Claude woke with a groan. Everything hurt, as if he’d been tied down and beaten head to toe with a sack of rocks. His head spun as he opened his eyes. He’d experimented often enough with poisons to know what a chemical hangover felt like. His condition must have been bad for them to keep him sedated.
But that wasn’t the most surprising thing. Although the room was dim, what with the heavy curtains drawn, he knew he wasn’t alone. Someone breathed softly next to him. Their scent was familiar.
A jolt went through him. Hilda, here in his bed.
He turned to look at her, barely able to make out her features in the darkness. How many times had he fantasized about this very thing? What would it be like to awake to her every morning? His heart swelled in his chest, and he brushed a strand of hair away from her cheek.
Her eyes snapped open and caught what little light there was. She sat bolt upright, nightdress slipping from her shoulder. “Claude?”
She scooted back down next to him again and pulled him to her so his head rested on her chest. His cheek pressed against her breasts. So soft. He closed his eyes and forced himself not to nuzzle.
“I was so worried about you,” she murmured. “You broke your leg and hip. The fracture in your thigh was compound, and you lost a lot of blood. They’ve been healing you, but it’s been slow going because they want to make sure it mends right.”
“Are you all right? Did you sustain any injuries?”
“I’m fine. But the battle was a disaster. We lost a lot of troops.”
“I assume we retreated?”
“Who called it?”
She hesitated. “I did.”
“You led the retreat?”
She looked away.
By the gods, she had. Hilda had taken command of his army and gotten them all out of there. Not only that, she had singlehandedly cut her way across the most chaotic battlefield he had ever seen. Had it truly been all for him?
“You were…stunning,” he said. “Like a warrior goddess. None could touch you.”
Hilda released him, easing him back onto the bed. “Don’t be silly.”
“I was there, remember? I saw you. The way you looked when you came to save me…”
Claude’s heart pounded so hard against his ribs he worried they’d crack. She was smart. She was strong. She would make a fantastic queen.
The realization struck him like crockery to the head. Queen Hilda of Almyra. It was perfect. Assuming he became king, of course. Not only would she be wonderful in the role, her nationality would help improve relations and break down prejudice.
And, best of all, he was madly in love with her.
There was just one problem, and it was a big one—Hilda shunned responsibility, and becoming queen was about as responsible as one could get. Sure, she’d stepped up during the battle at Gronder, but she’d had no choice. Whether or not she became queen was her choice and her choice alone.
He’d just have to come up with an excellent scheme to convince her it was what she wanted.
That could come later, and he already had some ideas. The war wasn’t over yet, not to mention their relationship could use some mending. Lorenz was right, Hilda was right—he really could be an idiot sometimes.
“Would you please open the curtains?” he asked.
Hilda slid from bed without a word, her braid dangling down her back. Claude placed his hand on the spot where she’d slept and soaked up her warmth. Her feet made no sound as she made her way across the plush rug to the window and pulled apart the curtains. Midday light flooded the room. The fabric of nightdress she wore was thin enough that the way the light hit her illuminated the outline of her figure beneath the garment. Gods, she was beautiful.
“It’s later than I thought,” she said as she returned to bed.
It was, but it didn’t matter. He took her hand and held it between his. She must work hard to keep her weapon calluses to a minimum, but they were still there. The memory of her fingers in his chest hair sent a hot jolt through him. That night, he’d been so focused on what it looked like he’d been trying to do to her that he’d completely overlooked her eager participation. Was she attracted to him, too? It was possible he’d been utterly blind. His heart sank at the thought of how he must have hurt her even as his chest expanded with hope.
“I don’t know a thing, do I?” he whispered and pressed her hand to his lips.
“I’m glad you’ve finally realized that.”
Hilda rolled onto her side and gazed at him across the pillows. He turned his head so he could see her better, and she reached out and brushed a lock of hair from his face. Her fingers lingered on his cheek.
Claude took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for what happened that night.”
“So you’ve mentioned.” Her tone grew chilly.
“No, not like that. I don’t regret the way you felt in my hands. I shouldn’t have reacted like I did when Lorenz found us. It’s just…it looked bad. What sort of man am I to have time to do something like that when the people I’m responsible for are in trouble? I let my own guilt govern the way I treated you, and that was wrong.”
Her gaze softened as her hand rested on his chest. “You’re only human.”
“That might be true, but I can’t afford to be. Edelgard and Dimitri are each exceptional in their own ways. If I take my attention away from them for a minute, it could mean disaster for the Alliance.”
Hilda groaned. “So much pressure. I’m glad you’re leader and not me.”
Claude tried to ignore the way his heart sank. No, there was still time to win her over. “Says the woman who rallied the army when I fell and got us back here in one piece.”
“That was a one-time deal.”
“Who’s going to act as my proxy, then, when I’m stuck here in bed healing?”
Although once he said the words, being stuck in bed with Hilda sounded like heaven. If only his damn injuries were better. Curse Ingrid—although it was his own softness that had prevented him from shooting her out of the sky the moment he saw her. He should be glad she hadn’t killed him outright.
Hilda made a noise in the back of her throat. “Are you really asking me?”
“I’ll owe you a massive favor. Or a bunch of small ones. Your pick.”
“I like the sound of that.”
“I thought you might.”
“All right, I’ll consider it.”
If he wasn’t in so much pain, he’d roll over and kiss her. Instead, he let his touch dance up her arm and beneath her sleeve. Her skin was silky, and goosebumps appeared as he caressed her. Hilda shuddered, and just like that, he was hard. Good to know that piece of him hadn’t been injured.
“Do you forgive me?” he whispered. “I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
Her eyes glistened. “All right.”
She shifted closer and rolled so her chest rested on top of his. The thin layers of their clothes couldn’t conceal the soft warmth of her breasts. He slid his hand behind her head and drew her face down to his.
A knock came at the door, but before he could answer, Judith entered. “Boy, we—oh.”
Hilda rolled off him and covered her face with her hands.
Claude sighed. “Here I am, leader of the Alliance, and yet everyone keeps barging in on me.”
“We need to lock the doors,” Hilda moaned behind her hands.
“It’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t need locks. I’m the duke. I have guards who are supposed to people keep people out. That’s it—I’m going to have to fire them all.”
“All right, fine. I’ll rotate them to another post.”
Judith stood at the end of the bed, arms crossed over her chest. “Are you two done?”
Claude shot her a glance. “Not yet. You might want to avert your eyes. Come here, Hilda.”
Hilda allowed him to guide her face close to his again. Her cheeks burned so intensely their heat warmed his skin. Instead of kissing her, he pulled her ear to his mouth.
“There’s a passage from your room to mine,” he whispered, lips barely moving. “I’ll send more information later.”
The heat coming from her cheeks intensified. She nodded and began to pull away.
It was too much. His discipline failed. He lips grazed the corner of her mouth as she pulled away. The desire in her eyes just made him harder. Seeing her expression reinforced just how stupid he’d been for not exploring their attraction sooner.
“I’m turning back around,” Judith announced as Hilda slid from bed.
Judith frowned at Hilda. “You know, this could cause quite a scandal. Wouldn’t want it getting back to Holst, would you?”
The color fled Hilda’s face. Even so, she left the room with the dignity and grace of a princess. Claude’s heart went with her.
He and Judith listened until Hilda’s steps retreated and the doors closed behind her. Claude fixed Judith with a look. “I’m going to marry her.”
“Have you asked yet?” Judith asked, eyebrow raised.
“No, but I’ll get her to agree. Mark my words—when this war is over, she’ll become my wife.”
Judith looked over her shoulder, as if by doing so she could capture the image of Hilda. “She certainly has advantageous family connections, but does she know about yours?”
“Not yet.” Which was a problem, one he hadn’t figured out how to work around. It was entirely possible she’d refuse to marry him once she found out who his parents were.
Judith sighed. “Well, that’s not why I’m here. The lords are in an uproar over what happened at Gronder. Someone needs to go mollify them and get them working together again. I’ve done my best, and that Gloucester boy isn’t unskilled, but it’s not enough.”
“I suspected as much. That’s why Hilda’s going to act as my proxy.”
Judith’s eyes widened.
“One—she’s the hero of Gronder. She fought her way across the entire battlefield singlehandedly, faced down two warriors with Relics, saved my life, and organized the retreat. Two, people always want to get on Lord Holst’s good side, and one of the quickest ways to do that is to be nice to his sister. Three, Hilda very skilled at getting people to do what she wants and—”
Judith chuckled. “Really got it bad, don’t you?”
“What?” Claude asked with a frown.
“Never mind. Fine, I’ll follow up with Lady Goneril.”
“Excellent. Thank you. Since I can’t sit up, would you mind taking dictation for a letter?”
“I need to write to Dimitri. And Nader. You can even slip in a little note of your own and send it along with my letter to Nader, if you’d like.”
To her credit, Judith didn’t even blush, although she couldn’t hide the sparkle in her eyes. “Oh, all right.”
“I appreciate it.”
Judith went into his study to get writing supplies. Claude sank into his pillows and frowned up at the ceiling. It was time to lay the groundwork for the two most important schemes of his life.