I bounced out of bed the next morning. I happily sniffed the little yellow rose from the night before. I hadn’t been this excited to greet the day in a while. Everyone was shocked by it as I made my way to breakfast, Papa was eyeing me most carefully.
“Could everyone excuse Caro and I,” he said. I swallowed as Emily hesitated and Mama after her. “We need to have a blunt conversation.”
“Do we?” I said and took a long sip on my coffee. He sighed and looked at me. “What about?”
“I received a letter from Captain Athena Dugarry,” he said.
“Commander,” I corrected. He sighed.
“Whatever,” he said. “She’s an imperious one, but seems uninterested in your dowry.” He produced the paper and handed it to me. I looked down stifling a giggle. “One dinner and one dance, and we’re already here?”
“I thought you’d be happy,” I said, looking over the note. “It’s more for Emily. I don’t see Brie DuCray as an easy negotiator.” He snorted.
My understanding is that my brother and your daughter have begun a courtship. My intended and I would be thrilled if your family attended our wedding in Pantona this autumn.
“She’ll put the press on in Pantona, I assume,” he said, “regardless, do you think you can keep his attention?”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, I think so.” He raised his eyebrows. “Papa, I don’t know what you want me to say. I barely know him.” He frowned. “What are you so concerned about? Of course she isn’t interested in my dowry, they’ve got DuManis money and she’s about to marry a count and from what I understand it’s all ceremonial down there anyway.” He nodded.
“Well,” he said, “I want to see you settled. I was thinking we were going to have to send you to Rastan.” I sighed.
“I was never going to Rastan, and I think it’s time we stopped pretending I was.” I said, “Are we through?” He nodded I stood up and marched out of the room. I landed in the library, and grabbed a book and settled in to get lost for the day. Or at least a few hours. There would probably be callers at some point.
Do you think you can keep his attention?
Could I? I think I knew what my father was asking and I resented it. I’d resented it when Alex had noticed Emily and moved me to the side. I’d resented it when for months after he brought ship captains under his supervision, many nearly twice my age to the house, all with the same silent command from him. Get their attention, keep it, however I possibly could.
The dowry would never be enough, certainly not my personality, or my looks. But a girl like me, who’d already been shunted aside as a debutante didn’t need to worry as much about her reputation. My bed was open to prospective suitors, at least as far as my father was concerned.
I tried once. Andrei was young, and dashing and had spent a decent amount of time hanging around our house trying to convince Papa he was a worthwhile business prospect in addition to a potential son in law. Papa had agreed to give him his own ship and he’d promised to send for me in Rastan when he’d settled. He obviously hadn’t.
“Caro,” Mama walked in, “Sir Tristan is here.” I nodded and stood up. “Look at you,” she cupped my face. “I’ll send him in.” I nodded went over to the mirror and primped, turning as he walked in.
“Hello,” I said softly.
“Hello,” he said, he wasn’t in uniform, for the first time, I’d seen him. Instead he was in a pair of plain dark blue pants, and simple white shirt, with a brown vest over it. He was holding now a bouquet of the roses. “I thought, the one last night was a thank you, but these are just a token.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, taking them, “They’re lovely.” He smiled. “Please sit, do you want tea or coffee, or something? I could ring for it.”
“I’m alright,” he said, “I might never eat again after this trip, my aunts have wildly overestimated my appetite.” I laughed. “How are you? I’m sorry for losing track of you last night.”
“I can’t expect you to spend every minute on me,” I said. “Your sister wrote to my father.”
“Of course she did,” he sighed, “I haven’t heard from her in weeks, but your father needed to know what was happening.” I smiled.
“She invited us to her wedding,” I said. He rolled his eyes.
“She’s showing off,” he mumbled, “but I’d be glad, if you came to Pantona.” He looked sad again. I nodded and stood up to put my book away. He followed after me.
“Good then,” I said, “did you enjoy yourself, last night?” He was closer to me than he’d ever been.
“Some of it,” he said, “I was disappointed, to not say goodbye,” his hands were holding mine. I swallowed.
“My mother is terrible about that,” I said, “and we keep having to sweep Emily away from Alex,” I babbled, “she’s still so much younger, and well, everyone knows they’ll get married but,” he pulled me close and kissed me. I melted against him.
“I hope I didn’t overstep,” he said softly, “but I’ve wanted to do that since that infernal dinner.”
“I’ve wanted you to do that since you walked in the door,” I admitted. He laughed and pressed me against the bookcase, I wove my arms around his neck. He was a very good kisser. “Is this how it’s done in Dovetail?” I teased as he moved to my neck. “You dance with a girl and then give her flowers and she’s yours?” I exhaled.
“Something like that,” he said, pulling my hips close to his. “Should I have written five letters to each of your family members appraising them of not only my intentions but every item I own, and then walked you through town a few times before I kissed you?” I giggled and kissed him again.
“The walk would have been nice,” I said. “Then there’d be less of a chance of my father finding us.” He smiled and stepped away. My father wouldn’t care. But I needed to slow down. If he’d kept kissing me, touching me, I knew how quickly we’d be in bed.
“In that case,” he said, and offered me his arm. I laughed and took it. We stepped out into the sun. “Well, this is your city, where should we go?” I looked at him. “Alex mentioned a few places but I got the feeling they weren’t appropriate to bring you.” I raised my eyebrows.
“I’m sure they weren’t,” I said, “before my sister and me, Alex had quite the reputation.” He smiled. “Most people go to the park by the harbor.” He nodded.
“And you want to show me off?” He asked. I blushed again. I did, a little. But there were also places in the park, mazes and clearings where there would be privacy. I thought of how he’d pulled my hips to his with such confidence and couldn’t think of anything else.
“You’d be better to show off in your uniform,” I said. He laughed. We arrived at Harborside Park and walked carefully down one of the paths, a few people glanced at us and said hello, and Tristan seemed distracted as I walked us into a small walled garden. Thankfully there was no one else there.
“I think I understand the appeal of the park now,” he smirked as I settled in on a bench. I giggled as he sat down next to me, and turned my face towards him. “Can I kiss you now?” I nodded and he kissed me softly again. Then harder, pulling me close. “Gods, you’re beautiful,” he muttered. I exhaled.
“Kiss me again,” I said. He nodded and obliged. “Tristan,” I whispered. He looked at me, I carefully unbuttoned the front of my dress he took the invitation and moved his mouth to my chest and then my breasts, sliding my chemise down below my nipple. I groaned softly as he began sucking on it. He moved back up to my neck, his hand staying on my breast, the other going to move my skirts. “Wait,” I said softly. He exhaled and pulled away.
“Alright,” he said confused. “But isn’t this why we came here?” I nodded. “If you’re not ready, you don’t have to stall, you can just say so. We did only just meet.”
“No, I,” I swallowed, “I am ready, that is, I was, but, well, like you said, we just met and,” I paused. He looked at me. “You’re wonderful, and I want you. But this, us,” I exhaled, “it has to work. It just has to, for me.” He pressed his lips into his mouth.
“You’ve said that,” he stood up. “And Alex was so eager for us to meet.” I swallowed. “Are you two,” he exhaled, “what happened?”
“Oh,” I laughed, “with Alex nothing. I mean, some kissing, but the problem was once he and Emily, well, you’ve seen them, it’s disgusting,” he laughed. “But to the rest of the city, well, they saw The Dumanis Heir moving past me to my younger and prettier sister, so clearly I must be deficient in some way.” I swallowed. “I wasn’t in love with Alex, but my pride was wounded, I’ll admit that. I think he’s just trying to make it up to me, for Emily’s sake.”
“I see,” he nodded.
“What about you?” I asked. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about Andrei, not yet. He frowned. “Why did you come here? Why are you going along with any of this?”
“Last summer,” he said softly, “my sister and I were sent to Pantona to get to know Annalise,” he exhaled, “Lisette,” his voice was soft. “And she was, well, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but it’s all true, probably. She’s brilliant, and kind, and beautiful, and powerful, and,” he exhaled, “and we fell in love. We knew we shouldn’t, that it couldn’t ever last, but it didn’t matter, not then, not there.” He looked so sad, so broken, whenever he talks about her, “Anyway, we kept trying and it kept hurting us both, and then there was Marina.” He exhaled. “Have you ever had someone in your life who just, knew you?”
“I don’t think so,” I admitted, though honestly, the first person to enter my mind was Alex.
“Well, that’s who Marina is,” he whispered, “she just saw me, she always did.” He looked at me. “But I hurt her, I kept her at arms length and she moved on. I wanted to start over, and I couldn’t do that in Dovetail.”
“Oh,” I said. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I had pictured Annalise on her throne, playing with him and then casting him aside when he wasn’t convenient anymore. Duchess Marina being almost pressed into a place as his consolation prize, or perhaps not actually figuring into things at all, just a rumor because they were a boy and a girl people liked talking about. But this wasn’t a story or rumor, it was just a mess, and a mess he was running away from.
“I know none of this is terribly romantic,” he said softly and sat down again. “I behaved horribly. I treated two people who mean a great deal to me very badly.” He looked down. “But I like you, and I want you, and I think that’s as good a place as any to start.”
“I like you too,” I said softly, “and I want you too, but today, I just,” I swallowed, “I can’t, yet.” He smiled and nodded. We kissed again.
“I should get you home,” he said, “that Annabeth girl’s mother invited us for dinner and Aunt Brie says I have to go until you and I declare ourselves officially.” I giggled. “How long will that be, by the way?”
“I’m reasonably sure once my father responds to your sister, we’re official,” I shrugged, rebuttoning my top. “It would have been easier if you would allow your uncle or grandfather to negotiate.”
“You haven’t met Athena,” he shook his head. “I can assure you, that would not be easier for me in the slightest.”