Chapter 31: A Prison of Hope
It was not often that Crown Prince Nicholas found comfort in sleep—or slept at all for that matter. The past two years of fighting to meet the expectations of the Prime Minister and House of Lords had taken their toll on him.
On top of his official responsibilities, the Dowager’s constant prodding about the wife they had arranged for him, once again drove Nicholas away from the palace.
In a quiet, humble house on the outskirts of the capital, he found the only solace he needed, wrapped in the arms of his beautiful Rosamund.
“Morning, my prince,” she whispered as she kissed his closed eyelids. “You’re finally awake.”
“Mmm,” he grunted as he wrapped an arm around her and buried his face into her amorous chest. “I don’t think I’ve had more than eight hours of sleep in the past six days. I needed this—I needed you.”
A sound, both unpleasant and yet all too familiar, banged through the floor below them.
“That would be your escort,” Rosamund said with a pout in her voice. “Come to carry you back to your silk sheets and royal princess.”
“Not royal, just adopted. Her grandmother was a maid,” Nicholas corrected as he tightened his grip around her. “Ignore him. He’ll go away.”
“We both know that’s not true,” Rosamund admonished with a faint chuckle. “Come on, my love, you will be king soon enough, and then you can sleep wherever you like as long as you like.”
He raised his gaze to her clover green eyes framed by soft platinum hair then focused on those sinfully sweet lips. “What if it’s not sleep I want?” he replied as he slid his hand under the sheets and down her stomach.
The bang at the door repeated louder, and Rosamund cringed.
“Before he breaks the door down, Nicholas,” she implored. “I don’t need the extra attention from my neighbors or your grandmother.”
The mention of the Dowager sobered his thoughts as quickly as a bucket of ice-cold water. Nicholas grabbed Rosamund for a quick kiss and then left the bed. “I meant to ask last night, but are you still comfortable here? I can arrange a bigger house or more servants if you like?”
“No, you know I don’t like fuss.” Rosamund rose leisurely from the bed and walked past him to fetch her dress from the chair. “I’m used to taking care of myself. I don’t know why you even bothered to find me a maid.”
“Because I want someone here to keep you company,” Nicholas said as he wrapped his arms around her waist and leaned into her rose-scented hair. “I know my visits have become—less frequent, and I worry about you.”
“It’s fine,” Rosamund deflected as she stepped away and turned to face him. “I expected as much when you got married. Besides, I hear she’s younger and prettier than me so—”
He stopped her with a kiss that deepened and claimed her until she was breathless in his arms.
“I haven’t touched her,” Nicholas whispered when he pulled away. “And I won’t. Not until you’re pregnant, and grandmother finally relents.”
“My love,” Rosamund said with tenderness as she kissed his chest. “She won’t welcome me even if I bear her a grandchild. I’m a commoner, a divorcee, and much older than you. Besides, we’ve been trying for over a year now.” She pulled away and slid into her dress. “Perhaps it’s just not meant to be.”
“Even without children, I will love you,” Nicholas promised as he helped her lace up her dress.
“And even if you never marry me, I will always love you,” Rosamund replied with a gentle smile. She picked up his trousers and tossed them at him as the knight below banged on the door again. “Now, shoo, go back to being a prince.”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can get away,” Nicholas promised as he hurriedly pulled on his clothes, grabbed his sword from the bedpost, and jogged out the door.
Rosamund moved to the window and gazed down at the towering knight who waited at the door below. Captain Beaumont stared back up at her with cold, disapproving violet eyes. Despite how often they saw each other when Nicholas came to visit, Rosamund never got used to his imposing presence. Once, while protecting Nicholas from a would-be assassin, she had seen him cleave a man in two.
Beaumont dropped his gaze and bowed in greeting as Nicholas yanked the front door open.
“Your Majesty, the Dowager is looking for you,” Beaumont said as he helped Nicholas pull on his jacket and escorted him to the two horses tied at the picket fence.
“When is she not looking for me, Beaumont? You could have let me sleep a bit more,” Nicholas grumbled as he hopped the fence, loosened the reins and mounted his favorite black stallion. Her prince turned to look up at her and waved before blowing a kiss.
Rosamund smiled, waved, and left the window. She knew better than to fawn over him too much. Afterall she had six years on his twenty and had been twice married and made a widow.
They had been romantically involved with each other for three years now, and each time Nicholas left her, Rosamund told herself he wouldn’t come back. After all, she had experience on her side and knew that love—if it did exist—never lasted.
Rosamund’s first taste of marriage came at the age of seventeen to a man of her father’s choosing. A brute of a soldier who thankfully died in the war against the Tharyn. Unfortunately, the mudscraper had also left her in debt, more than she could repay even after selling their home and her belongings. Faced with either homelessness or selling herself as a slave, Rosamund reluctantly moved back in with her father and worked as a seamstress to pay off her late husband’s debts.
It didn’t take her father long to find her another suitor. Mr. Artley was an older gentleman, but a man of means and one more than capable of erasing her debt. Rosamund, however, firmly refused his proposal, despite her father’s protests. Once unhappily married had been enough for her.
And yet the marriage happened anyway, though, to this day, Rosamund still could not recall the ceremony or her marriage vows. Those who had called themselves her friends said she’d been too drunk to stand, and by the time it was all said and done, she’d woken up next to that rat of a man as the newly instated Mrs. Artley.
Rosamund had enjoyed the large house, the dresses, jewels, and obedient servants. Compared to life as a soldier’s wife, it was remarkably grander. But it came at the price that she found repulsive to fulfill. Fortunately, two years later, Artley died after choking on a fishbone, and Rosamund became a widow yet again at the age of twenty-two.
And now at twenty-six, she was the secret mistress of Lafeara’s crown prince and future king. One day she would become his royal consort—but only if she could bear him a child.
The bloodline of Lafeara’s royal family was considered sacred, and as such, guarded by the religious principles of the Holy Saint’s Church. Consorts were meant to be chosen from suitable families among the nobility. Exceptions were made for commoners if the woman had been a maiden before she was taken to the king’s bed and became pregnant.
Rosamund met none of these requirements. But she had the love of her prince, something even his savage wife could not attain. And if Eleanora was descended from a maid, then what was wrong with Rosamund’s lineage?
Her father, like his forefathers, had served Lafeara as a soldier until an arrow and infection claimed his left leg. Her mother had been a seamstress who died of fever while Rosamund was a child. They might not be nobility, but they had never been slaves and were quite proud of that fact.
Rosamund sighed as she stared into the vanity mirror at her desk. Men still called her beautiful and stared after her with lustful eyes, but all Rosamund saw were the signs that age had crept up on her over the years. Her skin seemed dull, her hair lifeless, and the dark circles and lines that appeared in the corner of her eyes made Rosamund reach for her cosmetics.
“Miss,” the maid timidly called out as she entered the room, bearing a tray of tea.
“Come in Mouse and set it down,” Rosamund instructed, distracted as she laid out her powders and brushes. “Fetch me a fresh pitcher of rose water and a basin to wash my face.”
“Yes, Miss.” The maid placed the teacup on the desk beside the cosmetics and left with the tray.
Rosamund picked up the cup and breathed in its relaxing aroma. It was an exotic tea from Strunga, Lafeara’s neighbor and ally, one that she had fallen in love with when Nicholas introduced it to her over a year ago. Somehow the freshly brewed cinnamon and herbs always helped to clear her mind and settle her nerves. She still had a stockpile of tea in the pantry that was in no danger of running out—a gift from Nicholas and an apology for his absence of late.
‘Really, he’s such a sweet dear. And to think that new wife of his can’t even manage to get him into bed.’
Rosamund smirked and blew against the aromatic steam, unaware she was observed from the doorway by the maid, who smiled from the shadows as she watched her mistress enjoy her tea.