The prince was old before his time. Candlelight from ballroom chandeliers softened the gray in his hair. He whirled yet another eligible young lady through a minuet, his movements practiced and sure, but he limped, round-shouldered. He was not yet twenty-five.
“The hall looks so elegant,” the lady simpered between steps. “Like a winter wonderland.”
“My mother’s idea.” Roderick smiled because he should. “She knew a ball would melt the midwinter cold.” The queen mother sat across the room, on the dais beside his older brother the king, and the new queen.
“So wise.” The lady batted her lashes. They fell across her skin like shadows over snow. Despite the room’s warmth, Roderick shivered.
This simpering lady was not for him. Nor were the scores of other ladies he had dutifully paraded around the dance floor. He wished his mother wouldn’t push so hard; the only lady he wanted he could not have.
I must see you married, his mother had said as she planned the ball. Your brother is still childless, though he is eight years wed.
But no lady deserved to be tied to him. He was an ill-luck prince, destined to hurt those he loved. Not even a mother’s hope could melt his winter.
The music stopped, and he escaped to a balcony. He sat on the marble bench, its chill seeping through his wool trousers. He stretched his left leg beside him, and the throbbing in his knee ebbed. He sighed in relief.
Fresh snow carpeted the gardens and reflected light from the palace windows, making the night gray and murky. The evergreen trees he’d nursed from saplings stood like islands amid the snowdrifts: a spruce, a fir, a juniper.
Music swelled inside the ballroom, the opening strains of a pavane. Dancers would be taking their places, two by two, but the prince remained on his bench, watching the spruce, the fir, the juniper. He wished he were another sort of man, more assertive, more confident, a man who could turn the steps of a dance to his own designs. But he was not. He was like those trees: solitary, buffeted, bending but not breaking, destined to weather life’s storms alone.
He would not sleep after the ball. If he did, the nightmares would come.
In his dreams, he was seven again, ensconced behind a tapestry in the library. The wool scratched his arms, and the floorboards dug into his knees, but this was his favorite hiding place.
His tutor had given him a wondrous book: paintings of trees so lifelike he pressed his nose to the page. He inhaled not the sweetness of linden flowers but something better: the heady, dry aroma of Book.
He breathed in again and traced the needles of a larch with his finger. If his father the king caught him, he would get a caning. He should be in the yard with his brother, carrying weights, hefting bow and sword like a proper prince. He turned the page.
Footsteps crossed the library floor. Roderick tensed, rubbed the book’s leather cover as a talisman. Maybe if he rubbed hard enough, the footsteps would pass by.
The tapestry was torn back. He stared into his father’s scowling face. The king smelled of pepper, spices hot enough to make a man cry.
“Worthless boy!” The book went flying. “Didn’t I tell you to go outside?”
He scrambled back, around the tapestry. A gaggle of advisors blocked his path to the door. They were tall men, broad, with legs like siege towers. Like his father, they were men who enjoyed ripping the branches off saplings.
He couldn’t go out, so he went up. He scurried up a library ladder, the rungs slick against his fingers.
“Come down!” The king shook the ladder. Roderick clung to it, trembling. “No one wants a weakling for a prince.”
The ladder stretched as high as the shelves, almost to the ceiling, far beyond the reach of the tallest man. Roderick locked slippery fingers around the next rung and took another desperate step up.
Ladders might be tall, but a father’s control stretched farther.
The wood bucked beneath the boy. He missed a step, and the shelves with their books tilted around him.
“Roderick!” his mother screamed.
He slammed into the floor, his leg twisted under him. Pain exploded in brittle, white agony.
The pavane played on. Inside, all was light and warmth and dancing. Outside, his breath iced the air. The backs of his legs had gone numb. He wrapped his arms around his chest and sat still, unmoving.
At eighteen, he brought his sweetheart to his father and asked permission to marry. Ella was a solid, rosy-cheeked daughter of a northern duke, come to court to give a pair of deer hounds to the king. Ogres lived up north, it was said, and wolves stole infants from cradles. Against that, she assured him, the king was only a man.
That man was eating peppers again, chilies and jalapenos in a clay bowl at his elbow. He took a final bite, wiped his fingers on his trousers, and strode from his chair. As courtiers whispered, the king narrowed his eyes.
“You planning to slip a cuckoo into our nest, girl?”
“What?” Ella furrowed her brows.
Roderick clenched his fists. The king’s breath was hot, fetid. “Father, please…”
The king slid his bejeweled hand over her stomach. She stiffened. The king slipped his hand inside her neckline, pinched.
“Father!” Roderick cried, even as Ella jerked back, her arms crossing over her breast.
“Must be you’re carrying a cuckoo, girl. You’re too pretty for my weakling son.”
Ella shook her head. “Your Majesty, you’re mistaken. I’m intact, and I love your son.”
“You calling me a liar, girl?”
He was. The king was a liar, but who would name him so?
Ella lifted her chin. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
The king’s slap rang loud in the room. Roderick started forward, but his knee buckled. He fell, landing on hands and knees on the carpet. The court stood in shocked silence.
Ella pressed a hand to her reddening cheek. Blood welled between her fingers. The rest of her face was pale as snow.
“I am not a liar,” the king said. “Say it.”
Ella pressed her lips together.
Roderick pushed himself painfully to his feet. “Just say it,” he whispered. She did not need to be as meek as his brother’s new wife, just pretend to be.
“I’m intact,” Ella declared, “and I love your son.”
The king’s face burned scarlet. “Be gone, wench! Leave my lands, and never return.”
Roderick gasped. Ella turned to him, her eyes pleading.
The king was already walking back to his chair. “Guards, see she is gone by sundown. If she refuses, put her forcibly in the streets.”
“No!” Roderick gripped her hand. She wrapped her fingers around his arm, and he took courage from her strength. “I’ll go with her,” he announced.
The king rolled his eyes. He made a shooing motion with his fingers before selecting another pepper.
For one glorious moment, Roderick believed the king would let him go. He clasped Ella’s hand, his heart as light as a leaf on the wind. Together they backed towards the door.
They took half a dozen steps before guards dragged them apart.
“Ella!” he cried, his arm wrenched behind his back.
Her protests echoed down the hallway. Only when it was silent did the guards release him.
The pavane ended. Behind him, the glass door opened, followed by the click of boot heels.
“My lord?” His valet’s voice. “You are scheduled for the next dance. The lady awaits you.”
He gritted his teeth. His mother meant well, but she had poor taste as a matchmaker. He summoned a smile and limped to the door.
The woman was dressed in white, of course, in a dress of startling simplicity, without the customary frippery. Then he saw her face, and he halted, stunned.
She smiled, tentative, and curtseyed. “Hello, Your Highness.”
“Saints above, Ella! What are you doing here?” He rushed inside to the heat and light. Courtiers mingled about in ivory and cream, but he saw only Ella. “And when did you stop calling me Roderick?”
Her mouth quirked up, and something in his chest unbunched. After all these years, her sense of humor remained. “I believe, Roderick, that I’m a surprise from your mother.”
On the dais, his brother glared at them. His wife studied her lap, pretending as always not to exist. Another bruise the size of William’s fist colored her cheek. But the queen mother watched the crowd expectantly—it was just like her to recall Ella in case a local woman failed to catch his fancy. His mother had always been maddeningly thorough in her campaigns.
“She never said! And I’ve been petitioning William for months, ever since Father died. He said it would take time.” A lie, he realized. William had never intended to bring Ella home. He felt William’s glare, his inherited need to squash any happiness in another. He turned away, refusing to let his brother ruin this, too.
Ella shrugged. “Like I said, a surprise.”
“A wondrous surprise.”
That smile again, tentative, as if she couldn’t believe his joy. Puzzling. Why would she think him anything less than delighted?
“Do you want to dance?” he asked. “Or sit and talk or…?” He wasn’t sure what was the proper thing to do with a woman who had reappeared as if by a miracle.
“No sitting!” She held up her hands in mock horror. “I’ve spent two weeks stuck in a carriage and only arrived here an hour ago. Dancing sounds divine.”
So he took her hand, pressed it to reinforce his delight, and led her to the dance floor. Around them, courtiers murmured, taking note of the new woman with the unfashionable gown.
He wanted to take her in his arms, to whisper in her ear all the things he’d kept in his heart these seven years. Instead he waited, chafing at the pause as the other dancers took their place. He saw now the lines on her face, the scar on her cheek, the tuft of gray at her temple.
“Was it terribly difficult,” he asked, “these past few years?”
“Yes.” She studied him, searching his face as if it was not quite what she expected. “I could tell you about it later, if you want, but not now.”
He had caused these, the scar, the lines, the gray. He couldn’t prevent his father slapping her, couldn’t prevent her exile. No wonder she was cool towards him.
He wondered then if she had only come because his mother summoned her. He couldn’t blame her if it was true. Like his father, he’d hurt her, and no doubt he was destined to hurt her again.
“Are you,” he asked, grasping for happier topics, “still raising hounds?”
“No.” She swallowed, and his heart sank. “The abbey only had mutts. They were good dogs, but I didn’t have time to train them.”
“The Sisters of Good Hope took me in, let me stay as a lay member.”
“What—” he started, horrified. Not that she’d been at an abbey, but because the Sisters of Good Hope worked in cities. How had Ella survived without meadows or forests to run in with her hounds? No wonder her hair had turned gray.
Before he could think of a response, the music started, a waltz. Automatically he took the first step and found she still fit in his arms. She still held her head high, still moved with the leggy grace of a creature born to run. This was the woman who’d trained her dogs to sniff out chestnuts for him, who’d climbed the tree outside his room to deliver books when his father denied him the library, who’d stroked his hair as he thought thoughts against the king he never dared put into words.
“I’m glad you came,” he said because he must. “I’ve missed you. The missing was as deep as winter, as unfading as holly.”
She slanted him a look, questioning, probing. “I wasn’t allowed to send letters, but I collected bits of plant lore from pilgrims who passed through. Did Father Jacob forward them on?”
“That was you? He never said.”
“He was nervous, worried he’d get in trouble if anyone found out.”
“I wish he’d said. Your notes were incredible. I—”
His knee buckled. With a gasp, he slammed into the floor. His hands snagged fabric. Pain spiked through his knee and his palms, and the sound of tearing cloth sliced through the music.
He staggered up.
Ella stood gaping at her gown. Half the skirt had torn away, leaving her hoops and pantaloons exposed.
Around them, dancers skittered to a halt. Someone snickered, low and thick. At that, Ella pressed her hands to her reddening cheeks.
Horror welled in his chest. He had never, not once, tread on a lady’s skirt. To do so now in such an egregious way, and to Ella—
“Ella,” he whispered. He limped a painful step forward. “I’m so sorry.”
But she was already turning away. Without a look back, without a word, she pushed through the crowd. How she must hate him.
On the dais, William smirked.
Roderick couldn’t breathe. He clenched his fists.
A lady sidled up to him. “It’s not your fault, Your Highness,” she simpered. It was the one from earlier, the one with lashes like shadows. “She obviously tripped you. And no wonder, with how poorly she dances.”
“Only a simpleton would blame you,” another lady declared, stepping close. “Do you need a partner to finish the dance?”
“No!” He pushed his way through an encroaching swarm of white and ivory gowns. Was his mother already pushing court ladies on him again? “Let me through. Do not speak ill of her.”
Ella was nowhere to be seen.
“Where did she go?” he demanded of his valet.
“I don’t know, Your Highness. Should I have her found?”
He hesitated. William was gleeful on the dais, and having Ella returned would dampen that glee. But she was not Roderick’s to drag back.
“No.” A coldness hardened in his chest. “I have hurt her enough already.”
The tapestry still hung in the library, but he was no longer a child who could hide behind it. He limped to the balcony, stood beside his bench. The evergreens fanned out below him: spruce, fir, juniper. How he envied them. They never hurt. They never hurt others. They stood still and quiet and cold.
But he no longer wanted that, he realized. Ella had been his once, and he had not fought for her. He would fight for her now, defy his brother, but would she accept him? Hadn’t she just shown she wanted nothing to do with him?
He turned his back on his trees and strode past his valet, past the women in white who called to him.
Where would she go? Her guest room, most likely. But if his mother had craftily lodged her close to his suites, that room was halfway across the castle. Too far to go with torn skirts. The sitting rooms off the grand staircase then, the closest place that would give her privacy.
He limped down the grand staircase, its curling banister cold beneath his fingers. A shoe sat in the doorway of the first sitting room, wedged there to prop the door ajar. It was a white, flimsy thing, the fabric so sheer it might have been made of glass. He frowned at it. He’d never considered women’s footwear before. If all lady’s shoes were like this, no wonder Ella often preferred to go barefoot. Had she kicked this one off in disgust?
He knocked and recognized her voice.
A chill greeted him as he pushed the door open. The servants had neglected the fire, and Ella sat on a stool before the cold cinders, her torn skirts knotted in one fist.
“Oh, it’s you.” Her breath puffed while before her, and her surprise wounded him. Hadn’t she thought he would come? “I thought—I was hoping a servant would come by with needle and thread.”
“They’re all busy upstairs. Shall I go find one?”
She nodded, and he turned to go, the shoe still in his hands. It shouldn’t surprise him she thought him more useful when gone.
Her cry stopped him. He looked back.
“Why didn’t you come after me when your father exiled me?”
He sucked in his breath. The unrelenting winter of his longing surged hard in his chest. “You think I didn’t want to? I didn’t dream every day of riding to wherever you were, sweeping you off your feet?” The words, dammed for so long, poured out. “But my father said he would kill your papa and sisters if I did.”
She covered her mouth with her free hand. “He said that?”
“He sent me an ear from one of the hounds you’d given him to reinforce the point. I couldn’t do that to you.”
She twisted her skirts in her hands. “Papa said not to contact you, but he never said why.”
That sounded like her father, always trying to protect his children. Once again, Roderick wondered why he couldn’t have been king.
“Still,” she pressed, “you could have sent a letter or a message or something. I waited all those years.”
“I sent word through the breeders network, but that didn’t work.” He hung his head. “I couldn’t find you. No one who knew would tell me, and nothing I do is right—I couldn’t even dance with you without tramping on your gown.” His father’s words echoed in his head: Worthless boy! No one wants a weakling for a prince.
Ella’s mouth twisted. “Yes, it would have been better if you hadn’t done that.”
“And you’re cold,” he said, despairing. “Here I am talking, and you’re cold.” He held out the shoe to her.
She stuffed her hands under her arms. “Keep it. It’s not comfortable, or warm. That’s why I used it to prop the door.”
“I’ll find something.” He looked around the room, but there was no blanket, not even a tapestry on the wall, and no tinderbox by the fire. Only a candle burned on a low table, and that would not help since they had no tinder. If he’d worn a cape he could have draped it over her shoulders, but he had only his tunic.
“It’s all right—” she started.
“No,” he said before she could tell him his failures were all right, she expected no more. “I’ll find something. Wait here.”
He set her shoe by her skirts and walked into the hallway. The corridors were deserted, filled only with the strains of harps and flutes from the ballroom. Worthless, worthless, his heart seemed to beat as he strode back up the stairs. He didn’t want to go up to the ball and the simpering ladies in white, but this was for Ella, so he did.
At the top of the stairs he cornered a young page with an armload of candles. “Get a servant with needle and thread and a tinderbox to the sitting room off the staircase,” he ordered. “Now.”
The boy gawked at him. He’d probably never heard Roderick speak so forcefully. Then he bobbed his head and hurried off.
Roderick stole down a hallway, past courtiers who nodded to him, until he came to a guestroom, where he nicked a blanket off the bed and, just in case, stole the tinderbox from by the fireplace. He carried them down the staircase, wondering if he’d done enough. How could he prove his devotion to Ella? Could he ever do enough to make up for his past failings? And why should she accept him? He was destined to be as lonely and hurtful as William, wasn’t he?
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, the sitting room door was ajar. He was sure he’d closed it, and he hurried forward, pleased that someone had attended to Ella so quickly.
He walked in on two guards in blue and silver.
“Come with us, miss,” one said, taking Ella by the elbow. “His Majesty is worried about you having run off.”
“I doubt he cares.” Ella yanked her arm out of his grasp. “Can’t I at least wait until my gown is properly patched?” She’d tied it closed as best she could with a ribbon from her hair, but there was no needle or thread yet.
“Where are you taking her?” Roderick demanded.
The guards whirled about. Ella’s eye lit up at the sound of his voice.
“Your Highness!” The other guard stepped towards him. “His Majesty asked us to find you, too. He’s concerned—”
“It’s been seven years!” Roderick bellowed. “My brother can’t let us alone after seven years?”
The guards glanced at each other, eyes wide, but Roderick wasn’t done.
“Did my brother specifically order you to bring us back? Did he command it as king?”
“Well, no.” The second guard retreated a step. “He requested we find—”
“Then get out.” Roderick hauled the guard’s arm just as they’d tried to do to Ella. “We are not to be disturbed,” he said as he steered the man into the hallway. “I command you to tell the king we’ll return when we’re ready, and he’s not to disturb us before that. Understand?”
“Yes, my lord.” The other guard scurried out before Roderick could grab him too. Roderick slammed the door.
He was breathing heavily. It was a night for firsts: stepping on a woman’s gown, manhandling guards. He didn’t like either, and the second had Ella staring at him as if she didn’t recognize him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, because it was what his father had taught him to say in any situation. He strode forward and draped the blanket around her shoulders.
“Don’t be sorry. You were magnificent.”
Roderick blinked. He could hardly believe what she had just said. But Ella never lied. She couldn’t lie to his father, so she couldn’t be lying now.
She scooted forward on her stool, drawing the blanket around her. “I needed to know you would come back for me, that you would fight for me.”
“It was just some guards.”
“Speaking in the king’s name. You never would have defied that before.”
“It’s easier to be brave when you’re with me,” he said shyly.
“I know.” She patted the stool beside her, but he held back.
He carried the tinderbox to the hearth, only there was already a little flame gaining strength there. It looked as if Ella had started the fire with a strip of cloth from her skirts and the candle. His shoulders slumped. She truly didn’t need him.
“I’ve hurt you so many times,” he said, laying the box on the mantle. “And I know I’ll fail you again in the future. How can you want to be with me?”
“Your father hurt me,” she said, emphasizing each word. “Just as he hurt you. But you never have, not intentionally, not maliciously, not like him.”
“No,” she said. “I have always loved you because you were not like your father. You care for things, from saplings to dogs to barefoot girls from the north. Your father wouldn’t care if I were cold, or if my skirts were torn, but you do. If you didn’t, I’d have known you were no longer the man I loved. I would have marched from this palace and left you, guards and flimsy shoes be damned.”
“That,” he said softly, “I can believe.”
“And now I know you’re becoming the man you always wanted to be—a man who can stand up to guards, who can stake a claim against the king. We need that if we’re to build a life together.”
He nodded and found himself standing a bit taller.
“We shouldn’t throw away our chance at happiness over a torn gown.” She plucked at her skirts, tied closed with a bit of ribbon. “One thing I learned at the abbey was how to do for myself when needed. I know how to cobble things back together.”
He smiled, small and sad. “I don’t think I’m made for happiness.”
She pressed her lips together. Sympathy lay there, and tenderness. If she could, he guessed, she would snip out the part of his life where his father had been and reassemble his life without the king. But that lay beyond the skills of even the most talented women.
“Do you think” she asked, “that you could aim for next to happy?”
He nudged the cast off shoe at her feet. How ridiculously flimsy it was. He would never think to dance in it, but someone had taken these airy bits and formed them into the semblance of a shoe. Maybe if tenuous bits of cloth could make the effort to be a shoe, he could make an effort at least to be content.
“Yes,” he said. “I think I can try for that.”
“Good.” She cupped his cheek. “I can try for that, too.”
He snagged her fingers. So warm. He bowed his head, rested his forehead against hers. She snuggled close until he held her in his arms. He wished he could remain there forever, just the two of them, a pocket of warmth in the world. “William won’t be happy. He likes me unwed and childless.”
“I know. But even he’s not your father, and your mother is on our side. We’ll find a way to manage him.”
From upstairs, the music started again, a waltz. Upstairs, his valet would be waiting with another lady selected for this dance. Roderick had eyes only for the lady in front of him.
“Then, my dear,” he said, “might we try another dance?” He held up her shoe.
“Maybe…” She raised the hem of her skirt. He slid the shoe into place. It fit perfectly. “If it involves waltzing outside to visit the kennels.”
“But—don’t you know? My father had them torn down. We board our hounds in town now.”
“Oh.” Her eyes went wide. Then she slanted him a smile. “Well, then, shall we look for a house in town near the kennels? Or pick a spot here to build new ones?”
“Why not? We’ll never get back the years we lost. I don’t intend to waste any that we have left.”
“You’d be willing to live away from the palace?”
“Of course. Haven’t you always wanted to?”
He glanced up at the ceiling, as if he could see where the king and the court were dancing. He could not escape all his responsibilities as prince, could never escape the memories that kept him up at night. But this evening, for once, he could do his best to forget. And in future, he could be the prince he needed to be at a distance.
He grinned. “Let’s do both. There’s some good land on the other side of town, beyond the pheasant fields. It’d be perfect for a house and new kennels. Want to see?”
“Lead the way.”
He took her hand. “Let’s find you good boots and a coat.”
They went out together, the two of them, past the lonely evergreens, to see what life they could rebuild.