The sealing wax on the princess’s note was still warm against Lily’s palm as she considered destroying the missive and saying Rohann had refused Carnelia’s request to meet privately. Her steps faltered, and she stopped to stare out the window at the courtyard. Several men were mounting horses to ride out from the palace. How she wished she might do the same on such a brilliant, windy day. Clouds scudded across the sky, hiding then revealing the sun. This was the first true spring day, and Lily was trapped indoors running fool’s errands for her mistress.
Carnelia wouldn’t walk outside on a day like today when the wind might damage her fair skin. But she would foolishly meet a strange man in a secluded corner of the garden if he were willing. Unfortunately, so would Lily if Rohann ever deigned to look at her with more than mocking amusement.
She hated feeling so weak. Her solid wall of rigid propriety had suddenly crumbled like bad masonry, leaving her heart exposed. She had such a yen for the feckless storyteller she could scarcely contain it. When she glimpsed him from across a room, heard his voice as he told one of his tales, or caught a whiff of his scent when he walked past her, her legs quivered so she could scarcely remain standing. Lily realized her feelings were insubstantial fancy. Attraction to a handsome face and form was natural. But unruly emotions had seized control of the fort of her being and were firing missiles of big red hearts off the parapets.
If this was how Carnelia felt every time she confided to Lily that she was “in love” with some new prospect, no wonder the woman careened wildly out of control. Lily felt like racing across open fields somewhere until she collapsed exhausted. Her fantasy extended to Rohann finding her in the tall grass and lying beside her, touching her face, leaning close, and brushing his lips over hers. She would push her hands through his sunlit hair, which would slip smoothly between her fingers. His hands would slide down her body, over her breasts, down her stomach…but there her fantasy ended.
Lily turned abruptly from the window and resumed her mission to deliver Carnelia’s note. Rohann might have left the castle to explore the city, but intuition told Lily he’d most likely be gambling and casting dice with the grooms in the stable yard.
What an odd position the storyteller occupied. Neither servant nor tradesman, landowner nor laborer, he existed on the fringes of society yet seemed to interact with everyone. In the few days Kier Rohann had been at court, Lily had seen him chatting informally with a baronet and telling jokes to a group of footmen. What must such freedom from society’s constraints be like? She’d certainly never know.
Lily stepped outside and inhaled a deep draught of chilly air. She followed the sound of men’s voices and laughter to the area behind the stable, where several grooms were clustered in a semicircle. Her heart flipped at the sight of Rohann on his knees, casting dice. The men let out a whoop as the dice rolled to a stop.
Rohann cursed and began paying out what he owed. “You’ll have me suspenders and the trousers along with ’em afore we’re through.”
His manner of speech changed depending on who he was speaking to, and Lily wondered which accent belonged to the real Kier Rohann—if that was even his name. She hesitated, wondering how to attract his attention and unobtrusively deliver Carnelia’s note. But Rohann bid good day to the stable workers and headed her way.
When he spotted her lurking behind the stable, one eyebrow arched. “How can I help you, Lady Lily?”
“Miss Nightingale,” she corrected.
The second eyebrow joined the first. “Lily Nightingale—a flower and a bird. What a lovely name. Do you sing like a nightingale?”
“No,” she answered honestly. She hadn’t the knack for flirtation, and she felt that made her seem humorless and dull. “I have a message for you from the princess, but first, please listen to me.”
Rohann’s active brows knitted together in an exaggerated frown. “Yes, miss. No more levity.”
“Are you never serious? Some things are not meant to be a joke.”
“No. But many things are funny anyway.”
“I understand that to a man like you, winning the princess is a game. When you’re finished with your sport, you’ll leave, and the princess will be left to cope with the damage you’ve caused. At heart, she’s only a young woman longing for love. You will hurt her and may harm her reputation.”
His ice-blue eyes froze Lily. “Or she may hurt me. Perhaps I’m a simple man also longing for love. Haven’t you read tales of star-crossed lovers?”
“Everything is a story with you. I believe there’s no truth in you and certainly not where Her Highness is concerned. Please, abandon this dangerous game.” Having delivered her message, Lily handed him Carnelia’s note.
He read the message, then looked up. “Miss Nightingale, I appreciate your concern for your mistress. Tell her I’ll meet her as she requests. When I see her, I promise to rid Her Highness of any romantic notions. Will that do?”
Relief surged through Lily. Perhaps he wasn’t an utter cad. “Yes. Although it would be best if you simply said you can’t meet her in private. Such an assignation could prove dangerous for you both.”
“A message of such a personal nature should be delivered in person, don’t you think? One meeting in the garden and then this flirtation will be ended.”
“Very well.” Lily started to walk away, but Rohann stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“You’re very devoted to your mistress. That’s an admirable quality. But do you like Her Highness?”
No one had ever asked her such a question, including herself. Like or dislike didn’t matter. Service to Carnelia was her life.
“She is fair and kind to all who serve her.”
“So you enjoy spending your days fetching and carrying for a princess?”
She straightened her shoulders and drew herself to her full height, which was still many inches shorter than his. “It is not your concern whether or not I am satisfied with my employment.”
“Fair enough. I was merely curious what it might feel like to be bound to one place, one person, and to see your future set before you in a straight, unwavering line.”
His tone was teasing, but Lily felt judged and found lacking. She bristled in response. “I should far rather know what is expected of me and fulfill my duties than wander aimlessly. Such a life would make it difficult to become connected to anyone, since moving on is inevitable.”
“Are you close to anyone, Miss Nightingale? Do your duties leave you time for a life of your own?”
The breeze rattled the bare branches above them and blew a few strands of Rohann’s sunlit hair over his intense eyes. Lily shivered and hugged her arms around herself. She should walk on. She didn’t have to submit to probing questions this stranger had no right to ask. But Lily was annoyed, so she turned the questioning on him.
“Why don’t you travel with a troupe? Why a one-man show? It suggests a desire for a self-contained life with no one dependent on you. You’re in control of everything, a puppeteer manipulating strangers in your plays.”
A flicker of something stirred in his eyes, then quickly disappeared. He shrugged. “I’m in control of nothing. In this life, things happen, and people react to them. That’s all. Perhaps there’s some grand puppeteer in the sky masterminding the world, but I highly doubt it.”
“As you and I clearly view life in entirely different ways, there’s no point in further discussion, Mr. Rohann. I’ll give your reply to Princess Carnelia.”
Lily emerged from beneath the sheltering branches of the tree and glanced at the windows of the castle to see if anyone might be watching. She swore she felt Rohann’s gaze burning into her back as she walked away, but when she glanced behind, he was no longer there.