They began walking slowly down the path running beside the wall. Isobel paused and turned to the maid.
“Oh, please take my sewing back to my sitting room, I don’t think I’ll be doing any more this morning, and my guardians will be here soon enough to chaperone us.”
Duncan added, “And if anyone takes you to task, tell them I ordered you to leave.”
The girl gave them a grateful smile, bobbed a curtsey and left the garden, greeting Lord and Lady Dryart loudly as she turned the corner onto the main promenade.
“Some open dealing before your keepers arrive, Princess. Do you want to keep that maid with you here when I get rid of the Dryarts, or take her with you when you move to a new home?”
“You reached your majority three months ago, guardians are no longer necessary and I don’t believe the Dryarts have been attending to certain elements of the education I promised your parents.”
He stopped and looked at her, “So I need to know now. Do you want to stay here, while I pack them off to their ‘reward estate’, or leave them here and go somewhere else to further your studies?”
Isobel glanced back towards the garden door, Duncan nodded, “Very well, I’ll present them with their new holdings this evening.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Not out loud.”
She gave him a long, considering look.
“I’m trying to work out if that little trait is going to be useful in my husband, or intensely annoying.”
Duncan laughed and bent as if to kiss her cheek, “Game face on Princess, they’re here.”
Isobel affected wide-eyed, flustered confusion, “Your Majesty, that was most inappropriate.”
She could see him trying not to laugh at her sudden change. They needed a distraction, quickly, or he’d give the game away completely. Honestly, who’d have thought that a tyrant king would be so open, or disconcertingly handsome. She really needed to have words with his portrait artists.
Lord Dryart appeared before them, “Your Majesty, please forgive our tardiness, you were already on your way to greet our Princess before we’d even been informed of your arrival.”
Lady Dryart affected a smile, “Young love, so impetuous.”
Duncan had mastered his expression and responded with a coolly lifted brow, “Love Lady Dryart? This is a political alliance as you well know. I wished to meet my intended bride and draw my own conclusions on the results of your educational programme.”
“She is a most delightful and accomplished young lady.”
“Indeed. I’m looking forward to meeting with her language, geography, history, and philosophy tutors to discuss their assessments of her progress.”
Isobel’s jaw dropped, “Philosophy? Tutors? What are you talking about?”
Lady Dryart simpered, “Oh, you’ll find her governess has been more than adequate in covering all the material she needs to make an excellent debut in court.”
She faltered into silence at Duncan’s direct stare.
“As I said before, I need a Queen, not a debutante.”
Isobel squeezed his forearm in warning, “Oh Your Majesty, you underestimate the extent of Mistress Goulsham’s knowledge and abilities. She has truly been an exceptional teacher and companion.”
He looked at her. She smiled sweetly and fluttered her eyelashes.
His expression changed and she just knew he was going to say something outrageous, she hurried into speech.
“But we should not be standing out here in the sun. Perhaps we should all return to the house?”
Her prompt turned them all back into the hedge garden and, under the cover of their navigation of the little maze, she more felt than heard his whispered, “Spoilsport.”
Isobel wondered if it was normal to want to shake and kiss someone at the same time. Especially someone you’d just met, he was exciting and infuriating in equal measure. Lillian would never have coped.
She followed the direction of her thoughts, “Have you any news of my sister Your Majesty?”
“Ahh, yes, the Princess Lillian. She is to be married to King Tristan of Saro next month. She would like you to be one of her attendants.”
“He’s rather taken with her. Refuses to return home without his bride.”
Isobel didn’t have to feign her wide-eyed astonishment this time.
Duncan nodded, “Quite. No accounting for taste.”
Would the Dryarts notice if she kicked him? Probably. How could he spring that on her in front of them when she couldn’t respond properly.
She caught his smirk as he faced forward, his expression invisible to the Dryarts walking two steps behind. She made a mental note, revenge would be sweet, later.
He bent close, so their companions could not overhear, “Keep that expression on your face, My Queen, and I’ll kiss you, right here, right now, in front of everyone.”
He was a DEVIL.
Rescue came in an unexpected form. As they turned the corner at the end of the kitchen wall, Isobel noticed a horse being led to the stables. A very familiar horse.
“Oh, how charming, it appears Lord Edmund has come to pay his respects.”
“And who is Lord Edmund?”
“The eldest son of our neighbour, Baron Kinson. He’s our most frequent visitor and often spends many hours with us. Is that not so Lady Dryart?”
Her guardians blanched and, with garbled assurances and incoherent excuses, rushed into the house, leaving Isobel and Duncan to follow at their leisure.
“Stop being such a beast, we’re not meant to know each other.”
“We only met this morning Princess.”
“Weekly letters don’t count, Your Majesty?”
“Clearly not enough. I’ve been looking forward to our first real conversation for two years. I hadn’t expected to be quite so ready to drag you into the shrubbery and entice you into bad behaviour.”
Isobel felt her cheeks turning scarlet, Duncan watched appreciatively.
“Now what do I need to do about this persistent visitor of yours?”
“Intimidation will suffice, he has some sort of vision of me being shut away here on the orders of some ancient roué, readying me for his evil and lascivious attentions. I don’t quite know what he thinks Mistress Goulsham’s been teaching me. Anyway, I think he’d like to play the part of my knight-in-shining-armour.”
“While I’m perfectly happy to pay you all the evil and lascivious attention you’d like; I feel I should point out that I’m not yet twenty-eight.”
They’d entered the house by this stage and Isobel, after a quick glance around the hall, pulled him into the cloakroom and made good on his threats.
They had mere moments before they’d be missed, but she had enough time to discover his kisses were every bit as intoxicating as she’d imagined, and that she clearly had a similar effect on him.
He gently put her away from him, then turned her to remove the cloak from her shoulders, before shedding his own and leading her from the alcove.
“Whichever idiots suggested I contract to marry your elder sister instead of you should be locked away.”
“And what’s this about her getting married in a month?”
“I’m as surprised as you, they sprang it on me just before I left.”
Duncan opened the door to the sitting room for her, interrupting what was clearly a rather heated conversation between the Dryarts and a slender young man with a weak chin and too much pomade in his hair.
The visitor lifted his quizzing glass to haughtily examine Duncan, who somehow managed to keep a straight face.
“And this is the courier Her Highness’s fiancé has sent for her?”
Duncan quelled the Dryarts with a look, “No, I’m the fiancé. Who are you?”
“You’re Isobel’s fiancé?”
Isobel’s face turned icy, “I don’t recall giving you leave to use my name, sir.”
Lord Edmund swallowed, “My apologies Your Highness, I’m merely upset at the thought of a lady of your refinement being allied to such an uncouth individual.”
Isobel stepped away from Duncan and carefully looked him up and down before addressing Lord Edmund again.
“And what is it about His Majesty’s appearance that leads you to believe he is uncouth?”
Lord Edmund went white, “His Majesty?”
“Well really, I’m a Princess of the realm, who on earth do you think I’d be engaged to, a coal-heaver?”