A Changing World
Leonie approached the manor, gut churning. Dimitri’s wedding feast was still fresh in her mind even though it had been weeks ago. She kept her expression cheerful, however—couldn’t let the troops see that anything was amiss. Her soldiers took their cues from her, including mood.
The manor was almost a castle. Although Gloucester wasn’t a duchy, it might as well have been. Strange, to think that Lorenz’s father had been her lord all along.
The grounds were extensive and immaculately kept. Come the blooming season, they’d burst into flower. The hedges were sculpted, and a fountain burbled just out of sight. Leonie preferred untamed natural beauty, but the gardens were still lovely. They’d be a wonder to behold in all their glory.
Lorenz appeared on his horse from a side path. The gold on his armor caught the light. He paused his mount, and his gaze met Leonie’s. For a moment, his sharp features softened, and his eyes sparkled. She quickened her horse’s pace, her heart picking up tempo along with it.
“Leonie!” Joy passed over his expression, only to be quickly shuttered. She was surprised how much it stung.
“Lorenz. Good to see you. Reporting for duty.”
He nodded, and an awkward silence fell. Maybe she should shake his hand or hug him or something. They were old friends. Somehow, it didn’t feel like it.
“Well.” Lorenz shifted in his saddle. “Let me show you to the barracks and the stables. We’ve had some reports of brigands that I’m hoping you and your band can take care of.”
Leonie grinned. “That’s why we’re here. We’ll take care of it—we’re the best of the best.”
Her soldiers cheered behind her. Lorenz shot them an indulgent smile, but it quickly fell away. A haunted expression passed over his features before he schooled them to indifference.
He led them past the barracks to the stables, where he handed his horse off to a groom. Other staff arrived to help situate the mercenaries, and Leonie found herself standing to one side with Lorenz, watching their progress.
“I wanted to invite you to dine with me tonight, but then I recalled you wished to restrict our dealings to business only,” he said, tone sharp.
“I did say that,” she said. “Thank you for respecting my wishes.”
He nodded, curt. “Well, then. I’ll leave you to it.”
It was like a punch to her chest when he turned and left. “Lorenz.”
He turned, eyebrow raised, cautious hope on his face.
Her courage failed her. “It’s good to see you. I look forward to working with you.”
“Of course, Captain,” he said with another sharp nod and disappeared in the direction of the manor.
Leonie sighed. Working for a friend was a mistake. If only he wasn’t paying them so well. She’d just have to find a way to make it work. She always did, one way or another.
It didn’t take long to get her troops settled. The barracks were spotless and roomy. Unsurprising, considering Gloucester had the resources to make things nice as well as a history of working with mercenaries. They quickly fell into a rhythm. Lorenz, not his father, would assign them missions, and they would do the work and return. Lorenz himself avoided her.
Once, Leonie saw him in the gardens, escorting a young woman. The woman was dark-haired and beautiful, gliding gracefully by his side as she held onto his arm. Her hair and dress were perfectly fashionable. She said something, and Lorenz smiled down at her. The wind carried their laughter towards Leonie.
Leonie almost wished for her bow, but it was for the best she didn’t have it on her.
The encounter left her insides in knots. She tried to sleep, but she couldn’t. Eating held no pleasure. The only thing that eased her days was drink, but Lorenz’s remarks about her debt had hit home, so she didn’t spend much coin on liquor.
But Leonie was no coward, and this couldn’t go on forever. She ambushed Lorenz in the stables one morning as he prepared to go for a ride. It was easy enough to make it seem like she just happened to be there.
“Good morning,” she said, trying to sound chipper as he appeared.
He paled when he saw her. “Leonie. Hello.”
“It’s been a while.” She stroked her horse’s nose. “How have you been?”
“Well, thank you. Your troop has been doing admirable work.”
Lorenz looked at his horse, at the door, anywhere but at her.
“Are congratulations in order?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light.
He frowned. “Whatever for?”
“I thought you might be engaged.”
“Ah.” He pressed his mouth into a line. “My parents have found a young lady they deem a suitable match, yes.”
Lorenz closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, something he only did when he was deeply conflicted. Leonie had usually seen the gesture when it had something to do with Claude. But Claude was far away.
“I do not plan to wed her. I…do not love her.”
Leonie shrugged. “But will she be good for your house? It’s not as if you love anyone else.”
“That is patently false. There is someone I love dearly. My father has refused to bless the union due to her situation.”
“Yikes,” Leonie said, giving her horse’s neck a pat as her heart sank. “Sounds bad.”
Lorenz shook his head. “I will manage.”
“But if you two love each other, you should be together.” The words tasted bitter on her tongue, and her stomach churned. A cold sweat had broken out down her spine. Perhaps she was coming down with something, the way her knees were shaking.
“I fear she does return my love, rendering it moot.”
The cold plaguing Leonie melted away as anger took his place. “Why not? You’re smart, strong, shockingly open-minded for a noble—”
His laugh cut her off.
“What?” She scowled at him. “I can’t compliment a friend?”
“It’s not that. Are you truly so blind?”
“What are you talking about?”
Lorenz covered the ground between them in two strides. He raised his hand and brushed the backs of his fingers across her cheeks. She’d forgotten how much taller he was.
“You’re the one who wanted to keep things strictly professional. I merely wanted to have you near.”
An ache twisted Leonie’s innards. Her hand grabbed his, holding it away from her face. She wanted to punch him. No, she wanted to grab him. Or shove him. Maybe put her arms around him. Damn it!
Lorenz leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “It’s you. It has always been you.”
Leonie stared at him.
Lorenz pulled his hand away with a sigh.
No. She wouldn’t let this happen. There were many things in life she wanted, and she’d never hesitated to grab them with both hands. Jeralt wouldn’t have stood idly by.
Leonie gripped the back of his head and pulled his mouth to hers. His lips were soft, and he tasted faintly of bergamot tea. He made a sound and went still.
“That was decidedly unprofessional,” Lorenz murmured when she released him.
“You should fire me.”
“If I did, would you leave?”
“I’d have to. A woman has to make money.”
“Then I do not release you from service.”
His arms slid around her, his palm pressing against the small of her back and drawing her near. He bent his head, his mouth brushing against hers. A tremor went through her. He didn’t know how to kiss, but she still liked it. She’d had to follow his lead when they danced at the wedding feast. Now he’d have to follow hers.
Leonie sucked on his bottom lip and was rewarded with a low moan. When she kissed him again, his technique had already improved. He had always been a quick study.
She hooked her fingers in his belt and pushed him up against the wall. The movement was rougher than she anticipated, and he grunted as he hit the stone. She pressed herself the length of him and kissed him again and again. Damn it, he smelled so good. His cheeks were freshly shaven, his skin smooth and soft. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him more deeply. He made a sound against her mouth, and his strong hands gripped her waist.
“I have dreamed of this,” Lorenz said when they stopped for air. He rested his forehead against hers. “I have loved you for a very long time.”
Men had told Leonie they’d loved her before, but when Lorenz said it, she believed it. That said… “But I’m a commoner.”
“You were the one who taught me that didn’t matter.”
“What about what’s best for your house?”
He smiled and smoothed her hair with his hands. “The world is different now, after the war. What was best for my father’s generation is not the same as what is best for mine.”
Leonie attacked him again. He shuddered as her lips traveled down his jaw and nibbled at his ear. She undid his cravat and pulled his collar open. His Adam’s apple bobbed. She traced the tendon in his neck with her mouth as she untied his cravat and unfastened the first two buttons of his shirt. His muscles tensed when she ran her tongue over his collarbone.
“Leonie,” he moaned.
Oh, she liked it when he said her name. She liked it a lot.
Leonie ground her hips against him. Sure enough, he was hard. For her. She returned her mouth to his and twined their tongues together. He made a sound and melted against the stones. She had to take a step forward to maintain full-body contact.
For a stuck-up, prissy noble, Lorenz seemed to know how to lose himself to passion. His hands gripped her back, pressing her to him. Part of her was surprised he hadn’t stopped her yet with words about propriety or some such. Even more surprising was that she couldn’t get enough of him. She wanted to get beneath his shirt, but he wore too many damn layers. But his trousers—those were designed for easy access.
Damn it, she wanted him. Leonie unfastened his trousers. Lorenz made a noise of protest as his cock sprang free.
“What are you—” he began, but his words dissolved into a groan as she dropped to her knees and took him into her mouth. He had good length, and he smelled faintly of soap.
“This is highly improper,” he said with a gasp.
Leonie ran her tongue around his glans and began to suck. He moaned and tried to pull away, but she held him fast.
“You must cease this at once or someone will see us.” He shuddered as she began to move her head. “This…not seemly…”
His fingers tangled in her hair, his words replaced by panting breaths, and she knew she had him.
“Leonie,” he croaked, breathless, and the fire inside her flared higher. Lorenz was hers. She smiled around him and fondled his stones with her free hand.
“Oh, no.” Urgency laced his voice, but it was too late. He came in her mouth, salty and slightly bitter. When he was finished, she swallowed before she could think too hard about it and released him.
Lorenz groaned and slid down the wall. First, he tucked himself in and refastened his trousers, then he covered his red face with his hands. Leonie wiped her mouth and smiled.
“That was…uncouth,” he mumbled. “I can’t believe…”
She bent her knees and straddled his lap, her chest level with his face. “Didn’t you like it?”
“That is beside the point.”
“That was exactly the point. You think I’d have done that if it didn’t feel good to you?”
He ground his palms against his eyes. “I was weak. I should have had more discipline—”
“What you need is experience.” Leonie liked this disheveled version of him. She started to unfasten her shirt.
Lorenz clamped his hands over hers, frowning. “We are in a stable. We are not even engaged, let alone married.”
“It is highly inappropriate!”
“Do you love me?”
His expression softened. “I do.”
“Do you want me?”
Leonie shrugged. “Then I don’t see the problem.”
Lorenz sputtered, face red. “It is… It is not how things are done. There is a proper order.”
“You’re right. You have to fire me.”
His eyebrows rose. “Excuse me?”
“I have professional pride, you know? You don’t want everyone to think I’m sleeping with you because you’re paying me, do you?”
The color drained from his face.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “So, dismiss me and my troop.”
“Then you will have no excuse to stay.”
“That’s true. I’ll visit whenever I can, okay?”
Lorenz took her hand. “I want you to stay. Once you’re my wife—”
“I think you’re getting ahead of yourself.” Leonie removed her hand. “I never said I wanted to get married.”
“But you just… Do you love me?”
“I do.” Her throat tightened around the words. “I do love you.”
The happiness in his face twisted her stomach. Because no matter how much she loved him, she still had her own dream. There was no way to have both.
“I’m happy to be your lover,” she said slowly, “but I can’t be your wife.”
His brow furrowed. “I cannot take a lover. The scandal…my standing, and any children must be legitimate heirs.”
“So I’m too common for you, after all.”
“No! That is not at all what I meant.” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Will you not reconsider becoming my wife? I know it is a poor setting for a proposal, but—”
“I’ve always wanted to be a mercenary, just like Jeralt.”
“Think of what you are saying. You’ll be in danger. The life I can give you—”
“Isn’t the one I want.” She stood up and redid the buttons of her shirt.
Lorenz scrambled to his feet. “Please, I beg you to think about this. You need not answer right away.”
“I know my answer. You and your…” She waggled her hand at him. “Your noble ideals or whatever are what’s stopping us from being together. Besides, your father would never let you marry me. You’ve said it yourself. I can’t see you going against his wishes in this, not while you’re still heir.”
His mouth opened and closed. Leonie looked toward the door so she wouldn’t have to see what was in his eyes. Her chest felt like she’d taken a blow from an axe.
“This was a terrible idea,” she said with a sigh. “I’m terminating our contract. I and my troop will move out tomorrow.”
To his credit, he did not plead further. He nodded once as he straightened his clothes. “I understand.”
“Good.” She grabbed his hand, shook it, and pretended not to notice how long he kept hold. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but I want you to know you’ll always be my friend. If you ever need my help, just ask.”
“Of course. Please do not hesitate to do the same.”
There was nothing else to be said, so Leonie turned on her heel and marched out of the stables. Many things needed her attention. She spent the day giving the news to her troops and making plans for where to go next. Lorenz was nowhere to be seen.
That was why she was surprised when he came to see them off at dawn the next day. He said little, his expression stoic, but she knew him well enough to see his pain. There was no way to tell him she was sorry, not with the troop around. They shook hands once more, and again his touch lingered.
“So long,” she said.
He nodded. “Please take care.”
Leonie saluted him, signaled her troops to move out, and left to find their next mission.