“Are you all right, Leona?”
Leona glanced down from her absent study of the de Ganis chateau to meet her father’s eyes. As dark as her own, they glanced at her with an expression of worry that was becoming more and more common these days. Leona didn’t have got glance at her mother to know that Guinevere was watching her with an expression every bit as apprehensive.
But what was she supposed to do? Grin like a chipper chipmunk and reassure them that everything was fine? It wasn’t fine. It wasn’t fine when she looked at her betrothed’s home, the home that would one day be her own, and felt a knot form in her stomach and sink. She shouldn’t have to be girding herself for battle just to have dinner. But what other choice did she have?
So she shrugged and tried to smile. “I’m fine. Come on, let’s go.” She slipped past her parents, shoulders set, and marched up the snow-dusted steps.
Let’s get this over with.
The whole family — well, those parts of it that weren’t married, in Camford, or already abed — was waiting for them. After the servants took their cloaks, Leona felt herself drop back and let her parents go forward to greet and be greeted by the elder de Ganises. Heck, the longer someone distracted Bors and kept him away from her, the better it would be for everyone.
Time would tell whether that would go double for Elyan tonight.
He seemed to be in a polite mood. He greeted Lancelot first, then Guinevere. He even had a compliment for Guinevere that he no doubt thought very charming and pretty, but that Guinevere didn’t have as high of an opinion of. But Leona thought she and her father were the only ones to know the precise meaning behind that arch smile and polite thanks. Even Claire continued to smile, and Claire was usually quite quicker on the uptake than was Bors or his son.
But all too soon, Elyan made his way to Leona. “My lady,” he greeted her.
“Sir Elyan,” Leona replied.
“You look quite ravishing this evening.” He grinned, as if that one compliment could make up for all the sniffs and sneers he’d delivered to her over the years. Not that she cared about what he thought of her appearance. It was the lying that bothered her.
Elyan held out his hand, clearly intending for her to put hers into it. For a moment, Leona toyed with the idea of holding back. He didn’t own her hand, damn it. He didn’t own any part of her. But reluctantly, she held her hand out anyway.
Of course Elyan took it both of his and brought it to his lips. At least the kiss he gave was quick, non-slobbery. Almost painless.
All the same, Leona carefully schooled her face into blankness. But clearly that was too polite: though her father, her mother, and Claire all looked nervous, Bors openly grinned. So he thought she was being tamed. He had another think coming. Leona had just learned how to pick her battles, that was all.
“Well!” Bors clapped his hands together, grinning and rubbing them. “Shall we go into supper, my lord? My ladies? I know Claire has worked her magic for all of us this evening!” He beamed at his wife.
Claire’s smile was only polite, and her eyes were mainly for her son and his betrothed. “I hope it will be up to standard. Lady Guinevere? Sir Lancelot?”
“By all means, let’s go in,” Lancelot replied, holding out his arm … for Leona. Bors scowled but squired in Guinevere, leaving Elyan and his mother as the last “couple.”
However, once they were in the dining chamber, Bors took over the seating. “Claire, you go down there — Elyan, sit between your mother and I — Lady Guinevere, surely you would like to sit across from Claire? And of course, Lance, you and I shall sit together!” There was no arguing with any of that, so Leona was in effect stuck directly across from Elyan.
“So, Leona!” Elyan grinned. “Doubtless you will be interested in hearing how my studies are progressing. I –”
If Claire hadn’t winced to hear that, Leona would have replied with a flat, “No, not particularly.” But she did wince, and Leona didn’t want to be responsible for sending her back to the nunnery for a long rest. So she replied instead, “Did you ever get around to declaring your major in politics?”
Elyan’s jaw fell and he looked about to choke. His eyes went fearfully to his father. Claire, however, looked curious, and that emboldened Leona to continue — not that she needed much.
“After all,” Leona cut up a bit of turkey and popped it into her mouth, “that’s what Kay said you wanted. Was he mistaken?”
“I –” Elyan started.
“Nonsense!” Bors replied. “He must have been. Politics is a game for older men; Elyan knows that. Young men have to prove themselves with their swords.”
Elyan winced, and Claire’s eyes narrowed. “Bors,” she said gently, “I think if Elyan wishes to study politics, he ought to do that. Of course he can prove himself in the army. But a thorough study of politics will only put him ahead of all the other young men his age, don’t you think?”
“Bah! Elyan, you’re young! Give army life a good long try. Once you’re used to it, you might find you never wish to leave!” Bors replied.
Elyan winced, his gaze going down to his plate. Maybe it was because in that moment that he looked like Lynn, like Clarice, like Angelique had so many times, that Leona said what she did. “Like me with the Navy?”
Guinevere’s head snapped to Leona, shaking her head quickly, and Claire’s jaw fell. Elyan’s fork fell to his plate. Lancelot winced — and that was all before Bors spoke.
“I beg your pardon?” he demanded. “The Navy? Albion doesn’t have a navy!”
“We will soon!” Leona announced brightly, reveling in her reputation as the only one of her father’s children who had gotten his brains. “Prince Thomas and I are meeting every day now. And I’m staying the night with poor Clarice more often than not, so Baron Richard and I can consult. Isn’t that right, Mum?” she grinned.
“Yes …” Guinevere replied. That gaze was either meant to glare daggers or communicate a sly pride; Leona couldn’t tell which. Probably Guinevere couldn’t decide which.
“And do you tell me seriously,” Bors laughed, “that Prince Thomas — and King Arthur! — want your opinion on a royal navy? Preposterous!”
“Well, preposterous or not, they like my opinions enough to have taken my advice to start building ships.” Leona popped another bite of turkey into her mouth and grinned. “We’ll have three ready to sail by the spring. I hope to be on one of them.”
Bors’s jaw fell, and he turned to Lancelot. “Good Lord, Lance, you wouldn’t possibly let her do that, would you?”
Lancelot gulped, but when he answered, he proved his reputation at the bravest knight in Albion. “It’s Leona’s decision, which she hasn’t made yet. But she knows that both Guinevere and I will support her in whatever she decides.”
“But Lance, the risks! A woman, at sea? You’d be signing her death warrant!”
“Excuse me?” Leona snapped.
Bors ignored her, and Lancelot could only shoot her a helpless glance as Bors went on. “And what of our agreement, Lance? What would Elyan and I do if something — Lord forbid! — were to happen to Leona ere they could wed?”
“You know,” Leona remarked, “I could get run over by a runaway wagon tomorrow. I’m just pointing that out. I don’t see how my going to sea — if I decide to do that, instead of the thousand-and-one things that need to be done here — really is any of your concern, you know, considering everything that could happen to me if I decided to stay here.”
Bors turned to her with a — a grin? “Exactly! Exactly! Finally, Lady Leona, you are speaking sense!” He turned back to Lancelot. “I was going to wait until after dinner to suggest this, but your daughter has given me such a fine opening, I must take advantage of it. Lance, what do you say to moving the wedding up a couple of years? Leona and Elyan can get started on an heir as soon as possible — I mean, if that so-called Lady Gwynedd is managing well enough with her son, then surely Leona will do splendidly, especially since she will have my and Claire’s guidance at every instant — and, between you and me, your daughter is hardly getting any younger. Furthermore, I say that the better we break her of this naval nonsense, the better. So! Let Leona and Elyan wed now!” Bors leaned back and grinned, clearly expecting to be heaped with praise for his brilliant idea.
Claire’s fork clattered to her plate. Lancelot sagged against his chair. Guinevere’s jaw fell. Elyan sat quite frozen, as if failing to move would somehow turn back time and make the speech of the last five or ten minutes untrue.
And Leona? Leona exploded.
“Are you insane? Are you out of your Wright-damned mind? There’s no way in hell I’m marrying Elyan before he graduates!”
Lancelot winced. Guinevere groaned and leaned her forehead on her hand. Claire only gasped. And Bors turned to Leona with a scowl. “Lady Leona! Be silent! Your opinion was not consulted!”
“My opinion? Really? You’re not going to consult my opinion on my own life? Like you didn’t ask Clarice’s opinion before you betrothed her to Freddy?” Leona jumped out of her chair, wood shrieking against wood. “Or what about Angelique, when you packed her off to the nunnery? Or what about Elyan — the only kid you actually care about! What about his opinion on what he wants to study? Or hell, who he wants to marry — because I would bet my last farthing it isn’t me!”
“Lady Leona! Sit down and be silent!” Bors scowled at Lancelot. “Really, Lance, you must teach your daughter some manners!”
“Bors,” Lancelot growled, “while Leona isn’t being as polite as she might be at this moment, I don’t think she’s the one who needs a lesson in manners.”
“What? Lance! Be serious! Do you expect me to tolerate such rudeness in a daughter-in-law?”
“Do you expect me to tolerate such stupidity in a father-in-law?” Leona fired back. Guinevere smacked her forehead.
And Elyan finally spoke. “Leona, sit down.”
“No!” She tossed her hair, her nostrils flaring. “I don’t care if you want to let your father treat you and your sibs like shit, Elyan, he’s not treating me that way!”
“What?!” Bors yelped, leaping to his feet. “You dare! You ignorant chit of a girl, how do you dare –”
“Because I’m not a complete idiot!” Leona fired back. “Come on! You betrothed Clarice without even consulting her — it’s only pure dumb luck that she ended up with a man who adores her! Angelique is bloody miserable in the nunnery, and she has been ever since you sent her there! And now you’re making Elyan miserable, too! I’ll say it again, Sir Bors — everybody else in this room might stand for it, but I won’t! Not if you try that shit on me, I won’t!”
“Leona,” Guinevere murmured, “language.”
“Fine, Mum. Not if you try that excrement on me, Sir Bors. I won’t be taking it — and that starts today!” Leona turned to Claire. “Thank you, Lady Claire, for the lovely dinner. I only wish I could have enjoyed it more before your husband opened your big mouth. Good night, Lady Claire, good night, Elyan — and Sir Bors, for the love of Wright, think before you try to speak to me again.”
Her words still ringing in the air, Leona turned on her heel and marched from the dining room. Holding her dignity and her temper in tatters around her, she kept to a merely brisk pace as she left the dining room.
Then, as soon as she was out of the archway, she began to run. But she didn’t get much farther than the vestibule before a voice that somehow managed to cut above the mounting argument in the dining room halted her in her tracks.
Maybe that was why she did stop: because Elyan pared his request down enough that it wasn’t automatically an order. If he had said, “Stop this instant!” or “I demand you stop!” Leona would have kept running. As it was, Leona could fool herself into thinking that perhaps Elyan had something of value or use to say.
Maybe she even thought she might be thanked.
Of course that was a mad assumption, and Leona knew it as Elyan stomped over to her with his heavy-footed gait, his father’s gait, his fists balled and trembling at his sides. “How dare you?” he demanded. “How dare you? Do you have any idea how much you just humiliated me?”
Leona rolled her eyes. “Elyan, if I humiliated anyone, it was my parents.”
“You defied me! In front of everyone!” Elyan yelped. “In front of my father! I told you to sit down, and you didn’t?”
Leona’s jaw fell. Are you shitting me? But she wouldn’t say that out loud and fry Elyan’s tiny mind. She didn’t want her brother to be prosecuting her for attempted murder next.
So instead she asked, “Are you joking? When have I ever done a thing you asked me to do?”
“It’s just like the time you pushed me into the fountain!” Elyan half-yelled, half-wailed. “He didn’t let up on me for days after that! He said I was less than a man!”
I guess it takes one to know one. “Elyan –”
“I won’t have it! I won’t have you unman and humiliate me! Again and again you do it, Leona! You’re always laughing at me, and I’m sick of it!”
“You’re sick of it,” Leona repeated, eyes dangerously narrowed. Her heart pounded in her ears, almost drowning out Elyan’s whine.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like being betrothed to you?” Elyan moaned. “No matter what I do, it’s always a joke to you! It’s not! I treat you just as a man should treat his betrothed, and you don’t even have enough respect for me not to laugh in my face! I –”
“Do you have any idea what it’s like being betrothed to you?” Leona yelled. “You order me around, you demand that I fawn on your every word, and to make matters worse, you flirt with other women right in front of me! Lord! You think I humiliate you?”
“I do! I do! Because — if you weren’t such a shrew, I wouldn’t have to turn to the comfort of other women!”
“Who also laugh at you!” Leona snapped. “Did you ever think that you’re the problem, Elyan? Maybe if we’re all laughing at you, it’s not because there is something wrong with us!”
“How can it not be? None of you have any respect! You — you especially!” Elyan started to count on his fingers. “You run around — you’ve always run around! — like some kind of boy, with your skirts hitched up halfway to your knees and your hair flying loose! You talk to other men like it’s nothing! And my father — you show my father absolutely no respect! How would you like it if some man yelled at your father like you just yelled at mine?”
“If my father treated his children and every other person in his life half as badly as your father treats his, I hope someone would yell at him!” Leona fired back. “Like Tom already did!”
“That was different! Father overstepped his bounds there!” Elyan yelled. “He forgot about Gwendolyn’s new rank! Of course the Prince had to –”
“It wasn’t about rank! It was never about rank! Maybe that’s how Tom had to put it so your father’s — pea-brain would understand it, but the reason why Tom yelled at him is because your father is an arse and Tom was sick and tired of seeing Lynn treated that way!”
“I’m right and you know it!”
“Then if you think you’re telling the truth, you’re mad!” Elyan laughed. “Barking mad! There is nothing wrong with how my father raised any of us!”
“Oh, mad, huh?” Leona snarled, leaning closer to Elyan to let him read her lips as well as hear her words. “Mad like your father almost made your mother? That kind of mad?”
She shouldn’t have said it. It was cruel, and she knew it as soon as the words left her mouth. But maybe Elyan needed to hear it.
He must have — he may have even listened, as she wasn’t sure he had listened to a word she said all evening. Certainly Elyan leaned closer to her, breathing heavily. If his eyes weren’t set narrow, his mouth scowling, and his fists balled at his sides, Leona might have almost wondered if he was about to kiss her. She’d certainly never seen a man lean so close and pant so hard near a woman for any other reason.
“I ought to slap you for that,” Elyan whispered. His mouth was so close to her that she could feel the breath from every word wash over her face. She was just glad he wasn’t spitting as well.
Leona rolled her eyes. “Try, and I’ll have you ready for the nun’s choir with Angelique before your palm stops stinging.”
“Y-y-y-you …” Elyan’s hand flew up — but it wasn’t in a slap. Leona felt the breeze as it passed her face, but no more. “You are insufferable! And irrational! I don’t even know why I’m bothering to talk to you!”
“That makes two of us!”
“You are my betrothed!” Elyan yelled. “You will speak to me if and when I tell you to!”
“No! No! No!” Leona shouted. “That’s what you and your father between you don’t get! I don’t care what you say! I don’t care what you want! You don’t own me, and I don’t care if you do drag me to the altar — you never will! And you know what?” Leona jabbed her finger at Elyan. “If you want to do everything your miserable father says, and walk in his miserable footsteps, and eventually end up as much of a pathetic joke as he is — fine! Do it! But don’t expect me to walk by your side if you do!”
“You would have to! You’re my wife!”
“No. I don’t. First, we’re not married yet — and who knows? We may never be. And guess what, Elyan? Even if we do get married, I can get out the minute I give you a son. Check the contracts if you don’t believe me.”
Elyan went white. “No.”
“You — you wouldn’t! You wouldn’t dare! You would never just walk away!”
Leona raised one eyebrow and let it fall. Then she smirked. She leaned close to Elyan, close enough to whisper in his ear, close enough to kiss him.
She whispered, “Watch me.”
And she suited the action to the word.