Brennan raced down the palace corridor, the soles of his dress shoes losing traction on the slick tiled floor. The stitch in his side served as a reminder that he needed to spend less time behind his desk and more time in the gym. As he was giving up his directorship, it was unlikely he would see fieldwork again, but it paid to be prepared.
Sweat dripped into his eyes. He rounded a corner, nodded to a pair of uniformed guards. His heart hammered in his chest. He was late. He'd gotten caught up with one of Devin's crises, and he was late for the most important date of his life.
Brennan rounded another corner. The air was thick with perfume and rang with laughter and the hum of conversation. Uniformed waiters wreathed through the crowd offering trays of champagne flutes and canapes. Brennan searched the sea of glittery jewels and perfectly lacquered hairstyles for his beloved's face.
Near the wide, curving stairs on the other end of the ballroom, Brennan spotted a flash of pink and the shine of a diamond tiara. As he neared, he admired the simple line of the pink ballgown and the pale, smooth skin it revealed. Small, delicate but capable hands brandished a crystal flute like a weapon as she spoke with a group of dignitaries. Beneath the din around him, he heard a calm, light feminine voice.
She was speaking Peyenese with a faint Crevalian accent. Her grammar was precise and formal, but there was a hint of a burr. She spoke as one who'd been away from home for a prolonged period and was only recently slipping back into her native dialect.
Brennan halted in the center of the grand ballroom when a hand curled around his shoulder. He glanced over his shoulder into his cousin's anger-tightened, ruddy face. Though he bristled at the delay, he had to deal with Devin. He should have done it days earlier.
"Did you know?" Devin demanded, voice rough with anger.
"Aye," Brennan said.
"And I did not deserve the courtesy of enlightenment?"
"No bloodshed whilst there is company," said that too-proper feminine voice. "It is one of Mother's rules."
Brennan tore his gaze from Devin's face to study the woman standing beside Devin. She was as immaculate as the others in the room. Her long, caramel brown curls had been tamed into an intricate twist with only a few soft ringlets framing her face. Even in delicate heels, she was petite. Her dress was not as elaborate as her sisters', but it was well-made and suited her perfectly. The long, gauzy sleeves concealed the bandage on her arm. Diamonds and sapphires glittered at her ears, throat, and wrists.
An antique gold ring decorated with jeweled Crevalian winter roses was on the fourth finger of her left hand.
She was not the most beautiful woman in the room, nor the highest ranking, but she held his attention like no other. He was captivated by the silvery blue eyes framed by dark, long lashes. Her eyes reminded him of his favorite lake just before dawn. When the air was quiet and he could capture a moment of peace. She radiated that same sense of peace. Even as her recklessness made his gut churn.
"She is quite adamant about that particular rule," she continued. She smiled gently at Devin, rose on her toes to brush her glossy lips across his cheek. "Do not be angry with your cousin, Dev. It was not his secret to share."
Princess Melissande of Peyen, youngest daughter of King Yavin and Queen Beatrice, dropped into a low, flawless curtsey. The murmur of voices quieted as all eyes turned to the scene in the center of the ballroom. Brennan lifted her left hand, lifted her out of the curtsey. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the knuckle just above his ring.
"Milquetoast," Devin huffed, gliding backwards out of the limelight.
"A less-than-apt epithet," Brennan murmured. "But it all makes perfect sense. The princess no one sees because she's actually running amok in Creval."
"Amok," Brennan confirmed. "And I am just crazy enough to take you back."
"I rather thought you were the ball-and-chain in this scenario, mouse."
Lissy's lips curled into a mocking smile. "Where is that famed charm, Your Highness? Are you so certain of your victory that you are not even going to bother wooing me?"
Brennan resisted the urge to drag her into his arms. He wanted to bask in the warmth of her skin and of her laughter. He settled for tucking her hand in the crook of his arm and curling an arm around her waist.
"You have refused to see me, darling Lissy. If you wanted wooing, you should have taken my calls."
"I needed time."
"Time with your family. Aye, I understand."
"Civilian life is so… boring. How do people stand it? How do my sisters and sisters-in-law stand the endless rounds of charity meetings and teas and hours of polite small talk?" Lissy sighed wistfully. "It's been a week, and I fear I'm going barmy."
"Who could tell the difference?" Brennan teased, kissing the top of her shining head. "You should have taken my calls, mouse."
"I solved a mystery. There was a footman. Tardy. Mussed. Inept."
"Rookie spy? Nervous assassin?"
Lissy's bright, merry laughter wrapped around him like a fine cashmere blanket. It filled his head. She leaned her head against his arm and something inside him settled. She wasn't running screaming from him. She wasn't treating him with coldness nor aloofness. He was in a ballroom with his future-wife on his arm. No one was trying to kill him. There were no reports to have to read, no spies to have to lead. Just the pleasure of a beautiful woman by his side.
"He's having an affair with a maid."
"Ah," Brennan said, oddly disappointed. Where was the intrigue?
"My response exactly," Lissy laughed. After a moment, her smile slipped. Her fingers dug into his arm. Brennan tensed, fearing rejection. There were so many things he'd wanted to explain to her, but she'd refused his attempts at communication. Her damned overprotective, nosy brothers hadn't made his pursuit any easier, either.
"You wanted to marry five years ago," she said.
Brennan grinned. After a lifetime of political intrigues, his Lissy was delightfully blunt. If she was coming straight out and asking, then she wasn't ignoring his suit. She was interested enough to ask questions.
He laughed. The hint of suspicion in her tone tickled him. The words fell from his lips before he could stop them. "I do love you, my mouse."
She stilled. Froze like a statute at his side. Her head tilted to the side as she studied him. Her eyes were wide, her lips parted. He memorized the sight of her. It was so rare that he caught her so blatantly unaware. It was brilliant.
"Why?" she choked out.
"Why not? How could I not love you? I think I have been yours since the day you rescued my cousin from a RoL bomb. Since you sassed me for putting Devin in danger."
"I wanted to go to your father as soon as I realized who you were, but it wasn't the right time for either of us. I wanted to prove that I was more than a playboy prince."
"P-playboy?" Lissy sputtered. She drove the point of her elbow into his side. "Confusing yourself with Sean again, are you?"
"And you had demons. I could sense them, but I did not know what they were until you told me about the fire," Brennan continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "I waited. Showed more patience than I thought I possessed. Fell more in love with you at every interaction. I went to your father, pretended I did not know of your assignment, and asked for your hand."
"Dad said no."
"He said 'not yet.' So, I waited. Discovered that I had more patience. Trusted my best people, my favorite cousin, to watch you and protect you. Only to have you protect them." Brennan wiggled his finger at her. "Shall I tell the Duke of Addis of your behavior?"
"Leverage, then," Brennan said with a smile. "Your father finally said yes. I had it all planned. We would spend a cozy trip with Devin as our chaperone. I would ease you into the idea of marrying me. We would build on the friendship we'd built, and by the time we reached Forran you would be as in love with me as I was with you. The bloody RoL sent that plan straight to hell."
"You mean you did not plan to spend the entire trip alternately yelling at me and declaring to the world that I was carrying your child?"
Brennan rubbed the back of his neck. "It did not put me in the best of lights, did it?"
Lissy smiled slowly. It warmed Brennan from the soles up. "Oh, but you never truly know someone until you see them hanging out a car window firing a Harmonic Amplified Resonant Pulse cannon or shouting at one of the leaders of the RoL."
"What conclusions have you reached, then, having seen me in such poor light?"
Brennan did not realize he had led Lissy to the double doors leading to the balcony until she opened the door and stepped into the cool evening air. He followed Lissy to a corner of the wrought iron balcony. She leaned against the metal railing but did not relinquish her hold on Brennan.
"I believe that any man foolish, impulsive, reckless enough to lean out of a moving vehicle and fire at an armed drone, that any man idiotic enough to yell at Magnus Maguire, or stupid enough to bribe the Resistance clearly needs a keeper."
"Not just any keeper. Someone who with experience with reckless plots and impulsive actions. A keeper to ensure you stay on the straight and narrow, Your Highness." She laughed as he lifted her hand for another kiss. "Failing that, you'll need someone to watch your rear and rescue you when you get in over your head."
"I was going to argue that you were the one in need of a keeper, my dear."
"Perhaps we could come to some sort of mutually satisfactory agreement."
"I am afraid that I cannot commit to a term any shorter than fifty years."
"With the caveat that we renegotiate at that time."
"Of course." Brennan had been patient for five years and a few, unbearably long days. He could stand it no longer. He gently tugged Lissy into the circle of his arms. "Please mind my ulcer and keep the corruption of our children to a minimum."
"I do not know if I can be the princess you need, Your Highness," Lissy confessed, lips against Brennan's chin. "Three days at home and I was dreadfully bored."
Brennan had witnessed the highs and lows of his parents' marriage. He'd felt the strong love that had formed the foundation of that relationship. Even as a child, he'd known that he would settle for nothing less than a similar relationship. His mother was the ideal woman, and he'd found one cut from the same cloth.
"When you need the adventure, my mouse, I'll teach you how to fly my mother's plane."