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The Duchess and I

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After Christina decides to marry Elias, Elizabeth wants to go all out to win back her heart. With Duke Liam, she has come up with a plan, but will this cause Christina to change her mind? Or has Elizabeth lost her true love for good?

Romance / Drama
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Chapter I: Love can be a bitch

I am running. Whether I am running away or running towards something, I do not know. All I know is that my feet move quickly through the high grass, while something holds me back at the same time. It feels like gravity is heavier than it normally is and it makes me slow and ponderous, like a sea turtle. For every step I take, it feels like my goal is getting farther away instead of coming closer to me. I feel panicked and hunted and I hurry myself forwards, despite the cumbersome feeling.

Now I see I am heading towards the Oak tree in the back of our garden. Slowly the robust tree looms before me and I can make out someone standing beneath the tree. And it’s then I realize I am heading towards that person. I can’t see who it is, but my heart screams for me to hurry. I feel relieved. I feel happy. I feel the warm feeling of love.

I cry out for the one under the Oak tree, but he does not hear me. I try to get his attention by waving my arms frantically, but they also seem made of lead and make me give up my effort after just a short while. The figure beneath the oak leaves canopy still has not noticed me and I feel a sudden panic rise. What if he does not see me in time? Suddenly I feel time pressure and I try to make my slow body move faster. Why can’t I go any faster?

Suddenly I hear a gurgling sound and when I look behind me I see the world darkening, like the world is coming to an end. And I fear. I am scared to death for this darkness to fall upon me. I scream and double my efforts to run to the person under the Oak tree, because I know deep down inside he will bring me to safety. The darkness will not be able to catch me, when I am in his presence.

I once again cry out for my mysterious knight in shining armor, but he still does not hear me. Even worse, he looks at his pocket watch and then he whistles on his fingers calling his horse to him. I know he is about to ride away, but he cannot leave me! I cry out even louder and try to get his attention by waving, kicking and throwing grass to him, but it’s like he’s in a soundproof bubble or blind or both, because I hear him sigh and mount his horse. I yell one last time, but then he rides off leaving me behind.

As I fall down on my knees crying and feeling lost, the darkness catches up with me and succumbs me.

I wake up screaming from the top of my lungs. It takes me a while to regain my composure, but I still feel trapped. When I look down I see my bedsheets are wrapped around my body as a cocoon and I frantically try to free myself, while my housemaid Alice barges in. Since I have been having nightmares all the time for some time now, Alice does not look around my room anymore for any burglars or other malevolent persons. She directly walks towards me and gives me a glass of water, while making shushing sounds to soothe me.

‘Same nightmare again, Miss?’ she asks, while trying to hide a yawn. She rubs her wild curly hair drowsily, while I drink the water greedily.

‘They are getting worse, it seems.’

‘I thought the Devil inside your dreams had left you forevermore.’

I lower my eyes. There had been a time when my nightmares were completely gone, but that was in happier times. In a time, where I had my true love by my side and where my little sister was still alive. Those times were long gone by now and so were my lovely dreams, so it would seem.

‘It seems they have been replaced for other nightmares now. I am sorry to have woken you again, dear Alice. Go to bed now. I will be fine.’

‘Are you sure, Miss?’

‘There’s nothing you can do, but sleep. Let your sleep be dreamless for me, will you?’

‘I don’t think my dreams will be pretty at all, since I worry deeply about you, Miss.’

‘Don’t worry about me. These nightmares will pass as well. Give it some time.’ These words seem rubbish even to my own ears. Only my true love was able to chase the nightmares away and since she’s no longer here to fight against them, I am left fighting on my own. And I am not nearly as strong on my own.

‘Perhaps you want to talk about your nightmares with someone other than me?’

‘Perhaps I shall. But not now, so you’d best go get some sleep. Dawn is upon us in a mere few hours.’

Alice bows her head in consent and leaves the room after curtsying to me. I leave my bed, since I know sleep will not come to me anymore when I’m in this condition. I move a comfortable chair under the window and look outside, where the scenery from my last nightmare is waiting for me. The high grass is there, the gray water of the lake and also the big Oak tree, but I know the person waiting underneath it isn’t there anymore… And the darkness? The darkness is there, although not visible. It sits in me, deep inside of me, clawing its way up. The darkness seems to be my constant companion nowadays.

I sigh. After what I have been through recently it is no wonder that I walk this shady road in life and that I am having difficulty keeping the darkness at bay. It started last April with the beginning of my first courting season. I was eighteen years old at that time and it was my coming out as a woman suitable for marriage. As a debutante a whole new world opened and I had many suitors competing for my hand in marriage.

But the most controversial of them all was Duke Liam Arlington. Liam Arlington was the most desirable bachelor of London. He was handsome, frolic, kind and many women fancied his title and wealth as well. Liam was my brother’s best friend and he and Elias had gotten into quite some mischief together for years in a row. But strangely enough, Liam’s beautiful blue eyes fell on me, an ordinary daughter of Viscount Le Bon. He changed his ways for me and decided to court me and make me his wife. It all seems like a story from a fairy tale.

However there was a small hitch in this fairy tale. And that hitch consisted of Liam’s sister, who became one of my dearest friends after just a short while. The Princess was as beautiful as her brother and just as sweet, warm, smart… I sigh longingly. I could keep summing up all of her wonderful traits and I would still do her no justice. The only downfall was, she carried one big secret, which she ultimately showed me as well.

I remember quite well how violently I reacted to her confession that she’d fallen in love with me. I tried to ban her out of my life, but I failed. And I failed, because deep down inside I knew I returned her love. For a while I tried to ignore it, but after a while I couldn’t anymore and I wanted nothing more than to be with her. We got together and what a bumpy ride it was. Still, I cherish these moments, because I was truly happy. I really felt that what we had shared was true love, but I guess I was wrong.

The Princess and I were together for a couple of months, when we decided it was not enough for us. All the hiding and all of the fears to be caught, weren’t doing our relationship any good. However, we did not dare to tell people the truth, so we decided to run away together and make a life somewhere else based on love. That was the moment my little sister Naomi got ill. While trying to discover the truth about me and the Princess, pneumonia got a hold on her and led her to her death.

After Naomi died I felt terrible. I felt – and sometimes still do feel- that I was responsible for my sister’s death, because of the love I felt for Liam’s sister. Therefore, I broke up with her and pushed her away. It was a dark couple of days, but my sister came to me from Paradise and gave me her blessing. That’s when I realized I could not blame the love I felt for Liam’s sister for Naomi’s untimely death. When I forgave myself, I was ready to give us another chance.

Unfortunately, my harsh words led the Princess into the arms of another person, my lovely brother Elias. Although I am still heartbroken due to her decision and I am angry for it as well, I cannot hold it against her since it was my fault we broke up anyway. Still, in mere days I lost my dear sister and my true love and I still carry the scars with me. And so I probably will, until death do us apart.

I love to read and I have read multiple times about people’s hearts being broken and never could I fathom how that would feel like. Well, I can now. Everything hurts. It’s like someone made this huge hole in my chest at the height of the place, where my heart at one time had been. Breathing hurts. It’s as if a thousand shards of glass are in my lungs, shards of my shattered heart probably. I cannot think about Liam’s sister, because it makes me cry, although I really thought I had spilled all of my tears by now. I cannot speak her name aloud even, because of the breathtaking affect it still has on me. When someone says her name in front of me, it is as if they reach into the hole in my chest and squeeze my insides.

And the sick part is, I cannot tell anybody about our shared history together. I cannot explain to my family how it came to be that I don’t want to see my former best friend again. I cannot tell them why I am not excited about my best friend’s and brother’s wedding. I cannot tell them why I am so depressed all of the time, while I am still engaged myself as well. The only one who knows about my shared history with Liam’s sister, is Liam himself, his guardian aunt Emma Maxwell and my friend Grand duchess Eleanor Stuart, who lives in Windsor Castle and to whom I write all the time.

Liam knows how hurt I am and being the wonderful person he is, offered me his help in regaining his sibling’s love in quite an extraordinary manner. I shake my head, when I recollect that moment. It was a couple of days after the Princess and I had broken up and I had discovered her engagement to my brother. Liam came to me and offered me his help in making things up between us. He was convinced his sister would see reason, when someone formed a threat to her. So, when someone asked me to marry him. That’s why he got down on one knee and asked for my hand in marriage, as part of a grand scheme to win me back his sister’s heart.

When I think about it, it is so twisted. All of it. Still, I care for Liam and his cheerful presence helps me to not break down completely. Liam has been a true friend for me and I count myself lucky to have him in my life. Secretly, I wished I had never met his sister, so Liam and I could have been happy together as we were intended to. Without the Princess, I would have surely been married to him by now. We all would have been better off.

That thought really hurts me even more, because then I would not have experienced what real love feels like. When the Princess and I were together… It is indescribable really. We were one body and soul. We were two beings of the same thing. She knew me thoroughly and I knew her through and through. We were there for each other in every way possible. She saved me from rape. She got stabbed to save me. She was my everything: my friend, lover, heroine and my safe haven. We shared so many beautiful moments together. She made me feel things I had never experienced before. And I threw it all away in one moment of carelessness.

Until now though, Liam’s master plan has backfired, since his sister is still happy with my brother and it’s obvious she has no intention of giving that up just yet. Sure, she wasn’t too happy with me marrying her big brother, but after congratulating us reluctantly with our proposal I have not heard one word from her again. I guess she’s too busy making wedding preparations with my brother. And my pride is holding me back to make a move. So, we keep dancing this twisted dance still without ever moving forward.

I am so absorbed in my thoughts that I don’t realize the sun has come up, until Alice once again enters my room. ‘Good morning, Miss,’ she says cheerfully, but then she sees me sitting underneath the window and she notices the dark circles under my eyes. ‘You haven’t slept anymore, have you now, Miss?’ This time she’s back in her housemaid’s uniform with her hair combed back in a tight knot, which barely peeks out from under her white bonnet.

‘No, but I see you did after all. That makes me happy.’

‘You should have called me, Miss. I would have stayed up with you.’

‘And since I know you would, I sent you off to bed. It’s madness to have two people awake at night, only because I have nightmares as soon as I close my eyes.’

‘Should I call for doctor Mason? So that he will give you a sedative?’

I clench my jaw. Last time the doctor was here, he covered my sister’s unmoving face with a blanket, so I would not have him here. He would only make my nightmares more vivid. ‘No, thank you. I will be fine.’

While I wash myself, Alice takes out my dress and asks me: ‘Have you given my advice a thought by any chance, Miss?’

‘Your advice?’

‘Yes, talking to someone about your nightmares?’

‘You mean a shrink?’

‘No, not necessarily. You have been through a lot, Miss, and perhaps it helps to confide in someone. If not a professional, then perhaps a friend?’

‘I have told the Grand Duchess about all that has happened of late. She will try to visit London sometime soon.’

‘I actually meant talking to the Princess.’ She seems reluctant to mention Liam’s sister and I cannot blame her. I’ve always suspected Alice knew more about my true feelings for Liam’s sister then she dared to express. Especially, since my housemaid was the one who discovered us the night we were about to leave forevermore.

I notice that even this small mention of Liam’s sister makes me cower as if someone has punched me in my abdomen leaving me gasping for air. I wrap my arms around my chest to keep myself from falling apart. ‘She is busy making arrangements for her wedding day. I don’t want to bother her.’

‘She would make time for her friend, wouldn’t she?’

‘She would probably, but I don’t want to disturb her.’

‘She would be happy if you confided in her.’

‘Perhaps, but she has other things to worry about.’

‘The Princess always has a good impact on you.’

‘I said no, Alice,’ I snap all of a sudden, while recollections of the Princess’ understanding and calmness try to overwhelm me. ‘Don’t push this. When I am ready to talk about it with someone, then I will. But it’s never going to be with her ever again. Am I making myself clear here?’

‘I beg your pardon, Miss. I spoke out of turn.’

She starts to comb my hair with soft strokes and her caring, experienced short stubby fingers, while my finger traces the form of the engagement ring the Princess once gave to me and which I have carried with me since that day. This small token soothes me a bit and I say reluctantly: ‘I am sorry, Alice. I didn’t mean to snarl at you. You only meant well.’

‘No problem, Miss. You have a lot going on right now. I get it. And I daresay Miss Naomi would have been proud of the way you handle things.’

Also the mention of my sister makes me tremble, but I laugh weakly and say: ‘I am not so sure about that.’

‘Why wouldn’t she? Mister Elias and the Princess are getting married and you as well with the Duke. If these are not wonderful tidings, then I don’t know what are.’

I clench my teeth, but I wisely keep my mouth shut. In some sort of vision Naomi had visited me from the afterlife and she explicitly told me to not waste my life and to fight for my true love. Since I haven’t spoken to the Princess in weeks, I fancy Naomi isn’t too proud of me at the moment.

After Alice is done preparing me for today’s activities, I hurry downstairs. Since the weather is fine and warm, we have breakfast outside most of the time. My parents are already waiting outside, but instead of their normal bickering they are silent and watch our gardens. The grounds of our estate are large and I always liked to play outside, when I was a child because of the enormous size. Our pride by far is the well-maintained maze, where Naomi and I used to chase Elias and Nicholas all the time. We even had our own toy castle in the center of the maze, where Naomi and I used to live as princesses while our brothers slayed mad dragons for us. The last time I was in the castle though I had my own knight in shining armor looking after me.

My breath is taken away again and my chest aches throbbingly. I clutch my chest as if I am about to have a heart attack and our housekeeper, Alice’s mother Mrs. Green, stops and asks me: ‘Are you all right, Miss?’

I nod curtly as I hold myself upright by grabbing one of our garden statues. This time I am holding Cupid’s childish feet as it turns out. I look at his cheerful looking, naughty face and I hiss at him. ‘Bastard,’ I mumble before walking to our outside breakfast table.

My parents barely look up from their musings. I quietly give them a kiss and sit down burdened. The death of my sister has changed them as well. I can’t imagine how they must be feeling. It is not natural to outlive your children and I can’t imagine how it must feel like when you do. They are definitely more solemn and serious now. Never speaking, unless it is expected from them. And when they speak it is about not important businesses or to reminisce about my sister. They nowadays focus entirely on Elias’ wedding with the Princess and my wedding with the Duke. I wonder what will happen to them, once their last two children have left the house. They would be on their own, where they once had one daughter left to prepare still to be a proper wife.

I ask my parents how they’re doing, but after some small and curt answers I give up on starting a conversation. So, I stare at the sun, which shows its flaming head just over the hills. Its orange light gives our lake a magical glow. In dawn our brightly flowered gardens stand out the most. It is a true color spectacle. In July most of our plants and flowers are in full bloom and it often reminds me of the gardens you see at court. Our gardens are just splendid if I may say so. Everything is neatly arranged: all of the flowerbeds are bordered by neatly trimmed hedges. From where I am sitting now I smell the delicious smelling rose bushes. A warm wind blows a few blossom petals onto my lap and suddenly I am reminded of the fresh smell of blossoms. A flash of golden hair tickling my overheated face makes me gasp for air once more. My parents don’t give me a second look though and I try to hide my pain by waving my fan frantically.

I notice during our silent breakfast that being in my parents’ taciturn company does not help me to take my mind off things and one can only concentrate on breakfast for so long. Luckily, Elias joins us today as well. He is a bit more talkative, but on the other hand I don’t really want to talk to him. Because as soon as he opens his mouth, I can only look at him with envy. His brown eyes are free to look at the Princess without raising any suspicion. His ears will hear her soft, warm voice. His sensual lips are allowed to touch the Princess without trying to hide the kisses exchanged. His large hands are able to caress her body, where I can’t anymore.

Elias waves his hand in front of my eyes: ‘Are you with me today, dear sister?’

‘I beg your pardon? I didn’t quite catch that,’ I startle, while I try to focus once more on my immediate surroundings.

‘Not quite? You haven’t heard a word from what I have said to you, have you?’ Elias flashes his boyish grin. ‘I asked you to accompany me to Arlington Park today. I want to give my fiancé a present and I thought you would like to see your fiancé as well.’

I picture him giving the Princess a gift, which would light up her azure blue eyes in pure joy. The thought is almost too much to bear. I don’t want to join him and see them together. But then again, I did not fancy the idea of staying here alone with my thoughts either. So, therefore I shrug and say: ‘Yes, I will join you.’

I could easily avoid Liam’s sister by begging Liam to take a walk with me. Arlington Park is even bigger than Castle Le Bon, so I don’t need to be in my former lover’s company. I don’t need to see Elias’ happiness with his new fiancé after all. I don’t need to see their happiness, while I am getting more depressed everyday. Liam will understand that. He will probably lead me outside without me having to beg him.

After we have eaten our breakfast - or better said: Elias has eaten his, while I toyed around with mine – we saddle our horses and ride to Arlington Park, where the Arlingtons live. I actually feel kind of nervous, since it is the first time in weeks I will see Liam’s sister in real life instead of only in my mind. I don’t want to see her, but at the same time I cannot wait to witness her beauty again. That’s how my life is nowadays: a constant living with opposites.

When we arrive at Arlington Park we find Mrs. Maxwell in the gardens. Mrs. Maxwell, a fine looking woman of 60 years old, is on her knees clipping some branches. We say hello to her and Elias says with a crooked smile: ‘Dear, Mrs. Maxwell. Don’t you have servants to work in the garden?’

‘I do. But I love working with plants, so why would I deny myself that pleasure?’ She wipes the sweat of her brow leaving a smudge of dirt there instead. In her brown hair I see the usual specks of gray, but also a few petals and sprigs of the plants she’s so carefully trimming.

‘You get all dirty, ma’am.’

Mrs. Maxwell rolls her eyes. ‘A little bit of dirt never harmed anyone, dear boy.’ She turns to me and her ever observant silvery eyes turn to me. ‘How are you holding up, dear? I haven’t seen you around in a while.’

I swallow. I know she’s asking me about more than my sister’s death solely, so I keep my answer vague. ‘I experience both good and bad days.’

‘I am sorry to hear that, dear. Your sister was an admirable young lady and I pray for her every day.’ She puts a dirty gloved hand on my shoulder and squeezes me compassionately. ‘And I pray for your well-being as well.’

‘Thank you for your kind words, Mrs. Maxwell.’

‘O, please, Elizabeth. You can still call me aunt Emma, dear.’ She gives me a knowing look as if she’s telling me: despite your recent break up with my niece. Aunt Emma had warned me something like this was likely to happen: one of us falling in love with another and leaving the other behind forlorn. I never thought that would come to pass with us, since at that moment I was engaged to aunt Emma’s niece and I was the luckiest girl on earth. I guess the woman was some sort of vision seer after all.

Elias and I take our leave and leave the old woman to her flowers. Butler Arthur announces our arrival and we are directly called inside Liam’s library, my favorite room in Arlington Park. The book collection of the Arlingtons is - for one who loves to read very much- definitely Paradise on earth. Everywhere I look I see books. Old and new ones. Big and small books. Fiction and nonfiction. I have known the Arlingtons for a while now, but still have not been able to read all the titles that are presented on the many bookshelves.

Liam rises to bid us welcome. He is handsome as always and his dazzling smile actually eases my unease a bit. He shakes Elias’ hand, while I kind of hide behind my brother’s broad back as a child who’s afraid of being introduced to a couple of strangers. I see flashes of Liam’s sister behind Liam’s muscular body, but I deliberately keep my eyes averted. I don’t want to be confronted with my ex just yet.

Elias immediately walks up to Liam’s sister after shaking hands with his best friend and he takes her in with his eyes. I directly avert my face once more, because I don’t want to see nor hear them bidding each other welcome with touching lips. Liam walks up to me and smiles fondly. ‘Elizabeth,’ he says and gives me a sweet kiss on my cheek.

This immediately makes me forget the way his sister is still looking at me as if she was seeing me for the first time and I her. ‘Liam,’ I say, while caressing his upper arms warmly.

‘It begins to sound like a cliché, but you look wonderful today, darling.’

‘I truly doubt that.’

He laughs heartily and asks: ‘Would I ever lie to you?’

I smile. ‘No, you would never.’

I sit down next to him and that’s when I am able to look at Liam’s sister for the first time since she congratulated me with my upcoming wedding rather lukewarm. She smiles at my brother gratefully for his present – a pearl necklace, which fits perfectly around her slim neck and crème coloured skin – and my heart skips a beat due to her dazzling smile. I trace the strong jaw line I stroked so many times with my fingers, her small ears, her big blue eyes with the slim eyebrows, her golden hair, her small but strong upper body…

But when I am about to follow her body lines, she catches me looking and I blush and look away. I know she caught me in the act, but still she does not look away either and I know it is her turn now to examine me. My face reddens even more at that thought, because it makes me pretty much self aware. I know how I must look to her and that makes my blush even more crimson.

I turn to Liam quickly, grabbing his hand. He never interrupts the conversation he’s having with my brother, but he encouragingly squeezes my hand while shifting his head a bit in my direction. He gives me a wink and I feel the comfort he tries to transfer with this small gesture. He definitely is a prince charming of yore. How I wished I was the princess, who was swept away by his charm and wit.

After their conversation my brother turns to his fiancé and gives her all the attention a girl could wish for. I remember all too clearly how it felt like to have her attention on me and I clench my jaws jealous. Liam pulls me close, when he sees my face darkening and whispers in my ear: ‘She’s not too fond of it. Don’t worry.’

This makes me turn around and indeed I see Liam’s sister pushing my brother gently away, looking as mesmerizing as she always does. I can almost hear her saying: ‘Not now, love. We are not alone.’ It makes me smile, though I know behind curtains their love making must be a complete other matter.

‘How are you holding up?’ Liam asks me, which makes me put my attention to my handsome fiancé once more. I trace his jaw line absently, which is covered by a thin layer of hairs nowadays. It gives him a very manly appearance adding to his handsomeness. The way his features look like his siblings is amazing. They could have been twins really: the straight nose, the strong jaw, the small ears and the dazzling ocean eyes.

‘Not so well to be honest.’

‘Do you miss your sister terribly?’

‘Every day more.’

‘And…my sister?’

I swallow and ignore the stabbing pain in the hole of my chest. ‘Terribly. I miss her more than I can bear.’

‘I thought as much. Well, shall we change that at least? We have been playing this game for some weeks now and still things haven’t changed between the two of you. I cannot bring back your sister, but I can give you mine. Just like I promised you, when I got down on one knee.’ Before I can resist Liam rises and says to Elias: ‘My friend, it’s beautiful outside. Let’s have shooting practice.’

Elias frowns. ‘I’d rather spend some time with my fiancé, if you don’t mind. She’s the reason I came here today in the first place.’

‘I do mind. Your terrible shooting needs practice.’

Guys will be guys. Liam’s words insult Elias’ pride and his chest swells with indignation. ‘I am not that bad.’

‘O, please. Even with my eyes closed I would beat you in shooting.’

Elias rises and says provocatively: ‘Want to place a bet on that, dear friend?’

‘You are on.’

Liam turns to me, winks and gives me a small kiss, whispering at the same time: ‘You are welcome. Go get her.’ I grab the sleeve of his cloak and pull it frantically, shaking my head as if to beg him not to leave me alone. He carefully unfurls my fingers from his clothes, kisses them each fondly and then quickly dances away from my grasp. At the door he gives me a hand kiss with a teasing blink before leaving me booming with laughter.

I am too astounded with his action to give him a snappy reply. I am definitely not prepared to be alone with my ex-lover. It is already a challenge to face her today, since it still felt too soon to see her. Let alone speak with her in person. While the two men leave the study, wrestling with each other as mere children, The Princess and I awkwardly sit in silence, sipping our tea. Her fiery eyes are on me all the time and only increase my self-consciousness even more. I know how I must look in her eyes. The rejected lover who denies herself all the pleasures life has to offer in her heart brokenness.

I notice her uneasiness as well though, so a part of me is glad I am not the only one feeling totally out of place here. I must say I’ve never examined a tea cup this intense before in my life. She’s the first to break the silence by asking me: ‘How have you been, love?’

I snort. ‘I have been perfectly well, Princess.’ I cannot keep the sarcasm out of my voice. ‘As I am sure you’re well-aware of.’ I take a sip of my tea, trying to hold still my trembling hands.

‘I am just trying to make conversation here, love.’

‘Well, did it cross your mind that perhaps I don’t want to talk to you?’

She sighs disappointed. ‘Must it really be this way between us?’

‘This is by your own making.’

She laughs joylessly. ‘Well, not entirely, if I recall correctly.’

‘I apologized for my actions, didn’t I? True, I was not in my right mind to let you go like that. But you decided to marry another in just a couple of days of being apart. That’s your choice.’

We examine each other taciturn, but then Liam’s sister says softly: ‘I really miss you, love.’

My heart jumps at her words. ‘I miss you as well, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are marrying my brother.’

‘As you are marrying mine.’

I almost tell her what Liam and I have is not real. It is only a big ruse to make her jealous, but I swallow back those words. She doesn’t yet deserve to hear them, since our scheme has not ended yet the desired results. Perhaps one day if I am able to hold her in my arms again I will come clean about this grand scheme of ours. ‘I guess that leaves us like this.’

‘It doesn’t have to be. We were friends before we were…’ She blushes and swallows with difficulty. The thought of us being together agonizes her. I can see that very clearly, but I can’t figure out if she’s agonized, because she’s ashamed we’ve been together or because she desperately wants to get those days back. ‘Well, you know. Can’t we go back there? I would like us to be friends again. Enjoy each other’s company, like we used to. My days are long and empty without you in it.’

‘Yes, of course, we can be friends.’ I say sarcastically. ‘And then braid each other’s hairs and talk about our future husbands? I cannot do that with you, since even being in the same room as you hurts me a lot. So, I will not be your friend again. You have made your choice, Princess. You chose to leave me. And of course, it is my fault. All of this is really, but that does not change the outcome. You are with Elias as I am with Liam. We are soon to be sisters-in-law. Let’s leave it at that, shan’t we?’

‘I cannot bear to not have you in my life anymore.’

‘Well, I can’t bear to watch you with my brother. It shows me too much all that I have given up.’

‘I am sorry to hear that.’ She looks so sad that I frown. Is there more to her words than she wants me to believe?

‘And that’s all there is to it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Why are you so lost without me? You have my brother now to replace me.’

‘Yes, and I am most grateful to have him in my life, but he cannot replace you. Ever.’

I purse my lips thoughtfully. I don’t know what she’s trying to convey to me here. ‘The truth is that I don’t need your sweet talking and your sympathy.’

‘Then what do you need? What do you want from me, so you’ll at least try to be my friend again?’

I chew my lower lip nervously asking myself if the next words will not rattle her cage too hard. ‘What I want? What I want has never changed. I still want you to break up with my brother and come back to me.’

We stare at one another for a while and the fact that she has not sent me away immediately after such an inappropriate request, tells me a lot. She wets her sensual lips pensively, while she processes my words. She actually gives me a sad smile, while she says: ‘Love, we were never meant to be.’

‘You don’t believe that.’

She shrugs. ‘I do. I know that what we had was real. I know that our feelings were real, but still we were never destined to be. There were too many obstacles to overcome. You made me see that yourself.’ I notice she speaks in past tense, which only makes my breathing that much more difficult. Not to mention that my chest throbs desperately and I try hard not to clench my breast to rub the pain away. I will not give her the satisfaction of knowing she’s still powerful enough to hurt me like that.

‘And I hate myself for it every day, because it cost me the one person who was always there for me.’

She leans in and touches my hand, which causes so many things I don’t want to feel right now – love, desire, attraction, hurt, anger and disappointment – that I quickly withdraw my hand from her touch. Her hand falls down helplessly in her lap and she makes a frustrated fist. ‘I can be there for you still if you want me to.’

‘No, you cannot. Not in the way I want and need you to.’

‘Not even in time? Time heals all wounds, doesn’t it? It even healed my stab wound.’

She smiles encouragingly, trying to take me back to that time, when we were in love and she would have given everything to keep me safe. I see flashes from that particular night in the docks, where we were assaulted by a couple of drunken sailors and she got stabbed, trying to keep my chastity safe. That was the first time she told me she loved me back. As a reaction to these recollections my chest bites and burns and in a reflex I put my arms around my chest to keep myself together.

With tears in my eyes I say bitterly: ‘No, Princess. Not all wounds can be healed with the passing of time. I will never fully recover from this. You broke me and I will never function right anymore.’ I almost throw down my cup as I say: ‘So, therefore I must thank you for your hospitality, Princess, but I really think I want to go home now.’

I’ve almost barged out of the library, when I hear her soft voice which makes me stop to look at her. Her blue eyes are so forlorn, while she tells me: ‘You have to get over me. I am not worth your grief. You are still young. Give that wonderful passion and love of yours to someone who really deserves it. Liam is better for you than I ever could be.’ Her voice is choked, which brings back tears in my eyes as well.

‘Can’t you understand? There is no other and there never will be.’

‘You still have time. For such a wonderful person as you are, there must be a Mr. Right.’

‘Yes, and she is sitting right there, breaking my heart time after time.’

She rises and walks towards me. And I know I should walk away right this instant. There is nothing she could say anyway to make me feel better. And clearly there is nothing she’s going to do about our untenable situation either. She will marry Elias in the end. She’s headstrong. Once she has made up her mind, nobody can change that. It’s obvious there are still feelings between us, but that’s not enough to get her back into my arms. Our love is something out of the past. I am flogging a dead horse by trying to win her back. This is not leading to anything.

But still… Now she puts her arms around my waist and pulls me closer to her… Why does it feel so good to feel her hands on my skin? To feel her soft forehead upon my own? To smell her fresh lavender, blossomy smell? To taste her sweet breath on my lips? To taste her salt tears on the tip of my tongue? Why can’t we go back to who we were? There’s nothing in this world I would rather want. I’d give everything up to be with her again.

I don’t know who is the wisest of us at the moment. I guess she is as usual, but just before our lips could touch we pull back and she says curtly: ‘This is not right. We are engaged.’

‘It sure felt like the right thing to do.’

‘It was the easiest way to act, but the easiest way is not always the right course.’

‘Screw the right course. If having you back means walking the dark side of life, then I will gladly walk the dark side.’

She rubs my nose once in a sign of affection, but then says: ‘No, I will not permit that. I still want to keep you safe and this is me keeping that promise.’ She lets go of me and takes a step back. She takes a deep breath and continues: ‘If that means, you don’t want to see me anymore than necessary, then so be it. But I’d still rather have you change your mind about the friendship part. I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me and to be my friend once more. Until then, I guess this is goodbye.’

I feel my chest throbbing of pain and I close my eyes grieved. ‘Goodbye then, Princess.’

As I walk away, she calls after me sadly: ‘It hurts, doesn’t it? To just say each other’s name?’ I look at her over my shoulder as I try to say her name aloud to prove her wrong. But I am muttering and stuttering for a while, which makes me stalk off before I even make a grander fool of myself. I curse myself, while in my head my inner voice keeps crying out in total despair: Christina!

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