Working Title: How Far
Characters: Natalia, Guy
Part 9 of ?
Eight weeks they’d been separated.
With everything going on, she shouldn’t have had time to miss him.
Now Natalia practically flew down the stairs, her heart racing as each step brought her closer to seeing him and having him here to stay. It had been so long since she’d waited like this, wanting someone to come home.
It was Merton waiting for her at the bottom.
She stopped, feeling breathless and silly. “Hello, Merton.” Her voice had the shakiness of one who was nervous, and she drew up to her full height as she would standing before the Council, composed and impassive. When she was younger, perhaps, her enthusiasm could be excused, but she was a grown woman, and a princess should not appear so graceless in front of a servant. “Is Count Gardios with you?” The shakiness was gone, but the excitement could not be contained.
Merton bowed low before her before presenting her with a letter. “I have been entrusted with delivering this to you personally, Your Highness. I fear his lordship was under the impression that I would find the passing of such communication beneath me, so specific were his instructions.”
“And would you?”
“It is an honor to be of service both to Your Highness and to my employer.”
Was there a soft marshmallow center inside that crisp and formal exterior? “I must say I am rather honored myself.”
The valet bristled at anything resembling affection. “I am merely fulfilling my duties, Your Highness.”
“Of that I have no doubt.” Swallowing a smile, she took the letter. Merton liked her. He’d never say so, but she knew, and she’d allow him to keep his pride. “Thank you, Merton. Is there anything else?”
“Unless you require my services, Your Highness, I believe I should set myself to unpacking his lordship’s belongings.”
“Oh, you never did tell me why he’s not with you.”
“I believe the letter contains the explanation. Other than that, I am not at liberty to say.”
Peculiar, but acceptable, she supposed. “Very well. Thank you again.”
Once alone, Natalia opened Guy’s letter. After scanning his words, she glanced down at her floral-patterned dress and yellow satin slippers. She’d gone to so much trouble to look pretty for his return, and he was asking her to put on “sturdy” clothes, including long trousers, gloves, and boots, then to meet him outside the city gates.
Back in her chambers, her maid Sera helped her off with her dress and put together an outfit that could be considered sturdy. She had trousers which were made for riding, a close-fitting corduroy that should suffice. The letter hadn’t specified an appropriate top, so she selected a white muslin blouse with a lacy collar. Adding brown leather gloves and boots, she looked like a stable girl instead of a princess, hardly the picture she’d hoped to present to him after so long.
She took her time leaving the palace and walking through the city. If he was going to make her change her clothes, then she could make him wait.
But she noticed her pace picking up the closer she got to the gates.
He was standing just on the other side of the bridge, casual as ever.
“You presume to summon me, Gailardia Galan?” she said, cool as a winter morning. She folded her arms and gave an indignant toss of her hair.
“Thought you might like to go for a ride,” he answered smoothly, not buying her indignant act for a second. He was dressed like she was in a white shirt and dark trousers, gloves and boots. A pair of goggles sat on top of his head, and a second pair dangled from his wrist.
“A ride?” Only then did she pay attention to anything other than him and how the sun glinted off his blond hair.
Next to him was a machine she’d never seen before, yet looked oddly familiar. It was approximately two-thirds as tall as he was, with two large wheels, a motor, and what must be a long, narrow bench seat. At one end were handles and a control panel. It reminded her of… a mechanical horse with tires instead of legs.
Then it came to her. “That’s what you were building when I went to see you.”
“Yep!” His proud grin made him look like a little boy.
“You finished it.”
“What is it?”
His grin nearly slipped. “This, my dear Natalia, is a personal motorized transport vehicle.”
“A personal… a per-moto….”
“Yeah, I haven’t come up with a good name for it yet,” he said, pulling his goggles down over his eyes. “So, you want a ride?”
A ride. A ride on a machine he’d designed and built himself. “Yes.”
“Good, that’s the right answer.” He extended the second pair of goggles to her. “These are for you.”
When his fingers brushed hers, a little jolt went through her. Such a small touch after so much time only reinforced how much she’d missed him. He had to have felt it, too, but he turned away to crouch down and inspect one of the vehicle’s wheels.
She pulled the goggles on like he had, and the strap pressed her hair flat and tight to the back of her head. “Now what?”
Seemingly satisfied with whatever he’d been looking at, he stood up again. “Now we ride,” he answered, his grin back in place. He slung one leg over the seat like he was mounting a horse. “Climb up behind me.”
Her legs weren’t as long as his but she managed to copy his movement, bracing a hand on his shoulder as she did so. There was the jolt again, but he still didn’t react. It was almost a humorous reversal of the way he used to be. Almost… because part of her was confused by this nonchalance after their weeks apart. Had she been the only one dwelling on it all this time?
“Okay, here are the rules,” he said. “This is all about balance, so whenever you feel me lean, you need to lean with me. But do it gently, or we’ll tip over. Otherwise, try to sit still, okay? I haven’t done this with a passenger yet, and I’ll need to concentrate. And keep your feet planted on the running board.”
She set her boots flat against the ledge as instructed and hoped she’d remember everything. It seemed easy enough now when they were sitting in place. “Anything else?”
“Yeah.” He reached back for her arms and pulled them around his waist. “Hold onto me so I don’t fall off.”
The way his hands lingered over hers erased all of her doubts.
Mindful of keeping their balance, she resisted the urge to lean against his back. “Ready.”
And then they were off.
At first they puttered along at a leisurely speed. This section of road saw a good bit of traffic this time of day, as carts and wagons brought goods and visitors into the city. Curious gazes followed them as they passed, and she wondered if she would be recognized. One little boy pointed with excitement, but she was certain he was more interested in the machine than the riders.
She wanted to wave, but she remembered his order to stay still. Instead she just grinned back, immensely proud of her fiancé’s skills.
When they reached a crossroads, he headed west, taking the turn slow and wide, leaning into it as he’d said. She found it natural to lean with him, to let his body tell hers how to move.
Ahead of them the road was straight and clear. He turned his head slightly so she could hear him and asked, “Wanna see how fast we can go?”
Her arms tightened around him. “Absolutely I do.”
Without further encouragement, he kicked the speed up.
The experience was completely different now. The scenery flew by, the expansive blue sky the only constant. The afternoon breeze stung her cheeks and whipped through the thin fabric of her blouse. When he leaned forward, she did, too, letting his back block most of the wind.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on the sensations all around her. The machine’s seat vibrated beneath her bottom and between her legs as the motor worked to its limits, its rumbles loud and ferocious like an untamed beast. His back was strong and solid and warm, and pressed against him, she almost felt they were one with the machine and each other.
Maybe nothing should have excited her more than flying in the Albiore. Shouldn’t one of man’s greatest dreams and achievements be flight? Soaring above everything like birds, looking down on the world and seeing just how small it was?
But this was exciting in an entirely different way. Instead of being inside looking out at the world, the world was all around them. They streaked across the landscape like a bullet. There was an intoxicating freedom of being unconfined, unencumbered by anything, by duty or responsibility, that feeling that they could just go forever. There was the thrill of speed, of having to hold onto him, of sharing this as they went even faster, as he took a turn so sharply she thought they might fall and realized the heady rush of adrenaline was worth any possible danger.
They were far from the city now and running out of stable road. He brought them to a stop near a tree, and they sat there, trying to catch their breath. Everything around them was silent and still.
Then he punched the air with his fist and let out a whoop of joy. “Hell yeah!”
He climbed off and pulled her into his arms, picked her up and swung her around until she was dizzy from spinning and laughter and being with him again. “That was amazing!” she said as he set her on solid ground, but his arms remained around her. “I don’t care what Ginji’s building. You win.”
“And so what if I am?”
They stood and smiled at each other, almost goofy and giddy. Adrenaline continued pumping through her. She felt wound up, restless, like she had energy to spare and nothing to do with it.
“Hi,” he finally said, pulling off his goggles. His eyes had never looked so blue.
She removed her goggles, too, giggling and flushing with anticipation. “Hi.”
His arms were back around her before his lips even touched hers. Eight weeks she’d been thinking about this, shocking herself with how much she’d wanted to see and touch him again. Her hands crawled up his chest, her arms looping around his neck where they belonged.
She always said his kisses were sweet, and they were, but this time they were so much more. The sweetness and gentleness, the caressing and sipping were only the beginning. His tongue traced the outline of her lips, and she found herself opening her mouth wide so his tongue could explore inside.
Behind her back she felt him pull off his gloves and heard them fall softly into the dirt below. All of her senses were so finely tuned to him that she was aware of everything, even with her heart pounding, her breath coming in pants as his tongue continued seeking out the deepest secrets of her mouth.
His hands came up to tangle in her hair, and she pulled her own gloves off so she could feel the heat of his skin beneath her fingers. Sweat glistened at the back of his neck, and the earthy, masculine scent of him made her crave him more.
“I missed you,” he murmured, and he pressed his forehead to hers. She loved when he did that.
“I missed you, too.” Her lips had curved in a smile when he kissed her again.
One of her hands returned to his chest, feeling his heart pound as his mouth slanted back and forth over hers. She let her tongue dance with his to the metronome of his heartbeat, and she heard him groan deep in his throat, his hands shoving even more roughly through her hair.
She shuddered with pleasure, new feelings and desires blooming and spreading through her with the heat and colors of a desert sunset.
He dragged his mouth to her ear. “When are we getting married?” he rasped.
“Eleven days.” She shouldn’t have had an answer. She shouldn’t have been able to think or speak or have any comprehension of what the words meant.
“Good,” he replied, and his mouth covered hers again.
Was it good? Was it soon or not soon enough?
There were so many things to do in those eleven days, but this wasn’t one of them. Yet it was impossible to care.
His mouth opened hot and wet against her neck, and she clutched him to her. He kept one hand on her back to hold her upright, though she was sure that falling to the ground and pulling him down on top of her might not be the worst thing in the world.
His other hand squeezed her hip, the tips of his fingers rubbing along the ribs of her corduroy trousers, as his tongue made quick strokes against her skin. Oh, she should have been scandalized or swooning or something other than wantonly responding to all of this. The more she learned, the more she wanted, curious to discover what came next.
The hand on her hip began moving slowly upward until it found her breast. His fingers curled around it, and when she felt herself pucker against his palm, she gasped out loud.
Suddenly, he stopped, and his entire posture stiffened.
“Don’t,” she whispered, “I was just surpri—”
His hand covered her mouth. “Did you hear that?” His voice was low and urgent.
She shook her head. How could he have heard anything? All she could hear were heartbeats, heavy breathing, and….
No, something else was there. She couldn’t hear it, but she felt something was wrong.
Guy grabbed her hand and pulled her around the other side of the tree just as the familiar hiss of an arrow pierced the air, the bark splintering on impact. With his hands on her shoulders, he pushed her to the ground, then crouched low in front of her to shield her with his body.
How careless they’d been. They were unarmed, alone in the middle of nowhere, and so caught up in each other they’d been oblivious to anything else.
Who knew they were here? Had they been followed?
And they were trapped. They couldn’t run. There was nowhere to run without being exposed. There wouldn’t even be time to climb back on Guy’s machine and ride off without giving their attacker a clear, easy shot.
All they could do was wait.
For several long, tense minutes they waited, hunched together, her fists clenching his shirt and her face buried in his neck. His arms were on either side of her, his hands braced against the wide tree trunk.
They waited, but nothing came. Everything was quiet as it had been before. There were no voices, no footfalls, no one approaching them, no further arrows. “Maybe it was an accident,” Natalia whispered, but she didn’t really believe it.
“Stay down,” he said. “I’m going to look.”
She did as she was told, keeping her back to the tree as he stood up again. She watched him peer around the trunk, then take a tentative step to the side so everything was within his view. Another step, and then he was out of her sight until he had circled the tree and come back around to her.
“Okay.” He extended a hand to her and helped her to her feet.
“Do you think it was just an accident?” she asked again. “Some hunter’s stray shot?”
The stony look on his face didn’t give her much hope. “I don’t think so. Come here.”
His hand was still holding hers as he showed her the arrow lodged in the tree. If it wasn’t an accident, then someone missed on purpose. However, that made less sense than her careless hunter theory. Why would someone follow them all the way out here only to let them go?
Then she noticed the slip of parchment wrapped around the arrow’s shaft.
He unwrapped it as she felt her stomach knot with dread.
The parchment’s message was a single word, bold and black and foreboding.
Yeah, I know.