Rose paced the length of the dining hall as her parents met with the King, Queen, and Prince of Gallifrey. Her stomach felt full of butterflies—icy butterflies that seemed intent on skewering her insides—and she felt like she could be sick.
She spotted a book splayed haphazardly across the table, and the title was familiar: it was the same book James had told her he had begun reading.
James. Rose's eyes burned when his freckled, boyish face popped into her mind's eye, stealing her breath away. Her chest ached when she remembered the sound of his laugh and the way his eyes sparkled when he teased her and how his freckles stood out whenever he blushed. And the utter heartbreak on his face on their last afternoon was still fresh in her mind, as was that perfectly beautiful kiss they had shared.
The feel of his hands against her hips… The taste of his lips against hers… The sounds he made as they continued kissing. The memories sent a bolt of heat through her, but they also caused an avalanche of dread to fall into her stomach. Soon, she would meet the Prince of Gallifrey, and then his hands would be the ones touching her, his lips would be the ones kissing her, his voice would be the one saying her name…
She couldn't do it. She just couldn't. Her parents would be furious and mortified, but she just couldn't marry the Prince of Gallifrey, not when she was so hopelessly and completely in love with James.
Speaking of James…
"Pardon me," Rose said, approaching the servant who had been asked to wait with her. "Could you direct me to the castle library?"
"The library?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I've heard wonderful things about it," Rose lied. "I would like to see it for myself. I'll just be a minute."
The servant nodded, and he gave her directions to the library. As Rose navigated the corridors, she prayed for James to be there. And she prayed that he would want to break off his own engagement to be with her.
She should have known better, considering it was a Friday evening and the King and Queen were hosting her and her parents for the weekend, but Rose was still disappointed when she walked into an empty room.
She could immediately understand why James loved working there, though. It was gorgeous, with the stained-glass windows creating an ethereal ambience as it glowed with the light from the setting sun. And there were so many books. More books than Rose had ever seen in one room. They were all lined on dark wood shelves, and she knew there had to be some organization system, but for the life of her, Rose couldn't figure it out.
You can ask James later, she told herself firmly as she wandered to the lone desk in the middle of the room.
Her breath caught in her throat when she saw his desk. It was piled with books, of course, but scattered among the books were the various trinkets she had bought him from the market over the last three months. Tears burned in her eyes as she frantically looked for a piece of paper to write him a note, telling him she couldn't go through with her own betrothal and that she wanted to marry him, but before she could find anything, the door opened. She stood up straight, ready to apologize to whoever had found her, but she found herself looking at the Prince of Gallifrey.
"The Duke and Duchess will be arriving any moment," James's mother said as she fiddled with his hair to make it lay flat. "They will meet with us first, and then you will meet with them. Then you will meet their daughter when we all convene for dinner."
James clenched his jaw against the snide comment on his tongue; his mother had been reminding him of their schedule for the last two weeks, and he had it completely memorized. But he had already pushed his parents' patience these last two weeks—he had needed an outlet for his anger and someone to blame for his broken, bleeding heart, and his parents had been an available target.
He had been moody all day, wanting to be left alone to brood, but of course he had been fretted over since breakfast, with everyone working hard to make him look his best for his introduction to his future wife.
The words burned on his tongue, and he never wanted to hear the words "his wife" in relation to him unless they happened to refer to Rose. But of course, that was impossible.
And so he quietly simmered in his anger, hurt, and resentment as he was given a fresh haircut and a new outfit for the occasion.
A servant entered his room and announced that the Tylers' carriage had arrived. A pit formed in James's stomach, and he felt shaky and numb as he stepped away from his mother and to the window. He glanced down at the front lawn and saw that a carriage was indeed approaching.
James let out a shuddering breath and ran a frustrated hand through his hair.
He cringed, realizing he'd accidentally messed up his mother's work on his hair.
"Oh, just leave him," his father sighed. "He'll just keep mussing it."
His mother harrumphed, then turned to walk out of the room. Before she completely left, she turned back around to glare at James.
"You will be courteous and respectful to the Duke and Duchess of Powell, and to their daughter," she warned, pointing a finger at him.
"Yes, Your Majesty," James snarked, bowing theatrically to her.
His mother threw up her hands then stalked out of the room.
"James," his father chided.
James scowled at his father, but instead of angry, his father looked… sorrowful?
"We really are sorry about this," his father said gently. "But you're not the first person to have an arranged marriage, you know. I was matched against my will to your mother."
James blinked. "You were?" At his father's nod, he said, "But you both look so happy together."
"We learned to love each other," his father said with a shrug, before he turned to walk out of James's room.
"Dad," James said softly as his father was at the door. His father stopped and turned back around to face him. "If Lady Tyler and I can come to some sort of agreement… If we can think of a way to stop the fighting… If we still agree to work together… Could this marriage be called off?"
His father's brow furrowed, and James looked away; his trembling voice had already given away too much, but the agony that was surely projected on his face would raise more suspicion.
"James, the borderlands are becoming more unstable," his father sighed. "You remember the fire that broke out three weeks ago?"
James closed his eyes and swallowed, vividly remembering the rubble and ash and the cries of the family of the little girl who had died.
"We need your help and cooperation, James," his father said. "We need a united front. If the people realize you don't want to help them, what might that feel like to them?"
"It's not that I don't want to help," James argued. "Just… not like this."
His father's face pinched in apologetic sympathy.
"We will call you to the study in a few minutes," his father said, then he turned away and closed the door to James's room.
James groaned in frustration and helplessness, and he once again raked his hand through his hair. He couldn't do this. He just couldn't. His parents would be furious and mortified, but he just couldn't marry Lady Tyler, not when he was so hopelessly and completely in love with Rose.
His heart was beating too hard and too fast as he paced around his sanctuary. He then turned and stared out the window and to the mountains beyond, where he and Rose had spent so many beautiful afternoons together in the marketplace. He could see her in his mind's eye, her cheeks pink from the cold and her eyes dancing with laughter. He could still feel the way her lips and body had pressed against his during their last afternoon together.
A dull ache seared through his chest, as it always did when he thought about that stolen kiss. They should have run away together, like they had joked about. They could have run away to the sea and sailed off together into the sunset, and into foreign lands where they would be completely unknown and free, and more importantly, together.
Well, he wasn't going to joke about it this time. No, he was going to find Rose, and he was going to ask her to run away with him. They could go anywhere. Get a fresh start. They could just be James and Rose, two people totally in love with each other, and they could settle down in a little house, just the two of them. Maybe more, eventually. James's stomach clenched as he could perfectly see him and Rose in a little cottage with their children toddling at their feet…
He quickly dismissed that thought. He was getting far too ahead of himself. First he had to find Rose if any of his dreams had a chance at happening, then, and only then, could he allow himself to think about the future.
With his resolve strengthened, James wrenched open his bedroom door and crept through the castle, hoping to find his intended fiancée and put an end to this ridiculous plan.
Once he called off their betrothal, he could work on tracking down Rose and asking for her hand, and hoping she would be able to call off her own betrothal. She'd said her parents wanted her to marry for political gain… James chuckled to himself. Surely whomever she was betrothed to couldn't possibly be more influential than him, the Prince of Gallifrey.
He immediately headed for the dining hall, where he was fairly confident his parents had left Lady Tyler to wait. But it was empty when he arrived. Well, empty except for the butler.
"If you're looking for Lady Tyler," he said when James barged into the room, "she went off to see the library."
"The library?" James asked. Then he shook his head and said, "Never mind. Do not tell anyone where we are."
"But, but sir!" the butler spluttered, and James knew the impropriety of what he had just said.
"That is an order," he said through gritted teeth, even as he cringed inside. He had never liked ordering the household staff around.
The butler blinked at him for a moment, before nodding and bowing deeply. James turned on his heel and headed straight for the library. He paused outside the closed door and took in a deep breath, trying to remember everything he wanted to say to Lady Tyler to make it clear to her that there was absolutely no chance they would be married.
Knowing that he didn't have long before someone came looking for him and Lady Tyler, he wrenched open the door despite not really knowing what to say. He stepped inside and saw a young woman in a burgundy dress with her back to him. Good. That was good. At least he wouldn't have to look at her face and see her anger and hurt as he called off their engagement.
Coward, he chastised, but it was true.
James took a deep breath then tipped his head back to look at the ceiling, focusing on the intricate gold inlays as he began to speak.
"Look, Lady Tyler, I can't go through with this," he said in a rush. He heard a quickly indrawn breath, and his face heated at the sound. He hated himself for upsetting her, but he was tired of putting everyone else's desires above his own—he'd been doing it all his life, and now it was time for him to get what he wanted. "I get that you're here just because you were told to be here. Well, maybe you want to be here, I don't know. And I know that you're expecting to be married to me, and I don't know if you want to be married to me, but I don't want to be married to you. Not that you aren't a lovely person. I'm sure you are, and I'm sure you'd make a fantastic wife, but not to me. I'm sorry, but I can't. I just can't marry you. I'm so sorry. We'll figure something else out. We can still work together to fix the issues at the borderlands, but I cannot marry you Lady…" James finally tore his gaze away from the gilded ceiling and his breath got stuck in his throat when he saw a beautifully familiar face smirking at him from his desk in the library. "Rose."
"Well, that's a shame," Rose drawled. "I hear you're the most sought-after bachelor in the realm. Besides, I thought you and I had something really special going on."
"Rose," he rasped again, stepping up to her carefully, as though she would vanish if he moved too quickly.
"Hello," she whispered, beaming up at him as she wiggled her fingers in a wave.
They both moved at once: they closed the distance between them, and she brought her arms up around his neck while he wrapped his arms around her waist. He pulled her flush against him and held her tightly. He couldn't believe it. Rose! It was Rose! His Rose!
He buried his face into her neck, and hummed when she smelled exactly like he remembered. She was soft and warm in his arms, and the sound of her giggles sent his heart racing with happiness.
He set her on her feet and scanned his eyes frantically across her face, willing this to be real. Her face looked a little different than he was used to, and he realized she was wearing a lot more makeup than she had for her afternoons with him. He still thought she looked absolutely beautiful.
His eyes raked over her exposed collarbone, and down her chest. Realizing his gaze was lingering at her cleavage, he forced his eyes to trail along the velvety fabric down her arms, where her hands were lost in her billowy sleeves.
His eyes wandered back up her dress and to her face again. He reached up and rested a shaking hand against her cheek, cradling her face in his hands.
"Are you…?" His words got lodged in his throat as he was overwhelmed with disbelief, happiness, and love. "Are you really Lady Tyler? For real? This is real? You're actually the Duke and Duchess's daughter? You are Lady Tyler?"
"Oi, are you saying I'm not good enough to be a Lady?" she asked, crossing her arms across her chest.
"Oh, no, no, no!" he said hastily, but then he saw the teasing twinkle in her eye.
She grinned at him, and he couldn't stop himself from stepping forward and taking her into his arms again.
"I've missed you so much, Rose," he admitted, trailing his fingers up and down the sleeves of her dress.
"I missed you, too, James," she said, reaching up to cradle his cheeks in her hands.
Her palms were warm and James leaned into her touch. He covered her hand with his, and turned his head to press a quick kiss to her palm, before he reached out and cupped her cheeks, too.
He caressed her cheekbone with his thumb, and delighted in the way her eyes fluttered shut and she sighed softly. The sound stirred something in his belly, and he shifted his weight from foot to foot as he asked, "May I… would it be okay if I… if we… may I kiss you, Rose?"
She smiled shyly and nodded. He grinned despite his pounding heart, and he leaned down and tilted her head up so he could brush his lips across hers. Her hands left his cheeks and snaked around to the back of his neck as she held him closer. Her fingers scratched at the back of his neck and up into his hair, making him shiver with pleasure and delight.
As much as he wanted to continue kissing Rose, and to deepen his kiss with her, he was aware that they were kissing in the library where anyone could walk in on them. And that was very likely, considering their parents had probably noticed they were both missing.
James regretfully eased them out of their kiss, but instead of stepping back and putting a respectable distance between them, he rested his forehead against hers.
"It's you, Rose," he whispered, slowly nuzzling his nose against hers. "It's really you."
"I know," she replied, and James shivered when her breath puffed against his lips. "I couldn't believe it when I stepped into the room. You're the Prince of Gallifrey. I can't believe you didn't tell me!"
James chuckled wryly. "If I'm not mistaken, my love, you didn't exactly tell me either."
James jumped away from Rose at the loud screech, and he saw a middle-aged blonde rushing up to him looking murderous as his parents and a balding red-haired man trailed behind. It took him a moment to realize she was the Duchess of Powell, which also meant she was…
James's mouth went dry as he glanced down at Rose, and realized they were still standing closer than appropriate, and that they had been together in the library for at least ten minutes, completely unsupervised.
"Er, good evening, Your Grace," James said weakly, bowing lowly to hoping to ingratiate himself to the Duchess. He then spotted the Duke, Rose's father, and he bowed once more. "Er, Your Grace. Good evening, sir."
"Oh, don't you try to act all chivalrous and proper," Jackie snapped. "You called her 'my love'. I just heard you. You two have already met?!"
"Yes," James admitted.
James's cheeks heated at his parents' questions, but before he could reply, the Duchess of Powell turned her glare upon Rose.
"That's where you've been riding off to each weekend," she accused, pointing a finger at Rose. "I knew I shouldn't have listened to your father! I knew I should have had you followed! What, pray tell, have you been doing together, alone? And where? Where on Earth could you have possibly met the Prince of Gallifrey?" Jackie demanded, placing her fists on her hips.
"The marketplace," Rose answered, wringing her hands in front of her.
"The marketplace?" Jackie repeated. "The borderlands marketplace? When you know how dangerous it is there?!"
"It's not dangerous, Mum," Rose sighed. "The marketplace vendors and patrons are really kind. It's just a few of the citizens that have the issues. I was completely safe. Besides, James was with me."
Jackie turned her glare upon him again, and he shrank away from it.
"And again I ask, what were the two of you doing together, alone?"
"Oh, nothing much," James squeaked, hoping his flaming cheeks and ears weren't noticeable to anyone else. "Wandered around the marketplace. Browsed around. Shopped a bit. Sampled the food. In complete sight of the townsfolk, I assure you."
"Mum, this is my introduction day," Rose reminded, a subtle bite to her words. "Besides, I thought you approved of the Prince of Gallifrey."
"I did!" Jackie exclaimed. "When I thought he was a gentleman who would respect his betrothal to another woman and not play around with the first pretty girl he saw!"
"Rose and I have not done anything untoward," James said firmly, resolutely ignoring their stolen kiss in the meadow and the one that happened mere minutes ago. "Besides, it's not exactly as though I wanted to marry your daughter. I had the fullest intention of calling the whole thing off today."
"Oh, charming," Rose drawled.
"You know what I mean," he said, taking her hand in his and giving it a squeeze. "I meant to call off my engagement to Lady Tyler then go and find you, and ask for your hand instead."
Tears filled Rose's eyes, and she smiled at him. James smiled back, and he leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead.
"I never dreamed I would be so lucky as to marry for love," he whispered.
"Well, you both are still going to have to engage in a formal courtship," Jackie huffed, crossing her arms. But James saw that her glower had softened into something tender. "And don't you dare ever admit publicly that the two of you had been having an illicit affair for months!"
"Mum! We did not have an illicit affair!" Rose groaned, pressing her fingertips into her eyes. "I went out to the market and made a friend! If you haven't noticed, my life hasn't exactly been full of them!"
Guilt flashed across Jackie's face, and she opened her mouth to speak, but whatever she wanted to say was interrupted by James's father, who had been watching the exchange with a delighted grin growing across his face.
"Propriety of your past actions aside, I take it you are more amenable now to your betrothal?" the King asked eagerly.
James smiled down at Rose, feeling so lucky and grateful to have her by his side. He gave her fingers a squeeze and brought her hand to her lips for a kiss, and he nodded.
"Yes," he whispered. "Yes, I am."
James's and Rose's engagement was announced to the public the next day, when James and Rose were spotted together holding hands in the Gallifrey marketplace, sparking a wide host of rumors. News of the engagement spread quickly among the kingdom and duchy, and it was hardly a surprise when the citizens of both lands were wary of the news.
James and Rose spent the next few weeks touring the kingdom and duchy to celebrate their engagement and to try to get the citizens as excited about it as they were. While touring, they also began to introduce the idea of the two lands becoming united under James's and Rose's rule. The people were even more wary of that news, but James and Rose vowed their loyalty to every citizen, Gallifreyan and Powellan alike, and they asked for the people's loyalty in return.
Also as they toured, they began the wedding preparations. They made sure to hire at least two people for each aspect of the wedding—a professional from Powell, and one from Gallifrey—in an attempt to peacefully require the two lands to work together.
For the most part, both sides were eager to please the future King and Queen, and were honored to be selected to aid in wedding preparations. However, there were a few people who scoffed at the idea of working alongside someone from the opposite land as them.
"Fine," James said breezily, waving his hand to dismiss the Gallifreyan jeweler who refused to work with a Powellan jeweler to design the wedding rings. "We'll find someone else. Thank you for your time, sir."
Rose bit her lip and watched the man stutter his way through a protest before he agreed to work amicably with the Powellan jeweler to come up with ring designs James and Rose would adore.
"Funny how people change their tune when the future king dismisses them," James said happily as he plopped down onto the settee in the library beside Rose.
"The threat of dishonoring their family and business tends to make people more agreeable to a lot of things," Rose said, curling into his side as he grabbed the book they'd been reading together.
But before they could get comfortable, the library door opened and the butler walked into the room.
"Ah, fancy listening to a bit of light reading?" James asked, wiggling his book at the butler.
"Of course, sir," he said, before settling himself stiffly onto a seat opposite James and Rose.
James scoffed and rolled his eyes; he hadn't been allowed to be alone with Rose since the night he'd realized she was Lady Tyler. He hated the need for a chaperone, and couldn't wait for the day when he would be allowed to be alone with Rose for as long as he would like.
By the end of summer, we'll be married, he told himself, and he went giddy with delight. He couldn't wait to be married to Rose, to his best friend. He pressed a quick kiss to her forehead and opened the book.
Rose rested her hand on his, drawing his attention away from the words on the page.
"Have you thought about where we're going to live?" Rose asked.
"Once we're married," she said, glancing up to look him in the eye. "I don't think we should live too far in one country or another. It might show favoritism."
"Shall we live in the borderlands marketplace, then?" he asked wryly.
Rose rolled her eyes. "Close, but not quite. I actually had an idea… I can show you tomorrow, if you'd like?"
"I look forward to it," he said with a smile.
James and Rose walked hand-in-hand through the stalls, trying to ignore the servant and the several guards that both of their parents insisted accompany them on their ride into the marketplace.
They nodded at the various vendors they'd gotten to know over the months, and grinned when they saw the vendors—and a few of the customers—all looking at them, wide-eyed. Between their emblemed cloaks and the royal guards, it was obvious who they were.
"My Prince, my Lady."
The vendor whom James and Rose always bought lunch from came to greet them with a low bow.
"Good morning, Douglas," Rose said. "How are you?"
"Very well, very well," he stammered. "Forgive me. I did not realize whom I had been serving. I hope you found the food to be satisfactory."
"There was a reason we kept coming back," James assured.
"Because of the sentimentality of it?" Rose asked innocently, flashing him a tongue-touched grin that made his heart flutter.
"Well, that was part of it," James answered, giving her hand a squeeze. "Well, it isn't quite lunchtime yet, Douglas. So until then."
James bowed to the man, and Rose curtsied, and they grinned when the old man looked too flustered to bow back.
Rose gently tugged on James's hand, guiding him in the direction of her secret idea. James frowned when he saw the path in the forest that led to the meadow where they'd had their last lunch together.
When they made it to the meadow, Rose turned to him with a wide, excited grin on her face.
"Er… I'm afraid I don't see what you're getting at, love," James admitted, turning in a slow circle to survey the meadow.
"We can build a future house here," Rose suggested as she looked away. The smile on her face was gone, and she wrung her hands out in front of her and said, "If-if you want that is. We-we don't have to. Just a thought."
"Oh, but that's brilliant!" James crowed with a grin. He spun in another circle around the meadow. A few trees would need to be cleared, but the land was definitely large enough to build a home on. His and Rose's home. The home he shared with Rose. The thought sent warmth pulsing through his body. "Why didn't I think of that?"
"Nobody has been able to buy land along the borderlands for years," Rose said, looking relieved that he didn't think her idea was stupid. "So most of this is still under the rule of the kingdom and the duchy. We can start our own little town right here, in the heart of the borderlands. Encourage trade and settlements and business. Build the community into something strong and respectable. And we'd be nearly central to all parts of the realm, so it wouldn't be a hassle to venture into Gallifrey or Powell if there are issues we need to attend to."
"You, my love, are so brilliant!"
Overcome with love and pride for his future wife, James caught her lips in an enthusiastic kiss. But their lips had barely met when it was broken by a harshly-cleared throat.
James's face was slightly hot as he stepped away from Rose, and instead took her hand in his. He brought her knuckles to his lips for the only kiss he was allowed to give Rose, and he hoped she knew how proud he was of her, and how brilliant he thought she was.
Standing with Rose in that meadow, James felt happier and more hopeful than he had in months, since he had been told he was going to be forced into an arranged marriage on top of the responsibility of fixing the borderlands.
But with Rose at his side, he knew he could conquer anything. That they could conquer anything.
He brought her knuckles to his lips once more before he turned to guide her back into the marketplace for their traditional lunch date.