The afternoon sunshine slanted through the high windows to fall and dance over the stone floor of the hallway. Heels clicking, Elmont strode briskly through the castle, headed to speak with the king about last minute details. There would be a party tonight, and he still had a hundred things to settle before these walls filled with any number of threats to his charges.
One thing in particular, though, pressed at the back of his mind, annoyingly, not letting him alone for even a moment.
Elleree Rowan was here, much to his chagrin.
They had not spoken five words to each other in the past few weeks - not since he'd last kissed her lips. Everything was a mess. During the previous fortnight, tensions in Cloister had increased. The weather had been dismal and people were going hungry. The more the temperature dropped and the more it stormed, it seemed, the worse the nobles acted and in turn...during the previous few days there had been an alarming increase in reported petty theft.
Perhaps he was being silly...but a part of him had hoped that now she was living with her uncle and working she would not steal, not take on the nobles anymore, ridiculous as some of them might be. He was more upset with himself than anything else that he had let his hopes rise that she might change. It was terribly unfair of him to wish such a thing on her - if he couldn't accept the person he had grown to care for as she was, he certainly didn't deserve her.
Despite his frustration with her criminal behavior, there was a place, deep inside him, that was proud of Elleree. He understood. But the rest of him, the guardian in him, did not want her anywhere near a stone's throw to the castle. It was his home and his family. And he was on guard.
But Princess Isabelle herself had invited Elleree here tonight to help with the preparations. The princess had no idea of his suspicions or worry, he had not spoken them, nor did he want to...but if Elleree...
He couldn't voice his fear. Not even in his head. And that was the reason they would always be diametrically opposed. No matter what the intentions or the behavior of the victim - stealing was still a crime.
But was letting innocent people suffer and go starving more of one?
Elmont gave a deep sigh, resisting the urge to stop and bang his head against the nearest wall. He only hoped Elleree would finish her duties soon and leave. He felt a pain of remorse at the thought - he missed her - but he reminded himself that tonight would not be the time, and never the place. Not for them anyway.
Unfortunately his wishes were not to be granted on this day. He met Isabelle on the stair, and she was bubbling with joy, eyes sparkling in merriment. The smile that brightened her face was returned most happily; he couldn't help himself.
"Princess," he stopped and bowed his head before meeting her eyes again. "I trust preparations are going well."
"Yes, Elmont." She fairly beamed with happiness. "I'm really looking forward to tonight. I have a few surprises as well."
"Oh." The corner of Elmont's mouth quirked. "How wonderful."
Isabelle giggled, entirely unperturbed by his wry tone. "Foremost of all, is that you are to be attending tonight as a guest."
"Your Highness -"
"No arguments, Elmont! I won't have it. You've been working too hard. Even as a guest, I promise you can keep an eye on everything."
Finally Elmont sighed, acquiescing. There was really no point in even trying, and she was right. He would still be able to be on watch. Which he was even more concerned with now... "And the other surprises, Princess?" He asked, lifting one brow.
Her grin widened. "You'll see!"
Elmont sighed again.
"Now I must go and get ready," she added, turning to hurry away. "You too!" She added over her shoulder.
Elmont shook his head, but he really had no choice. No doubt Isabelle would have a fit if he stayed in uniform and came in his armor tonight. What was he going to wear?
Even despite the princess's cheery disposition, Elmont felt his own mood darken only a few minutes after leaving her. He stood in his room, his frown deepening as he stared at his wardrobe for long minutes - which was frankly ridiculous, as there was very little even inside.
The wardrobe mirrored his internal conflict precisely. There seemed to be no good answer when it came to Elleree Rowan. He was at a loss, and that was not a state of mind he was accustomed to. He cared for her, more than he should, but it seemed she wanted nothing from him at all. Except perhaps a bed warming now and again. Maybe not even that...
Half of him felt a fool, fretting like a maid about whether she cared about him for more than just sex.
The other half...
The notion of her, the mere thought of her, in his bed made his body stir most interestedly and that half of him simply didn't care. He wanted her - now, here, anywhere, any way she wanted. Every way she wanted.
And then he'd force his mind to return to functioning properly again. He would not let her sway him from his duty.
From the back of his closet, Elmont dug out a crisp white shirt, dark breeches and the appropriate formal accessories for the night. He had not worn these things in some time, and the clothes seemed a bit dusty but they would do. He called for a bath, sinking into the hot water. Thoughts of her flew immediately into his mind, unbidden, warm and soft and eager in his bed... but he resisted the urge to fantasize.
Instead he let the hot water soothe his worries and wayward desires then dressed quickly and without fuss. When he arrived downstairs, servants were bustling to and fro in the great hall, setting a massive table to one side with refreshments just as he could hear the first guests beginning to arrive.
Elmont helped himself to a glass of wine, and stood to the side, observing as nobles began to fill the room. Soon it was packed, Isabelle welcomed her guests, music began to play and he had not had a glimpse of Elleree. Eventually he began to relax. At one point he was speaking with Crawe, and Princess Isabelle even caught him laughing, beaming at him in return.
That was when he saw her, standing at Isabelle's side. The dress she wore was a vivid jade...the same color as her eyes if either the sun or her passion touched them just so. The glossy satin clung to her torso, hugging her breasts perfectly and flared at her hips, flowing all the way down until the hem kissed the polished marble floor. Her skin was pale porcelain, and her eyes focused on him as he took in the sight of her, his heart racing in his chest. This must be Isabelle's second surprise.
The look on Elleree's face when their gazes met was hesitant. It struck Elmont with an unexpected flare of regret. Before he could think better of it, he looked away, turning his back on her to face Crawe and forcing himself to calm.
For the rest of the evening, though, he sought her out, every other moment, her gem-colored dress and the shine of her red-gold hair catching his eye with ease. It was only to put forth an effort to ensure she was behaving appropriately, of course.
Once, he found her dancing with a comely partner and he felt of swell of pure want - it should be him - but her manner was subdued, and that allowed him to tamp his feelings back in their proper place. After that dance he lost track of her and when he could not find her again - instead of thinking she was off causing trouble he found he could only fear for her well-being. Concern and worry clouded around him like a cold fog. He turned abruptly to go in search of her only to nearly trample Elleree herself in his haste as she had snuck up behind him.
Her eyes widened, startled as he stopped himself just a pace away from knocking her over. Reaching out, he grasped her shoulders to steady her so she wouldn't stumble backwards in reaction to his clumsiness.
"My apologies, Miss Rowan." Elmont pulled his hands back as soon as she recovered, clasping them behind his back in a vain effort at resisting the urge to pull her closer. "I didn't see you."
"Well, that would be a first tonight," she answered, wry. She took a breath. "May I speak with you?"
Her eyes were dark and guarded, still he could not deny her. "Of course." Elmont gestured to the hall, just past the wide doors and led her to an alcove of windows, beyond the raucous of music and people.
Elleree twisted her fingers together, seeming to be in search of words before she finally looked up to him, her expression sad but stubborn at the same time. "I know it's your duty to - watch...guard - but I - I'll have you know I would never, ever hurt the princess in any way, nor would I betray or harm anyone that invited me into their home. I know you're upset, but I mean no harm here." She swallowed, biting her lip for one second before she could stop herself. Taking a breath, she raised her chin. He sensed she was forcing herself to meet his eye.
"Miss Rowan -"
She ducked her head, and he could feel her embarrassment and chagrin at being named so formally. His heart melted a little for her as his understanding of her expanded. She'd been alone for so long, this stony exterior that seemed so cold to his touch was all she had to protect herself, but her natural reaction gave him hope her feelings for him were much more than she let on.
"Elleree," he amended, his voice softer, and she met his gaze again. "You continue to put me in quite a difficult position."
Her lips quirked, and he returned her smile. "Still, I appreciate your admission and accept it in good faith." He took a breath. "You have given me much reason as of late to be wary of your activities but I'm sorry to have hurt you with my suspicion in this matter."
"Truce?" She murmured. "For tonight, in any case?"
Elmont could not resist the soft look in her eyes and he cursed himself for it even as his heart lifted and fluttered inside his chest. He'd experienced more emotion in the months he'd known her than all the rest of his life put together.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught Princess Isabelle watching them shrewdly though she was trying to seem as if she was not. He couldn't help but chuckle.
"Nothing could make me, or the Princess I presume, happier."
Elleree's face broke into a full smile then and Elmont reached for hand, lifting it as he gave a courtly nod of his head. "May I have the next dance, my lady."
Elleree gave an unexpectedly graceful curtsy. "Yes, of course."
They danced the next dance together and the two after as well. The pink in her cheeks blossomed before his eyes, and he hoped it was as much because of him as it was the physical exertion. Elleree pressed her hand to her chest after the third, laughing happily and begging a rest. He was pleased to see her smiling and enjoying herself in this way, she had been so reserved before. Perhaps she had missed him as well.
Elmont fetched her iced wine while she waited and pointedly ignored the haughty glances of a few of the noble ladies from court, surely judging his lowly choice in companion. He didn't care. When he returned, she accepted the glass with a happy smile.
It was only a moment before another young man approached her, however, asking her to dance. Instead of answering right away, she glanced to Elmont with a question in her eyes. Elmont was surprised she would consider him in such a thing, he had no rights to her. The idea she cared about his feelings in this matter touched him in a way he hadn't expected and he smiled, reassuring her with what he hoped was a warm expression.
A few interested glances turned his way as Elleree took her leave of his company; he noticed them but pretended not too, instead deciding to stand back and watch Elleree as he could not when he was her partner.
He was enchanted. She was radiant, proven by each new offer of another hand. Elmont was not foolish enough to think her beauty and agreeableness tonight solved the problem of the obstacles between them but it urged him to put his grievances aside for now as she had asked. It was impossible to keep his surly mood in her presence, not tonight.
After how many dances he had lost count, he caught her eye and she gave him a look that plainly called for rescue, her eyes dancing with humor. Suppressing a grin, he made his way to her side, neatly cutting off a prospective suitor. He purposely guided her away from the crowd, his hand resting lightly at the small of her back.
"My feet are killing me!" She exclaimed when they were out of earshot, sagging against the wall. "I'm not used to these horrid things," she added, lifting her skirt to reveal uncomfortable looking, high-heeled shoes.
Elmont chuckled, and offered his arm, leading her to a bench in the hall beneath a grand window. "Where did you get the dress?" he asked when they settled. "It looks lovely on you."
Elleree blushed. "Isabelle forced some lady or another to lend it to me. She's too tiny for me to fit in any of her gowns," she laughed.
"It matches your eyes," he smiled.
Elleree's blush deepened, and she raised her hand after a moment to fan herself, glancing about the hall. "Hot, isn't it?"
"Would you like some fresh air? I could show you the towers, walk along the parapet."
She nodded shyly, a strand of her hair slipping free of the fancy not at the nape of her neck and Elmont couldn't help reaching to push it back behind her ear.
He let her rest a moment longer then stood, offering his hand. "Shall we?"
Elleree accepted without hesitation and he kept her hand grasped in his own as he led her to the stairs.
It was dark atop the castle wall, and a breeze caught the loose strands of her hair, more escaping now, making them dance. She smiled at him, taking a breath then turned to look out over the land, her eyes shining with wonder. Stars dotted the inky night sky, sparkling like the finest crystal, and the moon was full and bright. Warm fires made the windows of homes across the city glow, and could be seen far out across the country as well.
"It's beautiful." Elleree breathed. She stepped closer to the stone wall, but eyed it as though it may crumble away at any moment or something might reach out to toss her over the side. She took another tentative step and he laughed quietly; she didn't seem to hear, though, mesmerized by the sight before her. "I feel I could see all the way to Scotland. If it was light," she grinned at him, still not fully approaching the wall.
"Are you afraid of the height?"
She shrugged, and he thought he could see a blush. "I don't know. I've never been off the ground before. I mean not any higher than a jump."
"Well don't jump here," he teased, stepping closer.
"No...it's quite high, isn't it?" She dared to lean toward the edge, so cautiously and so unlike her he couldn't help himself.
Grasping her waist, he made a faint teasing sound of attack, meant to startle her but she yelped, nearly jumping out of her skin. She threw herself back into his chest, clinging to him and he laughed out loud, wrapping his arm around her, pleased with the unexpected result of his teasing.
"Elmont! That was awful!" She scolded him, but she was fighting a smile.
He lifted one hand to clasp her shoulder, wanting to comfort her. He hadn't thought to scare her that badly. Her heart was pounding, he could feel her pulse flutter against his thumb where it nearly touched her throat. She was gripping his forearm tight as a vice. "I'm sorry, Elleree," he laughed. "I only meant to tease."
She took a breath. "I don't know if I can forgive you."
"Perhaps I can make it up to you."
And perhaps he'd had too much wine. He was captivated.
His thumb swept over her collarbone; her skin was soft and he could still feel the flutter of her heart. His breath caught in his chest - he remembered just the way she tasted, the way she felt, surrendering to him, to their desire. A frisson of electricity passed between them, and he squeezed her shoulder, massaging there. She shivered and he wondered if she was cold or if she felt the attraction as well.
"Perhaps." Elleree turned further toward him, her eyes wide and shining.
Of its own accord, his hand slid up to cup her jaw, his thumb sweeping lightly across the curve of her bottom lip. He lowered his head brushing the softest of kisses against her mouth before he leaned back again.
He wanted nothing more in that moment than to pull her against his body. Perhaps he should've taken care of his needs in the bath so he'd have better control of his passions now.
No, but he knew better. Elmont was beginning to suspect there was little in this world that could lessen his deepest desires for her in any way. Everything he did only seemed to make him want her more. His feelings were echoed in her eyes, and every reason why he should not invite her to his room fled his mind.
"I have an idea," he started. Truly, it was an innocent suggestion at its base...even if his thoughts about where it might lead were decidedly less so. Still…
AN: Part two of The Ball will be posted in one week in the M rated story: Closer :) Please, please let me know if you like! Please review! Cheers