No wonder she hadn’t answered him when he’d talked about spending the future with her. She’d known it might not be possible.
Hurt welled up in his throat. He swallowed it down, but it tasted bitter. This was his problem to deal with, not Willa’s. He’d get over it. Eventually. He understood what she’d done by challenging Kyanna for queen. Hell, he probably would have done the exact same thing. As a strategy went, it was brave and bold and admirable.
It just didn’t leave any room for him. He glanced down. Now what did he do about the bracelet?
Willa woke to a hand on her shoulder. She blinked and looked up into the face of the man she was crazy about. The man who’d given her the strength and courage to stand and fight when all she wanted to do was run. She smiled, her heart so full of him in that moment she could do nothing else. “You have a surprisingly soft touch for a guy your size.”
He smiled back, a little something else in his eyes that kept the smile from fully reaching his gaze. “Hey, I’m adaptable. How are you feeling?”
“Better.” She pushed upright and yawned as she stretched. “Definitely better. But I’m still going to sleep hard tonight.”
She shook her head and stared past him at the soft light coming in the window. “I can’t believe I’m about to be crowned queen of Rhoswynn.”
“How about that.”
She looked at him again. “It’s crazy. I was a runaway. And now I’m going to be queen.” However temporary. She swung her legs off the bed and snuggled up beside him. “I’m sorry you got dragged into all this, but I’m not sorry you’re here. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
“I’m sure you would have managed.” He put his arm around her and kissed her head. “But I’m glad I’m here with you, too.”
He dropped his arm abruptly and stood, holding out a hand to her. “We should go. We’ve only got a few minutes to get back to the castle.”
“Do I have time to freshen up?”
“Absolutely.” Something in his face changed, and there was the sudden gleam of pride in his eyes. But there was also sadness there, which she didn’t understand. “You’re about to be queen. They can wait for you as long as you want them to.”
“Okay.” She smiled, even though the moment had filled her with an inexplicable melancholy. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes then.”
“See you downstairs.” He hesitated, then kissed her cheek before leaving.
Something was going on. She just wasn’t sure what. She shook off the feeling as much as she could and washed up, tucking a few loose strands of hair back into her braids and patting some color into her cheeks. The nap had done her a lot of good, but she still looked ragged.
She stared at herself in the mirror and sighed. It was going to have to do. Shouldn’t matter what she looked like anyway. All she had to do was get through the coronation and then she could make her first official proclamation.
She smiled. Her last would come right on its heels. Buoyed by that thought, she headed downstairs, ready to face this final step.
Things were very different as they returned to the castle. A long runner of purple silk had been set up from the entrance of the great hall to about fifty feet into the surrounding courtyard. Guards met them at the door of her parents’ house and walked them to it. More guards were stationed along the runner to keep the crowds back. Apparently, the coronation was not going to be a publicly attended event.
Or so she thought until another pair of guards bowed and pulled wide the doors of the great hall. The crowds were still there. Some of them anyway. She got the sense that these were the most important people in the kingdom and that they’d been invited to this event well ahead of time. Only the woman being crowned had changed.
At the very least, the crowd was dressed in their finest and well subdued. Perhaps by the seriousness of the occasion. More likely Gerard had made a threatening announcement.
She liked the man based on what she’d seen from him. He seemed like he brooked no nonsense. Willa had discussed her plan with him and knew he thought it was highly irregular. She just hoped he didn’t argue with her plan when she announced it.
The doors to the great hall were shut again, and guards led them to the front of the dais. Gerard met her there. “I trust you slept?”
She nodded. “I did. And I feel much better.”
“Excellent. We’re about to begin. I’ll escort you to the chair beside the king’s throne. He’ll make his announcement, then offer you the key to the Crystal of Ardwynn-Rhos.” He hesitated. “I assume you remember enough of your schooling to know what that is?”
She did. “The Crystal of Ardwynn-Rhos is the seat of the magic that keeps our kingdom hidden from human eyes.” Word for word, almost like she was back in class.
He smiled. “Very good. Once you accept the key, the king will move to the side and you’ll move to stand before the throne. Do not sit on it.”
“No.” She listened intently.
“The king will remain at your side. I’ll hand him the crown. He’ll say a few words, you’ll bend, he’ll place the crown on your head, and that’s it, you’re queen. You may then sit on the throne as it will then be rightfully your seat. And of course, you may address the crowd.”
“Actually, you’ll be expected to address the crowd, so I do hope you’re prepared for that.”