It was by a feather-light touch that he had awoken. Like a flutter of wings against his cheek, the intoxicating scent of lavender whirling about him as he opened his eyes and understood it hadn’t been a dream.
She was alive. Elizabeth was alive. And she had kissed him good morning from the place where she had slept beside him. His back barked in protest as he shifted from his seated position on the floor of her cottage, feeling as if he had been thoroughly beaten from where the settee had apparently dug in all night. Prince Ferryl hadn’t even remembered falling asleep. He had only remembered that kiss of hers—the one that had shifted the entirety of the firmament, had changed his whole world—and the ensuing conversation. Of dreams forgotten and remembered once more, of a purloined past that had been mercifully restored. He couldn’t recall when that conversation had drifted into dreamless sleep as they sat arm in arm against the settee on the floor of her small sitting room. The fire that had burned brightly in the hearth only a few hours ago had died to nothing more than embers.
But he didn’t really care when they had fallen asleep, exactly. For she was beside him, waking as she stretched her lithe limbs, the feel of her curves in his arms a welcome, beautiful distraction. He buried his face in her neck in response.
“Good morning to you, too,” she said as she tilted her head back, giving him better access. He obliged her by peppering kisses along her honeyed skin.
Providence, this woman, this love of his life.
She was alive. And she was back.
He would never let her go again.
His lips found their way to her mouth, and he claimed her with a savagery that could only come from loving and missing one person for so long. She ran her hands through his hair and he took no small amount of satisfaction from the little groan that escaped her as he pulled her onto his lap.
“I wonder if you have any idea how much I love you, my Lizybet,” he said onto her skin, his lips migrating down her cheek and neck to that inviting place where it met her shoulder.
“An inkling,” she said, with a smile in her voice.
Lavender encircled him once more, threatening to intoxicate him into oblivion. Heavens above, that scent. He had loved it for years. He knew it, because he remembered it, thanks to the magic that found him with her kiss last night. But while he knew the scent, he had never thought to ask why she seemed to wear it so often.
“Why is it that you always smell of lavender, my love?” he asked as he dared to pull aside the shoulder of her dress to kiss the alabaster skin he found there.
She didn’t immediately answer. And while he might have remained distracted by the velvet softness of her shoulder, he found himself slightly curious as to her silence.
“My love?” he asked, lifting his head to meet her eyes. It was heat that kissed her cheeks. A grin threatened his mouth.
She fussed with a toggle on his jerkin, not daring to meet his eyes. “It’s embarrassing, Ferryl.”
“Embarrassing?” he asked, lifting her chin.
She bit her lip, likely knowing the effect such a thing had on him. But he was as stubborn as she was. Perhaps more. So he merely draped his arms around her waist and waited.
She sighed in resignation, pursing a smile. “For my sixteenth birthday, Mary gave me a vial of lavender water, but I thought it was too fine a gift for a servant, so I wouldn’t wear it. I put it away, thinking such things should only belong to someone important.”
Her cheeks heated once more, and he didn’t resist the urge to kiss them as she continued. “But then one day I decided…I wanted to know, you see, what it might be like…” She finally dared to meet his eyes as she said, “I knew I was falling in love with you, Ferryl. And I wanted to pretend—just for one moment—I wanted to know what it might be like…to be your princess.”
Rose colored not only her cheeks but her neck and her décolletage, but Ferryl did not laugh at her, did not poke fun.
“So I washed my hair with the lavender water and put on my best dress that day. And you…”
Oh, he remembered. He remembered that day, indeed. She had walked to the stables, her hair falling in soft, humid curls about her shoulders, her dress so simple and yet so invitingly fitted to her slender waist…
“If I recall, I think I told you that you smelled like an angel,” he said, laughing at his adolescent attempt at flirtation. He had wanted to tell her that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld, too. But even knowing the closeness they shared—had always shared—the thought of revealing his feelings for her had terrified him then. So he had opted to flirt instead.
Apparently it had worked.
Elizabeth bit her lip again, and so he tilted her chin and claimed her lips once more.
“That was the first time I knew that I wanted you. Not just that I loved being with you—I had known that for years,” he said. “But that was the first time I knew that I wanted to taste those lips of yours.”
“You didn’t, though.”
No, he hadn’t kissed her that day. It had taken him nearly a year to get the courage to kiss her. But by the time he had, he understood that he had been falling for her—slowly, surely, steadily, roots to a mighty oak—for all of that time. And all the years they had known each other.
“I kissed you, my love, when I knew for certain that I would never kiss another.”
For a blinding moment, guilt flashed down his spine. For he had kissed another: Delaney—the Midvarish duchess to whom he was currently, inconveniently betrothed. He had kissed her only last night.
But not because he had loved her—not the way he loved Elizabeth. He had kissed Delaney because he had needed her. Needed her to help him feel something again instead of the numbness that had plagued him from the moment he had thought Elizabeth to be dead.
But she wasn’t dead. Elizabeth was alive. Alive and in his arms, looking at him for all the world as if she too had known she would never—could never—love another.
Providence above, should he tell her that he had kissed another?
“Ferryl?” she asked, her hand on his cheek, looking at him with that way she had of knowing him down to very marrow of his bones. Guilt nipped at his soul once more as he opted to press his brow to hers.
“You’ve always been my princess, Lizybet,” he said, stroking a hand down her hair. “And soon, the world shall know it.”
“Today is your wedding day, Ferryl,” she said with a hint of reprimand.
“Yes, and that is as good a reminder as any that I should get back to the castle and inform my parents of my change in bride.”
She chuckled a bit sardonically. “If only it were that simple.”
“It will be,” he said, making to stand, offering her his hand that he might help her stand as well. “I will settle for nothing less.” Easy words. Such easy words when he knew that when it came to his mother, nothing was ever simple.
There was skepticism in her eyes, which he knew he would find. His Lizybet was nothing if not practical. But behind that skepticism, a whisper of longing. It was the sight of that longing that had him pulling her to him once more.
“Trust me, Lizybet. Nothing will stand in our way this time.”
A coughing fit momentarily stole her attention from him, and when she looked back, that longing had melted into worry and dread.
Because her father was ill. Irrevocably ill. And she had arrived last night only to discover a damning truth—Bedell was dying.
Another cough, this one deeper, more strained, and Elizabeth didn’t hesitate to tear across the small space to the adjoining bedchamber where her father had been sleeping.
Ferryl followed her, thinking he could delay the dreaded conversation with his parents—a conversation that would likely change much more than just the person he would marry. Yes, he could delay that conversation just a little while, if only to comfort the woman he loved at her dying father’s bedside.