Claude’s gaze travelled to where the ladies were gathered.
Marilyn felt the smile freeze on her face as she followed his gaze.
If Wade, who was devoted to Rosina, hadn’t stopped, Claude might have walked right past her.
He would have walked straight to Canillian Vale.
Her pride stung, and she couldn’t help but question herself.
Just how much longer do I have to feel second best But jealousy did not become a lady, and anyways… Why did it feel as though she was in competition for Claude’s affections, and with a man no less
Marilyn tried to calm her frayed nerves and regain her composure.
Wiping all traces of frustration from her face, she stepped in front of Claude and gave him her best smile.
“Hello, Sir Claude.”
Claude nodded at Marilyn, but his features remained neutral.
“It’s been a while, my lady.”
“You must have been busy.
It’s so hard to meet with you,” Marilyn said, trying to keep her tone light, despite her hurt.
Golden sunlight streamed through the many arched windows of the great hall, and they stood together in a dappled patch of light.
“I have had many things to attend to, my lady.”
Marilyn put her arm through Claude’s, and he smiled politely as they took a turn around the hall.
Everywhere they went they were followed by the curious eyes of the court.
Claude, who only moments before had seemed to be on a collision course with Canillian Vale, now followed her lead.
Marilyn felt a thrill at the small victory.
“I was worried when I didn’t see you at any of the parties after you visited with Prince of Geore.
I hope you weren’t hurt”
“I’m perfectly fine, as you can see.”
“Well, that is a relief.
We were all quite worried.
I was worried.”
Each time they passed by the long gallery windows their images were reflected to them. The perfect couple. Marilyn’s mood improved with each view.
Satisfied with their appearance to the court, she switched topics, “There has been great debate among my ladies in waiting, but perhaps you can put an end to it, my dear duke.
Are the diamonds from the neutral land truly as beautiful as we’ve heard”
“It’s my parents who oversee the diamonds.
I have little interest in them myself.”
“Oh my, really What a shame.
I heard they are incomparable in their clarity, and when jewelers place them in an engagement setting, the stones….”
“You’ll have to ask my parents about that,” he interrupted.
Marilyn felt her usual composure slipping at his courteous, but disinterested tone, and she found herself speaking faster and faster out of nervousness, until she was babbling like a school maiden.
“Is the Duke well It’s just… The Duchess invited me and mother to the north.
We cannot make the trip now, but we were thinking about visiting before the weather grows hot.”
Marilyn’s smile grew more radiant with every onlooker they passed.
No matter what the duke’s current mood was, she preened under the stares from the other nobles, proud to walk with her arm through Claude’s.
That included the glares from the daughter of another family who had also talked of marriage with the duke a few times.
They were lower rank than count, a viscount family that grew wealthy through business, rather than through ties to throne. Common money, she thought.
“It seems as though Marchioness Vale cares deeply for Sir Canillian.
She coddles him like a protective mother.
It seems my concern from earlier was unfounded.
I was worried that he was being scolded.”
Claude’s gaze finally went to the corner at Marilyn’s statement.
There was Canillian, standing quietly like he was the Marchioness’s servant.
He stifled a yawn and looked as though he was trying hard to hide his boredom amongst the ladies.
Claude smirked at the sight, and just then turned to see that Wade had approached him.
“From time to time, the image of Sir Canillian in women’s clothing enters my dreams,” Wade said playfully, “Dear Rosina, I must say that if Sir Canillian was a lady, then you might not be the flower of the Empire.”
Wade turned to Rosina as he spoke, and with her arm around Kieran’s she covered her mouth and laughed.
“Then I should be so lucky that he’s a man,” Rosina said.
“Do not underestimate a man’s beauty.
In the animal kingdom, the male is more likely to be beautiful and fancy.”
“Humans are not animals, Wade.”
Rosina spoke as she tightened her grip on Kieran.
Kieran kissed the back of Rosina’s hand and wrapped his arm around Rosina’s waist.
“That’s correct, Princess.”
Kieran responded to Rosina but kept looking over at Canillian.
He seemed worried and scowled in that direction whenever the ladies laughed loudly.
Rosina spoke as she was looking around, and then pointed.
“Is that Sir Tholin, over there”
Tholin stood where the princess pointed.
The young count had been staring in Canillian’s direction, and as they looked on, he approached Canillian with flushed cheeks and anxiously clenched fists.
Unlike Canillian who was frowning, the young count was blushing and smiling as though he was in the presence of a lady.
That moment, the expression on the faces of the men near Wade all went grey.
Everyone blankly stared.
This can’t be, right” Marilyn spoke in a hushed tone and observed Claude’s face, but he only shrugged and smiled casually.
The young Count that approached and talked to Canillian turned around, apparently discouraged by Anastasia’s reaction.
From the group’s vantage point across the room, it appeared as though he had asked Canillian to speak with him, but the Marchioness stepped in and refused his request.
Kieran’s face grew stern as he watched the interaction between his mother and brother.
It was Claude who finally broke the group’s silence.
“My lady, if you’ll excuse me, I have to meet someone for the northern region business.
Will you join us, Your Highness”
He politely took Marilyn’s hand off his arm.
“Oh my, is there something wrong”
“It’s regarding family business.”
His tone was soft, but Marilyn felt the hardness of his rejection.
Again, Claude’s behaviour indicated that he did not value her presence, and that he did not plan to ask for her hand.
The engagement had been pushed back several times now, and each time the duke’s family put the engagement off, Marilyn felt the sting of humiliation.
Her only consolation was that the young Duke seemed even colder and less interested in the other women of the court.
She felt confident that given enough time he would propose to her, and they would marry.