“They are.” He smiled and looked away. “I’ve heard it’s the fashion now for couples to take a trip together when they get married.” He met my eyes once more. “You should make sure your husband takes you to Eradore. You’d look radiant on the white beaches.”
He looked away again, popping berries into his mouth as if it was nothing to speak of husbands and trips and being alone. I looked at Delia Grace, who stared back at me with astonished eyes. I knew once we were in private, we would pull apart every piece of that moment to figure out just what it meant.
Was he trying to say he thought I should marry? Or was he hinting that I should marry . . . him?
These were the questions on my mind as I sat up, looking across the water. Nora was there with her sour expression, watching with the other wretched girls from court. As I peeked around, I noted several pairs of eyes settled, not upon the beauty of the day, but on me. The only set that seemed angry, though, was Nora’s.
I picked up a berry and hurled it over at her, hitting her square in the chest. Cecily and Anna Sophia laughed, and Nora’s jaw dropped in shock. But she quickly picked up some fruit of her own and threw it back at me, her expression shifting to something resembling happiness. Giggling, I picked up more, and began a war of sorts.
“Hollis, what in the world are you doing?” Mother called from her boat, just loud enough to be heard above the slaps of paddles on the water.
I looked at her and replied in all seriousness, “Defending my honor, of course.” I caught Jameson’s chuckle as I turned back to Nora.
There was a stream of laughter and berries going in both directions. It was the best fun I’d had in a while until I leaned a little too far over for a rather determined throw and ended up toppling into the water.
I heard the gasps and cries of those around me, but I managed to get in a good breath and came up without choking.
“Hollis!” Jameson exclaimed, reaching an arm out for me. I grabbed on and he pulled me safely back into the boat in a matter of seconds. “Sweet Hollis, are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“No,” I sputtered out, already shivering from the chill of the water, “but I seem to have lost my shoes.”
Jameson looked down at my stockinged feet and burst out laughing. “We shall have to fix that, won’t we?”
There was laughter all around now that I was fine, and Jameson took off his coat to wrap it around me, keeping me warm.
“Back to shore, then,” he ordered, still smiling. He held me close, looking deep into my eyes. I sensed that in this moment—shoes gone, hair a mess, soaking wet—he found me irresistible. And yet, with my parents just behind him, with a dozen demanding lords hovering nearby, he was forced to settle for placing a warm kiss on my cool forehead.
It was enough to send new waves through my stomach, and I wondered if every moment with him would feel like this. I’d been dying for him to kiss me, hoping every time we got a brief second to ourselves he’d pull me close. So far, though, it hadn’t happened. I knew he’d kissed Hannah and Myra, but if he’d kissed any of the others, they weren’t telling. I wondered if his not kissing me yet was a good sign or a bad one.
“Can you stand?” Delia Grace asked, bringing me back to the moment as she helped me onto the dock.
“The dress is much heavier when drenched,” I admitted.
“Oh, Hollis. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to make you fall!” Nora exclaimed once she climbed off her own boat.
“Nonsense! It was my fault, and I learned a very valuable lesson. I shall only enjoy the river from my window from now on,” I replied with a wink.
She laughed, almost looking as if she did so in spite of her better judgment. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes. I may have a runny nose tomorrow, but I’m right as rain, and twice as wet. No hard feelings. I promise.”
She smiled and it felt genuine.
“Here, let me help you,” she offered.
“I’ve got her,” Delia Grace snapped.
Nora’s smile instantly faded, and she went from looking quite pleased to unimaginably irritated. “Yes, I’m sure you do. Seeing as you never had a chance of getting Jameson’s attention on your own, holding on to Hollis’s skirts is the best a girl like you could do.” She raised an eyebrow and turned. “I’d keep my grip tight if I were you.”
I opened my mouth to tell Nora that Delia Grace’s situation had never been her fault. But I found a hand on my chest, stopping me.
“Jameson will hear,” Delia Grace said through gritted teeth. “Let’s just go.” The heartbreak in her voice was unmistakable, but she was right. Men battled on open fields; women battled behind fans. I held on to her with a firm grip as we made our way back to the castle. After so much abuse in one afternoon, I wondered if she might retreat into solitude the next day. She’d done that often when we were young and her heart couldn’t bear to hear another word.
But the following morning, she was in my room, wordlessly pulling my hair into another intricate design. It was in the middle of this that a knock came at the door, and she opened it to an army of maids bringing in bouquet after bouquet of the first blooms of spring.
“What exactly is this all about?” Delia Grace asked, directing them to set the flowers on any open surface they could find.
A maid curtsied before me and handed me a folded note. I smiled to myself as I went to read it aloud. “‘In the event you have caught cold and were unable to venture out into nature today, I thought that nature ought to come to its queen.’”
Delia Grace’s eyes widened. “Its queen?”
I nodded, my heart racing.
“Find my golden dress, please. I think the king deserves a thank-you.”
I WALKED DOWN THE HALLWAY with my head high, Delia Grace just behind my right shoulder. I met the eyes of older attendees at court, smiling and nodding at them in acknowledgment. Most paid me no mind, which wasn’t surprising. I knew they felt there wasn’t much point in them getting attached to the king’s latest fling.
It wasn’t until we approached the main hallway to the Great Room that I heard something that set me on edge.
“That’s the one I was telling you about,” a woman whispered loudly to her friend, in a tone that made it impossible to mistake the words for praise.
I froze, looking at Delia Grace. The squint of her eyes told me she’d heard it, too, and didn’t know what to make of it. There was a chance they were talking about her. About her parents, about her father. But gossip surrounding Delia Grace was old news, and the teasing surrounding it was usually reserved for young ladies looking for someone to take a dig at; everyone else looked for new stories, exciting ones.
The kind that might surround King Jameson’s latest love interest.
“Take a breath,” Delia Grace commanded. “The king will want to see you’re well.”
I touched the flower I’d tucked behind my ear, making sure it was still in place. I straightened my gown and kept moving. She was right, of course. It was the same strategy that she’d used for years now.
But by the time we walked into the Great Room, the stares were unmistakably disapproving. I tried to keep my expression unreadable, but underneath it all, I was a trembling mess.