I chose call it and move on.
Working Title: How Far
Characters: Natalia, Guy, Anise, Tear, Luke
Part 7 of ?
Refreshed, redressed, and ravenous, Natalia pulled her brush through her hair once more before heading for the dining room. It would just be the two of them for lunch, and they had plenty to discuss before he left tomorrow.
Already Guy was leaving. She found she enjoyed having him around, which was a good thing, she supposed, as they were getting married in ten weeks. That had been the whole point of choosing him, after all. She’d wanted someone she liked.
To her great surprise, it was turning out to be so much more than that.
There had been a moment in the whirlpool, as the hot water and pulsing jets had soothed her aching back and shoulders, when she’d looked at him. He’d leaned his head back, closed his eyes in bliss, and said, “Yeah, you’re going to have to throw me out of here.” With his hair dripping, his skin flushed and slick, she’d felt a heat spreading inside her that had nothing to do with the water.
She got out quickly, wrapped a big, thick towel around her, and announced that she was starving. Otherwise, she might have been tempted to do something a little too forward and unladylike.
Now she almost regretted not taking advantage of the opportunity.
But she was starving.
As she approached the main corridor, the new maid stopped her. “Excuse me, Your Highness,” the girl said with an awkward curtsy. “You have some guests.”
“It’s lunch time, Eliza. Ask them to return with a proper appointment.” Oh, how proud Merton would be if he heard that.
“Yes, Your Highness.” She bowed her head, apologetic. “But he says he’s your cousin, and that it’s important.”
“Luke?” What on earth could Luke be doing here?
Luke wasn’t the only one. When she met him downstairs, Anise and Tear were with him.
“Natalia!” Anise squealed, running up to her for a hug. “Why haven’t you been to visit us? We’re feeling awfully ignored.”
“I’m sorry,” Natalia replied, “I’ve been meaning to. I’ve just been so busy lately.”
“Too busy for Daath?” Anise wagged a finger. “That’s not good for relations, Your Highness.”
“Oh, believe me, I know,” she said, turning now to embrace Tear. Tear’s hug was more restrained but no less warm. “It’s good to see you.”
Luke, however, was not in a hugging mood. “What the hell is this?” he asked, and he held up what looked like a letter.
If she answered as such, he would not be amused. “I don’t know. May I see it?”
He handed it to her, scowling. “My mother says I have to marry you.”
“Oh, my, news does travel slowly, doesn’t it.” Her eyes passed over her aunt’s words. “For goodness sake, Luke, did you even read this?”
“I tried to tell him,” Tear said. She knew what Natalia had known for years. Luke was a selective listener.
“Your mother explained the situation exactly,” Natalia continued. “The Council wanted to reinstate our betrothal, but my father and I convinced them to accept someone else.”
“Guy!” Anise ran to the entry hall’s new arrival with much more enthusiasm than she’d shown Natalia. He didn’t even have a chance to say hello before she’d jumped into his arms and locked her legs around his waist in a way that made Natalia… almost jealous. She wanted to do that, too. “You’re here, too?” Anise said, squeezing harder as he tried valiantly to disentangle himself.
“Looks that way.” Once free, Guy took Tear’s hand and brought it to his lips like the gentleman he was. “And, Tear, lovely as ever, I see.”
She blushed with pleasure behind her veil of long hair. Such flattery still embarrassed her, likely because she never heard much from Luke. For all Luke’s good points, he was still hopelessly unromantic and clumsy when it came to relationships. In an odd way, it made Tear his perfect match.
“Boo,” Anise pouted, her hands on her hips. “You didn’t say I was lovely.”
“Because you know it already.” He turned to Luke and held up his fist for a quick bump. They were too manly to hug. “Hey, Luke, what’s up?”
“Hey, tell Natalia I’m not going to marry her,” Luke said.
With the most impressive straight face she had ever seen, Guy said, “Luke’s not going to marry you, Natalia.”
“Well, that’s a pity,” she answered, placing her index finger along her chin in faux contemplation. “I suppose then as Luke’s best friend, you’ll have to step up, Guy.”
Guy shrugged, careless as could be. “Sure, whatever.”
“No, man, there’s got to be something else—” Luke’s words were interrupted by a delighted squeal.
As expected, Anise was the first to notice the ring. Her berry-brown eyes had zeroed in on it like an owl with a field mouse. “Oh, my gosh!” She gripped Natalia’s hand hard. If she’d had a jeweler’s loupe with her, she would have been inspecting the sapphire and diamonds for quality and resale value, Natalia had no doubt. “I don’t believe it!”
“Congratulations,” Tear added, and Natalia gave her a grateful smile.
“What?” Luke could be most oblivious sometimes.
“They’re already engaged.”
“Just since yesterday,” Natalia explained. She’d planned to tell them at the first opportunity and wanted it clear that she hadn’t been keeping this a secret.
“And the emperor still has to sign off on the betrothal contract, but… yeah.” Guy’s nonchalance was for everyone else’s benefit, but the sparkle in his blue eyes was for her.
If only he’d kiss her again.
Anise dropped Natalia’s hand and turned back to Guy, her excitement replaced with a pretty frown. “Boo, you were supposed to be saving yourself for me!”
“Sorry, kiddo, but Natalia asked me first.” He gave Anise’s long ponytail a playful tug, but Natalia noticed his gaze was focused on Luke, who had yet to express an opinion.
Meanwhile it was obvious that Anise’s reaction was ping-ponging between annoyance over being called a kid and curiosity to hear all the details. “No way!” Settling on curiosity, her eyes now did the ping-ponging between them. “Natalia’s the one who proposed?”
“Let’s talk about it over lunch,” Natalia said before the conversation went any further here in the entry hall. She’d never get to eat at this rate. “Eliza,” she said, addressing the maid, “please let the kitchen know we’ll be five instead of two.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Eliza answered with a quick curtsy, then scurried off. She shouldn’t have been standing around idly while they talked, but she was new, and Natalia was feeling generous enough to excuse her just this once.
“Shall we?” Natalia asked her guests, but like before, she looked to Guy, who was still waiting for Luke to react.
“You ladies go ahead. I need to ask Luke something.”
“All right.” She needed to talk to Luke about this herself, but perhaps it was better if Guy went first. She didn’t blame her aunt for apprising Luke of the situation; in case things had turned out differently, he needed to be aware of the expectations placed on both of them. Even without the Score, those around them would still try to dictate the course of their lives, and they needed to exercise their own choices whenever possible.
Natalia linked her arms with the other two as they walked toward the dining room. “So, Anise,” she said, “how are your parents? And Florian?”
“They’re boring,” Anise replied dismissively. “I want to hear more about this proposal. Was it totally romantic?”
“Royal proposals are rarely romantic. I presented him with a practical and mutually beneficial alliance, and he agreed.”
Anise sighed. “Geez, you guys are as boring as my parents.”
“By the way,” Tear said quietly, “I know Luke won’t say it, but I want to… thank you.”
Natalia tried to mimic Guy’s nonchalant shrug. “Luke’s made his choice. I just happen to think he made the right one. That’s all.” A few years ago she might not have been so magnanimous, but everything had changed since then.
Anise was completely uninterested in this line of conversation. “But he kissed you, right? Tell me he at least kissed you.”
Any more serious discussion would have to wait until later. “Yes,” Natalia answered.
“And was that totally romantic?”
Her heart beat faster just remembering. “It was very nice.”
“Oh, come on,” Anise griped, “you can do better than that. What was it like?”
“Anise, that’s not any of our business,” Tear chided, but Natalia could hear a tiny note of curiosity in her voice.
If she didn’t elaborate, Anise would never let it go. And as much as she enjoyed Guy’s company, she’d missed proper girl talk. “It was rich and warm and sweet, like… butterscotch.” She stopped walking and closed her eyes to better recall the sensations. “You know when you have a butterscotch drop, and you suck it between your lips and roll it around your tongue as it slowly melts, and then the warmth spreads all through your mouth?” She could almost feel it again, the gentle sweetness of his lips on hers. “It was like that.”
Her dreamy sigh was joined by two others.
Even after the girls had left, Luke didn’t say anything about this news. There was clearly something happening upstairs, playing out in a variety of expressions on his face; it just wasn’t making it to his mouth.
“So, is this okay?” Guy asked. One of them had to start.
Luke’s expression finally settled on confused. “That’s what I was going to ask you. You shouldn’t have to do this for me.”
“No, that’s not it. I didn’t know it was you, actually.” He tried to remember how Natalia had put it. “Someone unsuitable, she said.”
“Nothing.” He tried not to grin. Who would have thought that he’d have to save Natalia from marrying Luke? He knew why she refused, of course. They’d all encouraged Luke to find his own purpose, and she wouldn’t hold him back or disrupt his plans.
Still, for all the years she’d dreamed of marrying Luke, it was ironic to see her so determined not to marry him now. It showed a selflessness and maturity Guy admired, even if he was the one to benefit from her decision.
“You’re really going to marry her.” Luke sounded amazed, concerned, and impressed all at the same time.
“Yeah. It’s the best solution for everyone, don’t you think?”
“I guess. If you’re really okay with it.”
Okay with it? He got to marry the most remarkable woman he’d ever known. Throw in securing his family’s legacy and the ability to actively promote peace between their countries, to be in a position with the power to make the world a better place, and it was a pretty damn good deal. “I am. It’s what Natalia wants, too, and I know better than to get in the way of what she wants.”
Luke finally laughed. “Seriously. Well, better you than me.”
“So I have your blessing?”
“My blessing? Hell, you have my sympathy. You’ll need it more.”
“Thanks.” He clapped Luke on the back like old times. “I know Natalia’s going to ask the girls to attend her, which means I’ll need a best man. Think Jade will do it?”
For just a split second, Luke looked hurt, then simply annoyed for falling for such an obvious joke. “Jerk,” he muttered, and he punched Guy in the shoulder for good measure.
“Oh, sorry, did you want the honor?”
“Hey, I’ve got to make sure you don’t chicken out, or else it’s my ass on the line.” Treating Natalia like a pain in his neck was second nature for Luke at this point, and Guy took it in the way it was intended. They’d all been friends for too long, and he knew that when it came down to it, Luke cared as much about Natalia as she did about him. “Just… watch out for her, all right?”
But he could go overboard with his protesting sometimes. “Come on, she’s not that bad.”
“No, I mean watch out for her.” Luke’s expression was completely serious, his tone low and gruff, and his green eyes narrowed. In that moment, he was more like Asch than ever. “Because if anything happens to her, I swear I will kill you.”