I'm so sorry for the long delay. A couple of days after posting my last chapter, I came down with a really bad flu. Normally I can still write when I'm sick, but I could barely get my head off the pillow. After two weeks of non stop coughing, my hubby insisted on taking me to see a doctor, and it turns out I have adult whooping cough and pneumonia...not a great combination. The worst part is that the antibiotics only stop me from being contagious (a good thing) but make no difference to the length or severity of the illness. The darn thing is called the '100 Day Cough', as it lasts for three months! Apparently, adults can get a booster shot, which I highly recommend.
Thanks so much to my wonderful betas, NKubie and Katmom, for their help with this chapter and for sticking with me throughout this four month journey. It was only supposed to be a short story but ended up 80K words. Oops!
Chapter 22 - Final
Bella's arm froze, her hairbrush held aloft. She'd not long been out of her bath, the warmth of the nearby fire helping to dry her hair as she brushed out the tangles. Her new lady's maid had begun the task, but less than three days since Bella had taken up residence in the palace, and the servants already knew to make themselves scarce when her husband entered her bedchamber.
As she met his gaze in the mirror of her dressing table, an impish smile twisted Bella's lips. "Do we have time?"
"For me to brush your hair?" His green eyes sparkling, he straddled the velvet padded bench from the side, his thighs pressing snug against her. "I thought you liked it slow, but I can make it quick if need be."
After taking the brush from her suddenly limp fingers, he began brushing her waist length locks with slow, steady strokes. Bella relaxed against the wall of his chest, a contented sigh whispering from her lips as tingles shivered down her spine.
Hard muscles and a soft touch were a potent combination.
"You and I both know it's not how long you take to brush my hair that I'm worried about," she murmured, entranced by the intensity of his gaze. "It's what it invariably leads to."
Edward smirked, the half-smile drawing her attention to the enticing curve of his lips.
"It's not my fault you have such beautiful hair . . . that it smells so good and feels like silk." He brought the locks bunched in his hand to his nose and breathed deep. "I fell in love with it the first time I saw you wearing it loose at the cabin."
"Oh?" It was Bella's turn to quirk a brow, as their gazes met in the mirror. "And when did you fall in love with the rest of me?"
"Hmm . . . let me see." Edward swept her hair over one shoulder, exposing the curve of her neck above her loose robe. "I do believe this part here . . ." he nuzzled the exposed flesh, before kissing all the way up to the sensitive skin below her ear, ". . . first came to my attention when your nightgown slipped off your shoulder the first night we shared a bed."
"A gentleman would have looked away." Bella's attempt at outrage was belied by her quickened breath. Unable to resist, she bent her head to the side, allowing his lips greater access.
Edward chuckled then nipped lightly at her skin. "I believe my gentlemanly capacity was stretched to its limit not taking advantage when I woke up with my delectable rescuer sprawled across my body."
"Delectable?" She giggled then covered her mouth with her hand. Bella had been scolded so harshly for giggling by her stepmother when she was younger that she'd almost entirely stifled the urge to laugh. Not that there had been much cause after her father's death. In the days since she'd wed Edward, it was as if a bottle had been uncorked, and she couldn't contain the girlish giggles that kept erupting. It felt so good to laugh, to feel such unconditional happiness, but she worried about appearing gauche.
"Why do you do that?" Edward paused in his feasting upon her neck and raised his head. When she didn't immediately meet his gaze, he cupped her cheek, gently directing her to face him. "Why do you cut off your laughter? Don't you know how much I love to hear it?"
"But I'm a princess now. I'm supposed to act with decorum."
"Oh, pfft. You're my wife, and you're supposed to be giddy with joy, like me. I'm positively drunk with it."
Bella giggled again, but as soon as her hand began to rise to her mouth—an automatic gesture—Edward captured it with one of his own. His smile faded as he studied her fingers.
"The wounds are healing, and the rash is almost gone." Bella gave a little shrug, but she couldn't hide her insecurity. "I'm using a salve, and the scars will lessen with time, but they'll never be the hands of a lady."
Edward pressed his lips to the back of her knuckles, taking the time to kiss each finger in turn. When he was finished, he turned her hand over and brushed his lips to the pads of each finger before placing a lingering kiss on her palm. The knot that had begun to form in her belly unravelled to be replaced by an altogether different sensation, and a series of soft, breathy whimpers escaped her lips. Edward hummed in reply, but he didn't raise his head until he had given her other hand the same attention, his dark-eyed gaze captivating her as effectively as if she'd been mesmerised by a travelling conjurer.
"Your hands are the hands of a princess, one who owns my heart and will one day be my queen—the finest queen the three realms have ever seen. I love these hands as I love you. I hate that you suffered, but I wouldn't change a single thing about you."
Bella fought the overwhelming urge to cry, another suppressed emotional response that seemed determined to find expression as the reality of her changed circumstance slowly dismantled her defences. More often than not, the tears welled in response to her husband's tenderness. His unrelenting kindness was her undoing, although she'd also shed tears of relief. Edward didn't seem to mind. Twice now, he'd held her close and murmured reassurances when she'd succumbed to a bout of weeping, but she quickly blinked these away, focusing on her hands.
"I suppose their battered appearance was helpful as evidence. If I didn't have scars to prove my claim, your father would have accepted Victoria's word over mine."
"It might have seemed that was the way things were going." Edward wrapped his arms around her, tucking Bella's head beneath his chin. "But for all his faults, he wouldn't have let the matter lie, not after we offered a plausible defence. My father and I don't always see eye to eye, but he's not Aro . . . or even Marcus, for that matter. He would have insisted on exploring all avenues to uncover the truth, including accepting the word of witnesses from the lower classes."
Bella nodded, having come to the same conclusion, though she was glad it hadn't been necessary to question Alice or anyone else from the village. King Carlisle, who insisted she call him 'Father', was determined to prove himself different to his predecessor who was renowned for his secrecy. In hindsight, he realised he'd gone about it the wrong way, apologising to Bella several times now for subjecting Edward and her to a public spectacle rather than meeting with them in private. Bella was more than happy to put the awful experience behind them, and to her surprise, she was actually looking forward to attending the ball being held that evening to commemorate Emmett and Rosalie's betrothal.
While it was difficult to imagine ever feeling truly accepted by the privileged members of Volterra's nobility, those same lords and ladies who'd looked upon her in judgement seemed determined to win her favour now that she was married to the heir to the throne. Ignoring the part of her that wished she could hide away, Bella was equally determined to make Edward proud . . . or at least not regret his choice of bride. Doing so would, amongst other things, require making wise alliances. If there was one thing she'd learned during her years of servitude it was how to gauge a person's character by how they treated others and by trusting the instincts that had been honed through adversity.
To Bella's joy, she noted that while naturally commanding, Edward treated people respectfully, regardless of their station. As for the way he treated her . . . Bella had absolutely no complaints.
"If you've finished brushing my hair," she murmured, slipping a hand beneath Edward's robe and teasing the soft curls that formed a vee in the middle of his chest, "I should continue with my preparations and let you depart and attend to yours."
Mimicking her actions, Edward's fingers slid between the satin folds of her robe. His fingers teasingly caressed one of her nipples, the bud instantly taut, before curving around the underside of her breast. Nuzzling her ear with his lips, he practically growled. "I, for one, can think of no better preparation for having to face the rabid hoards than spending time enjoying the, er . . . company of my darling wife."
Bella's giggle made another appearance, but she didn't try to stifle it this time. "I am equally partial to your company,dear husband, but if we dally much longer, we shall scandalise the servants who are waiting to attend us."
Edward lifted his head from its place nestled in the crook of Bella's neck. The return of his smirk assured her he was unconcerned. "It's a bit late to be worrying about that, I'm afraid."
Bella's cheeks heated in acknowledgement, the warmth spreading to her chest when he parted her robe, exposing her breasts to his hungry gaze.
"Yes, but I'd rather not add fuel to the fire just before the ball," she managed to say between panted breaths. "Servants gossip. What if word of our antics reaches members of the court?"
"You don't think it has already?"
Edward's soft kisses trailed along her collarbone, but she refused to be distracted.
"We'll be held in ill-repute," she whispered.
"For being happily married?"
"No." Bella attempted a firm tone, but she couldn't resist arching her breast into his hand. "For lying together during daylight hours and more often than is acceptable. A lot more often than is acceptable. We're breaking the rules, Edward," she added with a whimper when his kisses travelled lower while his fingers teased and tweaked her nipples.
"Some rules are made to be broken," he murmured against the soft skin in the valley between her breasts.
"But the church—"
"Can mind it's own business." At Bella's shocked gasp, he raised his head. "Sweetheart, we've talked about this. The church is made up of men—men who like to make rules for others to follow—whereas the holy scriptures say—"
"That the marriage bed is undefiled," Bella finished for him. His knowledge was impressive and his arguments persuasive, but she wasn't used to being in a position to flout any sort of authority. "Aren't you worried about what the bishop might say?"
Unlike the kindly Father Benedict who'd married them, the bishop who presided over the palace chapel wore a perpetually dour expression she found intimidating.
"That old goat?" Edward made a face, and Bella felt another giggle bubbling to the surface. "Even if some mealy mouthed whiner does try to convince him we're taking too much enjoyment from fulfilling our marital obligations, I highly doubt he'll challenge us on it. He's too busy toadying up to Father in hopes of saving his position."
It was an unlikely outcome now that more and more of Aro's victims were finding the courage to come forward and catalogue the abuses they'd suffered, many condoned by the church.
"I doubt he'll remain bishop for much longer."
Bella nodded. She'd heard similar tales from the ladies vying for her attention in hopes of being selected as one of her attendants. Having gone most of her life without friends, the two she now had felt like an abundance: Alice, who she'd insisted be invited to the ball and couldn't wait to share all her news with, and Edward, the person she felt closest to in the entire world. The idea of a formal coterie of ladies-in-waiting, whose sole purpose was to keep her company and amused, was daunting but expected. All part and parcel of her new role. While she imagined the occasional afternoon spent reading or indulging a hobby—once she'd acquired one—might be pleasant, spending her days embroidering cushions or discussing the latest fashions was not something to which Bella aspired.
Determined to spend her time in more gainful—albeit radical—pursuits, Bella had ideas for improving the lot of the working classes of whom she'd recently been a member. Education was an issue close to her heart, as was improving the health and general well-being of the populace. Decocting herbal tonics and salves and opening her own apothecary was no longer the extent of Bella's aspirations, and she was thrilled that Edward hadn't scoffed when she'd shared her expanded dream of using her new-found position to make a genuine difference.
"So . . ." Edward stood, and she allowed him to draw her with him when he crossed to the large and inviting bed. "If your concerns regarding the opinions of others have been suitably dealt with, I propose we spend the intervening hours between now and the ball dealing with more important matters."
His dark robe hung open to his waist, his body naked beneath it as hers was beneath the silk robe that he'd brushed from her shoulders, forcing her to clutch it to her breasts. The draw of his desire-darkened gaze was difficult to resist, as was the urge to abandon her robe, and her modesty, altogether, and follow him down onto the soft expanse of the mattress.
Leaning back against the gentle tug of his hand, she offered a token protest. "We don't have hours, Edward. The ball begins at eight."
Leaning up on his elbows, he shrugged a shoulder. "We're the guests of honour. They'll wait."
"Technically, your brother and soon to be sister-in-law are the guests of honour."
"Didn't you hear? It's to be a joint announcement of their betrothal and our nuptials."
Bella laughed, the sound dry rather than girlish this time. "I doubt there are too many souls in the kingdom left to be apprised of either piece of news, certainly none attending tonight's celebration."
"Well, there you have it." Edward gave a firmer tug, and Bella fell forward. Her plan to land heavily upon his chest as chastisement for his incorrigibility was thwarted when he rolled her with him. Looking up into his unrepentant gaze, the length of his long, lean and oh so lovely body pressing hers into the bed, robbed her of both breath and the will to resist.
"There I have what?" Reaching up to stroke his freshly shaved cheek with her hand, she echoed his earlier words.
"Tonight is a celebration, and I would dearly love to begin ours a little early . . . if that's all right with you?"
Her robe had fallen open, as had Edward's, and there was nothing standing in the way of his wish being granted except for her withholding her permission. Although wed less than a week, Bella knew her husband would never hurt her, never force her, never treat her as if she was somehow less than him regardless of her gender or station. She held his heart in her safekeeping as he did hers.
Answering with a sigh, she spread her legs wide so that he could find his place in the cradle of her thighs.
"That's perfectly all right with me," she whispered, as his hands worked their magic, caressing her curves and then drifting lower to tease the tender flesh between her thighs. With his weight propped up on one elbow, there was just enough room between them for her to reach down and take hold of his eager, prodding member. Even after such a relatively short time, she had become adept at pleasing her husband, and she stroked him from base to tip, adding the slight twist she knew would cause him to shudder in her arms. His fingers increased their tempo, sliding between her silken folds, as his hips rocked against her. Breaking away from his increasingly heated, desperate kisses, she murmured, "I want you inside me."
"Are you sure? We've been doing rather a lot of celebrating, and I don't want you to be uncomfortable this evening."
Bella's chest rose and fell with the laughter that bubbled up from within. "Believe me, I'll be too busy squirming at the knowledge that the entire court are sure to have been informed of our antics to notice any tenderness."
A crease appeared between Edward's eyes, and he pulled back a fraction. "If you're truly concerned, we can stop."
"It's a little late for that." She wriggled beneath him, impatient to feel him filling and stretching her.
"But I don't want you to feel embarrassed. I know how much you want to please me, and you do, in ways I can't begin to describe. I shouldn't have insisted—"
"Edward, stop." Bella reached up with her free hand to loosen the fingers he'd fisted in his hair. "I'm not really bothered, I promise. If we are the last to arrive, I will stand proudly at your side, content in the knowledge that my husband adores me as much as I adore him . . . and that any lady who eyes me askance is probably jealous. Now make love to me, or I shall be a bundle of agitation for the rest of the night, and that wouldn't be pleasant."
He hesitated for a moment longer, his gaze searching hers, then his lips slowly curved into a delicious half smile that made her as hungry for his kisses as she was to have him inside of her.
"I wasn't going to leave you wanting." He lowered his head to murmur against her lips, and she took immediate advantage.
Bestowing his mouth with hungry kisses, she savoured his taste with her tongue. "Oh, I know, but it's better like this." Guiding him to her entrance, she welcomed his long, slow slide into her body with an arched back and a low moan. Once he was seated fully inside her, he held still, lifting his head to peer down at her from beneath hooded lids.
"My beautiful wife." He cupped her cheek with one hand, the other arm holding his weight. "I just wish I could properly express how much I love you."
"You do—you are—at this very moment." Her hips undulated beneath him, his groan of pleasure a perfect accompaniment to the cries that spilled from her lips. He rocked against her, and Bella pushed aside any further thought to her surroundings, the distinct possibility of listening ears, or any potential consequence. Swept up by the sensations that skittered over her skin and along her nerves, she rocked back, meeting Edward thrust for thrust, touch for touch, whimper for moan. His warmth surrounded her, his smooth skin sliding over hers and sending ripples through her, as his muscular chest brushed against her achingly taut nipples.
He was right. What did it matter what anyone else thought? Their union was sanctified, this great love, this passion, the bliss-filled future stretching before them theirs to enjoy. Some jealous lips might tut-tut in disapproval, but all Bella cared about were the kisses Edward placed in erotic trails along her jaw and in the curve of her neck. He nipped and she shuddered. His mouth moved lower, finding and suckling first one nipple and then the other as she writhed beneath him.
"I'm almost there," she whispered, drawing him back up so their mouths could meet as she clenched tightly around him. His long slow thrusts gave way to the frantic movements that forecast he was nearing his peak, and she arched beneath him, crying aloud as she gave herself up to the passion that burned, flame-like, in her veins, until the bliss consumed them both.
Edward's smile threatened to disrupt the sombre demeanour he was attempting to portray. Officially presenting his wife to the court of Volterra was a serious business. After the debacle of her initial introduction, he was determined Bella be shown the utmost respect from this point forward, but perpetually drunk on newly-wedded bliss, he could barely contain his joy. The way she responded to his attentions was a revelation, the memory of their most recent encounter threatening to rekindle the desire they'd only just quenched. A chuckle bubbled in his chest, one he barely managed to stifle, as he admitted to himself it was unlikely he'd ever drink his fill . . . of her beauty or their combined passion. She was perfect for him in every way, although it wasn't just her appearance that enthralled him.
He admired her courage.
He admired the way she'd committed herself to learning everything she needed to know to fulfil her new role as quickly and effectively as possible.
He admired her forgiving nature, the way she had made sure her stepmother and stepsisters weren't suffering too badly despite their having shown her so little care in the past.
He admired her intelligence, her creativity, her determination to be an asset, both as his wife and to the kingdom as its crown princess.
And yes, he admired her beauty, indulging himself with a slow perusal of her delightful form draped in another stunning gown, this one a rich gold, befitting her new station.
But mostly, he just really liked how much she liked him in return.
"Ready to face the ravening hordes?" he asked, raising her hand to his lips and enjoying the flush that rose to her cheeks.
"Oh, I don't think it will be that bad." Her smile serene, Bella looked out over the crowded ballroom from their hiding place to one side of the grand stairway. "I like your mother, and she's promised to introduce me to her friends. She's been very helpful, giving me some wise counsel regarding whom I should choose for my own ladies-in-waiting."
"I'm glad to hear it." Edward's smile broke free for a moment. He was grateful for his mother's attempts to help Bella feel more at home, though it was hardly surprising she'd taken her new daughter-in-law so quickly to heart. His new bride was easy to love. She was also fiercely loyal, and he recalled with pride how she'd stood up to the courtiers who'd baulked at her insistence her best friend from the village be included on the guest list.
Scanning the crowd below, he spotted Alice standing off to the side, her dark eyes wide in her elfin face. She looked a little overwhelmed by her surroundings, and Edward was sorry he'd not thought to arrange an escort for the young woman who'd done so much for Bella. Then he saw Jasper standing in the shadows behind her, but his relief that Alice had someone watching over her was tempered by apprehension. Jasper had promised his intentions were honourable, declaring that if a prince could marry a serving girl then a baron could pursue a seamstress, but his words had done little to mollify Edward's concerns. Bella's heritage had helped her gain the court's acceptance, but for someone as highly placed as the Baron Whitlock to be granted approval to wed a commoner was less assured—that was if the young widow returned his interest. She'd seemed wary of him the last time they were all together, the morning Jasper disrupted Edward and Bella's bliss with the announcement that they were required at the palace.
His gaze shifting to his father, Edward damped down a latent surge of resentment. His sire's efforts to ingratiate himself with his new daughter-in-law had not gone unnoticed, nor had the new-found respect with which he viewed his eldest son. It was time to put the past behind him, as they worked together to forge the future, a notion that saw Edward straightening his spine as his gaze shifted to those of the rapidly declining King Marcus. Seated on a throne, and hovered over by his personal physician, the man had insisted on rising from his sickbed to attend his daughter's second betrothal ball. He was was determined the marriage occur first thing in the morning, lest he die before the deed was ratified. The likelihood of Marcos surviving the journey back to his home kingdom was slim, but the aging monarch wanted to be buried on his own land. Plus, he feared an uprising if news of his demise reached his castle before his successor could take his place upon the throne, the old king's daughter at his side.
If he'd not reneged, it would have been Edward, not his brother, about to shoulder the mantle of rulership, but he harboured no regrets. A life spent with Bella at his side was worth any prize, including that of a kingdom. He'd inherit his own in good time, not that he was in any hurry. With a potential spy ring to uncover, peace to secure, and Volterra needing to be set to rights, his hands were full enough.
Looking to his brother, Edward felt a surge of misgiving churn his gut. Emmett had never been one to embrace responsibility, and soon he'd be entrusted with the running of a kingdom. His infatuation with Rosalie had seen him make all sorts of promises, but Edward doubted anyone could thaw the princess's heart.
"Stop worrying." Bella reached up on her toes and murmured close to his ear, "Everything's going to be fine."
"I thought that was supposed to be my line." Edward lowered his head, only just managing to resist the urge to nuzzle the delicate ear exposed by her elaborate coif.
"Yes, but you worry about espionage and alliances that could help to bring peace but might end in disaster." Her words, though spoken in a light-hearted tone, let him know she understood exactly where his thoughts had been. "Whereas my worries are in regard to forgetting dance steps or the names of the people to whom I've just been introduced." She arched a teasing brow. "Far more important matters, I'm sure you'll agree?"
"Definitely," he said with surprising sincerity. "Because anything pertaining to you is the most important thing in my world."
Bella's eyes, already sparkling with the reflected light of the chandeliers that had been lit for the occasion, took on an added sheen. "As you are the most important thing in mine."
"Come." Giving up on his earlier attempt at austerity, Edward's grin broke free as he signalled the waiting courtier that they were ready. "Let's get these introductions over with, so the musicians can begin to play. I want to dance with my beautiful bride."
"You're not worried about me forgetting the steps?"
"If you do, I shall cover for you, and if you forget a name, I will whisper it in your ear."
Bella released an exaggerated sigh. "You'll be saving my life."
His expression sobering, Edward leaned down to brush a tender kiss over her lips. "Merely returning the favour, my love." He formally offered her his arm. "A debt I shall gladly continue to repay for the rest of our days."
Thank you so much for all the love and support you've given this tale. I'm not sure when I'll get to the next two instalments, as I'm on a deadline to get the next book in my new Regency series written for my publisher, but I promise to return. I'll miss you all in the meantime!
Come say 'hi' on facebook and check out the images I've used for inspiration for Restoration.
xx Elise de Sallier
Protection, (A Forbidden Love - Book 2) is now available on Amazon, Nook, ITunes and through TWCS as an ebook. I am so happy to be able to say that the reviews coming in from the book review bloggers are fantastic, as are the ones from my wonderful fanfic readers. Here are a few if you'd like to take a peek -
I love how the writer not only honestly portrayed what women of anything but upper class suffered through during that time period, but at the same time gave us a hot, Hot, HOT romance. 4 stars to you Elise de Sallier, and I look forward to reading ANYTHING you write in the future.
Kristen, Shelf Life
The brilliance of Protection lies in the expertly developed layers of the storyline. Lisa and Nathaniel's road to wedded bliss, the crusade to help the women who've been abused, and the dispatching of the vile men who knew the truth of Lisa's time as a mistress to Nathaniel are all weaved into a scintillating narrative. I applaud Elise de Sallier for once again giving us a novel to fall in love with.
Lindsey Grey, Author on Author Book Reviews
This is a lovely ending to this two book series. Ms. de Sallier writes a great plot and gifts us with love scenes that we can swoon over. I truly enjoy a plot with steamy scenes that fit the story well. This book is a shining example of that! Most definitely a FIVE BOOKMARK READ! I hope you enjoy it, too.
Kathie, First Page to the Last Book Reviews