Authors: Marianne Knightly
The Prince took hold of her arms and spoke, holding her eyes hostage with his. “No, Charlotte. Neither of us was holding anything to spill this time.”
He was close, too close. She broke his gaze to glance at the counter, where his coffee cup sat. Since his hands – his warm, large, searing hands – were currently holding her, it seemed that she hadn’t made a fool of herself again.
“Why are you so close?” she asked before she could think better of it.
“You have some flour, just here.” One hand reached up, and one of his long fingers stroked her nose; the movement had a soothing effect she had not anticipated.
She swallowed and attempted to step away. “Thank you.”
His grip tightened on her but his voice was still low and soft. It was the sort of voice she imagined lovers used to share secrets in the night. “What do you have left to do?”
Her own voice came our rougher than she expected. “Decorations, filling.”
“You’re very talented. Did you know that?”
“Oh, yes. Your hands are so confident and efficient. I’ve always thought that.”
“You can taste it.” Nate leaned closer, his voice a warm breath against her cheek. “Every time you make something, I can always tell if you made it.”
“Perhaps I’ll tell you one day.” He seemed to nuzzle her cheek for a moment before his lips pressed against it. His lips didn’t linger against her skin, but they still left a trail of unexpected warmth in their wake. She never reacted to men; that she was reacting to this one was almost unbelievable to her.
He stepped back and dropped his hands away from her. Suddenly, it was as though a fog lifted and the world came rushing back. She sucked in a gasping breath and took a step back herself. “Stop.”
The Prince quirked an eyebrow and crossed his impressive arms over his equally impressive chest. “Stop what?”
She swallowed again. “Stop seducing me. I won’t just fall into bed with you.”
His eyes narrowed. “What makes you think I was seducing you?”
Charlie broke his gaze and turned away, her hands trying to stay busy by preparing the buttercream mixture. The kitchen was out of raspberries, so she would make a blueberry buttercream filling instead for this second cake.
“It was pretty obvious what you were doing, Your Highness. You’re not the first to try it.” Charlie poured the pints of fresh blueberries into a food processor and turned it on, only to have the Prince turn it off just as quickly.
When Charlie turned to glare at him, it was to find his face full of fury. “What do you mean I’m ‘not the first’? Who else has tried it? Was it another royal? One of my brothers?”
“That’s my business, not yours,” she said and turned the processor on again. He turned it off just as quickly once more. “Stop that. Let me work.”
“Not until you answer the question.”
“Why does it matter to you anyway? I’m of no importance.” She whirled around and started the processor for the third time, this time standing protectively over the buttons. Once the blueberries were pureed, she poured them into a sieve which was set over a large bowl; it was the best way to separate the blueberry juice from their skins.
“You’re wrong, Charlotte.”
Needing a distraction from the gentle way he always seemed to say her name, she picked up some softened butter and made her way to the electric mixer once more.
“What am I wrong about?” She switched out the dirty mixer bowl for a clean one and dumped the butter in, then let the machine whip it until it was fluffy. When she reached for the sugar to add next, it was to find the Prince holding it.
“You are important, Charlotte.”
Something ached inside her at the words. Only one or two people had ever really said those words or something similar to her before now.
, she told herself.
Don’t let them see the pain. Don’t let them see
The Prince placed the sugar back near the mixer. “The cake really was delicious, Charlotte.” And, with that, he turned and walked towards the door, grabbing his jacket with a flick of his wrist on the way out.
Charlie let out a breath and sagged against the counter, the mixer still whirring next to her. What had just happened? What had the Prince meant? Shaking her head, she turned back to the butter and began to add the sugar. Work. Yes, work would help her focus.
Charlie next picked up the fresh blueberry juice and added it slowly to the butter mixture. When she got distracted thinking about the Prince and made the mixture too thin, she cursed and reached for the powdered sugar, adding it slowly to correct her mistake.
When she was happy with the results, she set it aside to work on the fondant and the Vallerian coat of arms she needed to make atop the cake. Since she didn’t have time to make fresh traditional fondant, she would make a simpler, faster fondant by mixing melted marshmallows and powdered sugar together; she’d often done the same when money and time were scarce growing up.
Next time, the cake would be perfect. But tonight, she was just trying to make it through. She would. She would get through this confusing, exhausting day and start fresh tomorrow.
Nate spent his whole shower thinking too much about Charlotte. He thought of who had hurt her in the past, who was propositioning her in the present. Even each piece of cake that washed away seemed to remind him of her soft, sweet scent all over again. Though he wanted to linger alone a little longer, time was not on his side.
Dressed in more casual pants and shirt, and leaving his hair loose, Nate walked towards the dining room. The Royal Wing of the palace boasted several small apartments – which he and all his siblings each used – a larger apartment for the king and queen, and many more-than-adequate guest rooms. All of the rooms were connected by a series of secret passages snaking through the entire wing, and even the entire palace. As children, he and his brothers often used them to pull pranks and scare each other by hiding behind secret doors and jumping out at inopportune moments. Come to think of it, his sisters did their fair share of taunting, too.
Nate made his way through those passages now, exiting into a common family room. Seeing it empty, Nate made his way to the shared dining room, and found his parents and two of his siblings – Lorenzo and Carolina – well into the main course.
Nate gave his mother, Queen Genevieve, a kiss on the cheek and took a seat next to Lorenzo. “Sorry I’m late.” A plate of creamy pasta magically appeared before him, and he dug into the food.
King Gabriel, Nate’s father, eyed him critically. “Did your meeting run long?”
“Something like that,” Nate said evasively. “We should talk after dinner. Alex should join, too.”
“I’ll see that he’s there,” Gabriel said as he pulled out his phone.
“Where is he?” Nate asked as his father finished typing out a message and slipped the phone back in his pocket.
Lorenzo nudged him a little too hard in the ribs, and wagged his dark eyebrows. “He’s with Rebecca.”
No one could mistake the warning in their mother’s tone, or her narrowed stare. “Lorenzo.”
“What? It’s the truth.”
Carolina shook her head, her short cap of brown hair shifting slightly. “You don’t have to make it sound so dirty.”
“I think that’s your mind making things sound dirty, little sister.” A devilish smile stretched across Lorenzo’s face. More than one woman had been charmed by that smile – Nate wondered if Charlotte had been.
“Leave them alone, Lorenzo,” Genevieve said in a no nonsense voice as she put down her fork and pushed a lock of her dark blond hair behind one ear. “They’re engaged, and they enjoy having dinner together on their own. I certainly can’t fault them for it.” She turned and gripped Gabriel’s hand, love clearly evident in her eyes. Gabriel returned the soft, adoring look and gave his wife’s hand a squeeze. They had been married for forty years and, while their looks had grown more distinguished, their love for each other had not dimmed.
“Yes, my dear, I agree,” Gabriel said. “I remember those early days of our engagement. So, Lorenzo, you should not tease them for it.” Their father’s critical glare made all of them squirm a little, not just Lorenzo.
“If I don’t tease them, who can I tease? Marcello’s gone back to England with Grace and Cat for a while,” Lorenzo said, referring to their brother and his English lady love, as well as their sister Catherine. “And Arianna’s still getting settled in Brazenbourg with Finn,” he continued, referring to another sister who was engaged and expecting a child with the now ruler and crown prince of Brazenbourg, a very small country well to the north of Valleria.
Carolina put down her fork on her now empty plate and adjusted one of her long, dangly earrings. “Why don’t we just tease you instead, Lorenzo? I’m sure I can think of all sorts of lovely things to say to you.”
Lorenzo scowled. “Aren’t you going back to France soon to teach or something?”
Carolina’s face spread into a broad smile. “Don’t worry, brother. You get to see me a little longer. I don’t have teach until February and, in any case, I’m still working on a painting here.” Carolina was the artist in the family, but taught art to children in France from time to time. “I think after the holidays, though, I’ll spend time in Masillia with you,” she said, referring to Valleria’s city by the sea, where Lorenzo typically lived.
Lorenzo crinkled his nose. “Why? So you can pester me some more?”
Carolina laughed. “No, though that is a nice bonus. I’d like to work on a winter seascape for my next painting, so you’ll just have to put up with me.”
Lorenzo’s eyebrows shot up. “I always knew you were crazy, but trying to paint the sea in the frigid cold winter has be the craziest.”
“You won’t risk your health, will you?” Nate chimed in, knowing his parents were about to do the same. His father had the power to stop her, but Nate wanted her to be happy. They all did. She wasn’t always so happy all the time.
“Don’t worry, Nate. I will be properly attired when I start work. In any case, I’ve still got a lot to do here before the craziness of the holidays comes.”
“And it will start soon enough,” Gabriel said as he put down his fork and gestured to the servants to bring out dessert. Plates were quickly whisked away and replaced with smaller ones for dessert.
“What do you mean, Papa?” Carolina asked as she began to pour them coffee, and handed a cup to her father.
“Thank you, my child,” Gabriel said. “The holidays will become hectic for the next several years, I image, all due to Vallerian Independence Day.”
Lorenzo nodded his thanks as Carolina handed him a cup as well. “Our Independence Day hasn’t changed for over fifteen hundred years. I don’t see why it should be an issue now.”
Genevieve took her own cup with a smile of thanks. “You will all find out soon enough why it will be so important.”
Lorenzo took a long sip while giving his parents a long look. “Why can’t we find out now?”
Genevieve didn’t look up when she spoke, choosing instead to focus intently on the coffee in front of her. “Because you’ll find out at the next all-family dinner, which should be later this week, that’s why.”
All three siblings groaned at the news, including Nate. Though they really did love spending time together, usually having all nine siblings in the room together equaled chaos and sibling-induced torture.
Genevieve pursed her lips. “Now, now. It’s wonderful when we can all get together, isn’t it? It will be harder now, with our family becoming spread apart,” she said softly, and Nate knew she was thinking of Arianna, whose home and future was no longer in Valleria. “We need to take these opportunities as much as we can.”
“What about the others?” Lorenzo asked, wondering about their other siblings.
“They’ll be there,” Genevieve said determinedly. “Ethan only had a brief trip this time,” she said, referring their youngest sibling, a doctor in the Vallerian Royal Navy. “Sarah will have some time from her duties with the Vallerian embassy in Rome, and the others will be back from England by then.”
As their mother had spoken, the delectable cake Charlotte had made was brought out and set in front of Genevieve. Nate wondered why anticipation for cake had his heart beating faster. He didn’t doubt Charlotte’s abilities in the kitchen, but suddenly he had a desperate need for his family to approve of it.
While Nate admired the delicate work of the Vallerian coat of arms made in fondant, his mother began slicing into it. Nate was literally on the edge of his seat, waiting as his mother cut one piece after another and passed them around the room. Nate received his last.
While the rest of his family chatted and dug into the cake, Nate’s mind once again flashed back to the kitchen, to the moment a cake had met his face. That cake had been layered with a dark pink or reddish filling, but this one was a deep dark blue, almost purple, and he recalled her deft work with blueberries earlier.
His fork easily pierced the cake and he lifted it to his mouth. He closed his eyes as he took the first bite, and moaned softly. A hint of cream cheese fluttered through the cake, and the filling tasted like fresh, juicy blueberries covered in decadent, airy whipped cream.