A random snippet from a story that went nowhere.
The candidates were left to their own devices that morning, provided, they remained in their apartments, so each could be found at a moment’s notice for their meeting with Prince Justin.
Marie raised a brow when her maid admitted the official from the night before barely two moments after her breakfast tray had been removed.
She said. “Are we reversing the order this morning then?”
The official replied. “I am merely following the orders of His Imperial Highness. He has asked if you would be so kind as to attend him in the library.”
Ohh, devious man. Justin knew she loved books. Was this an attempt at distraction, appeasement, or was it straight-out bait?
She smiled and rose from her chair. “I am at His Imperial Highness’s disposal.”
The official relaxed a little, possibly having expected a feminine flurry of nerves and half an hour of ‘getting ready’. He was going to have a few assumptions tested in the face of the women assembled for the prince’s perusal.
She nodded her thanks to the man as he showed her through a wide set of doors, announced her in hushed tones, and scurried away.
She walked across the floor to a desk, where a man sat, waiting for her. When she reached it, she curtseyed. “Your Imperial Highness.”
He eyed her with exasperation. “For Saints’ sake, Marie, you could have the kindness to at least pretend to be surprised.”
He stood and rounded the desk, offering her his arm before guiding her to a comfortable-looking sofa looking out over the gardens.
She sat, he sat next to her. Not correct protocol but they’d bypassed that the minute they’d been separated from the rest of their party, and he’d claimed she was his wife at the farm they’d fetched up at.
He leaned back; arm casually stretched along the top of the sofa behind her. It was going to be around her shoulders in a matter of minutes.
“So, my precious Goose, what are we to do with the rest of them?”
Marie looked sideways at him. “You are going to meet with each of the candidates and assess who will be the most suitable future Empress.”
The arm dropped to her shoulders, a warm, welcome weight. “I hope we both know I’ve already made my choice.”
Marie turned to face him more fully. “Justin, you can’t. This is the Empire’s future. What if one of the others were more suitable.”
He re-wrapped his arm around her, pulling her into his chest. “I’ve met all of them already. Even without our adventures, you’re the stand-out.”
She tried to stay straight and indignant. “But you can’t dismiss them out of hand.”
He hummed agreement and pulled her closer, she gave in, he was so warm and solid. “That’s why I asked what we do.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “I daresay you have a plan. No nasty competitions though. I’d rather have these women as friends and allies.”
Justin sighed. “No embroidery contests?”
She smacked his chest and sat up. “Take this seriously. These women have upended their lives to be here, and I’m sure not all of them willingly.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m far better at contest and competition than diplomacy, Goose. If you don’t want to be set against them, you need to tell me what you do want.”
She pursed her lips in thought, he kissed them.