any longer. My plans just went straight to the bin.”
It seemed Leopold had been instructed to embellish his end of the story a bit too. The fundamentals were there though. I had needed the title so that he could propose to me, we just hadn’t been expecting I would gain an entire country along with it. Leopold had had the ring for quite a while and was waiting for the opportunity to use it whenever the time was right, he just hadn’t expected it to be in the middle of a fight. The timing of our engagement was forced out of necessity, not our eagerness.
“So where you expecting it?” LaFlamme asked.
I shook my head. “Not right then. I figured it would happen within the next few months, but not in the first ten minutes after we had been given the okay.”
The rest of the interview passed without much incident. It was all basic questions regarding ourselves, the engagement, and the wedding. It was much like the previous interviews we had done, only more formal.
We moved into the White Room next, where the photographer was already waiting for us. We shook hands briefly, then followed his directions and stood in front of the fireplace. Leopold stood behind me, his arms wrapped around me, my hands on his, as the photographer snapped away around us.
“What do you think about running away with me after this?” Leopold whispered, his lips at my ear. Click.
“Absolutely. Where are we going?” I asked as I smiled. Click.
“I am not sure yet, maybe you should help me decide. Choose a mode of transportation,” he said. I could hear the contained excitement in his voice and could picture the mischievous glint in his eye.
I looked toward the doors to the White Room, where MM. Arsnault and Lefevre stood. “Are they coming?”
“No,” Leopold scoffed, as if it had ridiculous for me to ask.
The photographer instructed us to turn so that we were facing each other. Leopold’s arms stayed wrapped around me, mine folded against his chest. Click.
“Motorcycle,” I said automatically.
“Good choice. Clothes?” was his next question.
“Shorts,” I tried, hoping to get away with it. I hadn’t had enough shorts this summer, far too many skirts and dresses.
Leopold clucked his tongue disapprovingly. “I wish, but not on the bike. Car or pants?”
“Pants,” I decided. “Can I drive?”
Leopold laughed. Click. “No.”
“I do it all the time back home,” I said, trying to convince him.
“Do you know where you are going?” he raised his eyebrow at me.
“No,” I said with a pout, “but neither do you.”
“True, but still no.”
The photographer sat me down in a chair and made Leopold stand behind me, continuing to click away.
We were released when the photographer was content that he had taken enough shots and were quickly ushered back up to our rooms by our guards. Angela zipped me out of the light grey dress I had been wearing and I stepped out of my heels, simultaneously pulling the pins from my hair. I pulled on a pair of dark jeans and a white t-shirt, stuffed my feet into a pair of flats, and hurried down the hall.
I pushed into Leopold’s room just as he was picking up a shirt off of his floor and pulled it over his head, shamelessly watching the muscles in his arms and stomach. He disappeared into his closet briefly, returning with two of his leather bombers. We both pulled one on.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Nearly,” Leopold said, flashing me a roguish smile. He stalked towards me, pressing me up against the wall. His hand wound through the hair at the nape of my neck, lips teasing against mine. I smiled, wrapping my arms around his neck, and leaned into the kiss.
All too soon he pulled away, releasing all of me but my hand. “There, now we can go.”
He led me through the back halls of the castle, through the servants’ corridors and staff staircases, until we broke outside and crossed the driveway to the armory. Leopold quickly selected a set of keys from the rack and mounted a sleek red vintage Harley. I threw my leg over the bike and hugged myself to Leopold’s back. The engine revved to life and in a sudden burst of speed, we were off, kicking up the gravel of the drive.
With the sun high in the sky and warm on my back, I couldn’t help but smile as we turned out of the gates and into the old city. We cut through the winding cobblestone streets, through the old shops and houses, and into the market. Vendors yelled as we cut too closely to their stalls, and startled the customers. We traveled out onto the street that edged the boardwalk, roaring up the beach. Leopold slowed down as we neared the marina and pulled up next to the railing that separated us from the boats that bobbed up and down in the ocean.
Using his shoulders to steady myself, I dismounted the bike. I quickly pulled my helmet off and shook out my hair. “So what’s the plan?”
Leopold pointed out at the ocean, towards the long pier on the other side of the marina. It was lined with little shops and restaurants, and busy with people. He pulled his helmet off, nose scrunching as he squinted against the bright light, “I thought we could go have a look around. Maybe have some lunch.”
He pulled out two pairs of aviators and a baseball cap. “We should be okay with these, but please stay close by in case.”
I accepted the sunglasses, and smiled as he put his on, along with the cap, hiding his telltale hair and eyes. It was times like this when I was grateful for my nondescript coloring.
“So what did you do to convince Phillipa to give me the day off?” I asked as we started towards the pier. I knew for a fact that we would not have made it out of the castle so neatly if Phillipa had been expecting me. She seemed to constantly be one step ahead of everyone no matter what.
“Nothing,” Leopold said. “In fact, she may have hinted that I should take you out of the castle.”
“Seriously?” I said with a frown. I couldn’t imagine Phillipa giving up lesson time that easily.
Leopold nodded. “She knows it may be the last time we can for a while. After Monday, we will not be allowed out without escort.”
“We aren’t now,” I pointed out.
“True, but I will be adhering to those guidelines much more strictly, especially when it involves you.” He smiled crookedly as I huffed indignantly, and pulled me up the ramp of the pier.
“So how was the base?” I inquired and wrapped my arm behind his hips.
Leopold’s face tensed, but he threw his arm over my shoulders and shortened his stride to match mine. “Challenging,” he decided after a moment.
“You didn’t push your shoulder did you?” I wondered, suddenly filled with worry. My hand started to slide upward from his hip towards where the bruised skin lay hidden beneath the layers of clothing.
Leopold looked over his shoulder to the people behind us and chewed the inside of his cheek. When he spoke next he switched into heavily accented English. “No, no. The doctor said that it is healing well,” he flexed his arm as if to prove his point. “I have my final exams this week, a written one and a flight test. Antoine is in charge of my class, so he has been busting my ass.”
He frowned at the end and turned to me with a raised eyebrow, “That is the expression, right?”
I laughed and then nodded. Just as my French had, his English had improved greatly, but sometimes the meaning of popular expressions was lost in the translation.
“I didn’t realize he was at the base too. How come he is in a different group, err unit, than you?”
“Antoine is older then me,” he explained as he examined the different flavors, “so he joined the Air Force sooner.”
“Oh,” I said stupidly, “I thought he was our age.”
We entered the first shop. It was a candy store with bags full of cotton candy hanging from the rafters. Ducking to avoid the bags, Leopold walked up to the ice cream counter.
“What would you like?” he asked, in French now, indicating the ice cream.
“Vanilla,” I replied distractedly. I was trying to remember the family trees I had studied with M. Arsnault
After Leopold paid for our ice cream, we licked at the cones quietly for a moment as we wandered back onto the pier. We were about halfway down now, over the water instead of the sand. “M. Arsnault told me something about the DuBlaise family, I just can’t remember what…” I trailed off.
“You are probably thinking of Odette,” Leopold said switching to English again. There was something strange in the way he said the word.
“Odette?” I tried the word out, seeing if it triggered anything within the index of names and titles I now had in my head.
“Antoine’s half-sister,” Leopold supplied.
“He has a sister?” I nearly tripped over one of the boards that wasn’t quite lined up with the others properly.
Leopold ran a hand through his hair. He seemed agitated, tense.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I offered, and licked a drop of ice cream that had melted onto the back of my hand.
“No, I want to. I am not trying to hide it or anything, we just do not really talk about it,” he paused for a moment and sighed before finally continuing. “Have you ever wondered who Hector was supposed to marry?”
I frowned. It had never occurred to me that there was anyone else besides Rose. “What do you mean?”
“Well, as you know, the prince must be married by the time they are eighteen in order to be king. And they must be married to someone of a royal bloodline. Antoine’s mother Elize was said to be childhood sweethearts with Etienne Lallemand. Her family had descended from the Duke of Alterre in Arcadis and Etienne was of the bloodline of the Duke of L’Orvieux. With the lack of monarchy in Arcadis and with Nicolas DuBlaise being third in line for the Solisian throne at the time, her family needed her to marry Nicolas in order to gain back any chance at the power they used to have. Antoine is the son of Nicolas DuBlaise. Nicolas and Antoine’s mother Elize divorced shortly after he was born because she was found to be having an affair with Odette’s father Etienne Lallemand. Some say Nicolas had been willing to forgive Elize, but she hated Nicolas and left him for Etienne. It was quite the scandal.”
“So how does Hector come in?” I wondered. We were at the end of the pier now. Leopold sat on one of the benches that faced the open ocean, pulling me down beside him.
“Elize and Etienne’s daughter, Odette, is the only female heir of her mother’s family. Being as power hungry as they are, they only wanted the best for Odette and were quick to align her with her Solisian brother in order to use whatever connections they could. She was always at every event, right at her brother’s side. It was only natural, of course, that we would know her, and that she was one of the eligible contenders to be Hector’s future bride.
“The two of them got along well. She was the most obvious choice for him to marry, so no one was surprised when he proposed. I do not think he was ever overly pleased with the situation, nor did he ever love her, he was simply doing his duty for his country. None of that mattered though, as soon as he fell in love with Rose, causing scandal number two.”
“So Hector left Odette for Rose, and you took his place as heir to the throne,” I confirmed.
“With no training, a horrible rapport with the public, and a deep refusal to do as Henry VIII did and marry my brother’s leftovers,” added Leopold smiling. “Which is when you arrived, and thank God for that.”
I nodded, letting the story swirl around in my head as I tried to match bits and pieces of the story together with things I already knew. For one thing, it definitely cleared up Antoine’s hatred toward Leopold. Not only was he blocking Antoine from getting the throne, but Hector had basically left his sister standing at the alter.
It also cleared up why I had never heard of Hector’s engagement to Odette, or Odette herself for that matter. I had not been taught the royal families of Arcadis in my lessons, as they technically no longer existed. I had never even heard of any other Arcadian Royals besides Governor Richard and the rich and powerful nephew he wanted me to marry.
My blood suddenly ran cold as the pieces began to fall into place. Antoine’s constant passes at me, Governor Richard trying to keep me away from Leopold, the two of them wanting me to marry someone closer to them, of our blood. I had presumed that he had meant someone from Arcadis, not someone of the Sinclaire bloodline.
“Leopold?” I asked slowly, hoping that I wasn’t right, that it was just a series of coincidences that seemed to fit together. “What is Antoine and Odette’s mother’s maiden name?”
Leopold looked at me sadly, almost guiltily. “Richard. Governor Richard is Elize’s uncle, and Antoine and Odette’s great uncle.”
I thought back to my conversation with Governor Richard. He had not seemed thrilled about the idea of me marrying Leopold, and had not been pleased that I had told everyone about the lost necklace he just happened to have. Along with what Leopold had just told me about him and his power hungry family, it was beginning to seem more and more likely that he had also manipulated his position as liaison with France to make me Queen of Arcadis. That’s why he hoped I would leave Leopold for Antoine. With Leopold out of the picture as the last heir of the DuMont family, Antoine would become King of Solis, and through me, King of Arcadis as well. Now that Odette had been unable to get him what he wanted, he had been planning on using Antoine and I. Unluckily for him, I had said no.
I smiled despite myself.
“What?” Leopold asked, probably confused that I had found his story entertaining.
I shrugged, trying to figure out how to phrase my words as to not alarm him. “I just realized you were right. Governor Richard came to speak with me this week to try to convince me not to marry you. He was planning on me marrying Antoine and taking over.”
“He what?” Leopold demanded, fury evident in his voice, so much for not upsetting him. I grabbed hold of one of his hands, which had turned to fists at his sides, carefully unfurling the fingers.
“Relax,” I told him. “It’s not like Richard can do anything now. We are officially engaged as of Monday.”
Leopold stood suddenly, dragging me to my feet. “We need to go back. Felip needs to hear about this. I do not want Richard anywhere near you or any court or council meetings ever again.”
I planted my feet, refusing to move. Leopold turned back to me and despite the fact that I couldn’t see his eyes, I new exactly what he was thinking. I could see his question in the shape of his mouth, his anger in the set of his jaw, and his worry in the line of his shoulders.
I tugged on his hand, pulling him back to me. He allowed it, as I knew he would, and let me wrap my arm around his neck and run my hands through the back of his hair.
“There is nothing Richard can do,” I said, my voice calm and even. “I said yes to you, I love you. It is over.”
Leopold let his head fall onto my shoulder, his hands resting on my hips. “I just do not want you to get hurt,” he murmured.
I smiled, and let my hand slide down to his shoulder, over the bruised skin. “That’s all I want for you too. Now come on, I’ll do damage control with Angela, Mike, Arsnault, and Lefevre, while you talk to Felip.”
Leopold pulled back, placing a kiss on my forehead. “I love you.”
I smiled up at him, releasing him from my hold, “I know, I love you too.”
“What’s that thing do?” I asked Leopold and pointed to one of the diagrams in the manual in front of him.
“It is an altitude indicator,” he explained without looking up. “It is for orientation.”
He was seated at his desk, looking over various papers and books about airplanes and helicopters. He had come here after his meeting with Felip, and hadn’t moved since. I had gone to dinner, showered, and called my parents, only to return again and find his in the exact same position, frowning and bent over his tactical texts.
I bit my lip and moved to stand behind him, pressing my chest into his back. My hair fanned out over his shoulder as I leaned forward and pointed to another symbol.
“And that one?”
“Vertical speed indicator,” he replied shortly.
I sighed and wrapped my arms around his neck, playing with the chain of his dog tags. “And the one on the other side?”
He froze momentarily, taking a beat longer to answer this time. “Directional gyro,” he replied, then much to my disappointment he started to read again.
“Looks like the studying is going well,” I noted.
Leopold hummed in agreement. “Your parents are well?”
“Fine,” I replied softly and reached down to undo the first button of his shirt. “They say hello.”
I slip my hand into his collar and down his chest. He continued reading. I bit my cheek. He needed a break, he had been at this for hours and it was late. Edwards didn’t seem to be catching on though. Deciding he needed a better hint, I began kissing down his neck.
Leopold let out an uneven breath. “You are driving me to distraction. I have read the same line ten times.”
So it was working, he was just fighting against it. “You should come to bed,” I murmured.
Leopold hummed, not looking up from his book.
Frustrated, I decided to be immature and moved to stand beside him again, swinging my leg over both of his own so that I was straddling his lap, separating him from his books. I placed kisses across his throat and jaw.
“Fred,” he moaned, and cupped my chin in one of his hands. He pulled me back so that I could see his eyes. “I have to study for my exam and you are making it increasingly hard to do so.”
“You can study more tomorrow,” I told him. “I’ll quiz you. You already know that stuff by heart anyway.” I knew that for a fact. I had heard Mike testing him earlier, and knew that he had been reviewing all week at the base. He needed to relax and rest, not spend his time worrying about this and the five million other things I knew were bugging him, Richard and Antoine to name a couple.
I pushed my lips to his and linked my arms around his neck, pulling gently on the curls at the base of his neck. Leopold groaned in what I hoped was defeat, but then he stirred and started to stand. I held on tighter, thinking he was going to put me on my feet, but was pleasantly surprised as he put his right arm around my waist and lifted me onto the desk instead, on top of the textbooks, tax forms, and other documents.
He stood between my legs, hands gripping the table on either side of my hips, and rested his forehead against me. His breath was hot and spicy as it fanned across my face, “Why is it that when I have finally convinced myself to do something right for once, you go and convince me to do otherwise?”
“Where is the fun in always doing what’s right?” I said, skimming my lips across his.
Leopold barked out a laughed and then pressed his lips to mine forcefully. His strong arms snaked around my waist, lifting me. He kicked back his chair and carried me across his room. I fell backwards onto the bed with Leopold hovering over the top of me. I took the opportunity to work my way down the front of his dress shirt, revealing the perfect skin of his chest.
Leopold’s lips moved to my neck, giving me a chance to breath. My fingers skirted up his side and I dug my nails into the muscle of his back, trying to pull him down to me.
“Careful,” he growled, but then his lips were on mine again, tongue begging for entrance. I arched into him, closing the distance between us, as Leopold moaned into my mouth. My hands traveled down on their own accord, playing along the waist of Leopold’s pants, thumbs digging into the dips inside his hips.
“I can’t do this, Fred,” Leopold breathed in warning, but didn’t move to stop.
“That’s not what it looks like,” I smiled.
Leopold groaned and corrected himself, “We should stop.”
Lying between my legs, he lowered his weight onto me and placed one final kiss on my lips before resting his head on my shoulder. My hands ghosted up and down his back as we caught our breath, fingertips dancing along the lines of muscle and bone beneath the thin material of his shirt.
After a moment Leopold pushed himself up and rolled off of the bed. He let his shirt fall off of his shoulders, into a heap on the floor.
“No fair,” I told him, watching as he moved to his desk. He selected one of the loose cigarettes that lay among the papers, holding it between his lips as he searched for his lighter.
“Tell me about it,” he mumbled with a wave in my direction, and clicked the flame to life.
I watched, amused, as he crossed the room and pulled a pair of sweatpants off the back of his couch. He undid his belt and unceremoniously shed his suit pants in exchange for the ones in his hand. My eyes found the bruise on his back, which had shrunken somewhat, now a wash of greens and browns rather then blues and purples.