Only for Convenience
Summary: The spirited Princess Natasha and Simon, the esteemed Duke of Caverdin, have been best friends for ever. But the Princess makes a wrong turn that puts her honor at stake, and only Simon can help her. The solution, however, is for the long term – turning them from best friends to man and wife. Is this marriage truly only for convenience?
A/N: Sorry it took so long to update. Was too lazy. And was taken over by another plot bunny.
Chapter Two – Proposition
When Margareth arrived in Natasha's room, Natasha was still in bed, frowning, trying to shoo away the two maids that bustled over her attempting to get her to eat breakfast. Spotting Margareth over one maid's shoulder, Natasha uttered a quick, sharp "Leave" that the two maids scrambled to set the trays of food on the round table near the balcony door before scuttling out of the room.
"Shouldn't you eat?" Margareth asked, approaching Natasha's bed. She sat on one edge and remarked, "You look dreadful."
Rubbing her temples, Natasha collapsed to the pile of pillows behind her. "I feel dreadful."
"Perhaps you should see a doctor," Margareth suggested, studying Natasha's pale face. "You've been ill all week."
Natasha shook her head. "I'm fine." She faked a smile. "I think it's all the balls. I think there are entirely too many." She choked back a sour lump on her throat and inquired in a seemingly uncaring manner, "Is there a letter for me?"
Margareth replied, "I'm afraid not. Were you expecting one?"
"No, no," Natasha said, shutting her head to try and get rid of the recurring dizziness and, she admitted to herself, to hide the stab of pain she felt.
Margareth frowned, but said nothing to pursue the subject. Instead she started, "Your Highness, I came to ask if I could go home today. Simon's arriving this afternoon –"
"Simon's coming home?" Natasha asked, suddenly brightening up.
Smiling in an intriguing manner, Margareth narrowed her eyes. "Yes, he is. He's staying for a week or so." She looked pleased for some reason when she asked, "Were you expecting him?"
"No," lied Natasha, for in fact she was; Simon had promised to go home soon during the time they saw each other in the Teacups a fortnight ago. He wouldn't tell her when exactly but he promised "soon enough." Natasha felt immensely better with the thought of finally being able to talk to Simon. She felt a bit of a leech, relying everything on Simon, but she couldn't think of a way… "But please tell him to see me today if he has time."
"Certainly, Your Highness," Margareth said, wearing a cheery smile. "Is there anything you'd like me to do before I leave?"
Grimacing, trying to hold back the sour lump that had come up her throat, Natasha forced a tight-lipped smile and shook her head.
At that, Margareth bobbed to a quick curtsy and turned to leave the room. The very moment the door closed, Natasha, covered her mouth and dashed to the bathroom sink and further emptied her already empty stomach. After washing her face, she glanced up at the mirror in front of her. She did look as terrible as she felt. Her face had grown thin and gaunt because of her morning sickness, and her eyes looked unfocused. Pinching her cheeks to give them a bit of color, Natasha forced herself to appear fine before going out of the bathroom.
The breakfast the maids had left consisted of the usual toast, croissants, bacon, eggs, jam and hot chocolate. She peered at the food with disinterest. They neither looked nor smelled appetizing. But her stomach rumbled so she knew she must eat something. She reached for a toast, took a bite and decided it was tasteless. She took the bell at the center of the table and rang it furiously. At once, her two maids were back.
Yza, the younger of the maids who always wore her auburn hair in pigtails, asked, "Are you ready for your bath, Your Highness?"
"But you haven't eaten anything, Your Highness," the other maid, Lia, pointed out.
"I don't want it," Natasha said briefly. "I want something else… I want a mango cake topped with goat cheese and maple syrup, oh, and a glass of fresh goat's milk. It sounds lovely."
Lia gaped openly at her mistress.
As if to comfort Lia, Natasha said, "I know it will take long to make. Bring it up after my bath."
"The usual chamomile for your bath, Your Highness?" Yza asked.
"No, no, not chamomile," Natasha said sharply. "I want a bath of milk and roses." Just as Lia was whisking the food away, Natasha said, "Leave the bacon and jam, please. Thank you."
Exchanging dubious looks, the two maids wonderingly went about their errands.
Licking the last bits of whipped cream from her desert spoon, Natasha declared the pie "Unsatisfying," earning her the disbelieving looks on her mother's and on the Queen's ladies' faces. The venue for tea that afternoon was at the West Garden gazebo, a round table in the shade of the largest tree in the castle grounds. It was Natasha's own choice. She liked seeing the leaves and the green, green maze, the flowers. They relaxed her addled senses.
"My dear, you do realize that you just finished your second slice of pie?" the Queen asked, furrowing her brows.
"I want more," Natasha said nonchalantly. She waved a hand and a maid immediately went to her. "Strawberry pie this time."
As the maid pottered over to prepare Natasha's third slice of pie, the Queen remarked, "You're eating a lot these days."
"Perhaps Her Highness is expecting?" Lady Tryne, the youngest of the Queens' ladies, suggested.
Natasha nearly jumped at the word. "Expecting?" she asked breathlessly. Lady Tryne nodded urgently in response, her eyes wide as if to tell Natasha that the meaning was quite obvious. Natasha, however, continued to gape back, clueless. When Lady Tryne mouthed "Your flux," Natasha released what she hoped was a slow, unnoticeable sigh of relief. "Yes, yes," she said, pulling the plate of pie to her. "It's supposed to come within this week," she muttered, comforting herself with the idea that her words wouldn't be a lie were she not pregnant.
"Your Majesty, Your Highness, my ladies," announced a doorman some ten yards away, right at the castle door leading to the garden, "His Grace, Duke of Caverdin and his sister, Lady Margareth."
Natasha quickly tore her eyes away from the pie and sat up straight. Walking towards the gazebo was indeed Simon with Margareth walking abreast him.
"Simon," called the Queen as Simon greeted her and kissed her hand, "You look quite dashing, my dear. Are you really studying in the university?"
Though Natasha would never have dared admit it to Simon, she inwardly agreed with her mother. Simon's hair was shorter than when she last saw him. His dark brown curls were cut neat, setting a more attractive tone to his fine jaw lines. His hazel eyes were full of intelligent humor. His face also looked less haggard, less troubled probably because he was smiling now unlike when they were at the Teacups.
Simon bowed. "Flattered, Your Majesty," he said gallantly. "A lovely afternoon, Your Highness, my ladies," he added, depositing Margareth to one of the empty chairs before the table.
"Did you come to join us for tea?" the Queen asked. "If I had known you were coming, I would have asked Leonard and other gentlemen. Have some pie, Margareth. Though Natasha might have finished it all."
"Take mine," Natasha said, pushing her pie to Margareth. "I haven't touched it yet. I'm actually full."
"I should think so, Natasha," the Queen said, amused. "Come sit, Simon, if you don't mind being in the company of women –"
"I actually came for Her Highness," Simon said, glancing at Natasha with a pleasant smile. "I believe she wanted to see me."
"Ah, of course," the Queen said. She gave her daughter a meaningful glance. "You're always here for Natasha."
Natasha laughed, and she hoped she didn't sound nervous. "He comes here for Leonard and for the library sometimes."
"Sometimes, that is. If you weren't too keen on being friends, I'd suggest your engagement," the Queen said, raising her brows at Simon who bowed convivially.
Though Natasha knew her mother sounded teasing, she knew that her mother meant what she said. For some time now, the Queen and the Dowager Duchess of Caverdin had been overly vocal about their desires to see her and Simon tied in wedlock. She had neither seen nor heard Simon react to it until now when Simon said, "That is for Her Highness to decide."
This obviously surprised all the ladies at the table, the Queen and Margareth in particular who turned sharply at Natasha. "Well, what will you say to that, Natasha?" the Queen asked.
Natasha just smiled cryptically and got to her feet. Wishing to run away from the intriguing gazes, she walked toward Simon and took his offered arm. When they had walked some yards away from the party, well out of earshot, she pinched Simon's forearm. "Weren't you the one who told me that we are not to make them hope for our…" Natasha hesitated. "Our wedding?"
Glowering at Natasha as he rubbed his arm, Simon said, "I only did that to please her so she wouldn't ask why you wanted to talk to me. And I wish you wouldn't pinch me. It doesn't become a lady."
Stubbornly, Natasha whispered, "Well, I've already done things that don't become a lady. What is a pinch?"
Glaring, Simon said, "I hope you aren't proud of having done those things." He sounded serious and reproving.
"Well, of course I'm not. I just meant –"
"I know what you meant," Simon said, leading Natasha down the grassy slope toward the west entrance of the garden maze.
Drawing aside the vines that curtained the entrance, Natasha asked, "How have you been?"
"Very well," Simon said as they encountered the first turn in the maze. "We've just started discussing several strange diseases. It has been very interesting." He stopped at a corner filled with roses. "Do you want to carry on walking or do you want to sit somewhere?"
"Sit by the fountain," Natasha said jovially. She loved this maze very much. She, Simon, Leonard and Margareth used to play hide and seek here so they knew where every turn led. All the dead ends had a bench for resting (Margareth used to say that the maze was originally built for lovers wanting some privacy, only recently did Natasha believe it). At the very heart of the maze was a fountain of the statues of the symbolic creatures of the Great Isles.
"And how have you been?" asked Simon after they negotiated more turns.
"Different," Natasha said matter-of-factly. "In the mornings, I'm dizzy. In the afternoons, I'm hungry. In the evenings, I'm sleepy. I don't feel like myself at all."
"Of course you aren't yourself," Simon said. "There's another person forming inside you."
"It's all very strange," Natasha said thoughtfully. "I don't like the same food, the same scents. Oh," she said, stopping in mid-step. Her eyes widened with enthusiasm. "I spread jam on bacon this morning. It was good. You should try it some time."
Simon threw his head back in a laugh, urging Natasha to continue walking as he did. Still laughing, he said, "No, thank you."
"Is that normal?"
"Jam and bacon?" Simon asked. His hazel eyes glimmered with amusement. "I'm afraid not." When Natasha glowered, he continued, "But, yes, the changes are normal. There are… say… different chemicals on your body that are changing you. Mood swings and strange cravings are actually telltale signs of pregnancy so you should try not to act too differently when other people are around. They might suspect." Abruptly, Simon paused to touch Natasha's hair.
Eyes widening, Natasha stared at Simon who was running fingers through a stray lock of her hair.
"There's a leaf," Simon said, showing Natasha a small, yellowed leaf that he caught between his fingers.
Releasing a sigh, Natasha nodded. Wordlessly and slightly nervously she tugged at Simon's arms and continued to walk.
They could see the top of the fountain and were making their last turn when Simon asked, "Has Helvic written?"
Natasha did not answer until they had reached the fountain. The raven for Gorgedin, the lion for Luthale, the cobra for Ujyr, the swan for Nersev and the owl for Ceraiyon all oozed water from their mouths. Natasha sat on the rim of the fountain, looking at the bronze, silver and gold coins at the molding marble bottom of the fountain. "No, he hasn't," she replied after quite a while.
Simon lifted a foot to the rim of the fountain, leaned his arm on his knee and bent forward to watch Natasha's rippling reflection on the water.
"I don't think he'll ever write," Natasha said in a hushed voice. This was a pain to accept, but she had realized that three weeks was too long a time to wait for a mere letter. She glanced at Simon's reflection. His face was blank and calm. Right then and there, she knew that Simon had suspected this would happen, and the thought made her feel worse.
"Are you all right?" Simon asked. "Have you accepted this?"
"There is nothing left to do," Natasha said bitterly. "I can't wait for something that's not going to come." Biting her lips, she said, "But I don't know what to do. I considered abortion but –"
"Abortion will destroy two lives and not fix any," Simon said tonelessly. "It's never a solution."
"I know, I know," Natasha said, bringing her eyes away from Simon's reflection and looking at the real Simon. "But what am I supposed to do?" she asked in a hopeless voice. "The only thing left to do is tell everyone and let my parents send me to another kingdom where people will not know what happened so I can be married."
"And what are you going to do with the child?"
"Leave it here? I don't know," Natasha said in a raised voice. She sighed. "I don't know."
Simon stared pensively at his own rippling reflection. "I have a solution in mind."
Natasha quickly looked up at Simon, who continued looking at the water. "What is it? I'm sure it's better than any solution I can think of," she mumbled. A tense silence filled the air. Even the continuous flow of the water from the fountain became eerie as she waited for Simon to speak.
After a full minute, Simon said, "You will have to marry me."
Ogling at Simon, Natasha couldn't believe what she just heard. It was preposterous and impossible and unfair. But on the other hand, all the benefits of a marriage with Simon dawned on her. A father to her child, a comfortable marriage, an illustrious rank… "No," she said more to herself than to Simon. "No. That's not possible."
"Why not?" Simon asked coldly. "You will be saved from a lifetime of disgrace. You will be married into a noble family and no one need ever know that I am not the real father of your child."
Natasha shook her head fervently. "No. Your honor will be stained. People will think that you've been acting dishonorably…"
"Once we're engaged, people will realize that it was not so much a dishonorable act but an act of love," Simon reasoned. "Once we're married, I would have regained my honor. You would have too."
"My family will hate you –"
Simon shook his head. "Not quite true. They will be shocked to learn that you are pregnant, they will be angry with me but it will pass. I know them and they know me well enough to think that I am taking my responsibility on you. It would also be easy to make them believe that we're actually in love."
Natasha shut her eyes when she heard Simon's last two words. She released a shaky breath. "But we're not, and it's an unfair deal for you. You need not marry me and suffer a marriage without love because of my mistakes when you yourself did nothing wrong."
"I never had dreams of marrying the person that I love," Simon said, pressing his lips. "It has always been your dream. Besides, you won't be a handful of a wife. You will make a competent Duchess. And I didn't say I didn't want anything in return."
"What do you mean?"
"An heir," Simon said curtly. "I need an heir, and as my wife, you'll give me one. If this child of yours is male, he will be my heir. If it's not, you will have to lie with me. I think this is the difficult end of the bargain for you. I know that you neither want to marry nor lie with a man whom you don't love."
Simon's words felt like a dagger stabbing Natasha's heart. She wanted to laugh sarcastically. She had been too in love with the idea of love that she became thoughtless and irresponsible. Then there was something else, a vague memory that she remembered from when she was sixteen, something she hid and quelled. Eyes wide in thought, she said, "Fine. I will marry you."
This time, Simon was the one who looked surprised. Something about his round hazel eyes told Natasha that Simon didn't expect her to agree outright.
"But we will have to appear in love if we are to make them believe that you have been planning to marry me and we just couldn't wait till we're married," Natasha said, wondering at the unreadable expression on Simon's face.
Seeming quite recovered, Simon nodded with his usual calm. "I'm going to court you while I'm here. I will dance with you in balls, I will seek you out in gatherings, I will visit you every day. For your part, you have to show favor by dancing with me at least twice, preferring my company over others, I think you know these things… By the end of this week, I will ask for your hand."