A Changing World
Lorenz moaned and put a hand to his head as he awoke. The throbbing in his skull made it difficult to see, made it difficult to think. Shameful, to have drowned his sorrows in wine during the wedding feast. He remembered precious little after his disastrous dance with Leonie. Hopefully, his behavior hadn’t embarrassed him.
A small half-snore snagged his attention. He squinted, trying to focus. Someone was in bed with him. No, on the bed, on top of the covers, fully clothed. They even wore their shoes.
Lorenz frowned then stared. Leonie lay beside him on her stomach, face turned toward him. A bit of drool seeped from the corner of her mouth. Yet he could not tear his eyes away.
She seemed dead to the world. He removed his gloves, reached out, and stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers. Her skin was soft and smooth. A shiver worked its way through his core. The things she’d said the night before came rushing back. He was a fool for hiring her, but he wanted her by her side. Even if they were never more than friends, it was better than being without her.
Leonie was beautiful. A part of him hoped she would never wake up, that he could lay next to her and pretend their lives were one. He brushed a few stray hairs away from her face.
His touch must have woken her, for her eyes fluttered open. Her bleary gaze slowly focused on him. The scent of wine remained on her breath.
“Hey,” she said with a sleepy smile, making his heart clench. “Good morning.”
He ought to sit up, to be proper, but his head hurt too much. “Good morning.”
The gazed at each other in silence. Lorenz could imagine leaning forward and putting his arms around her. He did not.
“What…happened last night?” he finally dared ask.
“You drank a lot and got sad, so I brought you back here. I had quite a bit to drink myself. But hey, look on the bright side. At least we’re both still wearing our clothes.”
Lorenz was not so sure that was a bright side. “Did I say or do anything shameful?”
“I got you out of the hall before you started crying.”
“You’re not unlovable, Lorenz, even if you seem to think you are when you’ve had a bit to drink. Some people are just melancholy drunks.”
“I do not think I’m unlovable. I just want you to—” He shut his mouth so quickly his teeth clicked.
Leonie propped herself up on her elbows. “You want me to what?”
Lorenz’s face heated, and he looked away.
Leonie smiled. “Come on, tell me.”
“I’d rather not.” He frowned as a thought occurred to him. “Have you woken up unclothed after a night of drinking?”
Leonie chuckled. “What, you thought I was a virgin?”
“Oh.” Her grin widened. “You’re still a virgin.”
Lorenz spluttered. “This is an indecent conversation. Intercourse should be reserved for the sanctity of the marriage bed, a bond of love between spouses—”
“Wasn’t it just yesterday we were talking about how many nobles marry for love?” Leonie asked, the smile still on her face. “The marriage bed is just a place for you to make heirs, right?”
He scowled. Damn her, she always threw him off track. Her angle on the world was just different enough from his own that he had trouble predicting it.
“It’s fun, you know,” Leonie said softly.
Her tone gave him goose bumps. Would she be amenable, if he put his arm around her? The gown she wore exposed her throat and décolletage. It would be so easy to roll over and kiss her.
“I shall wait until marriage, thank you very much,” he said between his teeth. His head hurt too much anyway.
Leonie shrugged. “To each their own.”
“H-how many lovers have you had?” His tone sounded strangled even to himself. The thought of other men’s hands on her only compounded the nausea from his hangover.
“Why does it matter? Does it change my value as a mercenary?”
“Absolutely not. I have never held others to the same standard I hold myself.”
Leonie shook her head. “One of the things I both like and hate about you.”
“I don’t know. Three? Two before our reunion during the war, and the third was definitely a mistake.”
Lorenz relaxed. Most of her experience had been gained during the five years they had been apart. War was a terrible thing. He did not blame her for finding comfort where she could.
“The most recent was when?”
“About a year ago, I think?”
Again, it was when they were apart. Surely that meant something?
Leonie huffed. “I should get you some water.”
“No need to take care of me.”
“You’re squinting. You’re hungover, aren’t you? It’s because you usually drink tea. You have to build up a tolerance, you know.”
Lorenz sighed and covered his face with his hands. “Is that what you’ve done? Built up a tolerance? I hear you’ve built up a tolerance for debt, too.”
Leonie stiffened. “If that’s how you’re going to be, I’ll see you later.”
She slid from the bed. Lorenz sat up despite the shrieking pain in his skull and grabbed her wrist, which made her trip over her skirts. He was barely able to haul her back on the bed before she fell.
“Damn dress,” she growled.
Lorenz froze. She had tumbled into his arms, her head against his shoulder as he cradled her. He blinked down at her, heat bubbling through his body from head to toe. His fingers brushed her hair from her face once more.
“Why do you drink?” Lorenz asked softly. “To imitate Jeralt? I am under the impression he drank to escape his pain. What causes you pain, Leonie? I would give anything to free you from it.”
“I-I have no pain. I have nothing to hide.”
“The girl I knew loathed debt and would never have accrued it.”
Leonie shoved away from him and hiked her skirts to her knees, exposing shapely calves. “The girl you knew didn’t have quite so much blood on her hands. Besides, I send most of my money back to my village.” She scowled and tromped to the door. “I’m a mercenary. You hired me and my troop, and we’ll kill whoever you want us to. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“You’re my friend,” Lorenz said. His head wouldn’t allow him to spring from the bed as he wished.
“As long as you employ my troop, you’re my boss.” Leonie took a deep breath. “Let’s keep this simple, all right?”
“See you at House Gloucester,” she said and shut the door behind her.
Lorenz groaned and put his hands over his face. A scream bubbled up his throat, but he clenched his teeth against it. Damn it all, what was wrong with him? Why could he never say the right things around her? She had not changed so much, not truly. They knew each other better than anyone. She should be able to see how things ought to be between them.
Ah, there he went again, making assumptions. She had cautioned him from doing just that on several occasions. Very well. If she wished to keep their relationship strictly professional, so be it. He would be the best employer she ever had.
Leonie would meet him at House Gloucester. They would be together. Then, at long last, he would find a way to tell her how he felt.