Hilda knocked on the door to Claude’s study and let herself in before he could answer. She’d been in Derdriu for over three months now, after all, and she knew his habits. They’d spent all day in war councils discussing what to do about Dimitri’s march toward Gronder Field, and in the end, they’d decided to march as well, if only to prove their alliance with Faerghus. Claude was sure to want to discuss their plan again before the morning, despite the time, especially after she’d spent the last several hours discussing their strategy with Leonie and the others.
What she found was Claude slumped over his desk. Papers were strewn across the surface, and ink smeared his cheek. His fancy coat and cape lay in a pile on a nearby chair. He snored softly.
Hilda sighed. “Oh, Claude.”
What to do? He’d been working himself too hard lately. Easy enough to pick him up and carry him into bed, but she didn’t like to remind him how strong she was. Best to save that for the fighting.
Instead, she went into his bedroom to find a blanket. The nights were still chilly, and his fire had burned low. A sparkle on his dresser caught her eye. Carefully laid out on top were all the gifts she’d given him months ago, save the handkerchief and the bracelet. She smiled. So, he did care about them after all. Warmth spread from the center of her chest.
She picked up a blanket she found tossed over a divan and returned to the study. His sleeves were rolled up, exposing muscular forearms with dark hair. A quill dangled precariously form his limp fingers. His hair tumbled over the side of his face, and his dark, thick eyelashes cast shadows on his cheeks.
Claude was breathtaking.
Hilda smiled to herself as she draped the blanket over him. Had his shoulders always been so broad? After all the letters they had exchanged over the years, she’d expected to know him, but now he was so much more than the mischievous boy from the academy.
He hadn’t stirred when she’d covered him. Perhaps it would be all right to take a risk. She reached down and brushed the unruly locks of hair away from his face.
Claude opened his eyes.
Hilda snatched her hand back as if she’d been burned, backpedaling. He was out of his seat in a flash. His hand clamped around her wrist, and he pulled her against him. The blanket fell from his shoulders to the ground. She braced herself against him with her palm. He’d done away with his cravat, and his shirt was unbuttoned, so her hand pressed against the skin of his chest. She couldn’t help it—she lightly stroked the silky, dark hair she found there.
A shudder ran through him at her touch, and his green gaze smoldered. Did he feel it, too? Over the past several months, they’d traded so many little touches, almost as many as words. Each time it felt like tiny bursts of lightning through her body.
“You fell asleep,” she murmured. “I thought you might want a blanket.”
Claude released her wrist and slid his arm around her waist, looking into her eyes like he was trying to see into her soul.
It was too much. There were still so many things to be done before the battle, and if she allowed herself moment of weakness, she wouldn’t be able to hold back. She licked her thumb and tried to scrub the ink off his cheek.
Claude’s eyes widened. “What the?”
“You have ink all over your face.” She tried again to clean him, but he dodged. “You must have fallen asleep on a wet document.”
He released her and picked up the blanket as if they hadn’t just been pressed together, vibrating in harmony like two plucked strings. It was the first time he’d touched her without that padded jacket on, and his body felt more muscular than she remembered. She took a deep breath and refrained from fanning herself.
“Ignatz is going to take up lead position with the snipers, and Raphael’s going with the infantry.” She smiled. “And I got Margrave Edmund to commit troops to the march, although he still won’t budge on Marianne.”
Claude laughed, grabbed her waist and lifted, and twirled her in a circle. “My little miracle worker.”
His hands lingered when he set her down, and they stepped apart, suddenly awkward.
Hilda patted her hair to make sure it was still in place. “That means I can sit this one out, right?”
Claude’s expression sobered.
“I was kidding,” she said. “I’ll be wherever you need me.”
“I want you with the reserve.”
“Leonie’s in reserve.”
“And so are you.”
Hilda poked out her lower lip. If he insisted she participate in the battle, she might as well fight. She’d prefer to be by his side. The regular troops couldn’t protect him nearly as well as she could.
Well, now. That was interesting. She couldn’t stand the thought of anything happening to Claude.
Time for a change of subject.
“What are you going to do about Gloucester?”
Claude plopped down in his chair, kicked his heels up on the desk, and laced his fingers behind his head. “What’s there to do? He was dumb enough to fall for my trap and let the Kingdom soldiers march right in and take the bridge. He’s disgraced. If he makes another move, if he so much as twitches toward the Empire, I’ll see he’s stripped of his lands, and he knows it. That’s why he’s so graciously agreed to lend his strength to our invasion of the Empire.”
“Lorenz could have been killed in that battle, you know. He was guarding the bridge.”
“I know. I’m glad he survived. He’ll be a better leader than his father.” Claude’s expression turned somber. Then it hardened. “Still, good thing you didn’t marry him.”
Hilda sighed and rolled her eyes. Yes, Claude was so much better. As if she never had to worry about him going out and getting killed. Wait a minute…
“Are you jealous?” she asked with a smile.
Claude snorted but didn’t say anything. Again, interesting.
“We need to press our advantage, while the Empire’s still reeling from the loss of the bridge,” Claude said. “If we invade them now, we should have the upper hand and can finally stop all this bloodshed.”
Hilda shook her head. “And if the Kingdom forces show up? I’ve heard Dimitri’s unhinged.”
“But Teach isn’t. And we’ve proven we’re willing to work with the Kingdom.”
“I’m not sure even the professor can rein in Dimitri.”
“I admit it’s a risk. But it’s a bigger risk to count on the Kingdom preventing the Adrestians from invading us. Although in that case, it might work to our advantage if Dimitri truly is unhinged.”
“And you’re planning on going into battle yourself?”
Claude moved his feet to the floor and leaned forward in his chair, elbows resting on his desk. A dark, wavy lock of hair fell over his eye. “My gut tells me this battle is it. There’s something about Gronder. Fates are decided there. It won’t be the end of the war—far from it—but I think we’ll get a glimpse of what’s to come. I need to be there to see it.”
“I need you to be safe.” Hilda came around his desk and sat on top, on his right. She crossed her ankles and swung her legs. “Don’t take any stupid risks.”
Claude raised an eyebrow and leaned back. “And if something happened to me? What would you do?”
“I’d cry. Might even be real tears.”
“You shed real tears for that camel story. I’d hope you’d at least do the same for me. We’ve been friends a long time.”
Claude fell silent, his gaze searching her face. “You know,” he said softly, “you’re my best friend.”
“You’re mine, too. That’s why you’d better stay safe.”
He rested his hand on her knee, and she covered his knuckles with her palm. “After this is over, do you still want to come meet my family?”
“We’ll have to get my brother’s permission. Otherwise, he might think you kidnapped me and come after us.”
His hand slid from her knee to her thigh, warm even through her stocking. Heat built inside her. His fingertips found her bare skin, and he gently caressed her. Goosebumps covered her head to toe.
“My eyes are still drawn to you,” he murmured. “Only you.”
Words tangled in Hilda’s throat. Where speech failed, touch helped. She brushed the lock of hair out of his face and tucked it behind his ear. Her fingers trembled as she stroked his cheek. His stubble scraped her skin. He caught her hand and pressed it against his face, eyes closing. Her thigh was cold after the loss of his touch.
“You’re scratchy,” she said, voice thick. “It tickles.”
The look in his eye turned from smoldering to mischievous. “Does it, now? You like my beard?”
A wicked grin stretched Claude’s lips as he pushed her back onto the desk. Papers went flying, and the ink bottle toppled to the floor. He pinned her wrists next to her head and rubbed his whiskers on her shoulders, her neck, her face—anywhere she had exposed skin. She squeaked, thrashing.
“No fair,” she howled.
Hilda managed to get her foot in between them and planted it against his hip. She gave him a push. He staggered backward, and she pounced. She tickled his ribs, his belly, his back. He giggled and spun around, trying to avoid her. If he thought he could get away, he had another thing coming.
Claude ducked one of her attacks and tickled her sides, but she turned the wrong way—into him instead of away—and they tripped on the edge of the carpet. She fell on top of him with a thud. They stared at each other. When it became obvious neither of them was hurt, he grinned again and commenced with the tickle torture. She responded in kind, and they rolled around on the floor. The chair holding Claude’s jacket and cape toppled over. The bottle of ink skittered beneath his desk. His laughter and her squeals filled the room only to come to an abrupt halt when he rolled on top of her, his thigh between hers. Her skirt was rucked up to her hips, her sleeves sagging around her elbows. His cheeks grew even redder as he looked down at her.
Hilda’s heart slammed against her ribs as she gazed up at him, echoed by the pulse between her legs. Her entire body quivered, and it wasn’t just from exertion. He brushed the hair out of her eyes as he smiled softly. His touch lingered on her cheek. She moved her hands to his strong back and gripped tightly. He felt good and right against her. She wanted more. His hardness throbbed against her leg as he moved his hand to her thigh and slid his fingers toward her hip.
Claude lowered his head toward hers as his eyes drifted closed. She put her hands on either side of his face and guided him toward her mouth. Their breath mingled, hot.
The study door flew open with a bang just before their lips met. “Claude, I heard the most outrageous news and had to come at once,” a familiar voice said.
Hilda blinked up at Lorenz. His hair was in disarray, his clothes dirty from travel. He must have thought it dire to appear before them in such a state.
Claude didn’t move, still lying on top of Hilda, although he pulled her skirt down to cover her thigh. “Hello to you, too, Lorenz. Would you mind giving us a minute?”
Lorenz stared down at them, eyes wide. His face turned the color of a beet as his mouth moved soundlessly. He pivoted away and shut the door behind him without another word.
Claude stood up with a grunt and adjusted himself in his trousers before helping Hilda stand. She took a step forward in case he wanted to take her into his arms, but he kept his distance.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he brushed off her clothes.
Hilda pulled his collar straight and buttoned up his shirt, letting her fingers linger in his chest hair. “For what?”
Claude’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. His hands drifted toward her before curling into fists at his side.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”
Hilda took a step back as if he’d slapped her. “I see. Because I played no part and don’t have an opinion.”
His eyebrows rose. She turned on her heel and stormed through the study door. Lorenz stood in the corridor, cheeks flaming.
“Are you all right?” He raised his hand as if to comfort her. “That scoundrel! Did he force himself on you? Hurt you?”
Not in the way Lorenz meant. “It’s fine.”
“Because if you wish, I will defend your honor—”
“Thank you, but …”
Actually, a little sympathy would be nice. Hilda wasn’t even sure why she was so upset. A few fake tears would get her what she wanted. But as soon as the first one rolled down her cheek, the floodgates burst. She flung herself at Lorenz and sobbed against his chest. He held her gently, stroking her hair.
“There, there.” His voice was low and tender. “I will do anything you ask. Name it, and it is yours.”
Claude opened the door. His expression went from shock to pained to blank when he saw them standing there. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
“Just look at what you have done,” Lorenz said with a scowl. “How dare you—”
“Strong words from a traitor.”
Claude’s words snapped like a whip, and Lorenz stiffened.
“Don’t listen to him, Lorenz,” Hilda said, cuddling closer to her friend. His arms closed around her protectively. “You did what you had to do for the best interests of your people.”
“You certainly move on quickly,” Claude snapped.
“You’re the one who pushed me away!”
Lorenz looked back and forth between them, brows raised. The guards down the hall turned their direction. Hilda and Claude glared at each other.
Lorenz cleared his throat. “Claude, I came as quickly as I could when I received your letter. Do you truly intend to invade Empire territory?”
“I do,” Claude said, finally looking away from Hilda. “It’s our best chance. The Kingdom should know we’re on their side by now. I don’t know if we can count on their help, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. Can I count on Gloucester’s support?”
Lorenz nodded. “Your plan is insane, but I have convinced my father to listen to you.”
“I’m flattered. You always told me I was an inferior leader.”
“That remains to be seen. We have not won yet.”
Hilda clenched her teeth. It was all too much. “I’m going to bed, if you care. I’ll need my rest since we’re marching soon.”
“Do you need an escort?” Lorenz asked.
Claude sneered. “Oh, aren’t you sweet.”
“You do not know the first thing about women,” Lorenz said with a sigh.
“And you do? How’s your romance going? Or do you have your sights set on Hilda now? After all, House Goneril is about as noble as it gets. I don’t blame you for aiming for the best pedigree.”
“I am my own person, with my own thoughts and feelings, thank you very much,” Hilda spat. “Not that you seem to care about any of that. Good night.”
She stormed down the hall. Damn that Claude. Whatever was going on with him, he didn’t understand at all. Or was it all some weird game? He had so many secrets it was hard to know.
As she disappeared down the corridor, the last thing she heard was Lorenz say, “Claude, for a man who prides himself on his cleverness, you certainly are an idiot.”
Hilda couldn’t agree more.