Duchess Delaney Dupree stood before the edge of the gardens at Benalle Palace—before the edge of the world, it seemed—letting the ocean winds whip her hair around her face, letting the endless waters, the pounding waves soothe as the dawn approached. The cliff-side garden nestled in the heart of the bow-shaped castle had become a favorite retreat. To escape. To think. No one really visited it much either, which she didn’t understand, considering the breathtaking views and lush flora. But while she would never understand the ignorance of such beauty by the court at Benalle, nor did she complain as she stood alone on the cliff’s edge, watching the sky brighten from gray to purple, from purple to the palest pink. She closed her eyes, willing herself to breathe deeply, the briny tang of the air like a tonic to her churning stomach.
But whatever relief it offered from the insufferable nausea she had had for weeks, it did nothing to ease the twist in her gut from the conversation she had just had with her father.
“Get yourself together,” he had snapped, barging into her chambers this morning without so much as a preamble. “You’re acting aloof and disinterested. Your little performance last night was abominable. Leaving early from your wedding feast? You had better thank the gods that the prince left early too or else you would be hanging from the gallows this morning.”
“Father, I don’t feel well,” she tried to protest. For it was true. She had been sick to her stomach for almost two weeks. “I do apologize. I—”
“I don’t want to hear excuses. You’re marrying the crown prince of Navah. It’s about time you stop acting like a selfish, spoiled cow.”
Her father had turned on his heel and marched off without so much as a good day, and Delaney stood alone in the foyer of her chambers, wishing she had a different life. Wishing she had a different father, anyway. She hadn’t asked for this. It wasn’t in her plans to be shipped to this gods-forsaken kingdom to be married off like chattel.
But she had been shipped off anyway, forced to leave behind her life in Midvar and her beloved little sisters—the only piece of her mother she had left—without a second thought. It didn’t matter what she had wanted. It didn’t matter what she had thought. All that mattered was that she was of marrying age, eligible, and a prosperous match for both her kingdom and Navah.
Never mind their kingdoms had been sworn enemies for a millennium. Never mind there was no chance in Sheol that this marriage would be anything more than a sham, if they even married at all.
For indeed, today was her wedding day. And while Ferryl had surprised her—no, shocked her, really—when he visited her chambers last night, when he poured himself onto her, touching, kissing, holding her with a need that had set her blood to boiling, the shock had been nothing compared to the moment he suddenly pulled away, a look in his eyes of devastation, of complete loss. For one moment she had thought he wanted her as much as she was beginning to think she wanted him.
And then he had just left.
No explanation, no apologies. The crown prince of Navah had just kissed her and disappeared. And she wasn’t sure if she could face him today.
Their wedding day.
She wrapped her arms around her waist and squeezed tightly, breathing deeply again, willing away the tears that were threatening to fall.
What about her life? What about what she wanted?
Apparently, it didn’t matter. Not only did it not matter to her father, or her uncle—His Insufferable Majesty King Derrick of Midvar—it apparently didn’t matter to Ferryl, either. Or Ravid.
Ravid, who had followed her here to Navah, who had schemed with her, made promises to her. Ravid who had loved her. Yes, for a little while, she would have sworn he loved her. But he had apparently forgotten all of that.
Like a phantom, Ravid came and went through her life as he pleased these days, visiting her chambers little, speaking with her even less. For every bit of fun and laughter they shared in their years in Midvar, they shared equal silence and avoidance now.
Maybe there was a time when she would have said she loved him. But now—now, she wasn’t so sure. While Ravid had always showered her with affection, he hadn’t exactly been a friend. But Ferryl had. Ferryl had been her friend, had been unexpectedly kind and warm. And the way he kissed her…
But she had been wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Wrong about Ferryl. Wrong about Ravid. Wrong about too many things.
Despite herself, a tear slipped down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away, staring across the quiet waters, the endless void before her.
The sound of footsteps crunching in the gravel tore her from her thoughts, and she peered over her shoulder, the winds whipping her hair wildly about her face, to see Michael—the palace guard—strolling towards her with a careful grace, which could only mean one thing.
She wondered what bad news the guard was harboring.
“Your Grace,” said Michael with a smile. And not an apologetic one, either. Despite the caution with which he had approached her, it was…it was delight in his eyes. “What are you doing up so early?”
The rising sun glinted on the pommel of his sword, his black and white uniform crisp and perfectly-tailored to what was surely a beautifully-sculpted form, if the broadness of his shoulders, the strong column of his neck, and girth of his arms were any indication. She tore her eyes from his body only to be transfixed by the shock of silver in his eyes, illuminated all the more by the piercing rays of the early morning sun…and the kindness she found there.
“Are you all right?” he smiled, and she realized with no small amount of horror that she had forgotten to answer his previous question. Whatever it had been.
“I’m fine,” she said, lying for the sake of sparing him the gory details of the stomach issues that wouldn’t end. Another wave of nausea swept over her, and she turned back towards those glorious ocean breezes.
Michael stepped closer—close enough that their shoulders almost brushed. Almost. She cut her eyes to him as he stood beside her, staring at the ocean before them. His glossy chestnut brown hair—like sunshine and earth and honey—tossed wildly in the winds. He looked much like the crown prince in many ways—that signature Navarian tan, those high cheekbones. But Michael had a ruggedness about him that no prince or nobleman she had ever known possessed. Forged. Like a blade. Like the steel silver of his piercing eyes.
Nausea ebbed at her again, waves lapping at her feet. She bit back a grimace.
“Are you sure?” he asked, and she wondered about his keen observation of her health and wellbeing. Then again, he was a palace guard. Paying attention to every detail was his job, not a kindness. She merely nodded.
Michael stood wordlessly by her side, his hands clasped behind his back as he, too took in the sunrise as it spilled over the ocean, staining the waters with violent shades of gold and pink, silver and red.
Why was he here?
“Are you on duty?” she asked, shattering the blessed silence.
“Hmm?” he asked, as if robbed from a daze. “Oh, no. I’m off rotation until tonight’s festivities.”
Until the wedding, he meant. She stifled the urge to make some baiting comment about the likelihood of said festivities—not after the way Ferryl had fled from her last night. “Do you ever not wear your uniform, then?”
He faced her, a grin threatening his mouth. “Do I offend, my lady?”
“My lady. Your Grace. Such formalities. I thought I asked you to call me by my name.” Gods, she was snappy this morning. And she didn’t mean to be, but—
He chuckled. “I’m sorry, Delaney. Old habits, and all of that.”
She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or roll her eyes. She opted to look back at the ocean instead. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“What question?” She could hear the mirth in his voice. Was something funny? She resisted the urge to bare her teeth at him for being so stupidly chipper at such an ungodly hour.
“I never see you in anything but that old thing,” she said, gesturing to his uniform. “You said you’re off duty. Don’t you have regular clothes?”
She felt more than saw his grin. “I do. I suppose I prefer to stay in uniform. Just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“In case I am needed.” Needed for his sword, he meant. Because if nothing else, Michael was loyal to his kingdom, even to a fault. She had observed his friendship with the crown prince in her time here—their quiet conversations in the corridors, their card-playing and wine-drinking into the wee hours of the morning. But she had also observed that Michael, perhaps above all other guards in the palace, was loyal. Dedicated. A servant to Crown and country. And he thrived on such loyalty.
Which begged the question… “What are you doing here?”
She immediately regretted the question, the way it sounded. She hadn’t meant to be so abrupt, but if the prince had sent the guard here to spy…
“I can leave if you want. I didn’t realize my presence would bother you.”
She might have told him good riddance, might have let him walk away if it weren’t for the hint of hurt she could have sworn she heard in his voice. As if…as if he had chosen to be here, to come stand by her. It was that thought alone that had her recklessly grabbing him by the elbow as he moved to walk away.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said when he turned to face her. “I’m… I’m glad you’re here.” And she realized she was. In some strange way, Michael, of all people, had become something of a friend. Perhaps it was the fact that he had held her hair back as she had vomited her guts up a few weeks ago. Perhaps it was the fact that he always spoke to her with such kindness. Perhaps it was that wherever she was, he always seemed to be there, too.
Maybe…maybe the crown prince was having Michael keep an eye on her.
Or maybe Michael just wanted a friend, too.
He returned to her side, and she didn’t fail to notice that it was a little closer this time, their shoulders brushing. And her skin—gods, it was as if her skin came alive at that whisper of a touch. So she leaned slightly away, just because she was a stupid fool. Everything that had happened thus far only proved it. No need to drag another man into the idiocy that was her life. And certainly not Michael, even if it seemed like his offer of friendship might actually be genuine. No, she would not stand close enough to let her shoulder brush his, to let her stupid, foolish mind wander down paths it had no business going.
“Any word about tonight?” he asked. The question suddenly reminded her of last night. Of emerging into the ballroom for First Feast, observing the waiting crowd…and being taken aback by the look on Michael’s face as she stood on Ferryl’s arm.
Had it been disappointment?
Despite herself, she turned to see his face, to see if it held any of the same disappointment. But it was cool disinterest she found instead. She quickly faced the ocean when she sensed him turning to meet her stare. But then she registered the question he had asked. And the strangeness of it.
“What do you mean any word?”
“The prince. Has he said anything?”
Gods. Oh gods. Had Ferryl told Michael about their kiss? Or his disgust with it? Heat flooded her cheeks. And nausea. Oh gods, the nausea.
“Delaney,” Michael said, his hand suddenly at the small of her back. Warm. Steady. Calming. “Let me take you to Mary.”
“No. It’s fine, it’s…”
“I beg your pardon, but you’re not fine. You’ve been ill for a while. You should see the healer. Let her help you.”
She shook her head as she covered her mouth with her hand. “No, no. It’s fine. What did you mean about tonight? Has Ferryl told you something? Does he not wish to marry me?”
“He hasn’t spoken to you? I thought maybe that’s why you were out here so early,” Michael said, his hand still at her back. She resisted the urge to lean into his steady touch, instead shaking her head as she met his eyes once more. There it was again. Disappointment.
“Delaney, I—” His other hand found the back of his neck, and he looked to the ground as he fussed with his hair. She got the distinct sense that he wanted to tell her something. Something he had no right to tell her.
To her eternal shock, he told her anyway.
“It’s Elizabeth, Delaney. She…”
“Elizabeth? What about her?” she asked, her heart pounding in her throat.
He met her eyes again, and oh gods, that kindness. It was mixed with regret. And worry. She would have had half a mind to console him if she hadn’t suspected that he was about to deliver news that would require her own consolation.
“She’s back, Delaney. She returned in the middle of the night.”
Elizabeth. The woman Ferryl loved. The woman he had searched for, that he only stopped searching for once he thought she was dead. She apparently wasn’t dead. She was apparently very much alive. And back.
Which meant that the wedding—
“Are you all right, Delaney?”
“I’m fine,” she managed, holding her hands to her stomach as if somehow she could coax the nausea, the stupid, childish panic to subside. Breathe. It was becoming hard to breathe.
“Please, let me help you to Mary,” he said, turning her, resting his arm at her waist as he took her other elbow that he might guide her back through the gardens.
She attempted a lighthearted laugh, firmly planting herself in place. “I’m fine, Michael, truly.”
“Forgive me, but it is obvious you are not. You have been ill for some weeks now, haven’t you?”
She nodded despite herself, a cold sweat beading on her brow.
“Delaney,” he said, and she met his eyes at the way her name sounded coming from his mouth, taken aback by the concern in his voice. “I shouldn’t have told you. I—I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Please…please just go and see her. I should like to take you to her now, if you will.”
“I’m fine, Michael. It’s just a bit of a stomach malady. Nothing to worry about.” Delaney tried to turn and walk away, for if she didn’t leave soon, she wasn’t sure if she could contain herself. Vomit. She was going to vomit. Was she nauseous because she was ill? Or because she was broken-hearted? And why should she be broken-hearted about a man who never loved her anyway? Another wave of nausea rose, this one burning her throat with bile. Michael caught her by the elbow, his grip firm but gentle as he stepped in front of her. He caught her by the chin and tilted her face to meet his.
“You’re going, Delaney. I won’t take no for an answer.”
Maybe it was the look on his face—the sweet concern, the kindness. Maybe it was the air of authority with which he spoke, the firm but gentle reprimand for daring to ignore his wishes. Or maybe it was just those silver eyes she couldn’t avoid. Whatever it was, she found herself nodding her head and letting him walk her to the infirmary, reminding herself that there was nothing wrong with leaning into his embrace. He was simply doing his duty, after all.