I was dismissed after that. The room stood with me and then Leopold walked me to the door, standing half in and half out of the conference room.
“I must stay for the rest of the meeting but Angela has instructions. I will see you afterward, d’accord?”
I nodded, crossing my arms over my chest. “Sure thing. Have fun.”
Leopold pursed his lips, frowning slightly, and placed his hand on my cheek. For a moment he looked as though he was going to say something, but then his hand dropped and he slid back between the doors.
I exhaled shakily and began my walk back to my room. It wasn’t fair. First Leopold gets angry with me, then he kisses me and now he’s leaving me here all alone in a giant castle with his crazy family. I wasn’t sure if I was angry or sad or both, and to be honest, I was still a little confused about some of the things that were going on.
Angela was waiting for me with dinner when I returned, a steaming plate of lavishly creamy potatoes, roast beef and carrots. I could barely taste it as I swallowed; it was like a gluey lump stuck in the back of my throat. I pushed the plate away from me. Angela looked at me nervously, and murmured something in French, delicately patting my back. She sighed after a moment, realizing that I didn’t understand and removed the plate.
I heard her shuffling around in the closet after that and when she returned she smiled, holding out a very tiny bundle of clothing in my direction. My heart stopped for a second, mind reeling back to all the talk of virtue that had been going on in the meeting. Was this what Leopold meant when he said he would see me later? I thought the whole point was to keep it, not lose it. Suspiciously, I took the bundle from her, holding it out at arms length.
“You’re kidding,” I stated, looking directly at Angela.
“Leopold wants to take me swimming after what happened today? And what is this? I mean, it will barely cover anything.”
My maid just stood there, smiling sweetly at me.
“Fine,” I huffed, “at least he is prepared to save me.”
I changed quickly into the very tiny black bikini, happy that the ban hadn’t been lifted yet. I don’t think I would like a picture of naked me on the news, and I am pretty sure that would fall under the same category as the drunken stupor and crotch shots Phillipa had mentioned earlier.
My confusion grew even greater when Angela handed me a pair of skinny jeans and a sweater, which I pulled on over the top.
“La jardin,” she said, shooing me out the door.
“Towel? Shoes?” I asked, pointing towards my bare feet.
She shook her head, “la jardin.
“Okay, okay, la jardin,” I conceded and turned for the door. I really needed to learn French just so that I didn’t have to be confused all the time. Although, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be informed even if I could speak it.
I followed my instructions, and went out the back doors that led to the gardens, only to find a horse. It was Leopold’s horse, Jacqueline, to be more specific, and she was standing there alone, in her saddle and reins, not tied up or anything. The things that caught my attention, though, where the saddle bags that were slung across her. I figured they would probably lend a clue to where I was going. Now I just had to get to them.
“Good horse,” I purred, taking a step towards the monster experimentally. “It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you. I know Leopold, you like Leopold, right? And I don’t think he would be very happy if you hurt me either.”
I took another step, extending my arm. “That’s a good girl, just be still.”
My hand was on the bag now, I just had to figure out the mechanics. There were a lot of zippers and straps.
“Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” said a voice from beside me as I reached for one of the straps.
I spun quickly to find Leopold smiling down at me. “Pret?”
“Yup,” I blushed and then squeaked in surprise as he lifted me by the waist into the saddle. He jumped up flawlessly, settling himself in front of me.
“Where are we going?” I asked, as I wrapped my arms around his waist.
“To the ocean,” Leopold said, and then we were off. We rode across the gardens at break neck speed, straight through the orchards where we had our picnic, until the trees opened up to a cliff. Light from the setting sun bounced off of the sparkling white rock, throwing rainbows as we followed the edge. I looked down and swallowed, holding tighter to Leopold as I took in the drop to the ocean below. There was probably close to a hundred feet between us and the crashing grey water.
“We jump off these,” Leopold shouted against the wind.
“Pardon,” I spat, shaking my head against his back. “There is no way.”
“Non, Hector, Phillipa et moi. We used to jump off of them for fun and swim over to the plage. That is where we are going.” He pointed across to the middle of the small bay I hadn’t realized the cliffs were edging. Sure enough, there was a small crescent of white beach.
We followed the cliffs as they sloped down to meet the water, stopping only once we hit the sand. Ungracefully, I slid off the back of the horse and then stood in awe, staring out at the water which was reflecting the pink and orange sky.
Leopold strode past me, discarding clothing as he made his way down the beach, and dove into the waves. I watched nervously until his head popped up a few moments later.
“Show off,” I muttered as he walked back in until the waves crashed around his shins.
“Come on, Fred,” he smiled, waving me closer.
I pursed my lips, there was really no getting out of this, and then stripped off my clothes. I padded my way down the beach to the edge of the water. Leopold was watching, I could feel his gaze burning into my skin as I came closer. Self consciously I crossed my arms over my stomach, trying to hide some of the bare flesh.
He shook his head after a moment and took hold of my hand.
“Is this really necessary? We already know I can’t swim,” I said as I let him lead me deeper in.
“I just want to get you comfortable in the water,” he said. “Peut etre plus une autre jour.”
The water was up to my waist now, waves hitting my belly button.
“Do you trust me?” Leopold asked.
He linked my arms around his neck and then picked me up in a sort of frontwards piggyback. The differences in our height put me above the water line again, as Leopold’s hips still were not submerged. I clung tighter as we waded deeper, burrowing my face into Leopold’s neck. Slowly, I became weightless as the water rose up to my chest.
“Relax, Fred. It is alright,” Leopold whispered. So, carefully, I did. I loosened my legs and the chokehold I had around his neck, putting some distance between us without letting go. I wasn’t that brave yet.
“Voila,” his hands slid off of me.
I sat for a minute, staring out into the sea and then back to the beach and how far we had come. “Thank you,” I told Leopold and then, as I stared into his funny eyes, I suddenly became aware of how close we were. Now that I wasn’t scared, I was acutely aware of the feeling of Leopold’s warm flesh and hard muscle brushing against my own skin. That, compiled with everything else that had happened today, and all my fear and anxieties, made me press my lips to his in a lingering kiss.
Leopold responded softly, gently, as though I were fragile. I was surprised, almost, with how much caution he seemed to be taking.
“We should go in,” he said pulling away after a moment. “The sun has gone down and you are starting to shiver.”
“Not yet,” I told him, pulling myself closer to him and redirected his mouth to mine. Leopold was hesitant at first but then surprised me when his hands grabbed hold of my thighs, lifting me. I wound my fingers through his damp hair, deepening the kiss. Then suddenly my back was pressed against dry, warm sand with Leopold holding himself above me, dripping, only in a much different way than earlier today. I ran my tongue across his bottom lip. Leopold pulled away.
“Winifred,” his voice was thick, “please, do not do that again. Put some clothes on.” He pushed away from me and walked down the beach, picking up his own clothing. I lay there frowning, trying to catch my breath. Was he angry, had I gone too far?
I stood after a moment, brushing the sand from my body, and wobbled over towards my own pile. Mechanically, I went through the motions of putting my clothes back on.
“Je veut te parler, is that okay?” said Leopold once he returned. He reached into the saddlebags and pulled out a big blanket.
“Sure,” I said and followed him to where he had spread the blanket out in the sand. He sat down resting his head on his knees. I followed suit, watching as he ran his fingers through his hair.
“Are you okay?” he asked after a moment. “With everything that is going on, that is. I just don’t want you to do anything you are uncomfortable with.”
“Everything is fine, or at least I thought it was. You and everyone else say that they are doing everything possible and I trust that,” I said honestly. “It’s my decision to stay here.”
“That’s what scares me.”
“I don’t understand,” I told him.
“You will soon. Just please, Fred, let’s take things slowly. I have screwed up enough things in my life and I won’t let this be another one. Just don’t stay in this for anyone but yourself. If things don’t work out, I am sure they will figure out a way for me to keep the throne.”
“I’m not going anywhere yet,” I assured him. “Things will be more difficult when you leave though.”
Leopold looked at me sadly, “I will be around a lot, for meetings and other events. Je te promis.” He lay back against the ground, “How could I leave you alone after what happened earlier today and especially after tonight.”
“What do you mean?” I asked lying down on my side next to him.
He turned, eyes flickering open. “You have no idea the affect you have on people, do you? How beautiful you are?”
I laughed dismissively.
“Je suis serieux,” Leopold said. “The people are enamored with you and Antoine clearly has affections.”
“What about you?” I whispered.
“I am conflicted,” he stated, making me frown.
“And why is that?”
“Because you make me want to do everything that I can not. Tu me rend fou.”
“I won’t stop you,” I smiled.
“That’s exactly why I must stop myself.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course this was when he decided to follow the law.