Anaria woke to the sun shining into the room, and frowned. How much of what she remembered was real, and how much was fever dream?
How could honest, caring, kind, humble Liam be the heir of Clearfall? That must have been her mind playing games.
She sat up, then piled the pillows behind her to help stay that way. The room was empty, so she probably had imagined the strange conversation from the day before. Although why she was clearly in the castle, rather than back in Sarah and John’s cottage in the village was a mystery.
Her comfortable conviction lasted until Liam shouldered the door open, carrying a tray. He smiled at her as he came in, the smile dying as her face remained serious and troubled.
He put the tray down on the table beside the bed and sat where he had for the start of the conversation the day before. He was clean-shaven and his clothes were of the same style as her dream.
“Except it wasn’t a dream was it?”
“I thought I dreamed that you weren’t a forester, that you’d been lying to me. But I wasn’t dreaming was I.”
Liam looked pained, “I am a forester Ana, I’m just, well, other things too.”
“And you took me to the village, and let me make a complete mess, and completely upend poor Sarah’s nice, ordered home while I tried to learn, failed at everything and found nowhere I could fit. Why?”
“Before you start yelling at me, and yes I daresay I deserve it, Sarah says you need to eat or you’re going to get sick again.”
Anaria considered hitting him with a pillow and telling him to get out. She didn’t think her arms would cooperate though.
Liam was frowning over the tray, it had funny little legs underneath it that, once he had it carefully settled over her lap, turned it into a tiny table of sorts. Anaria refused to be charmed or distracted.
“The Old Man came up with this too. His daughter broke her leg and was in bed for weeks, this made it easier to eat, and also do crafts and things.”
“You mean things like knitting and sewing that I’m useless at.”
“I’m awake properly now and I want to know why, when I just nearly died to try and stay honest to you, that you felt it was acceptable to build an entire relationship on a lie.”, the tears were about to come again, “You said you wanted to marry me Liam. How was that ever going to be possible when it turns out you don’t belong in the place you were asking me to make my home either?”
“I’ve not changed Ana, and maybe you don’t belong in the village, maybe you’re too curious and your horizons are too wide for somewhere like that, but do you think any less of the people there who do fit?”
“Well then, what? That’s the most stupid non answer you’ve ever given me.”
“Let me ask you another question then. Even though you’re convinced you’ve failed at your tasks in the village, do the people there seem to think any less of you?
Anaria frowned in thought, absent-mindedly starting to eat the breakfast in front of her. Liam continued before she could reply.
“Or how about this. If Sarah, or Maggie, or Samuel were in Gandry for some reason and didn’t know where the bakery was, or which inn was the best value for a night’s sleep. Would you think any less of them?”
“Of course not!”
“Would you have laughed at their lack of knowledge back before you knew them? When you only knew the town ways?”
Anaria took longer to answer, “I want to say ‘no’ again but I don’t think it would be true.”
“And now, if a villager from the river shores or mines were to have the same troubles, how would you respond?”
“I’d want to help, it’s awful not knowing and feeling like a goose amongst swans.”
Liam smiled, clearly thinking he’d explained everything, “See, there you are.”
“I’m not seeing anything. So you took me to the village to make me a kinder, more considerate person. How nice for you to make the world a slightly better place. It doesn’t explain why you lied and what I’m going to do with my life now that I don’t fit anywhere.”
Liam’s face fell, “I’m hoping you’ll still want to fit with me.”
“That feeling I got on the night of the town dance that said you needed help? It also said you were going to be very, very important to me in some way. And I think you know the way I want you to be important to me is as my wife.”
Anaria froze, jaw dropped.
“Ana, really, do you think I would ever enter a betrothal, even one as unexpected as ours, without meaning it?”
“I thought you were being kind. You do that you know.”
“Yes, and you’ve been showing me how to be tougher without being unfair. Don’t you see? We balance each other. And you’ve got the most amazing mind for trade and ways to make things better. Even if I wasn’t completely in love with you, I’d want to marry you for what an amazing Duchess you’ll be.”
“You love me?”
“You didn’t know?”
“You never said anything.”
“I didn’t think I had to.”
Anaria gave him a shy smile, “I suppose that means you don’t know I love you too.”
Liam leaned across and gently kissed her, “Does that mean you’ll marry me?”
“Yes, although I’m not sure your parents are going to be happy with you marrying just some town girl.”
Liam snorted, “My family has always married outside the nobility, it makes for far better rulers and much happier unions.”
“My father’s a North Mountains Ranger, grew up in a mining village just below the snow line. He’s the reason I knew enough about the forest to be able to work with John.”
“He’s not the Duke?”
“Well he is now, but only because he married the heir to the Dukedom. Which reminds me, you need to work on getting well enough to be up and about in the next few days. Mother commissioned your wedding dress the morning after the ball and she’s going to want fittings soon.”
“What?” Anaria’s breakfast tray nearly went flying.
“She said she liked the sound of you from the beginning, and after your conversation in the library, she said if I didn’t get my act together and get on with marrying you, she’d disown me and adopt you instead.”, he shrugged and grinned, “She’s always wanted a daughter.”
“How long has she known about me?”
“Your first full day in the village, when I was late back to the cottage? It was because I had to come here and tell them what was happening.”
A fuzzy memory from the previous day bubbled up, “Did you actually punch Sebastian or did I dream that bit?’
“No dream, Mother was appalled until she worked out who it was and then she told me off for not hitting him harder.”