From Lisa’s Marketing Team:
While Lisa is taking some time to “mom” her family, we are minding the store. What do they say? While the cat is away…
In her absence we would like to offer you this free sneak peek of her latest PDF release. A Thousand Blessings is a love triangle at its finest with twists and turns that will keep you guessing. If you haven’t read it already, here’s your chance to see what you’ve been missing. – Emily
**Due to online limitations, formatting for these early chapters is not in usual book format.
Before the cross Colin knelt with no regard, no respect for its reminder of the Christ. Instead, his purpose was to be there before his beloved, his Melody, with whom all music had died when God stole her from him. Since that bloody night those five years ago, Colin had yet to lift his eyes to heaven to address God in any way.
Immediately to the left was the smaller cross marking the grave of their unnamed daughter. Many had suggested he name her, but he dared not. If she were given a name, would he not grieve her loss all the more? Instead, she was a nameless reminder that he had killed his wife.
“Forgive me, Beloved, for what I must do today. I’m left with no choice.” Colin’s shoulders bounced and his head hung low as he wept over his duty to his kingdom. “Though it is little in the way of consolation, I promise to never give her my heart. Never.”
As the sun rose and completed its arrival and mark of a new day, Colin stood and turned to face the palace. The decision must be made that day, one that would make him a liar and promise-breaker. A new queen would be chosen.
While he listened to each advisor, Colin had to will himself to remain in his seat. Every man in attendance was trusted and concerned about Colin’s best interest – oftentimes over the kingdom’s. For months they had individually scoured the land looking for the right princess, one who would not only bring honor to the kingdom but one who would be a suitable mate for Colin. He appreciated their best efforts. On many occasions he had asked them to simply choose for him, to select from the list of those most notable, to which they collectively refused.
“She is lovely, indeed.” Edgar said, speaking of the Princess of Lathinia, the land farthest from their own and requiring sea travel to collect her.
“The color of her hair?” Not many things mattered to Colin, but that did.
Edgar cleared his throat. “Golden as the sun, Your Majesty.”
“I have asked only one thing – that the new queen not have fair hair. That is not up for discussion.”
“Sir,” Edgar said with understanding. “We all here agree. None of us care whom you choose, just that you choose. If not –”
Colin threw his hand in the air. “I know, Edgar. I’m running out of time.”
“Your majesty, you are a fine king with great integrity. All here support you fully and only desire to see your reign continue. If the kingdom were to fall to your cousin…”
Colin nodded his understanding. No need to say more. For as long as his family had held the crown, the mandate was in place: a male heir must be born before the ruling king turned thirty-five. In Colin’s case that would be four years from his recent birthday. None yet had ever failed to produce an heir, leaving Colin the fourth generation of his line.
“I’m grateful, Edgar, for your efforts and support, truly I am.”
Even as Colin blinked, he could see her image pass before his eyes and remember how Melody’s blond hair would cascade over his face and chest as she kissed him. His hands began to tremble at her memory.
“We can continue this later.” Colin stood.
“Your Majesty.” Simon hurried to stand, hoping to prevent the king’s departure. “I have a dark-haired princess who, in my humble opinion, will make an exceptional queen.”
With interest, Colin returned to his seat. The word exceptional had him intrigued, not intrigued over the girl herself but baffled since Simon paid no one compliments, not even his king. As the oldest of all of Colin’s advisors, one whose service dated back to advising his grandfather, Simon was a crusty old bird. If the woman impressed Simon, Colin would at least hear him out.
“Tell me, Simon, what makes this girl exceptional? Is it her beauty or accomplishments?” Colin hid a grin as he continued, knowing Simon wasn’t likely affected by such attributes in his advanced years – maybe never even in his younger years. “Did she capture your aging old heart?”
Simon nodded in honesty. “She did, indeed, Colin.” Few called the king by his given name, but as one who had held him as a new babe, Simon often did.
“I could provide you with a long and detailed list of her accomplishments, all of which are genuinely impressive, or I could tell you of her breathtaking beauty.” Simon partially smiled at Colin’s mockery. “Captivating even for an aging old heart. I’m certain, though, that we could all do such a thing for each candidate presented here today.” He hesitated for a moment. “What makes her most fitting for you, Colin, is that she is practical.”
“Practical?” Colin deliberated on the word and found nothing in its implication that would cause him to choose her to be queen.
“From birth Princess Isabel has been raised, groomed if you will, for the inevitability of marrying as a means of alliance and income for her kingdom. She’s not a silly girl, filled with notions of a storybook marriage. When we spoke, she had a good grasp of the duties of queen and, I believe, the ability to provide an heir and navigate under your unusual set of circumstances.”
Colin nodded at Simon. “Meaning, you believe she will learn to live here as queen and never my wife.”
Simon grimaced. “Yes. I believe she will be an accommodating mate for you, Colin.”
Accommodating, the word rambled around in Colin’s mind accompanied by a distant yet familiar tune: Isabel, Isabel, watch her spin around the room…
So what Simon was saying was that the princess had the wherewithal to withstand being married to a man whose only affection was for his true wife.
Colin stood abruptly. “Princess Isabel it is. Might as well be a name that causes your lips to sing.” With no other word on the matter, he left the men standing there, baffled by his statement.
“Elias,” Colin said as he entered his private study to find the commander waiting.
“Your Majesty.” Elias bowed. “I am at your service.”
“Please sit.” Colin sat across from him. “I suppose you know why I’ve called you here today.”
“I do, sir. As Commander of the Guard, it will be an honor to bring your bride to you.”
“I appreciate your loyalty. Truly, I trust you to safeguard my intended.”
“I will protect her with my very life.” Elias hesitated. “I understand the importance of this union, Your Majesty. I will deliver the princess here safely.”
For a time Colin remained silent, considering the words Simon had said the day before. Since that time, he could only think of the words practical and accommodating. Could that be said of any woman with any truth?
“This woman, Princess Isabel, I’ve been told she is practical.” Colin rubbed his chin as he thought of how to best state his intention. “I hope that is the case, that her hopes are not unrealistic. I would like for you to make sure of that prior to her arrival.
“I suppose you can imagine, Commander, this isn’t a festive occasion as far as I am concerned. Had I no need of an heir, I would never marry again.”
Elias sat looking at the king for a long moment. “Sir, please state your true intention. I will do for you anything that you ask, if only I might understand what that is.”
“I have no desire for this woman beyond producing an heir with her. While on the way to the palace, I trust you will make that known. As gently as possible, of course, I would like for you to lessen her expectations.”
“You want me to inform her that she will only serve to produce an heir?”
“Not exactly. Just make sure her head isn’t in the clouds over our upcoming marriage. If at all possible, explain that this is a royal union rather than a romantic one.” He paused. “Commander, I don’t want her hurt. I know of no other way than for her to have this time to be prepared. If she were to arrive with certain expectations, imagine how she might react.”
“Your Majesty.” Elias’s tone was soft and understanding. “I will speak with the princess and prepare her as best I can. For her sake and yours, I do hope she is a practical girl.”
“As do I,” Colin said.
Elias thought for a few seconds. “The ride from Moneia, with the princess in tow, will be at least three weeks. That gives ample time for her to prepare for your union.”
“Your help in the matter will be greatly appreciated.”
“May I ask you, sir, why me? You have dignitaries and advisors well versed in diplomacy, one could travel with me.”
“I’m not sure, Commander. I considered sending Simon with you since he has already made her acquaintance.” Colin chuckled at the thought. “Can you imagine him gently preparing the princess?”
“Not at all, sir.”
“You are a quiet man, a soft-spoken man. I’ve never heard you raise your voice, yet you command tremendous respect from your men. There is a reason for that.”
“Consider the job done, Your Majesty. By the time I arrive back with your practical princess, I will have clarified her role here as queen.”
“Another thing, Elias.”
“Because of your discretion, I know this will remain a private matter. My advisors know my heart, but as for everyone else, for appearance’s sake, our marriage should seem as natural as possible. As for the people, they need this union. A wedding will bring joy to the citizens and to the court. To that end, the queen’s and my private life should remain private, our sleeping arrangements that is. Since I don’t plan to share a room with her as I did…” Colin trailed off, unable to speak his wife’s name.
“When you return, I will expect that you ensure our privacy here in the palace.”
Elias nodded. “You have my word, Your Majesty.”
Elias rode the final miles toward Moneia in deep thought, less concerned about the princess than the king. When Queen Melody had died so suddenly, Elias and his men were the ones to remove her body from the king’s chambers. Even as they carried her away, the king sat with blood-soaked hands, weeping and broken. Never had Elias encountered a sight so unsettling. For a man of battle like Elias to be so shaken by the sight of death, the scene required gruesome details. In the case of the queen’s demise, gruesome hardly described the king’s bed. Since that time, no one except an older maid had been permitted into the king’s private rooms. The king had spent hours on end weeping and wailing for his wife in that first year, and because of that, only a handful of trusted guards were allowed nearby. That practice would remain.
Most often royal couples kept separate bedchambers, but that had not been the practice in the Kidian palace. The king’s father and grandfathers had shared rooms with wives they genuinely loved. This would no longer be the case, and Elias understood his king’s desire to maintain discretion after the wedding so as not to underscore that fact.
To that end, Elias had instructed the steward to place the queen in a room down the hall from the king. She would be far enough away to allow him privacy, yet near enough to provide easy access to her room when the time arose for him to go to her. A single maid had been chosen for the new queen, one who would handle all needs for the queen and maintain secrecy.
So lost in thought had he been that Elias found himself surprised when he discovered he was entering the palace grounds of Moneia, nearing the bridge to cross over through the main palace gate. Less impressive and far less grand than was expected, the palace sat at the far end of a less than busy street. Nothing about the sight impressed him. If anything, he felt surprisingly disappointed. As his company of a hundred men had made the journey, it was expected that they would come to a thriving land, one where the men might find refreshment and companionship while they waited to accompany the princess back home. This was no more than a sleepy little town at the foothills of the palace.
Elias dismounted and stood before the dark and towering palace. In disrepair with crumbling stone and mortar, this was nothing to compare to what the princess was to find to be her new home. She would be a blessed woman, indeed.
Isabel heard the news of the soldiers’ arrival and ran to a west-facing window to watch the spectacle. Townspeople were cheering the men as they rode by, excited over the idea of a royal wedding, proud that yet another of their princesses had been chosen.
Each of Isabel’s two sisters had married royalty, but neither a king. When Isabel was chosen by a king so renowned as King Colin of Kidian, the news spread, and all awaited the arrival of the convoy to take her away. Not much notable happened in a town so small, so any arrival was cause for celebration.
Her brother, the king, had made every effort to find a suitable match for her, a fact Isabel appreciated. With one sister living in marital bliss and the other living amidst immorality and practically paganism, Isabel’s brother had been more discerning over her match than with the middle sister’s.
Isabel wasn’t sad in leaving, not even a little. All of her life she had awaited this moment, that time when her intended would send for her and bring her to his home to live. From the time she understood her future, Isabel had been praying for the right husband, one who would love her tenderly as her father had loved her mother and as her brother loved his wife.
Realistically, Isabel knew there was no guarantee. All it took was seeing the situation of her poor sister, Aldith, to understand it could go either way. When questioned by the emissary from Kidian, Isabel had said as much, that her expectations weren’t that of a naïve girl. Marriage wasn’t something that could give meaning to a heart, nor was position or title. To her, from what she had experienced so far in losing her parents early on and then her sisters one by one, Isabel had come to believe that true happiness wasn’t something ever to expect in life. Instead, you take an honest inventory of your lot in life, accept what can’t be changed, ignore the bad that can be ignored, and cling to small moments of happiness as they come along. Something about her statement seemed to satisfy the gruff old man as his attitude toward her immediately softened.
During supper, Isabel listened as the handsome commander told stories of Kidian. To believe his tall tales, Kidian would have to be more than ten times the size of her home in Moneia. He described the palace as a place of constant joy and laughter, saying that parties and merriment were typical, quiet only a night or two each week. This was all more than Isabel believed. Once she even told the commander so.
“I do believe, Commander, that you are telling the longest fish tales to us. No place could be so grand and happy all the time.”
“I assure you, Princess Isabel,” Elias said with a broad smile. “You will find Kidian exactly as I’ve described it.”
“With parties and merriment most nights?”
“The king insists on it. Most nights begin in the banquet hall where at least a hundred dine with the king. Then after, he has some form of entertainment. Always there is music and usually dancing, but some nights acting troops give performances. There have been skilled dancers and singers and magicians. You can always be sure that you will be entertained and fascinated.”
“You have told us much of the kingdom but not the king.”
Elias said very little on the matter. “He is a good man, a great king.”
Then he changed the subject to her favorite – riding and horses, a topic which gave Isabel even greater hope for her time in Kidian. Best of all the commander’s news was that the king had a stable filled with prized stallions.
Isabel lay in bed later that night tossing the commander’s words over and over in her mind. Kidian sounded like a marvelous place. Excitement filled her heart as she thought of dancing with the king, him twirling her around and round the room, hopefully with a look of love in his eyes.
At that thought, however, Isabel felt unsettled. There was something about the commander, the things he didn’t say, that caused her suspicion. The king was a good man, a great king. Those were the only descriptive words the commander ever used. He was hiding something, a thought that caused Isabel to speculate many horrible things. The king was hideous to look at. He walked stooped over or had a terrible humped back. Maybe he was missing limbs from war or had no teeth, the former easier to consider than the latter. To kiss a man with no teeth, or even worse, rotten teeth, nauseated her.
Simon had already told her that Colin was thirty one, so the secret wasn’t that he was ancient. Compared to her age of twenty, thirty-one was old enough, but not so old as to repulse her. Her brother was older than thirty-one and still seemed young and strong to her. She also knew that the king had lost his wife five years before, a fact that made her sad for him. How young he was to have already suffered such loss. That was the thought that caused her the greatest concern. Prior to this moment, she had considered it very little, his feelings about his late wife. Now, though, it seemed to require much more consideration. If he had loved her deeply, what might that mean for them? Was he still suffering over his queen’s loss?
Soon enough Isabel’s mind began to wind down. Her final thoughts before drifting off to sleep were of the commander and his captivating blue eyes. Each time he laughed, there was the sweetest twinkle in them, like starlight almost. Without question the commander was the most handsome man who had ever stepped foot into the palace. It was with much delight that Isabel had watched the female staff as they encountered him. Voices stammered and hands trembled, causing trays of dishes to rattle.
She herself was taken aback by him momentarily; maybe more than momentarily, she had to admit. Who wouldn’t be with his strong and noble appearance? A taller than usual man, the commander stood at least a head taller than Isabel’s relatively tall brother. His voice was surprisingly soft, and with her, she noticed, gentler than with others. Laughter seemed to come easily for him, a trait she most admired. All in all, the commander was a man whom any woman would long to marry, but for Isabel, her future was already determined with the king. Not that she would ever tell a soul, but Isabel had a tiny little voice inside that whispered, I wish Elias were king.
Since the journey to Kidian was long, it was agreed that the party would arise early and leave at dawn. King Colin had sent two maids to attend to Isabel’s need. They were placed in a carriage separate from her, leaving Isabel to travel alone. After many hours of this lonely trip, Isabel longed for companionship.
One of her three ladies-in-waiting, Beatrice, the only one whose company Isabel enjoyed, would be making the trip later, once her father recovered from a nearly fatal fall. With no one to share the journey, the excitement of the great adventure was fading the more miles she traveled away from home and family.
Isabel appreciated a stop for a light meal and a chance to stretch her legs, especially since the commander spent the time with her. From the moment she stepped from the carriage accompanied by Elias’s hand, Isabel found her heart thudding an amusing little tune. So tempted to dance to its rhythm was she that discreetly she began to tap her feet beneath the fabric of her gown. Her secret movements caused her to smile.
Elias watched the princess for some time. “May I ask you, Princess, what thoughts are lighting up your face in such a way?”
Isabel smiled at him. “If you must know, I hear a tune in my heart, so my feet are secretly dancing beneath my skirt.”
With amusement, Elias chuckled and nodded toward her feet. “Well, let me see.”
As she was sitting on a small stool, Isabel looked down at her own feet and lifted her skirt only enough to expose them. “Watch them. They hear the rhythm and take on life.”
“What I’ve told you, Princess Isabel, of the music and dancing in Kidian is true. Feet such as those must surely find their way home.”
His words made the orchestra of her heart sound even louder, not their meaning, about the music and dancing, but rather their tone. The playful manner with which he spoke and the fact that he would dare ask to see her feet were beyond shocking and would likely be considered insolent by most. To Isabel, however, his words made her feel something she never had before, something less than admirable as the king’s intended.
“Will you dance with me once we are there?” Isabel asked.
“I will be the first to twirl you around the room.”
At the sight of his twinkling eyes, Isabel grinned at him. “Do you promise? Even if the king is a jealous man?”
“I do promise, and I will ask the approval of the king without question.”
Elias was climbing onto his horse after assisting the princess into her carriage. As much as he enjoyed the stop, he now found himself greatly distressed. The princess had been an absolute joy to be around with lighthearted humor and an easy manner. Without question this was no ordinary woman of high birth, serious and stodgy. Instead, she was like drawing a breath of fresh air into his lungs on a spring morning. Because of his instant liking of the princess, he was less than enthused about his pending task.
Such a joyful heart begged to be loved, no matter how practical a girl she may be. It was likely that a woman of such charm and warmth would soon wither within the bounds of a loveless marriage. Especially for this young woman, so bright and vibrant, Elias felt dreadfully sorry to bring her to his king.
Still, he wondered about his own behavior, how he had so shamelessly flirted with her. When speaking to her, while gazing into her large dark eyes, he had often fallen silent for fear of what he might say. He had never encountered a woman whose beauty so captivated him. Already he was becoming well aware of the delicate shape of her face and how her lips curved only slightly when secretly amused by something she chose not to articulate. Isabel was like a spark of candle on a dark night. Something about her illuminated him and made him feel brighter inside.
Once alone again, Isabel sat in disappointment, wishing she was free to make the journey on horseback like the others. She felt trapped, and rightfully so. For a heart so drawn to the outdoors to be penned up with only a small set of windows on either side rather than to make the journey on horseback was truly cruel punishment.
Isabel thought of the commander and his careful attention toward her. He was nothing like other men in her presence. In the royal court of her brother’s palace, men acted differently. Some kept clear distance, knowing her future union would benefit the kingdom, some stammered in embarrassment and obvious attraction, some even openly desired her and secretly told her so. This commander was like none of them. He seemed to be himself, bold and confident, yet soft spoken and playful. How could she help but admire such a man as one who would ask to see her dancing feet?
Two days of travel passed with Isabel riding along miserably in confinement. At the end of the second day, once they broke for camp, she was taken to the commander’s tent for supper. Just as before, she found a proper meal served on an elegant table. That night there was venison and vegetables, soup and bread, way more food than she cared to eat. As at court, she considered so much food wasteful if prepared for her.
“Commander?” She looked around at the setting and men present to serve.
“Do you always eat so extravagantly when traveling?”
“It’s been a number of years since I’ve eaten while traveling.” He looked around them as she had. “Even then, I never ate like this.”
Isabel shrugged. “I would rather have bread and soup under the stars any evening than a fine meal in a tent.”
Without hesitation, Elias stood and reached for her soup bowl. “Then by all means, you shall eat your soup under the stars.”
His abrupt movement caused Isabel to wonder. “Have I offended you? This is lovely, and I’m grateful that you have gone to such trouble.”
As he held the tent flap open so that the princess could pass by, he chuckled. “I can’t imagine you ever offending me, Isabel.”
Her stomach fluttered at the sound of her name. He called her neither Princess nor Princess Isabel, as he normally did. Just Isabel, as a friend.
When the commander handed her the bowl, he turned as if to go back.
“Only the bread, not the chairs, please.”
“Where will you sit?”
“On an overturned log if you will find me one.”
The commander did just that, and together they ate under the stars.
When they were through eating and noticing that no one was near, Isabel braved the question: “May I ask you a question?”
“You may ask me many questions.”
“You have spoken plenty of the kingdom but never the king. Other than his being a good man and great king, you’ve said not one word.”
“What is your question?”
“Is he kind?”
“Now that you know the topic, may I still ask you many questions?”
They were sitting close together by the fire, but Isabel had come to conclude it was his smile that warmed her. The fire popped and crackled, and on occasion he would take a long stick and poke around at the wood. Many of those times she sensed he needed a distraction, something to do besides look at her. His long gazes were noticed, and for the most part they weren’t unreturned. Something was happening between them and both knew better.
“Do you admire him?”
“I do. As a king, none compare. As a former man of battle, he has been feared.” Elias sighed. “You will be queen alongside a noble king, one whom all respect and admire.”
“Is the king handsome?”
“Very much so. I’ve heard him described as striking, especially his smile.”
“Even more handsome than you?” As planned, her question caused him to grin in embarrassment.
He rubbed the stubble of his chin as if in deep thought. “Well, now, that’s hardly possible.”
“Very humble of you, Commander.”
“All of us great men are – humble that is. It comes naturally.”
His sarcasm wasn’t lost on her, but she knew better. He was confident and bold, but beneath the surface of this dashing and awe-inspiring man, he was certainly humble. It came across in how he looked at her and how he treated his men with such respect.
“So what is the secret you are keeping from me?” At her question the commander looked away. By his posture she knew. “He still loves his late wife?”
Without turning back to face her, Elias said, “He does.”
“I suspected.” Isabel’s heart sank at knowing. “Thank you for being honest with me.”
Only then did he look her in the eye. “I will always be honest with you.”
Isabel stood. “I should retire for the night. I’m sure you want to set off early in the morning.”
Elias walked with Isabel to her tent. “I will see you in the morning. Sleep well, Princess.”
Without looking at him, she said, “You, too, Commander.”
Elias had been up since long before dawn. Now, sitting at a table outdoors waiting for the princess, he watched her with amusement as she left her tent and came to join him.
“It’s late. Why didn’t you send someone to wake me?”
“You have had two difficult days of travel, so I thought I would allow you to sleep in.” He smiled at her, his tone light-hearted. “Little did I know you would sleep the entire morning away, nearly until the noontime meal.”
His truest motive was to delay their arrival home for as long as possible. More than one reason prompted his desire. For one, to know she would soon be hurt caused his heart to ache for her and had kept him awake most of the night. No matter her practicality, there was no question she would be. He could see it in her eyes the night before when he admitted that the king loved another. Mostly, though, the idea of Isabel marrying a man whose sole desire was to conceive a child with her and nothing more disturbed him. She deserved better than that. As kind as the king was, his rejection of her would be devastating.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever slept better.”
“Your eyes tell a different story.” From the moment she had approached, he could see a clear expression of sadness laced with sleepiness on her face.
Isabel tore a piece of bread off and looked away. “I know my lot. I will be his queen and can hardly expect more. I came to terms with it last night.”
“He is truly a good man, Isabel. I ask you to remember that.”
“I should get ready for travel. I’m sorry I have caused us such a delay.”
Before she walked away, Elias reached for her arm, something that actually surprised them both. “Are you in a hurry to arrive at the palace?”
Isabel considered his question. “No, I suppose not.”
“Since you are so tired, as your eyes give you away, I propose we spend a day camped here and begin again tomorrow.”
“I accept your proposal.” Her words weren’t lost on either of them as both glanced away.
She smiled at him. “What shall we do today?”
“We can take a walk. There’s a nice meadow just past this tree-line.”
“Can we ride?”
“I have no sidesaddle for you.”
“I’ve been riding for twelve years and have ridden sidesaddle for only five minutes of it.”
“You straddle like a man?”
“I do, indeed.”
“That’s unfitting for a lady.” He grinned at his own words as if he cared about propriety while flirting with a woman soon to be married.
“Tell me why that’s so.”
Elias considered her question. “Well…” He pondered a moment more, trying to figure out why himself. “Not to me personally, but I suppose others think it unfitting since you must hike your skirts to mount.”
“If no one sees, why should that matter? Your men can turn their heads as I climb atop a horse.”
For the first time Elias was seeing just how practical this woman was. And even more so, he was finding that she had a streak of defiance in her, something he admired and something he hoped would give her resilience in the time to come.
“You are absolutely correct, Princess Isabel. We will ride if that’s what you want to do.”
“That is exactly what I want. I can’t imagine a better day than one spent riding with you.”
Her response caused him to look away, fearing she would read his feelings in his eyes.
“I will have my men ready our horses.”
When Isabel approached her horse, men surrounded her in a large circle, backs facing her. While the commander was within the circle with her, he turned his head and held out his hands in order to grasp her foot and boost her upward. As she gathered her skirt in her hand, Isabel placed her foot into the commander’s hands and hoisted herself up and over the large mare, allowing her skirt to flow over her straddled legs.
“You may look now.”
All turned to face her, amazed that a princess would do something so unexpected. She grinned at them and then turned to look at the commander. His expression was just as amusing.
Their party rode for more than two hours before turning back for camp. Isabel asked no more questions about the king, and Elias offed no more details. For this day they could pretend that an upcoming wedding did not loom overhead.
While riding, Isabel told Elias of her parents’ death when she was only seven. The illness took many lives in her kingdom that year, including both parents and her younger brother. Her older brother took the throne at only twenty years of age, as well as accepting responsibility for three younger sisters.
Once Elias shared his story of how he had climbed in rank to become Commander, she said. “Why have you never married?”
“I loved a woman once many years ago.”
“She loved another?” It was obvious by his expression, one mixed with faded anger and a trace of lingering pain.
“I consider her a fool.”
He grinned. “I do, too.”
“Of course you do, as a naturally humble man.”
They rode for a moment more in silence until Isabel couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “I bet she has lived to regret it, choosing another over you.”
“Why do you say that?”
They were getting near to the camp, so Isabel didn’t dare say much. “I know I would.”
The remainder of the afternoon, Elias stayed as far away from the princess as possible. Preparations for departure the following morning took up much of his time. He found excuse after excuse to keep himself occupied. By the time supper was ready, he found he regretted any moment not spent with Isabel. The lot was cast for them both, speaking of their futures, but this time until they arrived at the palace was precious and ticking away. He didn’t want to waste one borrowed moment with her.
Over supper outdoors under the starlight, Elias said, “You’re picking at your food again. I’ve given you the stars with your supper. What more could you want?”
“Nothing more than this.” She hesitated then smiled. “Well, if you could grant me one wish.”
Elias leaned in. “What would that one wish be, sweet Isabel?”
“I would wish that you were king.”
He sighed and hung his head.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It was disrespectful to your king.” She began to stand until he held his hand out to her, intending that she stay.
When Elias raised his head enough to see her expression, one of embarrassment and shame, his heart sank.
“No. You’ve done nothing wrong.” He paused a moment. “It is I who have dishonored my king. From the moment we began this journey, I have been much too forward with you, familiar in a way that isn’t my right.
“You should be excited over becoming a bride, about becoming queen next to an admirable king. Instead, I have caused conflicting feelings and misplaced loyalty.
“I’ve taken advantage of your vulnerability, especially since last evening. What I shared with you about the king has brought you discouragement. That’s unfair. Admittedly, the king’s heart is still grieving for his late wife, but there is always hope.”
Elias looked around them and well knew others were looking on, so he could hardly reach for her and stroke her cheek as was his true desire. “In my obvious advances toward you, I have confused your heart. I am genuinely sorry. I ask for your forgiveness.”
“I’m scared,” Isabel said. “Much more than I thought I would be.”
“Of course you are. I can hardly imagine how you must feel. And Princess Isabel,” he addressed her formally, “I can’t tell you how I admire your courage. You have struck out from all that you know and hold dear in order to marry a complete stranger. How brave you are and how admirable your willingness to serve your kingdom in such a way!”
Her expression caused him to falter. Her brown eyes were pooled with tears and he watched as she blinked and blinked trying to chase them away. She was stronger than she knew. Any lesser woman would allow her emotions to rule her.
“There is so much to look forward to in Kidian. Truly, there is. Our kingdom has suffered loss after loss. They need the hope you will bring. They need the queen you will be. I believe in you, that you will bring a breath of fresh air into a people who have known many sorrows.
“You have nothing to fear, or I assure you I would never take you there.”
Isabel repeated what she had heard from Elias. “He’s a good man.”
“I will honor him because of that,” Isabel said.
“He is worthy of honor.” Elias closed his eyes tightly. “Yours and mine.” He looked back at her. “So again I ask that you forgive me that I have dishonored the man you will marry.”
“And I ask you to forgive me for dishonoring your king.”
For a moment they sat in silence. Finally, Elias smiled. “If you could grant me one wish.”
She smiled in return. “What would that wish be?”
“That you would remain my friend.”
“Wish granted. I can think of little better than to arrive in your kingdom as a stranger with a friend and ally such as yourself.”
He nodded. “You couldn’t do much better.”
That made her chuckle.
“Thank you for saving my heart from confusion.”
“It is my job to always protect you, to watch over you.”
“As Commander of the Palace Guard?”
He lifted his glass to her. “That, too.”
The party was underway early the next day, and just as in those first days of travel, Isabel was trapped within the walls of her carriage, seeing only a blur of the countryside as they passed by. Because she felt so closed in and contained, she felt nauseous at times. By the time they stopped to eat at midday, she could hardly get anything down.
“I was thinking, Commander,” she said as she nibbled on a piece of bread, “that I should ride along with you on horseback.”
She said no more. Instead, she set her bread on her napkin and looked out at the meadow before them, enjoying her freedom and the gentle breeze for her last moments.
“Aren’t you going to argue?”
Amused by his question, Isabel grinned. “Is that what you expect, for me to argue?”
“I would expect nothing less.”
“What do you think would be my argument?”
He thought for a moment. “I believe you question my decision, presuming I am being overly protective. And that you are in just as much danger inside a carriage as on horseback. A wheel could fall off and the carriage could crash. No such thing would happen with a horse. You wonder why men are allowed to ride exposed to the elements and a woman is confined to a carriage when everyone knows women are the stronger gender. You can withstand childbirth and raising children, while men, on the other hand, can hardly bear to watch a woman cry without weakening.” He smiled at her expression. “Shall I go on?”
“No, Commander. You’ve done a wonderful job arguing my point.” Isabel could hardly contain her laughter at this amusing man. “Have you won yourself over?”
“Absolutely. You may ride until we break for camp tonight.”
“I am truly skilled at diplomacy. I will make for a persuasive queen.”
“You will, indeed.”
“May I ask you, Princess, what was to be your argument?” He grinned confidently. “I know you had one in mind.”
“That riding contained in the carriage is making me more and more nauseous the farther we travel.”
His smile faded. “Have you felt that way all morning?”
“Yes, most of it.”
His tone was gentle, filled with concern. “You should have told me. I would have stopped immediately.”
“No need. You have talked my overprotective commander into allowing me to ride. All will be well now.”
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