“Duke Riegan,” the page said. “A bird just arrived from the gatekeepers. Lady Hilda Goneril is on her way.”
Claude looked up from the stack of papers. The others had arrived days ago. She was the last.
“Tell the head chef the banquet is on,” he said. The page closed the study door, and Claude took a deep breath as he stood from his desk. A quick trip to his bath chamber mirror confirmed his appearance was up to standards, but he ran his fingers through his hair anyway and cleaned up the line of his beard with a few extra strokes of his razor.
He’d dallied long enough. Factoring in the time messages took to get from the city gate to the council house plus how long he’d fussed with his appearance, she’d be here within the quarter hour. Maybe he should have told the others so they could greet her together, but he wanted this moment to himself. All the better to gauge her and slot her into his plans.
Or so he tried to convince himself.
Claude made his way to the entrance of the council house, trying not to rush. The guards stood at attention. He descended the steps and stood and their base. Minutes passed, his gaze riveted to the compound’s gates.
The rattle of the carriage preceded its appearance. The black and blush of House Goneril tinted every line of the conveyance. It pulled up, and a footman rushed forward to open the door and put out the step.
Hilda emerged wearing an outfit that reinforced her feminine charms. Claude’s gaze dipped to her generous cleavage before he could restrain himself. She didn’t seem to notice. They looked at each other for a long moment. His nerves buzzed. She appeared more mature, more beautiful, the look in her eyes wiser. Sure, they’d written frequently, but was that really enough to pick up where they’d left off?
“Hello, Claude,” she said with a slow smile. “It’s been a while.”
“Hello, Hilda.” Claude smiled in return and bowed with a flourish. “So it has. Too long.”
He offered his hand, and she took it as she daintily disembarked. If he hadn’t seen her on the battlefield, he would have thought she was the most delicate of ladies. Her arm threaded through his. Warmth spread through him as she looked up at him.
“I’m pleased Holst let you come,” he said.
Hilda snorted. “From what I understand, it was more of a summons than an invitation.”
“I may have worded my letter strongly. I had to make sure he’d release you, after all.”
“And why’s that?” Her smile grew impish.
Something inside him quivered at the sight of that smile. He recognized it from when they’d stolen cake from the kitchen or broken into the wine stores at the academy. Perhaps not so much had changed, after all.
“Because I need your help.” It was the truth, nothing more.
“Oh. So you expect me to work. What fun.”
“It could be, if you let it.”
“Now I’m even more sure it’ll be boring.”
Claude chuckled. “There’s never a boring moment with you.”
“Takes one to know one.”
He escorted her to her chambers, feeling lighter than he could remember. “In here,” he said as he led her into the sitting room. “I hope you’ll be comfortable. We’re holding a feast tonight, so I’ll give you some time to freshen up.”
“Wait.” Hilda grabbed his hand, and he froze. Their gazes locked. Her lips parted, and the moment stretched.
“Yes?” he finally asked.
“Oh!” Hilda released him as if he were a hot pan on a stove and went over to one of the trunks the footmen had just delivered. She pulled out five boxes, piled them on the sitting room table, and pushed them toward him.
“What are these?” he asked, taking a seat.
“Birthday presents. One for every year we didn’t get to celebrate together.”
“You wrote me a beautiful letter every year on my birthday.”
Hilda blushed, and Claude’s heart skipped a beat. Had she always been so lovely? Although he did miss her ponytails.
“Oh, hush,” she said. “You know I like to make things.”
“So this is actually about you and not my birthday.”
“You’re awful.” She smiled as she said it. “I guess you haven’t changed at all.”
He winked at her. “That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?”
“Anyway.” She sat at the table across from him. “You don’t have to open them now, if you don’t want to.”
As if he could say no. “We have some time. I, uh, didn’t tell the others you were here yet.”
“Why not?” She raised her eyebrow.
Claude didn’t reply. Let her read into it however she would.
“Ugh, you and your secrets.” She sighed. “Open this one first.”
It was a bit of dangly jewelry that resembled an earring, but with no way to thread it through his ear.
“I didn’t know you’d cut off your little braid thing,” she said, cheeks red and eyes downcast. “I thought this would be a nice little ornament.”
Claude had cut off the braid when he came of age, per Almyran tradition. Judith did it in the place of his mother. “I still love it. It’s beautiful.”
Next was a hand-knit scarf. “For when you ride your wyvern,” she said.
He unwrapped a leather belt, tooled with designs of deer, his Crest, and wyverns. The craftsmanship was incredible. He stared at it, speechless.
“I’m sorry, I don’t usually do tooled leather,” she said.
He ran his fingers over the decoration. “Are you kidding me? I love it. This must have taken ages. I wouldn’t have expected this from someone who doesn’t like to work.”
Hilda blushed again, a soft smile on her face. If that’s what she looked like when she was truly happy, he wanted her to be happy all the time.
Next was a handkerchief embroidered with a golden deer and the Crest of Riegan. The stitching was perfect, the stag noble. Claude’s vision grew misty as all the old academy memories came flooding back.
The final box contained a woven bracelet half as wide as his thumb was long. Small gold, green, and black glass beads adorned matching threads, giving it just a tiny bit of shine. In Almyra, bracelets were only gifted to family members—or people you wanted to join your family. Even though he knew she had no idea, his heart lurched.
“Do you like it?” she asked softly. Funny, he’d never heard Hilda sound shy before.
“I think it’s incredible. Here, would you put it on? Should I take it off when I bathe? I need to know how to make it last.”
“I can always make you another one.”
Only if she lived through this war. The thought sobered him, and he pushed it away. He’d ensure she survived. Besides, she’d told him once she didn’t see the point of dying for a cause. She’d run if she were ever in true danger.
Claude pulled off his glove, and she did the same so she could work the clasps. Her fingertips brushed the inside of his wrist, and goosebumps rose on his skin. When she finished fastening the bracelet, their fingers met. Neither of them pulled away. He gazed into her eyes. It was still there, that strange pull, like she had her own special gravity. Did she feel it, too?
He took her hand and squeezed it. “Thank you. I’ll treasure each and every one of these.”
Her blush deepened. That had to be a good sign. He stopped squeezing, but neither of them let go.
“I missed you.” It almost hurt to say it, like pressing an old bruise he’d only now discovered.
“I never wanted to leave.”
Was it his imagination, or did her grip tighten?
“I suppose I could have stood up to your brother and insisted you stay,” he said with a sigh, “but it didn’t seem like a good idea to piss off one of my best generals.”
Hilda shuddered. “I understand. Besides, Holst can be scary.”
“I hope you didn’t suffer too much.” He put his other hand on top of hers. She always loomed so large in his memories he’d forgotten how small she truly was.
She made no move to pull away. Her brow furrowed, and an oddly naked expression crossed her face. “I hope you’ve been okay all by yourself. I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for your grandfather’s memorial.”
“You’re here now.”
“And here I’ll stay.”
Too many things swirled in Claude’s chest for him to name or express. Being in Hilda’s presence was like standing in the sun after weeks of rain. All he wanted was to soak it up. But she also stirred his sense of mischief. Together, they could throw people for a loop. Hopefully the same went for enemy armies.
The thought jolted him back to reality. “I really should be going. There are a few things I need to do before the banquet.”
“A banquet?” Her eyes lit up then her expression dimmed. “Not a feast, so no dancing.”
His chest tightened. “Dancing didn’t seem appropriate since there’s a war on. But when this is over, I promise you a feast.”
“I’m writing that down and having you sign in it blood so you don’t conveniently forget.”
“What? I love feasts. I’d be feasting right now if I could.”
“I want dancing.”
“You’ll get dancing.”
She crossed her arms. He wished she wouldn’t. It deepened the cleft between her breasts.
“I really do have to go.” He picked up his gloves and glanced at the bracelet on his wrist. His heart jumped. On impulse, he grabbed her hand and kissed her knuckles. Her skin was smooth and warm. Then he forced himself to leave. Before he closed the door behind him, he caught a glimpse of her cradling the hand he’d kissed to her chest, her eyes wide.
Claude closed the door and leaned against it. A passing servant gave him an odd look, but he didn’t care. He chuckled to himself and smiled.
The door flew open behind him, and he stumbled backward into Hilda’s sitting room. His heel caught on something, but before he could fall, something stopped him. He blinked up into Hilda’s face. She’d caught him and scooped him up into her arms, holding him like a bride. Heat flooded his cheeks. They had to be at least as red as hers.
“Good to know you still have my back,” he said, plastering a smile on his face.
Hilda quickly put him down and straightened her skirt. “You forgot to take your presents with you.”
“Oh, sorry.” Damn it, he’d been distracted, and now she’d think he didn’t like them.
“It’s not like you to be absentminded.” She frowned. “You must be under more stress than I thought.”
He picked up the gifts—they’d fallen to the floor when she’d caught him—and moved into the corridor. “It has been five years. Thanks again for the amazing gifts. I’ll see you soon.”
Concern filled her expression, but she nodded and waved to him before she shut the door. He stood for a few moments, cursing himself. It hadn’t even been an hour and he’d made a fool of himself and hurt her feelings. This wasn’t going well. Damn it. He’d just have to make up for it at the banquet.