Winter Wedding for the Prince(3)

By: Barbara Wallace

But he hadn’t. He hadn’t sought her opinion at all. So much for being his right hand. Apparently the familiarity she thought they had developed over the past three years had been in her head.

She forced a smile. Pretended she was excited for his news. “I’m sure the people of Corinthia will be thrilled. As will your father.”

“I’m not doing this for my father,” he replied.

“I know. You’re doing it to protect your sister.”

“No, I’m doing it for Corinthia.” His voice was sharp, the way it always was when his will was questioned. “I’m first in line. It is my responsibility to do whatever I can to ensure Corinthia has a long and peaceful future.”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” If there was anything Armando took seriously, it was his duty to his country.

Leaving Armando, she stood and walked toward the windows. The crown prince’s suite overlooked the south lawn. The famed topiary menagerie remained green, but the grass had gone brown from the winter, and the flowerbeds were empty. Across the street, a pair of business owners were filling their outside window boxes with fresh evergreen—a Corinthian Christmas tradition. When they finished, a single white candle would be placed in the center, another tradition. Greens for life, light for the blessings of the future.

Apparently, Armando’s future involved a bride.

What did that mean for her future then? For three years, it had been the two of them, prince and assistant, tied together as they both began lives without their spouses. Being there to help Armando had given her strength and purpose. She’d been able to rebuild the layers of self-esteem Fredo had destroyed.

What now? A new queen would mean new staff, new routines. Would she even have a place in Armando’s life anymore? The grip on her chest squeezed tighter.

She watched as a merli poked at the barren grass looking for seeds. Poor little creature wasn’t having much luck. She could identify. She felt a little like she’d been left wanting, too.

The thing was, she had always known there was the chance Armando would move on with his life. The news shouldn’t be this disconcerting.

Then again, he should have told her. They were supposed to be friends. Family. They’d held hands at her sister’s bedside and cried together. She let him drink her coffee, for God’s sake. Why hadn’t he told her?

“When are you making the announcement?” she asked. It would have to be soon if Armando wanted to draw attention from his sister. Depending upon how far along in her pregnancy Arianna had been when she met Max last month, there was a good chance the princess would start to show soon.

Behind her, she heard the soft clap of a cup against the coffee table, but she didn’t turn around.

“We’re making the formal announcement on New Year’s Day.”

What? When she thought soon, she didn’t mean that soon. No wonder she couldn’t breathe. In three and a half weeks, everything she’d come to know and rely on was going to change forever.

“Is everything all right?” she heard him ask.

“Of course,” she lied. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“It truly is the best solution.”

“I know.” He had no reason to defend himself any more than she had the right to be upset.

Clearly, that didn’t stop either of them from doing so anyway.

* * *

She was upset with him. Armando could tell because when she spoke, every third or fourth word had an upward inflection. Not that he was surprised. From the moment he made his decision, he’d worried she might see his remarrying as betraying her sister.

Staring at her back, he wished he knew what she was thinking. But then, she was good at hiding behind things. Her poker face was among the best.

“You know that if there was any other way...” he said.

“I know.”

Did she? Did she know he’d been up half the night weighing options, or that, given his druthers, he would never remarry? He’d had his chance at love. Four wonderful years with the girl of his dreams. If the price for those years was spending the rest of his life in solitude, he’d been prepared. He didn’t mind. After all, if he needed a companion, he had Rosa. She was better company than any consort might be.

Unfortunately, for men like him, what he wanted didn’t always matter. The mantle of responsibility outweighed personal desire every time.

Leaving his coffee behind, he joined her at the window. “Corinthia’s almost ready for the holiday,” he said, noting the men arranging greenery outside. “They’ll be lighting the candles tonight.”

Rosa didn’t answer. She stood with her hands clasped tightly behind her back, stiff and formal, like a proper royal servant, a pose she usually only struck in public. Armando didn’t like it. He preferred the relaxed, irreverent Rosa who kept him on his toes and saved him from drowning in his grief.

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