Chapter 52: The Scent of Suspicion
Nicholas glanced up in surprise as Beaumont greeted him on the steps of Peony Palace at morning light.
“I thought you’d be looking after Lady Maura today?” Nicholas pressed curiously as the knight captain followed him down the steps.
“I—assigned another knight to assist her,” Beaumont replied hesitantly. “I—don’t think she was comfortable around me.”
“What’s this?” Acheron greeted as he met them at the gate. “Why are you here, cousin?”
“He says Lady Maura is afraid of him,” Nicholas answered with a frown. “Have you tried smiling at her? You know—being friendly.”
“Perhaps if he didn’t look like a wolf baring its fangs,” Acheron snickered as he slid between them.
Nicholas shoved his friend aside and focused on Beaumont’s flushed cheeks and averted violet eyes. “What about flowers?”
“Flowers?” Beaumont repeated uncertainly.
“Yes!” Acheron said enthusiastically. “What do you think she’ll like? Roses or Lilies?”
“Why would I get Lady Maura flowers?” Beaumont protested.
“Because you nearly broke her foot and ruined her chances of winning this selection,” Nicholas answered promptly.
“And now you’re bailing after so proudly declaring you’d make up for that blunder by looking after her until she got better,” Acheron added with a wicked grin.
“I—” Beaumont glared between the two of them and heaved an aggravated sigh. “Where can I buy flowers?”
“Good man!” Nicholas attempted to throw an arm around Beaumont’s shoulder, gave up, and settled for patting his arm. “I know just the place.”
Carina hopped around her room with only minor difficulty as she dressed for the day. Her ankle was slightly less swollen now, but even with the freshly applied silk bandages, she couldn’t shake the sensation that it could give way beneath her at any moment.
‘I guess an overnight recovery was too much to hope for.’
Still, without the distraction of pain to contend with, Carina completed her morning preparations with minimal hindrance. She tucked Ghost’s dagger amongst the books in her trunk then finished setting her hair into a twisted rose-shaped bun. Satisfied she looked presentable, Carina hopped her way towards the door, using the wall and furniture for support when she could.
A heavy knock startled her just as she reached for the door handle. After a quick glance around the room, Carina tugged the door open and blinked at the bouquet of pink roses that almost smashed into her face.
“I—” Beaumont’s voice and then face appeared as he lowered the bouquet, “I wanted—to apologize—properly.”
Carina looked from his determined gaze and flushed cheeks to the flowers and opened her mouth wordlessly.
“Good morning, Lady Maura,” Acheron greeted as he edged into the doorway beside his cousin. “Sleep well?” Despite the fact that they were only two years apart in age, Acheron was at least a foot shorter than the knight captain he stood beside.
The rogue’s steel-blue eyes sparkled with a hint of mischief, and suddenly Carina knew precisely where the idea to get flowers had originated.
“Yes,” she lied. In fact, she had woken up before the sun after being executed by Beaumont once more in her nightmares. “Good Morning.” She attempted a half-hearted smile as she processed the stark difference between dreams and reality.
If the universe was determined to remind her that Beaumont was dangerous, Carina wasn’t going to argue. But when faced with pink roses and a sincere apology—Carina leaned forward to inhale the aroma of the fragrant roses.
‘It’s—not like the flowers did anything wrong, but—’
“I’m afraid I don’t have a vase for them,” Carina declined as she leaned back.
Beaumont, whose cheeks had become remarkably redder, blinked and glanced toward Acheron with a visible cry for help.
“Not to worry,” Nicholas said as he appeared between the giant and rogue. He scooped the flowers from Beaumont’s hands, plopped them into a vase, and presented them towards her. “Flowers in a vase, Lady Maura?”
Before she could reply or react to the crown prince’s sudden appearance at her door, Nicholas slid past Carina into the room without bothering to ask for permission.
“Wait, you—” Carina tensed as he glanced towards the still open trunk of books curiously. “Your Majesty—”
“Do you like to read, Lady Maura?” Nicholas said as he moved closer to the chest.
Carina glanced at the exposed covers and realized she had left her favorite book of poisons near the top. She hopped over and almost jostled into him as she firmly slammed the chest closed.
“Yes, I do,” she said breathlessly as she turned to face him, only to realize how unnervingly close he stood to her.
‘Is it me, or is he—being nosey? He should certainly know better than to enter a maiden’s room without her permission!’
Nicholas eyed her suspiciously as he set the vase down on the desk beside them. “Lady Maura, are you—”
“Ahh, your Majesty,” Acheron interrupted tensely. “You do realize it will cause a scandal if you’re caught in Lady Maura’s room like this.”
Carina shot the rogue a look of relief as she sank down and sat on the trunk. ‘Wait. Why is a rogue reminding the crown prince about the sanctity of an unmarried woman’s room?’
“The door is still open,” Nicholas pointed out sharply. “Besides, I was merely curious what sort of books you enjoy reading, Lady Maura?” His gaze returned to the chest beneath her.
“This and that,” Carina answered with a tight smile. ‘What the hell was he so curious about?’
Nicholas snorted, clearly not satisfied with her answer.
“Candidates!” Lady Sabella’s shrill voice filled the hallway.
“Your Majesty!” Acheron hissed as Beaumont turned and scowled in the direction of the other candidates’ rooms. A flurry of skirts and whispers faded down the hall as the crown prince stepped back and headed to the door.
“It would appear all the other candidates are heading downstairs,” Nicholas observed with a glance over his shoulder. “You should probably hurry, Lady Maura.”
Carina nodded and rose awkwardly. Her ankle wobbled, and she caught the corner of the desk quickly. The pink roses stared at her mockingly as she straightened, sucked in her lower lip, and hopped slowly back to the door.
Beaumont reached past Nicholas to support her. Carina ignored her accelerated heart rate as she gripped his arm and almost sighed with relief when he lifted her off her feet. Her mad dash to secure her trunk of books, poisons, and Ghost’s dagger had no doubt set back her recovery time.
“Just a moment,” she whispered to Beaumont as Acheron and Nicholas headed further down the hall. “Would you lock the door, please.” She pulled the single key tied to a purple tassel from her sleeve.
“Hold on a moment,” Beaumont muttered as he shifted her weight to one arm and turned back towards the door. Carina held onto his shoulder and neck uncomfortably as he turned the key, tested the door, and adjusted her once more.
“Thank you,” Carina said awkwardly as he handed her back the key. At least now she could focus on the Selection with some reassurance that her possessions would remain secure from prying eyes. “And—thank you—for the flowers, Captain Beaumont.”
Beaumont’s arms stiffened around her, but he managed a nod and what might have been a gruff, “You’re welcome.”