By Hannah Currie
Daughters of Peverell, Book 3
The last place Lady Wenderley Davis ever expected to find herself after swearing off princes forever was living in a palace with two of them. Even if it is only temporary. And she did agree to it. Kind of. Against her better judgement.
But then, she’s never been one to hide her heart, nor hold back help from anyone who needs it. And if ever there’s a family who need help, it’s this one.
As two weeks stretch to more, Wenderley throws all she has into showing the princes and their family how to smile again, and she’s loving every moment of it. Which is a problem. Because she’s very quickly becoming attached, and – as the man she’d rather forget keeps reminding her—the one thing she can’t do is stay.
Bring on the tears
That fall down my face
As I realize I’ve blown it again
I try so hard to hold it all together
But all I’m holding is broken
I scramble and grab
Grasp and hope
But I have nothing
I’ve fallen short
Make something good of this mess
You’re the only one who can
Catch my tears in your hands
Restore my soul
Help me to forgive myself
And let the pain go
And by the grace I know you offer
Take these broken pieces
All I have to give
And use them to create
When Alina asked me to come with her to meet Hodenia’s new princess this week, neither of us had expected we’d be coming for her funeral.
“Princess Rachana was the epitome of grace, her last days and months filled with kindness, despite the end she knew was coming. She will be missed by all of Hodenia but especially by her husband, Prince Marcos, and son, Prince Ryan.”
Marcos laid a hand on his young son’s shoulder. The boy barely moved, his focus set on the glossy wooden casket as if any moment it might open and the only relative he truly knew come back to him. Everything in me ached to go over and place a hand on Ryan’s other shoulder, let him know he wasn’t as alone as he felt.
No, not on his shoulder. I wanted to pick the little boy up and cuddle him close. Sit right down there on the grass and pull him into my lap, smothering him with the certainty that he wasn’t alone.
But, of course, that would hardly be appropriate in such a setting. Even if he did know me. Which he didn’t. At all. Although, I had danced with his father. Once. What felt like a lifetime ago. When I was still naïve enough to think everyone had the option of marrying for love. And that a moment of defiance was limited to simply a moment.
Come on, Wenderley. God forgave you, remember? You’ve got to let it go.
I let my gaze stray to Prince Marcos again, as if the sight of the strong man weeping wasn’t clawing my heart to pieces.
No, not weeping. Weeping intimated loud noises, hiccupping, a loss of control. Prince Marcos showed none of these. His broad shoulders didn’t shake nor his hands tremble. His back was as straight as ever, showcasing every inch of his six-foot-plus frame as he stared somewhere beyond the shoulder of the man leading the graveside ceremony.
But those tears, the proof of pain sliding down his face. He must have truly loved his wife. Despite what the papers said. I wished he hadn’t. It would have been easier on my heart if he’d stood there, stoic, emotionless, and still.
“Today, as we say goodbye to Princess Rachana—mother, wife, friend, and princess—let us hold on to the fact that she will forever be in our hearts, having left a grand legacy of love. Her life of twenty-four years was far too short, but she made a difference. Perhaps that is the greatest legacy of all.”
Marcos squeezed Ryan’s shoulder. I forced myself to look away.
I shouldn’t have even been here. The funeral was one thing but this private graveside burial? It should have been close friends and family only.
Of course, friends were difficult to define when you were the rulers of a kingdom.
The sun hit the coffin at just the right angle to send a burst of glare into my eyes. Didn’t the sun know it was supposed to hide behind clouds during funerals? Funerals were supposed to be dark and gloomy, preferably with enough drizzly rain to make everyone miserable and add enough wetness to everyone’s cheeks to make it unclear as to who was really crying and who was there for the show.
But no, today the sun shone, as bright and clear as if it had just won a race to the sky’s zenith—and wanted everyone to know. No clouds. No wind. Just a clear, beautiful day. Too beautiful. Were it not for the stone monoliths and flower-covered graves spotting the brilliant green hillside, one would have thought the group out for a picnic.
As if on cue, my stomach grumbled. I hurriedly placed a hand over it, hoping to muffle the sound. Would the man’s speech go much longer? Not that I wanted to be irreverent or anything, but my stomach wasn’t the only part of my body protesting the lengthy service. The balls of my feet had been arguing back and forth with my shins for an hour now over who had the worse end of the deal. Spindly heels weren’t made for soft grass. Nor I for heels. Though Kenna and Alina, either side of me, didn’t seem to have the same problem, standing tall without the slightest sway or fidget. Of course, heels came part and parcel with their royal roles whereas I only wore them when forced.
The boy lost his mother and you’re complaining about heels?
It wasn’t a booming voice from the heavens but the voice inside me might as well have been the way I flinched. My conscience was right though, I had no right to complain. Not considering all this little family had been through.
Please God, help them.
The prayer came almost as naturally as breathing, having prayed it daily over the past thirteen months. Sometimes there was more to it. Some days I prayed till the burden lifted and I felt as wrung out as if I’d waged a physical battle. Many times, it was simply those three desperate words. Over and over. God, help them.
Though I prayed for them both, it was Prince Marcos who lay heaviest in my heart. The day the story broke that Ryan was his son, it was as if God stepped into the dining room, where I sat eating breakfast, and poked me in the chest, telling me to pray for him. Right there, paper balanced in one hand and spoon in the other. I’d stared at Marcos’s photo on the front of the paper as the words echoed in my mind. Pray for this man.
So, I had.
I’d prayed God would bless his and Rachana’s new marriage as I pushed a chair beneath Alina’s collapsing legs, the letter announcing Marcos’s elopement fluttering to the floor beside her wedding gown. I’d prayed for strength the day Ryan was officially named heir to the throne of Hodenia and what looked like a few hundred reporters parked themselves on the palace’s front lawn. I’d sat on my bed, head tucked against my knees, sobbing out barely distinguishable prayers the day the palace released the news of Rachana’s terminal illness.
And in amongst those days, I’d prayed for courage for them. Strength. Hope. Love. Wisdom. Patience. I’d prayed for fun times and special memories. Most of all, I’d prayed that, even in this mess of media appearances, people’s expectations, rash judgments, painful diagnoses, doctors’ visits, and regrets, they’d know God and find peace. Somehow.
I hadn’t known what to pray when Alina and I arrived at the palace, three days ago, to find out Rachana had died an hour earlier. I still didn’t. Not really. How did one put grief into words?
Marcos took Ryan’s hand as they stepped forward to lay white roses on the coffin, bowing their dark heads in a long moment of silent respect. I wanted to scream at the unfairness of it. To be brought to this. A final goodbye, after all they’d already been through. My hand went to my mouth, desperate to hold back the sob tearing its way up my throat.
Look away. Focus on something else. Their pain isn’t yours. You didn’t even know Rachana. You barely even know them.
But my heart listened about as well as the sob which finally made its way out of my throat, gaining a sympathetic glance from Alina beside me. I shook my head, silently refusing the tissue she offered. There would be no tears. I would hold it together. For the gathered dignitaries, because it was expected, but mostly for me. I’d already had enough sympathy to last a lifetime.
God, I know you’re enough, but—
No. I wouldn’t pray that. Not again. God was enough. He’d patched my broken heart back together and got me through this past year of more doubts than I could even put words to. He’d given me a second chance when no way did I deserve it. He had a plan in this too. He had to. Because if he didn’t—
Don’t go there.
Marcos turned then. I thought he might say something to the gathered crowd. Perhaps he meant to, only instead of words came simply a nod before he and Ryan walked to one of the waiting black cars and drove away.
By the time I made it back to the guest room the palace had allocated me, I was certain my ankles had swelled to three times their normal size and I couldn’t even feel my toes, but at least I had my heart back in check. How on earth did Alina do this day after day? If torture were still an acceptable form of punishment, wearing heels for an entire day—or even a few hours—would be more than adequate. Especially if they were a size too small, as these ones I’d borrowed from Alina were. I should have asked Kenna to bring me some of my own when she came yesterday. The one-inch version. Certainly not the three-inchers Alina favored which threatened to topple me with each step. Thankfully, I’d only actually tripped twice. And only one of those had been all the way to the floor.
Needless to say, the thick carpet felt like bliss under my bare feet. Sitting down would have felt even better, but that wasn’t an option. The post-funeral reception had gone for longer than I’d expected, meaning the car taking Alina and me back to Peverell was leaving in twenty minutes, rather than the two hours I’d thought I’d have, and my clothes were still somewhat strewn around the room.
Creativity was my strength. Tidiness? Not so much. Still, the maids were too busy with all the other guests to clean up after me, and I wouldn’t have let them even if they had offered. I might have been the daughter of a dignitary rather than the daughter of a king, but I still had my pride. Tugging the caramel hair I’d spent half an hour this morning straightening into a much more practical ponytail, I got to work.
The room was almost back to its immaculate state eighteen minutes later when the door banged open and Alina flung herself through.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I told her. “You said three-thirty and it’s only twenty—” I checked my watch again, grimacing. “—nine past.” Was that one of my dresses on the chair in the corner? Oh, and shoes. I probably needed to put some back on before I left. Flats, of course. No way was I putting those torture devices back on. The ones I’d kicked out of sight under the bed. Although, I should probably rescue those too. Not that Alina would want them back with all the hundreds of pairs she owned. “Just a second. Almost ready…”
“Actually, I came to ask you if you’d consider staying.”
The half-folded dress dangled above my suitcase as I tried to make sense of Alina’s words. “Stay? Here in Hodenia? Why? Princess Rachana’s dead.” I cringed at the words, not realizing how blunt they’d sound until they were out of my mouth. Still, they were true. It was difficult to visit someone who was dead.
“But Ryan’s not. And Mrs. Graham, the woman who was going to be Ryan’s governess as of next week, just sent word that her daughter is pregnant and is so unwell that she is practically bedridden—with two kids under four already to care for. Mrs. Graham sent her profuse apologies to Queen Galielle but said that it’s more important that she be there for her daughter at this time.”
Which tugged at my heart, terribly, but still didn’t explain why that meant I had to stay. Although, the guilty expression on Alina’s face told me I wouldn’t have to wait too long to find out. “And?”
“I told Queen Galielle that you’d consider being Ryan’s temporary governess.”
“You did what?” I dropped the dress into the suitcase before plonking myself down on the bed. Alina stayed standing, hands clutched in front of her as they’d been most of the day. “Why would you do that?”
“Because I was with her when the message came. You should have seen the look on her face. She was trying so hard to keep smiling and hold it all together, but that note was one thing too many after the past few days. The fact that she even told me what it said proves how distraught she was. Come on, Wenderley. You know you’d love it. I saw the way you were looking at Ryan at the funeral. You’re in love with him already. Think of it as an all-expenses-paid holiday. At a palace. You love Hodenia. Weren’t you saying last week how much you wished you could get away from Peverell for a bit?”
I huffed. “I didn’t mean to a palace.” Palaces came with rules, dress codes, expectations—and princes. Ryan was cute, sure. I’d love to spend time with him. But his father? Gorgeous. Perfection. Striking. Prince.
Yes, prince, Wenderley. And don’t you forget it. You fell for one of those once and look where that got you. A whole country looking at you in sympathy. The girl the prince rejected.
“It wouldn’t only be Ryan. You could spend time with Lucie and Kahra too. Think how much fun you’d have with them.”
Marcos’s younger sisters? “But I don’t even know them.” No one did. Not really. The palace released an official portrait of them each year on their respective birthdays but, beyond that, the girls were kept well clear of any media.
“Since when has that stopped you? You’re the nicest, kindest, warmest, most welcoming person I know. If anyone could befriend two hurting princesses, it would be you.”
Queen Galielle, Ryan, Lucie, and Kahra…Alina was really throwing everything at this plea. Almost too much.
“You’re not trying to set me up with Prince Marcos, are you?”
“What?” Alina looked horrified I’d even ask. “Of course not. The poor man’s just buried his wife. Why on earth would you think I’d be setting you up with him? Today, of all days.”
Because choosing me to be Ryan’s governess seemed odd. I was too young, for one. Weren’t governesses supposed to be old? Or mothers at least. Retired teachers. People who’d actually had experience caring for young children. And qualifications, of which I had none. I was a nineteen-year-old girl who’d spent her whole life planning to marry one man, only to watch him marry her best friend. Sure, I’d thrown myself into tutoring young children not long after, but all I did was help them with their schoolwork. I did spend quite a bit of time with my nephew, Callan, but that barely counted as experience since he was only six months old. Even the group of girls I mentored, I only saw once a week.
Although I did really enjoy that time I spent with the kids and my girls. And meeting new people. And exploring new places. And had spent enough time with royalty over the years not to be overwhelmed by them. And wouldn’t mind at all having the chance to try to put a smile on little Ryan’s somber face. And really did want to get away from Peverell for a while.
Perhaps it wasn’t such a strange suggestion. And yet—
Alina dropped into a chair with little more care than I’d used packing my clothing. Her frown was more confusion than anger. “I thought you’d be excited. You keep saying you want to make a difference with your life. Why not here?”
I looked sideways and spotted the edge of my sketchbook, peeking out from between two blouses I’d carefully tucked it between. Why not here? Because there was more to my story than she knew. Because I was still paying for the last two times I’d let my heart overrule my mind. Because God might forgive and forget, but no one else did. Because of the mint green letters which kept showing up in my mailbox—one a month, for the past year, ever since that night I wished I could erase. Because Lord Campbell Waitrose held far more power over me than any evil man should have.
“I have commitments back home,” I said instead. It was the truth, if only a small part of it. Anna, Max, and Aimee especially had tried to hide their disappointment when I’d postponed this week’s catch-up to come to Hodenia, but I’d seen it. In the craziness of their young teenage lives, the constancy of our weekly meets was something they clung to. As did I. I’d promised them an ice-cream sundae party and sleepover with the rest of the girls next week to make up for it.
“I’ll organize others to tutor your kids and personally fill in for you with the girls you mentor. I’m sure Kenna would love to help too. You know what she’s like when it comes to disadvantaged kids.”
“We were going to have a sleepover.”
“I’ll invite them to the palace instead. I’m sure we could find room for eight fourteen-year-old girls somewhere.” Alina grinned, almost laughing. I couldn’t quite find a smile to join her. Hang out with the princesses? Sleepover at the palace? The girls would love it, no question.
And never want me back again.
Alina’s teasing smile dropped. “Please, Wenderley? Thoraben, Kenna, and I have that breakfast tomorrow morning in Peverell we need to attend, or we’d stay longer ourselves. Queen Galielle has so much to deal with already with Rachana’s death and all the visiting royals and dignitaries. And the girls and Ryan have already been through so much. Your staying could be the answer to so many problems.”
So caught up in the drama of Rachana and Marcos’s story, I hadn’t even thought of what Lucie and Kahra would have been through. And they did seem nice. Whether of their own accord or thanks to the request of their brother or mom, they’d cared for Ryan during the reception following the graveside service, keeping him occupied in a corner of the room, as oblivious as a child could be to the sympathetic stares and wondering of too many adults with too little information. The two of them had even convinced Ryan to take his jacket off and untuck his shirt—much to my satisfaction—though his bow tie had stayed as perfectly placed as it had been that morning.
I’d have gone over and spoken with them if I hadn’t, to my extreme embarrassment, forgotten which princess was Lucie and which was Kahra. It was one thing to ask the name of a stranger or someone you hadn’t seen for decades, but quite another to forget the name of a royal.
I looked back at the suitcase on my bed, moved a hairbrush from one side of the case to the other, and back again. Mindless fiddling, something to occupy my hands while my brain went to war with my heart.
I wanted to agree. There was no point even trying to deny that. Prince Ryan’s trembling. Prince Marcos’s tears. Everything in me ached to make them better. To be the one who helped the two of them through this, showed them that there were still reasons to smile, that hope wasn’t gone, that they could find peace even in the middle of this storm. Not only pray for them, as I’d been doing for the past year, but do something practical.
But that was exactly the reason I couldn’t stay. My heart was already involved. Far too deeply. It had been ever since the day I started praying for them. I’d never be able to walk away. And God knew, I’d have to. I couldn’t stay. Waitrose would make sure of that.
She was looking at me with those eyes again. The ones that could make me do anything. I closed mine and blocked out her pleading. And was instead accosted by the memory of Ryan’s teary face.
No, just…no. Walk away now. You can’t stay.
“What if I promise you won’t have to wear a single ball gown?”
I ran my toes through the thick carpet, leaving behind a trail. Another sweep of my foot erased it. Alina probably thought that promise would be the thing that swayed me. If only my aversion to ballgowns was the only thing holding me back. Once—before—it might have. But now?
Decisions come with consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t erase those. Someone has to pay.
“Surely, she can find someone else. It’s the royal family, for goodness’ sake. They must have people lining up to come work for them.”
“You would have Queen Galielle go through a whole interview process again the same day she buries her daughter-in-law? Or is it Prince Marcos you plan to send out into town to find someone to care for his son?”
When she put it that way, it did sound rather selfish, but surely there was someone already known to the palace who could care for the young prince. A maid? An advisor? The mother of a guard? Marcos himself? Any of them would be better than me. At least Ryan already knew them.
“Please, Wenderley. It would be such a relief for Queen Galielle to have this sorted today, and Mrs. Graham too. She’s already so worried about her daughter. I can only imagine how much letting down her queen must be adding to that stress.”
Why had Alina even bothered asking me if she refused to accept my answer? Not that I was doing a good job convincing her. We both knew what I wanted to do.
“Why does this matter so much to you?” I asked instead, merely delaying the inevitable. “Prince Marcos isn’t your fiancé anymore. After the way he left you at the altar last year, it’s not as if you owe him anything.”
“He’s a friend. One who’s just lost his wife. I would do anything to help him, and I felt—” She stopped. Frowned. Shook her head. Considered me as if she wasn’t sure whether to finish that sentence or not. I was having none of it. If she was going to ask me to stay and take away every excuse I had for leaving, she was going to finish that sentence.
“You felt what?”
“It’s probably wrong. I mean, you’ve been a Follower longer than me so would know better than me. It was probably nothing and—”
“Just tell me.”
She wavered another few seconds before apparently realizing I wasn’t letting her out of this room without an answer. “Fine. I feel like God wants you here. Now. It sounds crazy, I know, but the instant Queen Galielle finished telling me what the letter said, you came to mind, along with the words, clear as if the queen had said them herself, ‘suggest Wenderley.’ Now, maybe I’m wrong and it wasn’t God at all, but what if it was? What if, as unqualified as you feel, you’re the one God wants to do this? Help this family.”
What if I was the one…God, really? You’d pick me?
There wasn’t an instant thunderclap of answer. There wasn’t even a tiny impulse pushing me one way or the other. But Alina’s words tugged at the something inside me—the hope that I might be the one. That I might be enough. That God might use me, even despite the stupid choices I’d made in the past. That maybe, maybe, he could use me to make a difference in this world.
“Three weeks? Four? Maybe less. You’ll be back in Peverell before you know it.”
Back to being “that girl.” The one Prince Thoraben hadn’t chosen. I was so tired of the sympathetic looks thrown my way. And they only knew the half of it. They’d be sending far more than sympathy my way if they knew the rest. Anger, disappointment, the law itself… Maybe staying in Hodenia for a few weeks wouldn’t be so bad. If nothing else, it would be a great distraction. I’d pay for it when I left but—
“I’ll need a few more outfits. I mean, if Queen Galielle does want me to stay. I only packed with a short visit in mind. And I should definitely let my parents know.”
Alina’s smile could have lit an entire wing of the palace. “You’ll do it?”
What I should have done was run in the opposite direction. Instead, I nodded. “For three weeks.” Surely I could keep my heart in check for that long.
“I’ll speak with your parents and send more clothing as soon as I get home. Thank you, Wenderley. Queen Galielle is going to be so pleased. This was just one more thing on top of everything else that’s happened.”
“So long as you know that I’m staying for Ryan, not Prince Marcos.”
Alina waved a hand like the point wasn’t even worth the air I’d expelled to argue it. “Of course. He’s the crown prince of Hodenia, no doubt just as busy as Thoraben. With that kind of schedule, in a palace this size, you probably won’t even see him.”
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Alina was right. I didn’t see Prince Marcos. Not before I ran into him. Literally. A whole thirty seconds after I walked out of the guest room I’d been staying in for the past few nights. It was like walking into a brick wall. That caught my arms before I could fall, and smelled like sandalwood and soap and—
Wenderley! Heart in check, remember?
“Forgive me, I—”
“Sorry, Your High—”
Our rushed apologies stumbled over each other in the otherwise empty hall, bouncing off the ceiling and stuttering to a stop as quickly as they’d begun. I looked down at his hands, still gripping my forearms. He let go as quickly as he’d grabbed them, hands dropping to his sides, rigid as a rusted suit of armor. I took a step back, still feeling the warmth of his grip. Berating myself for wishing it could have lasted longer.
“Lady Wenderley, isn’t it? Princess Alina’s friend? We danced at Peverell’s ball.”
He remembered our dance. The thought shouldn’t have thrilled me as much as it did, but I was surprised he remembered anything from that night, given how distracted he’d been. Being engaged to one woman while another very publicly claimed to be the mother of the son you never knew you’d fathered had a way of doing that to a man. And yet, he remembered me.
“You came for the funeral?”
“Actually, Alina and I came to—” I clamped my lips shut, belatedly realizing what I’d been about to say. Oh sure, tell the grieving prince that we’d come to spend time with his dead wife. Smart, Wenderley. “Yes. We did. I’m sorry for—” Again the words caught in my throat. I’m sorry for your loss, that was what I was supposed to say. What I should have said. Only standing in front of Marcos now, captured by the deep darkness of his eyes, still edged with red, I couldn’t do it. They weren’t enough. No words ever could be. “I wish it had been for another reason.”
He nodded, breathed out. This close, I could see the stubble shadowing his jaw, the way he pursed his lips slightly like he was gritting his teeth, the dusky circles under his eyes. Was he sleeping at all?
“Are you okay?”
The question tumbled out of my mouth before I could think better of it, but I had no wish to take it back, despite having no right to ask. In all their condolences and bowing and simpering to the grieving prince, had anyone actually asked Marcos if he was okay? Surely someone had, but the tiniest bit of surprise on his face made me wonder. Or perhaps he was surprised it was me asking. Me, who was for all intents and purposes was a complete stranger.
Those dark eyes took in my face before looking down at the hand I hadn’t even realized I’d placed on his arm. Heat filled my cheeks as I took it back, folding my arms across my chest. I should have apologized when I ran into him and kept walking. This staring was a little ridiculous, even for me. But the question hung in the air, tethering me to the spot. Tethering us both, apparently, because Marcos hadn’t moved either. Was he actually considering answering?
But, as quickly as the hope arose, it was dashed again. His chin went up and with it his defenses. “I’m fine,” he said, like we didn’t both know that was a total lie. “Excuse me.”
Propriety was all that stopped me from running after him. Even if I had been a close friend—which I certainly wasn’t—he was in no place to talk. But still, at least he knew I cared.
God, help him, I prayed again, wondering how many times I’d offer up the same prayer in the coming weeks. Help me too.
Was I really doing this? When the last thing I needed right now was to be within the temptation of a palace? It didn’t matter how appealing or rugged or broken Prince Marcos was, he was still a prince. I’d learned my lesson the first time with that particular breed.
Grieving, remember? Just buried his wife?
And his mother was standing right behind me. “Your Majesty,” I said, dipping in a slight curtsey. Queen Galielle smiled when I looked at her, something I hadn’t been expecting. Not today. Although, it probably came as naturally to her these days as the grace with which she walked and the kindness in her eyes. She’d been a queen for as long as I’d been alive. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
She looked me up and down as we stood there. I curled my bare toes into the carpet, belatedly realizing I should have put some shoes on before leaving the room. Though the thought of mashing my feet back into any kind of footwear right now made me cringe.
“Forgive me for getting right to the point, but did Princess Alina tell you about my dilemma?”
“She mentioned Ryan’s governess has been detained, yes.”
Queen Galielle shook her head and sighed. “It’s just one thing after another this week. Not that I don’t feel for the woman and her daughter, but it took months for Rachana to agree to even consider employing a governess to care for Ryan. She was so determined to see to all his care herself. It was only last week she finally settled on a candidate. Mrs. Graham was supposed to arrive in two days but, as you heard, won’t be coming. I would never have even thought to ask you to fill her place had Alina not recommended you. It would only be temporary, of course, until we could find a replacement or Mrs. Graham’s daughter is well again. Although, if there are any complications with the pregnancy—”
“I would love to stay and help care for Ryan,” I assured the queen. It wasn’t a lie, much as I wondered how much I’d regret it.
“Oh, you have no idea how much of a relief that is.”
I hated to cause trouble, not when she was looking at me like I’d saved the entire nation, but it had to be said. “You hardly know me.”
“Princesses Mackenna and Alina both speak highly of you. That’s enough for me. Meet me in my office in two hours? We can discuss the logistics then, and I’ll answer any further questions you might have.”
She walked away then, much like her son had moments before. I stood in the hall just as stunned. God…what just happened? I’d prayed he would help them—both Marcos and his young son. Surely bringing me here wasn’t part of that answer. Was it?
And if it was?
God, help us all.
With its spindly wooden chairs, embroidered throw cushions, and lace-covered tabletops, Queen Galielle’s office seemed like a room far more suited to tea parties than business meetings. Not that I was complaining. While I preferred bold colors, and seats that didn’t look so delicate they’d collapse if a butterfly landed on them, it was beautiful. Something I was starting to think I’d be describing the whole palace as.
“Lady Wenderley. Thank you for coming. Please, take a seat. Would you like some tea?”
I accepted the cup she was already handing me and sat, crossing my legs at the ankles and smoothing down my dark blue skirt. I’d spent far longer than called for trying to decide whether it would be appropriate to change out of my black dress before this meeting, but in the end, decided a slightly less formal and far less black outfit which was clean gave a much better impression than the dress I’d been itching in all morning.
Also, the heels which went with the black dress had been pushed back too far under the bed for me to reach. Thankfully, Queen Galielle had also changed.
“First, let me thank you again for agreeing to stay, especially with such short notice. The last few days have been—well, let us just say they have been trying. I don’t know what I would have done had Princess Alina not suggested you when she did. Like I said, she and Princess Mackenna both speak highly of you. You grew up with them, I understand?”
“Yes. My family have been close friends with Peverell’s royal family for as long as I can remember. Alina and Kenna were my two best friends until the day my family moved to Hodenia when I was twelve.”
“You moved because of the religious persecution?”
I blinked, surprised by her frank words. They were true, but no one talked about it quite so bluntly in Peverell. No one talked about it at all. The uncertainty must have shown on my face for hers immediately softened.
“Forgive me, you have nothing to fear. This conversation will not go beyond the walls of this room, it is simply that Alina mentioned you were a Follower. When you said your whole family had moved, I wondered if that might have been why.”
She took a sip from her teacup, smiling kindly at me over the rim. Clearly, her heart wasn’t thumping as loudly as mine or she would have spilled her tea everywhere.
Alina told her I was a Follower? What else had Alina told her? And why had that come up in the first place? Sure, Alina was new to faith and wanting to share it with everyone but she, of all people, had to know how dangerous it still was to be a Follower in Peverell. Especially since she knew I was more than a Follower. If King Everson ever found out what I did, he wouldn’t even need a jury to declare me guilty of the worst crime known to Peverell. Murderers were treated with more respect.
“I …we…” Was this a test? Not that it mattered, given Alina had already told her I believed, but still, this was more than just me. Not that my parents had done anything wrong, per se.
Queen Galielle waited patiently, taking quiet sips of her tea as she gave me all her attention. She didn’t seem as if she was about to jump out of her seat and go running to report me to King Everson, and it wasn’t as if I was telling her the full extent of my crime. Not like Waitrose would, if I dared defy him. The worst the king could do was exile me. Waitrose could destroy me.
“Yes,” I finally answered. “That was why we moved. My parents wanted to raise us—my sister, two brothers, and me—to know God.”
When Queen Galielle only nodded and took another sip of her tea, I continued. “We returned to Peverell a little over a year ago. The way the royal family welcomed us back, it was as if we’d never left.”
“Wonderful. I love hearing other people’s stories, don’t you?”
That wasn’t the response I’d been expecting. “Your Highness?”
“I became a Follower a few years ago now, my daughters along with me. Marcos and my husband, however…” She shook her head. “They’re stubborn. They’re happy enough for us to believe but refuse to listen or even consider anything beyond that. Marcos needs a good influence in his life.” Her soft smile was thoughtful as she looked at me. “Maybe you’re the one who’ll get through to him. Although—”
She stopped, frowned slightly. I looked down at my skirt, wondering if I’d spilled tea without realizing, but no, it was clean. As was my blouse. Perhaps the weariness of the day had stolen her thought midsentence. “Although?”
“Never mind.” The smile was back, as if it had never gone. “It probably won’t matter anyway.” She put down her teacup, picking up a stack of papers off the table instead. “Let’s discuss your role.”
Dinner was delivered to my room that night, something I was thankful for. Today had been so full and unexpected that I was still trying to get my head around it all. I hadn’t met Ryan officially yet, the queen suggesting I wait until tomorrow morning to “begin work,” such as it was. I was also moving rooms tomorrow, though I’d assured Queen Galielle that this one was more than adequate. She’d disagreed, claiming it functional but not appropriate for an extended stay. She’d been so adamant that I hadn’t bothered to point out the fact that it was twice the size of my bedroom at home. If the queen decreed it then who was I to argue?
She’d also answered as many questions as I could think to ask regarding Ryan and his routine. By the time I’d left her office, I’d known his birthday, favorite toy, which rooms in the palace we were allowed to spend time in and which required permission, what time he usually woke and went to bed, that he preferred beans to peas but ultimately disliked both, had a sweet tooth, was particularly shy especially around other children, and loved his treehouse—something I couldn’t wait to see given Queen Galielle’s description of it. The only thing I didn’t know was whether this was a terrible mistake.
Staying would help Queen Galielle, Ryan, potentially Lucie and Kahra, and maybe even Marcos, but at what cost to me? At what cost to my heart?
God, you planned this, obviously, and I hate to ask since clearly you did or I wouldn’t be here now but…you have a plan in this, right? I mean, my heart’s going to break, I know that, but it’ll be for a reason, right? Please, tell me it’s for a reason. Because otherwise, send me away now. Please. Before I even start.
I doubled over my pillow, bunching it up under my head as I rolled on my side. The questions were going to drive me to insanity if I didn’t stop thinking about them. I was here. I was staying. Perhaps that was all the answer I needed for now.
One day at a time, remember, Wenderley? That’s what you decided after Thoraben married. One day at a time. Don’t think about tomorrow. Keep moving forward or get trampled by those who are. All will be well.
Yes, all would be well. I had to believe that. It was all the truth I had left.
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