Isabelle dipped her hands in the cool water of the stream, grateful to be out of the carriage after a long day of riding. They were only a few more days from Barony and she would be ecstatic when they finally reached their destination. For the first three days there had been nothing but dirt, rocks, and the occasional tree to look at through the carriage window. Today, the bordering mountains between Cardenas and Barony finally came into view, signaling the half-way point of their journey. Isabelle splashed some cold water on her face and turned back toward camp which was only a few feet away through a line of trees.
As she made her way up the embankment, she saw Primus coming toward her.
“I trust that the journey was not overly hard on you, my lady,” he said as he approached.
Isabelle smiled. “I found myself a bit restless being stuck inside the carriage all day. Do you think it would be all right for me ride a bit tomorrow?”
Primus frowned. “I do not think that would be a very good idea, Princess. We could encounter danger at any moment and I believe that His Grace will agree with me in saying that it will be much safer for you inside the carriage.”
Isabelle nodded reluctantly. “I suppose you’re right.”
Primus glanced pointedly at Francis, who stood guard a few feet away. “A few moments alone, my lady?”
Isabelle turned to Francis and waved him off. “I’ll be perfectly safe here with Lord Primus, Francis,” she assured him.
Once he was gone, Primus turned back toward her with a smile. “I was hoping we could discuss the subject of husband hunting while we have a few minutes alone. Have you given any more thought to your possible candidates?”
“I can assure you I’ve been considering the matter very carefully. I hope to have made a decision by the time we reach Barony.”
“If I may be so bold I’d like to offer a suggestion.”
“It certainly couldn’t hurt.”
He paused for a moment. “Me,” he said quickly, as if trying to get the words out before he changed his mind. Isabelle felt as if the ground had fallen out from under her. He held a hand up to silence her before she could respond. “Allow me to plead my case before you say no.”
Isabelle forced a smile despite the uneasy feeling at the pit of her stomach. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Primus proposing to her. “I wasn’t going to say no,” she assured him. “Please continue.”
“I hope you know how much I admire you,” he said, grabbing one of her hands in both of his. “I hope that you at least feel the same for me.” She nodded, which only encouraged him to continue. His thumb was drawing slow circles against her hand and he was moving closer with every word. Isabelle held her breath and waited. “I know I could make you happy, my lady, and I know that I could rule Barony well.”
“I have no doubt of that,” she said, finding her voice finally. “You have been doing so these last twenty years.”
“Please do not think that this is an attempt on my behalf to gain the crown. I really feel that we could be good together, Isabelle,” he said, using her given name for the first time. “I care for you very much, and in time I hope you could come to care for me too.”
Before she knew what was happening, he was tugging her hand until she was in his arms and kissing her gently. Rather than fight him, Isabelle allowed him to kiss her and attempted to participate in the kiss as well. If she was going to consider him for marriage, she might as well see whether or not she could even be attracted to him.
The kiss was nice enough. His lips were soft and gentle, and while she had been worried that his mustache and beard would tickle her, they did not. His hands rested respectfully on her shoulders and his mouth opened only slightly. When it was over Isabelle felt fine. Not good, not bad. Just fine. She couldn’t help but compare the experience to another kiss and hated herself for it.
“Primus,” she began, “I am very flattered but I-“
“What the devil is going on here?”
Isabelle turned in Primus’ arms to find Serge standing a few feet away, his hands balled into fists at his sides, his expression murderous. Isabelle stepped away guiltily.
“The princess and I were having a private conversation,” Primus said, grabbing her hand possessively.
“I did not hear very much talking,” Serge countered, stepping closer.
“I hardly see how it is any of your concern.”
Isabelle looked back and forth between the two of them, certain she had been all but forgotten in this little drama.
“As Isabelle’s brother-in-law, I would have to say that it is my concern. I hardly think your advances are appropriate considering that she is to be choosing a husband soon. Have you no care for her reputation?”
“How dare you insinuate that I would sully my lady’s character?”
Isabelle, who at this point was quite annoyed at having been accosted by both these men in the last few days and then having to watch them fight over her like two rutting stags, growled in irritation. “For God’s sake, both of you shut up!”
They both grew silent and Isabelle inwardly smiled in satisfaction.
“Primus, I will most certainly consider all that you have said. I hope you will excuse me for a moment so that I can have a word with my brother-in-law.”
Primus, still glaring at Serge venomously, left reluctantly. Isabelle turned on Serge the moment he was out of sight.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” she practically screamed, poking him in the chest with her index finger.
“Me?” he shouted back. “What about you letting that fool kiss you? How long has that been going on?”
“Why should it matter to you?”
“You know why!”
“I never agreed to marry you!”
“You damn well will, mark my words,” he said, taking a step closer and lowering his voice.
“Your arrogance is astounding. You certainly are sure of yourself.”
“Does he make you tremble the way I do, Isabelle?” he said softly, reaching up to stroke her cheek. “Did you kiss him like you kiss me?” His fingertips traveled down to her throat and he lowered his head until his lips hovered inches from hers. “Do you want him like you want me?”
Isabelle swayed and fought to keep her balance. Her lips were tingling, and she was but a breath away from leaning into him. His scent enveloped her and his towering presence weakened her. Her lips parted. “I don’t want you,” she said hoarsely against his mouth.
His lips brushed her lightly. She trembled. “Liar,” he whispered.
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