§ § § -- August 27, 2005

"That dress is simply perfect," Rudolf said, staring at Louisa with appreciation and wonder. She wore an ankle-length dress that looked almost like a cross between a gown and a sundress, with thin straps over her shoulders that crisscrossed in the back and a skirt that swirled gently around her ankles. There was a three-inch-wide sash around her waist that tied in a knot at one side and hung free in the folds of the skirt. The dress itself was made of combed Egyptian cotton and trimmed in satin, both dyed a soft pale turquoise.

"I'll tell Hanna so," said Louisa with a grin. "She sewed it for me; it's her own design."

Rudolf's mouth fell open. "She did that in seven days? That young woman is simply remarkable! I wonder why she hasn't been hired on by some design house in Paris?" He shook his head in amazement, then took her hand and tugged her up against him. "You'll do me very proud today, beautiful Louisa. I'd kiss you, but I don't want to ruin your makeup."

Louisa laughed. "I can always fix it again," she said hopefully.

"You've convinced me," he murmured, smiling, and then kissed her deeply. Louisa clung to him, savoring the taste of him, as she'd been doing all week since they had finally been reunited. Her friends had been delighted at the happy news, and when Louisa had said she was to be Rudolf's escort to the queen's wedding, they'd all gone through her dresses, decided nothing quite fit, and dragooned a somewhat reluctant Hanna into designing and sewing the dress Louisa now wore. Louisa had dipped into her savings for the fabric, and Hanna had done the rest, sketching a design and then spending her free evenings the entire week sewing and calling Louisa over for repeated fittings. It was the simplicity of the design that had allowed her to complete the dress in the scant days she'd been allotted, and when Louisa had modeled it for the other girls Friday evening, they'd all decided that from then on, if they needed a special dress, they'd recruit Hanna to create it for them.

Rudolf lifted his mouth from hers and sighed softly. "I think that was a mistake," he admitted with sham sorrow. "There isn't enough time for us to make love." Louisa giggled, and he smirked. "Well, that's what you do to me. I wish I knew what happened to you over the summer. Somehow you've become so much lovelier, even a little more sophisticated…and when we make love…" He groaned, and she grinned.

"I don't know about the rest of that stuff," she said, "but I was lying in bed one night thinking how bored you must've been, making love with me back in spring. I mean, all I did was lie there and let you do all the work, and I knew that wasn't fair."

That eyebrow went up again, another trait she'd discovered she loved about him; if he didn't do that, he wouldn't be her Rudolf. "That's a very noble rationale, but where did you learn what to do to respond?"

"Kristen," Louisa said, snickering when his eyes grew wide. "Seriously. She used to tell me about her boyfriends, and she didn't leave out very much. I thought I'd put some of that stuff into practice and see if it really worked."

Rudolf looked stunned. "I thought you two hated each other. Why would she tell you about her boyfriends?"

"She was trying to impress on me the idea that she was worldly and sophisticated, while I was just a little mouse—Cinderella in the corner picking lentils out of the fireplace, I guess," said Louisa. "Apparently she figured that was the way to do it. Most of the time I just thought it was yucky. I mean, I didn't want to know what my slinky sister was doing with a bunch of guys. But I never thought I could actually try some of it myself."

"Fate take us," muttered Rudolf and she laughed. His grin was crooked. "But if it's resulted in what you do now…" He kissed her again, then let her go and deliberately stepped back. "In another few seconds I'll be past the point of no return, and it just won't do to be late for Briella's wedding. Put on some more lipstick, and then we'll go down to the great entry and wait with the family."

Ten minutes later they were standing arm in arm, watching other members of the royal family straggling in. Christian and Leslie had been among the first to arrive after Louisa and Rudolf did, and they both admired Louisa's dress. "She tells me her friend Hanna designed and sewed it for her," Rudolf informed them.

Christian and Leslie looked at each other. "I wish I'd known about that before," said Leslie, gazing at Louisa's dress again. "I could have just gone to your friend and avoided that three-hour fuss-fest at Ellströms." Christian burst out laughing and squeezed his wife around the shoulders, and she grinned but insisted, "I'm serious. And I really thought you'd appreciate that, my love, considering how bored and impatient you were."

"Oh, that's only because I forgot to bring a computer program to write while those women were measuring and poking and prodding you, and checking out colors against your hair and eyes, and discussing the best jewelry to go with various hues," he said.

"When did you go to Ellströms?" Rudolf asked curiously.

"Two weeks ago," Christian said, "while you were out planting. Leslie doesn't care for the sort of fuss rich women make over clothing, but she wanted something elegant for Briella's wedding; and besides, the things she brought with her are meant for cooler weather than we're having right now. Someone forgot to tell us how hot the summer's been here this year." He shook his head. "Which, of course, explains your public appearances in shorts."

"I think it was worth it, Your Highness," Louisa spoke up, studying Leslie's dress, a lovely, floaty number in pale-green organdy with a slightly darker green organza underlining providing depth and substance. The overskirt was studded with rose-shaped cutouts that allowed the underlining to shine through, sparser at the top near the waist and gradually more numerous towards the hem. Each cutout was outlined with emerald silk thread. "That color looks so pretty on you."

"Thanks, Louisa," said Leslie and smiled.

"Not a word from you otherwise, my Rose?" Christian broke in teasingly. "Have you finally grown comfortable with being called 'Your Highness'?"

"I told myself I needed to learn to be graceful about bearing the title whenever we're here," Leslie said. "I don't have to be like that back home, though, so that helps." Christian laughed again and this time hugged her fully, and Louisa watched Leslie giggle and return it with enthusiasm.

She looked at Rudolf and remarked softly, "They're so right together."

"That they are," Rudolf agreed. "Uncle Christian had to wait a beastly long time to find the right woman for him, but when he finally did, it was obviously worth it. And I think I can say the same of you and me." He stroked her cheek with one finger and she smiled dreamily at him.

"Oh, brace yourself, young lady," Christian added suddenly, catching her surprised attention. "If you've never been subjected to intense media coverage before, then you're going to get a shock of an initiation today. Any royal wedding draws copious attention, but this is the queen getting married here—so it will be five times worse. Can you take it?"

Louisa shrugged. "As long as Rudolf doesn't leave my side, I think so. And if I get too nervous, I'll just pretend I'm my sister."

"Your sister?" Christian repeated.

"Toni Karlsen, the actress," Rudolf said. "She's Louisa's oldest sister."

Christian jutted his chin forward and squinted at Louisa, then nodded slowly. "Ah, I see the resemblance now. Well, if you must borrow some of your sister's poise, I suppose that's fine—but the secret is not to let anyone see that that's what you're doing." With that he grinned and winked, and Louisa laughed.

The machine-gun thudding of rotors whipping the air abruptly grew too loud to ignore; they could feel it in the marble floor. "I think I see dust being stirred up," Leslie yelled at Christian over the noise, making him laugh yet again.

"Helicopters already?" Louisa asked Rudolf.

He nodded. "As Uncle Christian said, it's the queen's wedding. They're obviously waiting for us to come out and get in the limos for the trip to King Thorsten's stave church, where all royal weddings are held." He slanted a glance at Christian and Leslie. "Well, most of them. Uncle Christian's first wedding took place there, but when he married Aunt Leslie, he kept it as private as he possibly could. Her father's island is probably the only place in the world where he could have pulled that off. What few photos there are were taken by Briella's first husband, Elias. He was pretty good with a camera…one of his few redeeming qualities, as it turned out." He grinned and Louisa laughed. "Just stay by my side and you'll be fine. We're still waiting for my parents and Aunt Anna-Laura."

Shortly thereafter those family members not included in the wedding party were on their way to the church. Louisa found herself staring in amazement at no fewer than four helicopters following the cavalcade along Kustvägen Västra. "Holy cow," she mumbled.

She'd used English without thinking, and Rudolf remarked humorously, "I always wondered why you sanctify the cow in that expression and not some other animal."

Louisa blinked in surprise and stared at him. "I don't have a clue."

"Maybe it's after the sacred cow of India, who knows," Leslie said facetiously. Everyone laughed; Rudolf and Louisa were riding along with Christian and Leslie, Carl Johan and Amalia, Gerhard, and Roald with Anna-Laura. Liselotta and Adriana had remained behind, since they were two of Gabriella's bridesmaids. "I always preferred 'holy paradise' myself…it made more sense."

"It beats 'heilige hjusande ödet'," said Christian mischievously, setting off an explosion of mirth and earning himself a good punch in the side from his sister.

"How utterly irreverent, Christian Carl Tobias Enstad!" she scolded, wiping tears of glee from her eyes even as she spoke. "And with delicate ears in this car, too!"

"My ears've heard a lot worse than that, Your Highness," said Louisa dryly, thinking of Kristen, and again everyone burst into laughter.

The festive mood continued all the way to the church, where their limo became the caboose in a long train of cars that snaked along the drive, crawling along one by one as each vehicle discharged its passengers. Quite a bit of royalty would be in attendance; the other Scandinavian monarchs and many of their families were slated to be there, as well as British, Spanish, Dutch and Belgian royalty. Exiled Greek and Italian royals had been invited, a host of minor German royalty, and of course, the entire Arcolosian royal family. Not only that, but assorted non-royal dignitaries were attending as well: the American vice president, the Canadian prime minister, Finnish, Icelandic, Polish, Romanian, Austrian, French, Portuguese, Swiss, and other European officials; the Swedish ambassador to Lilla Jordsö and his family; and representatives of more far-flung places such as Australia and New Zealand, Japan, India, Russia, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and even a Saudi Arabian sheik or two. Limo after long, black, shiny limo glided up to the steps leading to the church entrance and spilled out dozens of elegantly, colorfully dressed guests, and Louisa just couldn't stop staring at them all.

Rudolf noticed, and when their car was still three or four slots back from the spot where they would alight, he leaned to her and murmured, "I understand your fascination, Louisa söta, but when we get out you're going to have to hide it if you can. People expect the escorts of royalty to be blasé, no matter how new they are to all this."

"I hope I can," she murmured. "Can I still smile?"

"That's practically imperative," he said, chuckling. "Later you're likely to be meeting a lot of those dignitaries you were watching so closely, so the best thing you can do is smile."

"Oh boy," she murmured, and he chuckled again before gesturing towards the window. They were next in line now, and Louisa took a deep breath or two and then glanced at Rudolf for reassurance. He winked; then their car pulled ahead and a moment later ushers were opening the doors for the royal family to step out. Louisa, seated at Rudolf's left, watched him exit, then followed him and slipped her arm through his as he turned to her and offered it. It felt choreographed to Louisa and the idea made her grin.

"Perfect," Rudolf whispered to her. "Now don't wave or say 'hi, Mom'." That made her burst out laughing, and he grinned broadly as they made their way up the church steps side by side. She could see a few TV cameras here and there, but what she really noticed was the crowd lining the steps, cheering and waving, calling greetings to the royal family. She could see Rudolf's parents, uncle and aunts waving back; Rudolf joined right in, looking perfectly natural. She smiled hopefully at no one in particular, but didn't feel right about waving; no one really knew who she was, she thought, only that she was with Prince Rudolf. But, to her surprise and relief, that was enough for her.

Daniel was already there and intercepted them to introduce them to his mother, who had flown in from Sweden for the event. The Lagnebring and Sjöblom families were also here, and Rudolf brightened suddenly, putting an arm around Louisa. "I want you to meet someone," he said and led her over to a very pretty, slender girl with hair just short of black, contrasted against the sort of pale skin Louisa supposed had been extremely fashionable around the turn of the twentieth century. "My cousin, Elli Sjöblom. Elli, this is my girlfriend, Louisa Karlsen."

He said it without hesitation, and Louisa wanted to hug him for it, right there in front of who knew how many people. But she settled for a delirious little grin and shook hands with Elli. "It's really great to meet you."

"I'm glad you and Rudolf got back together," Elli said. "He was in a pretty rotten mood the last six or eight weeks."

"Oh, so you did notice the near-strangling I gave you on Briella's birthday," Rudolf said lightly, and they all laughed. "Well, I wasn't quite homicidal, but she's right, my mood wasn't very good. Anyway, I have a feeling you two might become good friends." He caught a movement at their left, and Louisa followed his gaze, spotting Carl Johan waving at them from a little farther up the aisle. "Unfortunately, that'll have to wait till the reception at least. Far's signaling at us. See you after, Elli."

"We'll be there," Elli replied and grinned at them. Rudolf steered Louisa through knots of people standing around chatting, and followed Carl Johan's direction into a pew where they all sat down and made themselves as comfortable as they could.

"I hope you're wearing comfortable shoes, Louisa," Carl Johan said then, turning in the front pew. "With all the foreign dignitaries who are here to see Briella married, there's going to be a massive receiving line—she has to accept felicitations from all of them, and it's going to take quite some time. The entire family will need to be there as well, and since you're with Rudolf, that includes you."

"Too bad I didn't bring my autograph book," Louisa joked, and when Rudolf gave her a startled look she was afraid she'd said the wrong thing. But Carl Johan laughed, and she relaxed a little, more so when Rudolf rolled his eyes and grinned. Then his father added, "Don't be so condescending, Rudolf. You said much the same thing when your brother was married, in case your memory's failed you."

"Why do you think I rolled my eyes?" Rudolf retorted, and Carl Johan laughed and turned back. To Louisa Rudolf said, "I made that remark to Gerhard, and he didn't take it half as well as far did just now. So count yourself lucky." He winked again, and she grinned and scooted in a little closer to him.

For more than half an hour people continued to arrive, till the church was full and all the pews had been filled, and still there were people standing all the way around the perimeter of the building. Then Rudolf saw Christian kiss Leslie's cheek and arise to leave, and nudged Louisa. "Uncle Christian's going to give Briella away since Uncle Arnulf's dead. He did the same thing for Cecilia when she married Axel, and he was best man at Gerhard's wedding. Seems the bride's finally got here."

"My gosh," said Louisa, watching Christian stride up the aisle. "You guys are really crazy about Prince Christian, aren't you? I mean, since he's been part of so many of your weddings and all."

Rudolf nodded. "Whatever it is that makes people love someone and feel protective of them and want the best for them, he's got it. You should have seen the press his wedding to Aunt Leslie generated—anyone who didn't know better would have thought he was the king marrying his queen. Here come the bridesmaids, and Briella went all out." He grinned, and Louisa shifted her attention to the parade. Two-year-old Princess Natalia, acting as her aunt's flower girl, came first, visible to most of the guests only by the white rose petals she was hurling exuberantly into the air over her head; she was closely followed by Anna-Kristina in a pale-yellow gown with a long straight skirt and simple lines. She was clearly directing her little daughter, whose voice was audible above the wedding march: "Wosie up! Wosie up!" With every "up!" another geyser of petals sprayed into the air. Delighted laughter broke out, and Anna-Kristina giggled but continued to encourage the child. Behind her came Margareta, wearing lavender and looking a little embarrassed, but smiling gamely. Then came Liselotta, looking serene and pretty in pale cornflower blue, and following her was Adriana, whose gown was pale rosy pink. Each bridesmaid carried a large bouquet of white roses that had been tinted to match her gown.

And finally, in stepped Gabriella, on Christian's arm, dressed in the same wedding gown she'd worn to marry Elias, but with significant changes. Previously, the dress had been trimmed with a tulle overskirt studded with diamond chips; Gabriella had had this detached and sold in the auction Margareta had put together in the spring. In its place, hundreds of small freshwater pearls had been sewn on the watered-silk skirt, and silver-lace trimmings festooned the gown from collar to hem, as well as making up the intricate headdress Gabriella wore. It spilled in a graceful waterfall over her shining caramel-colored hair from a diamond-and-rainbow-gem tiara. The dress glittered gently in the television lighting that festooned the rafters like oversized Christmas-tree bulbs, and the rainbow gems threw off glints of color with every step she took, every turn of her head.

"This is much more opulent than her first wedding," Rudolf murmured into Louisa's ear. "She's wearing the same dress, but it's not recognizable as such to those who weren't at the first wedding in person. All the pearls and silver lace have been added to the dress, and that lace headdress is brand-new."

"It has to befit a queen, of course," Louisa murmured back, and he smiled and nodded at her. "What a great way to use a dress again."

Christian and Gabriella reached the front, and Christian turned his niece over to Daniel before stepping back and resuming his seat beside Leslie. They sat in the front row with Carl Johan, Amalia and Anna-Laura; Gerhard, Roald, Rudolf and Louisa occupied the second pew, and filling out the remaining space in each of these two pews were members of Amalia's and the late Esbjörn's family, even though they weren't technically related to the queen. Amalia's and Esbjörn's siblings sat in front, and their offspring in the pew behind.

Louisa listened to the ceremony closely, finding that the jordiska words, when translated, were little different from a standard ceremony in English. But the traditional jordiska vows differed considerably, which she loved, and she watched with a dreamy little smile as the minister turned to Gabriella. "Your Royal Majesty, Queen Gabriella Katarina Susanna Enstad, do you take this man to be your husband in the eyes of the law and the Lord?"

"Yes, I do," Gabriella gave the traditional response, placing a ring on Daniel's finger.

"And Your Grace, Jarl Daniel Bengt Adam Cedering, do you take this woman to be your wife in the eyes of the law and the Lord?"

"Yes, I do," Daniel answered clearly, without ever taking his eyes off Gabriella. He slid her new wedding ring onto her hand and smiled at her then, ever so slightly.

"Under the authority bestowed upon me by the bride herself, our good and gracious Queen, Gabriella, I declare you to be husband and wife. Your Grace, as dictated by the tradition of our country, take your wife's hand and kiss it." With a smooth grace that Louisa envied, Daniel raised Gabriella's hand and pressed his lips against it, bowing as he did so; normally the bride would in return curtsy to her new husband, but since Gabriella outranked Daniel this was forgone. She simply stepped forward, meeting him as he straightened from his bow, and they shared a soft lingering kiss.

"I love the vows," Louisa whispered to Rudolf. He shifted beside her and made a soft noise; she had no idea what it meant, but from the corner of her eye she saw him smiling.

As Carl Johan had warned, the receiving line seemed to go on forever. Louisa found herself curtsying to so many people that she lost count early on and began to operate on automatic pilot. She lost track of time, and when they were at last allowed to move on to the limos, for the return to the castle where the reception was to be held in the great entry, Louisa was shocked when Rudolf told her nearly two hours had passed. "Oh, no wonder I'm dying," she groaned, going limp in her seat and removing her shoes.

Rudolf laughed. "I don't think we'll have to face a lineup like that ever again. Briella and Daniel look like forever to me, and none of the rest of us needs quite as much ceremony and pomp and formality to be married. But you'd better savor these few moments while you have them, because you're going to be on the dance floor with me more than you'll be sitting down. Just a friendly warning."

"Isn't there going to be a banquet?" Louisa inquired.

"Ah, well, yes, there's that," he said, grinning. "Well enough, then, you'll get a longer respite. But you will be dancing."

"Yeah, or at least trying to look like I am," Louisa said and sighed. "I really need dancing lessons. Good thing you can make me look so good." He laughed and settled himself comfortably in his seat.

There were the usual toasts and speeches, a joint thanks from Daniel and Gabriella, and a brief appearance by little Anders, who had just been fed and commented on the proceedings with a decidedly loud burp that elicited laughter. Gabriella hugged the baby and gave him a little kiss atop the head, then reluctantly handed him back into the care of the servant who had been assigned to him.

When Louisa looked back at her plate, she blinked at the small box that sat in the middle of it. "Some kind of wedding favor or something?" she wondered.

"Do you see one in anyone else's plate?" Rudolf asked.

She scanned the plates nearest her seat and shook her head, then slowly stilled as a strange, creeping premonition began to sneak up on her. "Rudolf…?"

"Open it," he urged quietly, watching her.

She lifted it with trembling hands, raised the lid and beheld within a beautiful ring: it was 18-karat gold, crowned with a square-cut diamond flanked by two smaller yellow topazes, Louisa's birthstone. She gaped at it in amazement, turned to Rudolf to thank him and almost choked on the words when she saw him on one knee beside his chair. Around them, those who could see what he was doing had gone quiet and were staring in wide-eyed anticipation. "I've never done this before," he said softly, "so I thought it best to do it in the most traditional way I know. Louisa söta, will you marry me?"

Her hands promptly began to shake so much that she nearly dropped the ring box, and her eyes filled with tears, even as an indescribable joy rose inside her like a balloon out of control. "Oh, Rudolf…yes, yes, I will!" she gasped and burst into tears.

Instantly the little crowd around them broke out in cheers and applause, and Rudolf got to his feet, pulling Louisa up and into his arms. "I think you're going to make me cry too," he murmured into her ear, his voice shaking almost as much as her hands. But he raised it anyway and called out, "Not to steal my cousin's thunder, but as of this moment, I'm an engaged man!" The applause and cheers rose again, this time from the entire assemblage, and Louisa nestled against him, her crying slowing, but the joyful tears unabated. Rudolf extracted the ring from its box and slid it onto her finger, then kissed her softly.

‡ ‡ ‡

"Look at the two of them," Leslie murmured, secure in Christian's arms during a slow romantic dance that immediately followed the bride and groom's first dance together. "Who'd have thought that tough, intrepid nephew of yours would be such a romantic?"

"Not I," Christian admitted truthfully. "But in a way it's not really so surprising. I think all along Rudolf had a particular romantic streak in him, and all it needed was the right woman to bring it out. But he certainly surprised me with the way he staged his proposal. I can't wait to hear what Carl Johan and Amalia think of it."

"It was even more romantic than your proposal," Leslie remarked.

"Now, wait a moment!" he blurted, then saw her impish grin and burst out laughing. "You little tease, just wait…I'll repay you for that one, I guarantee it."

"Can't wait, my love," she said with quiet anticipation, and his laughter softened into a smile, then vanished in their kiss.

Daniel and Gabriella, too, were watching Louisa and Rudolf, who had eyes for no one and nothing but each other, as if the rest of the world had simply ceased to exist around them. "Did he do that on purpose?" Daniel wondered.

"I don't know," said Gabriella. "I'll tell you something, though, I never expected something so old-fashioned and romantic from him. He's always been a pretty tough nut to crack and there's hardly anything that fazes him. But that girl managed to get under his skin, and to tell you the truth, I'm glad she did. I thought nobody could, especially after what Liliana Altenius did to him. And he's like Uncle Christian, he treasures his privacy. So it amazes me that he did what he did, when he did. I'd swear he was upstaging us."

"Let him," Daniel murmured, cradling her face in one hand. "I'd much rather think of tonight, when I finally make love to you for the first time. I plan to discover every delectable inch of your lovely body, my beautiful wife, and you'll soon forget whatever happened here this evening. I'll make it magical for you, I promise you that."

‡ ‡ ‡

They stole away early and holed up in Rudolf's suite, where Rudolf put a CD on the stereo and danced with Louisa to the music. They said little, if anything, merely basked in the moment, as if words would break the spell.

When the CD ended, they stood quietly, just holding each other, till Rudolf drew his head back and studied her, the way he'd been doing ever since she'd accepted his proposal. She was still the same girl he loved, yet somehow she looked different now that she was his fiancée and not simply his girlfriend. She gazed back at him, her eyes serene, her manner sure, in a way he hadn't seen in her before. When she lifted a hand and stroked his cheek with her palm, he couldn't help smiling.

Then she marveled softly, "I can't believe it…I'm really going to marry the man I'm in love with. I used to daydream about it when I was little, and then I stopped dreaming in high school. And then when I met you, I didn't dare dream…I thought it'd be too presumptuous. You were so cautious of me." He saw her eyes grow glassy with new tears, though her smile never faltered. "And then you made my dream come true after all."

"I'm probably too stubborn for words," Rudolf said, grinning gently. "Undoubtedly I get it from my late grandfather—Uncle Christian has the same trait, and I've been compared with him quite a bit. That stubbornness kept holding me back. And then I finally learned what I had, and what I felt, when it seemed to be too late. Fate decided to give me a second chance with you, and I was determined not to waste it."

She hugged him again, and he held her close, closing his eyes in order to fill his other senses with her. She was warm in his arms, fragrant with a soft floral perfume that complemented the scent in her hair, and when he moved his head and caught her mouth to kiss her, he found the taste of her irresistible. Her soft moans made him want to spend the entire night simply steeping himself in her.

Breaking the kiss and nuzzling her cheek, he murmured, "I know my cousin and her husband will be making love tonight, and I expect my aunt and uncle are going to do the same, and perhaps even my parents, who knows? I want to do that with you—to have you here with me tonight, in my arms." He nibbled on her earlobe and she groaned, filling him with a sense of wonder that he could do this to her. "I'm coming to realize that I want us to be married as soon as it can be arranged, because I don't want you sleeping in any bed but my own, not even alone. I need you here."

"Are you…asking me to…move in with you?" Louisa whispered, in between his kisses.

"Yes, I am," he murmured against her lips. "All this empty space you commented on? It was only waiting for you to fill it." He drowned her response in his kiss and she let her words melt into the moan of need that emerged from her.

"Can't wait," she murmured, to his surprise and delight reaching down and cupping him with one hand. "Every night with you…it's what I dreamed of. Only…" Suddenly she peered up at him, her eyes wide, though only partly overcoming the passion he still saw in her face. "I remember when Roald and Adriana announced they were getting married, and your aunt said that in your family, the bride and groom stay apart during the last month before the wedding. Maybe your parents won't let me move in here till we're married."

"Trust you to remember that," Rudolf groaned, unwillingly reminded. "Ach, well, maybe you can take on a suite in the south wing. Daniel lived in one till he and Briella were married this afternoon. Your things would still be here in my suite, and yet we'd be properly apart—though I'm not sure I could resist sneaking down there to make love to you."

"I won't tell," Louisa promised in a half-whisper, already closing in on his mouth with hers. At the same time she began to massage him, and Rudolf quit thinking entirely.

Lying on the bearskin rug in front of the fireplace afterward, with Louisa stroking his chest, Rudolf mumbled, "What would you say about a Christmas wedding?"

"What if we have a New Year's wedding?" Louisa offered. "Brand-new year, brand-new marriage. We could have our wedding party, and at midnight we could get married, and then we could sneak off to someplace warm and have a honeymoon."

Rudolf smiled. "I like that even better. Maybe we can have it on the island where we first met. If Uncle Christian and Aunt Leslie make it for our wedding, we can fly back with them, and with her knowledge of the island, she should be able to tell us where we can have a secret place that the world can't intrude upon. Imagine it, to distill the whole world down merely to each other and nothing else."

"I love it," said Louisa and kissed his chest. "But I love you even more."

He smiled up at her and then pulled her atop him so he could explore her body more fully. "And I love you, Louisa Karlsen…I love you, now and always." He gathered her close, rolling over and slipping into her.

"Oh!" she exclaimed and then cried out as he began to move within her. "Rudolf…"

He'd already lowered his head to capture her mouth again. "Talk to me, beautiful Louisa. Tell me."

Her eyes were glazed with what he knew was her need for him—no less intense than his for her—but she managed to smile. "You've been forgetting protection."

"Have I?" he murmured, moving again. "Ah, but you'll be all the more beautiful one day when you're expecting our child."

"I hope we make that baby tonight," she whispered, pulling his head down to kiss him. He smiled into her mouth while she wrapped herself around him in a way no other woman had ever done, in a way that made him feel loved and needed and wanted, even safe in some odd manner, and that let him know his heart had found a home.

THE END


Many thanks to all the readers of this story, especially those who marked it as a favorite (and to those who've marked me as a favorite author, a double thank you!), and particularly to my faithful reviewers, PDXWiz, jtbwriter and Harry. As always, you guys are the best, and I always love getting your reviews.

I know there are some loose ends I didn't tie up in this story, but that's deliberate. I'm going to pursue Anna-Kristina's interest in Kai Oskarsson in a future story, and I'll also answer the question of what happened to Anna-Laura and why she had to talk to Christian and Leslie. If you've been wondering about them as well, stay tuned! :)