Rosemary Mercer watched from the corner of her eye while Tonio bustled around the storeroom. He hummed to himself as he took stock of their inventory, checking the same shelf for the third time. It wasn’t like him to be so distracted, and there was no reason to be nervous while doing routine work.
Rosemary sat up a little straighter at her desk and smoothed her golden-brown hair.
There was no reason for Tonio to be nervous unless he was finally going to propose.
She gave up working on the balance sheets spread in front of her and studied Tonio. Her father’s apprentice moved around the shop, appearing busy and accomplishing nothing. His straw-colored hair was neater than usual, as if he had brushed it with care that morning. He wore his best clothes, the new green trousers that were not yet stained with ink and mended with patches.
Rosemary smoothed her skirt and wished she had known to wear her best clothes as well. She wasn’t vain, but even she wanted to look her best when her intended asked for her hand in marriage.
She had assumed Tonio would make more fuss over a proposal. That he would ask her to accompany him on a picnic or a walk along the river. Then she would have known to wear her best gown and style her hair instead of pulling it back in the usual braid.
But perhaps this was best. Something neat and tidy with minimal interruption to their work.
At least he was going to propose, even if his methods were less than romantic. Rosemary felt a rush of affection as Tonio’s papers slipped out of his hands and scattered across the floor. Was he that nervous? Poor lad. Didn’t he know that she would say yes? That she was expecting it?
She had been expecting it since he became their father’s apprentice four years ago. The advantages were obvious, and they got along well. It had become clearer and clearer to Rosemary over the years that this was their path.
And now everything would be settled, and the one small uncertainty about Rosemary’s future would be neatly tied up like the parcels stacked around their shop.
She left her place at the desk and hurried across the room to help Tonio pick up the papers.
“Thanks,” he said softly as she knelt beside him on the wooden planks. “I don’t know what’s come over me today.”
The papers shook along with his hands, and Rosemary placed her fingers around his wrists to steady them.
“It’s fine,” she said.
She smiled what she hoped was a reassuring smile, and Tonio grinned back. They were close enough to each other that she could see every freckle dotting his nose, and she knew that he could see the flecks of gold in her eyes. Those bits of gold were one of her best features, but you had to be close to observe them.
“Do you want some fresh air?” Tonio said, letting go of her hands and stuffing the papers on the nearest shelf. “We could step into the courtyard and check on the bird.”
A convenient excuse. Did he have something planned after all? Rosemary nodded and followed him.
Tonio didn’t offer his arm, and Rosemary tried not to mind. It was a short distance to the courtyard in the center of their house, and there wasn’t room for them to walk side by side through the door.
She inhaled deeply as they entered the courtyard. It was large for a house in the middle of town, and she treasured the space. She treasured the roses that climbed the walls and scented the air.
Her mother’s roses. As always, Rosemary brushed her fingers against the flowers, as if she could feel her mother’s love in the garden she had tended with such care.
“I think he’s recovered,” Tonio said. “Should we release him?”
He held up a small cage that contained a thrush. The bird hopped around, studying them with wary, bright eyes. Tonio had rescued it a few days ago from some village lads who had caught it in a snare intending to keep it as a pet, and he and Rosemary had been nursing it back to health ever since.
“Of course,” Rosemary said. “If he’s well enough, he should go free.”
Tonio opened the cage, and they stepped back to give the bird space. Rosemary placed a hand on Tonio’s shoulder and pulled him back a little farther so they stood huddled together in the corner of the courtyard.
The thrush chirped a few times and fluttered out of the cage. It didn’t fly away immediately as Rosemary had expected. Instead, it hopped into a rosebush and pulled a snail off one of the leaves. Rosemary frowned as she watched the bird eat. How had she missed the snails in the garden? She would need to check for more and get rid of them before they damaged the plants.
As hard as she tried, she was not the master gardener her mother had been. Thank goodness the bird had found the threat.
“Maybe he’ll stick around and eat the rest,” Tonio said.
“I hope so. This would be a safe home for him.”
She turned and realized that Tonio was looking down at her. He swallowed and brushed a strand of his straw-blond hair away from his face. Then he took her hand and held it. His touch was gentle, and she could feel that he was still trembling.
Voices echoed from inside, and the courtyard door swung open. Tonio quickly pulled away from Rosemary and dropped her hand. She turned to face the newcomer, doing her best to hide her disappointment.
Blast it all. They had been so close.
“Oh! Am I interrupting anything?” Sorrel asked.
“No, not at all,” Rosemary said.
Then she glared at her younger sister, trying to signal her to get lost.
Sorrel only giggled. At sixteen years old, she was three years younger than Rosemary, but she should still be old enough to recognize when she wasn’t wanted.
But Sorrel was not picking up on the hints. Her brown eyes sparkled with amusement, and she tossed her chestnut hair over her shoulder. She was tall and elegant, and the gesture was graceful.
And completely annoying.
“Did you need something?” Rosemary asked.
“Where is everyone?” another voice called from the shop.
A few moments later, Sorrel’s twin Dahlia appeared.
Only those who knew them well could see the resemblances in Sorrel and Dahlia that one expected to find in twins. It manifested in their mischievous expressions and personalities rather than their physical appearances. While Sorrel and Rosemary took after their father’s darker coloring, Dahlia took after their mother. She had a fair complexion with rosy pink cheeks. Her eyes were blue and her hair blond and wavy. This, combined with her soft manner of speaking, made new acquaintances assume that she was the gentlest of the sisters. A quiet maiden with reserved manners.
Rosemary knew better.
“Oh,” Dahlia said, looking from Tonio to Rosemary. “Oh my.”
“We were checking on the thrush,” Rosemary said. “Leave, or you’ll frighten it.”
“Is it recovered?” Sorrel asked.
She came farther into the courtyard to look. The thrush chirped in alarm and flew away.
“It was kind of you to rescue the bird,” Dahlia said to Tonio.
“It shows you’ll be a caring father one day,” Sorrel added.
She gave an innocent smile, and Tonio flushed bright red.
“Excuse me. I have an errand across town.”
He nodded to the ladies and hurried away. Rosemary scowled at her sisters.
“You shouldn’t tease him like that.”
“Did we interrupt his proposal?” Sorrel asked. “I hope not. Who would propose in a shop?”
“The same man who expects his wife to work in one,” Dahlia said.
Rosemary huffed and pushed past her sisters. She passed the narrow staircase that led to their living quarters on the second floor and returned to the storeroom. The interruption had cost her a morning’s work and yielded no results. She sat at her desk and looked over her balance sheets.
Profits were down. A quick glance at the numbers was enough to tell her that.
Blast it all.
“So he didn’t propose?” Sorrel said.
She sat on the edge of the desk. Rosemary ignored the question and pulled her papers away so her sister wouldn’t crumple them.
“Perhaps Tonio would be more inclined to see you as a bride if you acted like one,” Dahlia said. “As long as you’re working on sums together, you might as well be just another apprentice.”
“A marriage is a partnership,” Rosemary began.
“And each must do their part,” Sorrel and Dahlia finished with her.
The three sisters looked at each other then shrugged. This was a familiar conversation, and there was little to be gained from having it yet again.
“Did you need something?” Rosemary asked.
She loved her sisters, but she was not feeling kindly toward them right now. Sorrel grinned.
“Yes, we did! There’s gossip from the docks that the crown prince will pass through town today. You must come watch the carriages with us!”
“I’ve seen carriages before.”
“Yes, but this one has a prince in it!” Dahlia said.
Her voice squeaked with excitement, and Rosemary sighed. Perhaps it was because she would soon be engaged, but she just didn’t see the appeal of swooning after a prince.
“They say he’s still unattached,” Dahlia said. “That none of the court ladies are fine enough to please him.”
She grabbed a paper off the desk and fluttered it like a fan. Rosemary snatched it away and smoothed out the wrinkles.
“And you think you’ll win his heart?”
“Someone is bound to,” Sorrel said. “If he doesn’t like the stuffy ladies of court, perhaps he prefers the fresh maidens of the countryside.”
“Abberley is hardly the countryside. It’s the second largest city in Eldria.”
“There is country around it,” Dahlia said. “Even farms. I could pass as a country maiden if I tried.”
The bell over the door jingled. Rosemary looked up, hoping that Tonio had returned, but the silhouette in the door frame was the decidedly feminine shape of their friend Irene Sand. Irene’s father was one of their father’s closest friends, so they had been friends with her practically since birth.
“It’s coming!” Irene squealed. “The carriage is coming!”
Her tall, thin frame quivered with excitement, making her wavy, brown hair rustle as she moved.
“Don’t tell me you’re obsessed as well?” Rosemary said.
A commotion in the town square outside kept Irene from answering.
“He’s here!” Dahlia and Sorrel screamed in unison.
They jumped to their feet and hurried out the door.
“Come with us, Rosemary,” Irene insisted. “You never know. You may catch someone’s eye.”
Rosemary sighed. She didn’t need to catch someone’s eye, but she should probably make sure Sorrel and Dahlia didn’t cause any trouble. She followed Irene out the door and into the town square.
It was crowded. More crowded than it would be even for a market day. Apparently word of the prince’s visit had spread quickly. Everyone wore their best clothes, and Rosemary once again felt that she’d missed the announcement to dress up.
Then again, what did it matter? The townspeople had all seen her dressed like this before, and the prince was simply passing through on the way to his castle in the mountains. He had never stopped before, and Rosemary saw no reason for this time to be any different.
His Royal Highness Crown Prince Darian D’Eldria had decided some months ago to renovate the ruins of Rosewell Castle in the mountains above their town. Life in Abberley had been hectic ever since. Ships loaded with building materials and luxury goods filled the docks. Craftsmen and carpenters filled the inns.
And now the prince’s admirers filled the streets.
A cheer spread through the crowd. Dahlia, Sorrel, and Irene pushed their way through until they stood at the front of the space left open for the carriages. Rosemary stayed back, standing on the stone foundation of her house to gain a few inches and better see over the mass of people.
Guards on horseback passed first. Their weapons gleamed in the sun, and the crowd cheered appreciatively. The cheering only grew louder when the great, black carriage trimmed in gold rolled through the streets. It was enormous, and the crowd pushed back to make way.
At least, most of them did. Sorrel and Dahlia pushed forward, waving their handkerchiefs and nearly getting their skirts caught in the wheels.
Rosemary was no expert on princes, but she doubted that Prince Darian would appreciate his journey being delayed because a lady caught her skirt in his wheel. She sighed in relief as the carriage rumbled past her sisters without incident.
More guards followed behind the carriage while a few riders split off from the group and stayed behind. Most of the crowd chased after the procession once it was past, calling out to the prince as if he cared what they had to say.
Once the crowd cleared, Rosemary turned her attention to the men who remained in the square. She recognized the prince’s steward from past visits, as well as several of the lead craftsmen and accountants who dealt with the merchants and arranged for materials to be delivered.
Rosemary studied the men. The castle’s renovation had led to an increase in trade in Abberley, but so far all the new contracts had gone to the Puerco family. Lupita Puerco was head of the trade guild and had seized the opportunity with an iron grip. Her oldest grandson Mattone was master of the weights of Abberley, in charge of keeping the standard measures safe and using them to weigh shipments and trades to make sure everyone was honest. Mattone’s wife was the daughter of the master brick mason in town, so it was natural that the crown prince was using the Puercos to ship the bricks and stones he needed.
Lupita’s second grandson, Palo, had married the heiress to the largest forestry operation and sawmill in the area. So they provided the wood.
And once those arrangements had been made, the prince had simply continued using the Puercos for everything else. Rosemary understood the politics in play, but that didn’t mean she liked them.
Granted, she was playing the same game. Tonio was Lupita’s youngest grandson. It had seemed like great fortune when he had tired of working in the family business and taken an apprenticeship with her father instead. It had strengthened their relationship with the Puercos, giving Rosemary a foothold in places she would otherwise have been shut out of. Her and Tonio’s marriage would unite their companies’ interests and secure her family’s future.
If he ever proposed.
Rosemary pushed away the doubt that crept in when she thought of the proposal. Tonio was simply shy and taking his time. He had always been shy and taken his time. There was no cause for concern.
She blinked, bringing herself back to the present. More worrying than Tonio or the Puercos was the man staring at her from across the town square. He sat on his horse, not moving. She hopped off the stone she was still standing on and stared back at him.
He was a big man, tall and muscled, although not in the same way the dock workers or farmers were. He was more polished than that. His black hair was neatly trimmed so it framed his face in dark waves. His short beard was neatly trimmed as well, adding strength to an already imposing jawline. His eyes were black and studying her with open curiosity.
At least, she hoped it was curiosity. It might be disdain, hatred even. But she had done nothing to make this man hate her. Rosemary suspected he always looked like that, as if he had examined the world and found it wanting. It was something in the downward tilt of his eyebrows. The upward tilt of his chin.
He was still staring, so she kept staring as well. It had become a contest of wills, and she grinned a little as his scowl deepened. She wasn’t that easily defeated.
He was handsome in his haughty way. Very handsome, if she was honest. Rosemary’s face flushed a little at the thought. She was about to be engaged. She shouldn’t be admiring other men.
Even if there was a lot to admire.
The prince’s steward approached the man and said something, forcing him to look away. Rosemary smiled in triumph. She had won their strange contest.
The man nodded to her, then dismounted and followed the steward toward the town hall.
More business for the Puercos.
Rosemary watched him go and studied his clothes. They were well cut but not as fine as those of the steward or the nobles who sometimes rode through to call on the prince. She decided he must be some sort of servant.
She kept watching until the men disappeared into the town hall. Best of luck to them. They would need it when negotiating with the Puercos.
Rosemary ducked back into the shop and returned to her balance sheets. She had hoped to improve the numbers before her father returned from his latest trading journey, but he was due back any day, and she had still not managed to secure any new business. People smiled at her when she mentioned the Mercer’s competitive rates and superior service, but they had yet to take her up on her offer. The Puercos owned Abberley, and try as she might, Rosemary could not find a way to break into their business stronghold.
How was it possible to live in a place your whole life and still feel like a newcomer? Hopefully her marriage with Tonio would make the residents of Abberley feel more at ease about trading with her.
Or perhaps she should look for customers elsewhere.
The bell jingled, and Rosemary sighed. How was she supposed to balance books when she kept getting interrupted?
“We’re going to the meadow to pick wildflowers,” Dahlia said in a breathless voice. “Won’t you come with us?”
She and Irene sat on stools and fanned themselves while Sorrel ran upstairs to the family living quarters and returned with hats.
“You mean you’re climbing up the mountain to watch for the prince,” Rosemary said.
“And to pick flowers,” Irene said. “If he happens to notice us from his castle window, well, that can’t be helped.”
“You’re hopeless,” Rosemary said.
“Says the girl doing sums for her not-yet-fiancé,” Sorrel said. “Honestly, Rosemary, you should let Tonio do that. It’s part of his apprenticeship. How is he supposed to learn to run a business if you do everything for him?”
“I don’t do everything for him,” Rosemary said. “Just the things I’m better at. Besides, marriage—”
“Is a partnership,” Sorrel, Dahlia, and Irene finished for her.
Rosemary laughed with them, then turned to Irene.
“Your father sometimes sells lumber from his land, doesn’t he?”
“Especially now that we’re clearing more fields. It seemed like good timing since we expected the prince to want lumber, but his inspector said our trees weren’t pretty enough.”
“Not pretty enough?”
Irene nodded, and Rosemary laughed. What sort of man rejected a tree because it wasn’t pretty?
“Have they rejected other trees?” Rosemary asked.
“And stones. Even some crops. My father complains about it all the time. The prince’s agents insist that everything must be perfect.”
Rosemary grinned. That meant there was a surplus of goods building up in Abberley. Goods that were perfectly serviceable, whatever Crown Prince Darian thought of them.
Goods that needed to be shipped, and goods that the Puercos weren’t bothering with because they were too busy to notice the opportunity.
“You’re sure you won’t come?” Dahlia said as she moved toward the door. “Some of the other girls are coming. It will be fun, even if we don’t see the prince.”
“I’m sure. Tonio will be back any moment, and I think he wanted to talk to me about something.”
“I wonder what that could be?” Sorrel said mischievously.
She fluttered her eyelashes, grabbed her hat, and hurried out the door. Dahlia and Irene followed her, and Rosemary took a deep breath, enjoying the quiet before she once again turned back to her books. The balance sheets stretched out in a long column, and for a moment she wished she had gone with her sisters to get some fresh air.
That wish disappeared as she began to calculate the numbers and lost herself in the flow of her work. Her mind raced with possibilities as she looked over the numbers and thought of the prince’s rejected building materials.
The Puercos had secured all the prince’s business, but there were other businesses in town. Perhaps they were also being neglected while the Puercos courted the royals.
“Ugly trees,” she said with a laugh.
Then she bit her lip, trying to make all the pieces fit together. The Puercos had tied up their resources to please the prince, but that business would not last forever. Once Rosewell Castle was finished, the extra business would go away.
Other supply chains would not.
But who would want trees? No one in Eldria. The country had timber to spare.
Rosemary stared at the map hanging on the wall, scanning over the countries until her eyes settled on Santelle. The country across the sea was renowned for their navy and preferred to import goods so that their own citizens could serve as officers.
And a navy was unlikely to care how attractive their lumber was.
Rosemary grinned. If she could find a way to get the excess lumber across the sea, she would have a very profitable shipping venture in a place where the Puercos didn’t matter and couldn’t stop her.
There was only one problem. The Mercers didn’t own a ship suitable for shipping lumber. Not on a large scale. Their ships were small, and they would not be able to carry enough lumber to be worth the trip to Santelle.
But where would they get the extra money to buy another ship? Rosemary began to calculate, seeing what assets could be sold and estimating how much they could borrow. She briefly considered the funds she had saved for Sorrel’s and Dahlia’s dowries, but quickly rejected the idea. No matter how good the opportunity, she would not gamble with her sisters’ futures.
And even if she included that amount, she still came up short. She tapped her quill pen against her nose in frustration. It was a golden opportunity, but she didn’t have enough gold to make it happen.
She set down her quill and stared at the wall, trying to work out the answer, until the bell above the door once again rang and interrupted her.
His Royal Highness Crown Prince Darian D’Eldria shifted impatiently in his saddle. He had insisted on a standard issue saddle to complete his disguise, but he regretted the decision now. Apparently the comfort of low-level administrative assistants was not a priority to the saddle makers of Eldria.
The horse was no better. He missed his thoroughbred stallion, but riding Onyx into town would definitely have attracted the wrong kind of attention. So he endured the nondescript brown nag he had selected from the stables, jerking from side to side as the horse ambled on with an uneven gait.
Darian shifted again. The journey was almost over, and his legs had gone numb. Blasted commoners slowing everything down. They gathered around the procession, cheering and pointing at the royal carriage that rolled ahead of the riders. It was empty. A decoy to keep attention away from him and further establish his disguise.
“It seems to be working,” Harris said.
The steward turned, tilting his head so that his wide-brimmed hat hid his face from their fellow riders. Harris had sandy-blond hair and fair skin that burned easily, so the large hat was a necessary if not fashionable accessory.
The prince smirked. It was worth an uncomfortable saddle and scratchy tunic if he was able to keep a low profile and move about Abberley without being swarmed by riffraff. There were many details to work out for the renovation of his castle, and he preferred to be personally involved in as many of them as possible. It had been impossible to do so from the castle, where he had stayed on his previous trips.
Three young women pushed into the street, so close to the carriage that their skirts were in danger of being caught in the wheels. Perhaps that was their plan. What better way to catch a prince’s attention? They giggled and waved handkerchiefs at the darkened window they thought contained His Royal Highness.
“Insufferable,” Darian muttered.
Harris hid his laugh behind a cough. The carriage drove straight through the town on its way to the castle. The guards followed it up the mountain, and the crowd dispersed or hiked after it, muttering in disappointment as they realized the prince would not be making a public appearance. The group of young ladies giggled again, then walked with determination down the road the carriage had traveled. Darian raised an eyebrow. Surely they didn’t intend to walk all the way to the castle and accost the prince in his own home?
Then again, stranger things had happened.
He looked around the town square and stopped when he saw a woman above the crowd. As the people cleared, he realized she was standing on a stone jutting out of the building’s foundation. A clever solution to see the procession without getting anywhere near the wheels.
She noticed him staring and stared back, offering some kind of challenge in her warm, brown eyes. Darian met her gaze, intrigued. Had she recognized him?
Doubtful. She would be more respectful if she knew she was staring at her future sovereign. She hopped down from the stone and continued to stare. She seemed amused rather than intimidated, so Darian studied her with interest.
She wore the usual clothes of a common woman from a small town. A simple cotton dress secured with an apron. Her shoes were well-worn boots. Immensely practical for the dusty dirt trails that passed for roads here, but hardly fashionable. Her thick, brown hair was streaked with gold and pulled back in a long braid. Her eyes were bright and lined with thick brows that made her expression seem more intense than most of the ladies of his acquaintance.
The combination was forgettable and ordinary, so why was he still staring at her? What was it about those eyes that kept him from looking away?
He studied her again, looking for anything he might have missed, and decided there was a little beauty in her face. And perhaps moderately good fortune, if her serviceable but elegant blue dress was any indication. The fabric was plain, but it fit her well. Was she an accomplished seamstress, or had she hired it out?
“We’re ready to go to the Puercos,” Harris said.
Darian turned to him, sad to lose whatever game they had been playing. But if he wanted to look convincing in his servant disguise, he couldn’t ignore the prince’s steward.
He dismounted and followed Harris across the town square, walking slowly as his legs tingled and regained feeling. The horse trailed behind him, walking even slower than he did. Darian glanced back to check on it and found the woman still watching him. He swallowed as he realized another reason she might be staring.
Darian had thought this disguise would protect him from fortune-hunting women, but perhaps that wasn’t the case. Perhaps, while her friends were chasing the prince, this woman had decided to pursue an easier target.
He tried to dismiss the suspicion, mostly because he didn’t want it to be true. Why would she be interested in a servant? There was no obvious reason that she would need to look for a husband beyond the village.
Perhaps she was tired of this provincial town and thought a government official could offer her a more exciting life in the capital city.
Or perhaps she had some hidden defect that had scared away the local men. Something that would only be obvious upon closer acquaintance and could be hidden until after she had snared whichever palace official she chose.
He was being discourteous. Perhaps she was simply curious about their group. There was no reason to get so flustered by the gaze of a single common woman.
He looked around the town square to distract himself. It was typical of villages this size, although slightly larger than most because of the river port that offered access to the ocean and beyond. The town square had a fountain in the middle where residents could fetch drinking water and shops around the outside.
Each shop had a carved wooden sign above the door advertising its wares for those who couldn’t read. Shoes, needles, meat, and more decorated the signs. They were two-story structures, with storefronts and warehouses below and family living quarters above. It was a practical if not aesthetically pleasing arrangement. Darian couldn’t imagine walking through a store to get to his house.
The wooden sign above the woman’s door was shaped like a rose. A florist? He stared a little longer and realized there was a ship in the center of the flower.
A merchant perhaps. Although, if that were the case, this merchant had rather artistic leanings.
Actually, that may be exactly what he needed.
“Are you done gawking, Jones?” Harris said, far louder than necessary.
Darian scowled at him, and the steward’s eyes twinkled. Harris was enjoying this charade a bit too much for Darian’s liking.
Darian said it with clenched teeth, prompting Harris to laugh out loud and clap his hand against Darian’s back.
“Good lad. Come. We have business in the town hall.”
They started walking again, heading to the ugly building across the town square. Darian glared as if it had been built as a personal insult to him.
In fact, it had been built before he was born. The original stone was brick, stained dark with age, and the style was heavy and unornamented. It had been constructed in a time when solid and practical was the order of the day.
Whoever had expanded the building centuries later had tastes that veered in the opposite direction. The newer part of the town hall was all bright windows and climbing towers decorated with as many plaster ornaments as they could fit onto the surface of the building.
Both halves showed an unfortunate lack of taste. Combined together in the same building, the effect was truly offensive. This building would be the first thing to go once Darian finished his castle and turned his attention to the town. He refused to have such an eyesore near his castle.
Harris and Darian handed their horses off to stable-boys and walked through the building. It wasn’t any better on the inside. A mismatched collage of wood and brick with straw scattered over the floor to catch dirt from their boots.
Harris cleared his throat, and Darian realized he had been striding ahead of the steward. He slowed his pace and forced himself to walk a few steps behind. His jaw clenched with the effort of taking a lesser place. Hardly pleasant for one who was used to being in charge, but it was necessary if he wanted to get anything done during this visit. This meeting would be the final test of his disguise.
“Steward Harris, welcome.”
An elderly woman sat at the head of the table in the large meeting room. Her silver hair was slicked back in a tight bun, making her already sharp features look even sharper. She smiled, but it reminded Darian more of a snarl than anything else. A giant of a man with red hair on his head, chin, and most of his body sat on her right. The man on her left looked small in comparison, although he was muscled and tan and still intimidating in his own way.
“It is an honor, Madam Puerco. May I introduce my assistant Jones? He will be running errands for me while I’m here.”
Harris bowed, and Darian forced himself to do the same. Lupita. Head of the merchant guild and matriarch of the Puerco family. She had her elegant thumb firmly on the throat of Abberley via her grandsons. She was also the only person in Abberley who had ever seen Prince Darian in person. But that had been at a court function a few years ago. Would she remember?
Lupita’s silver eyes ran over Darian as if he were simply part of the background, then settled back on Harris.
Perfect. His disguise had worked.
“You remember my grandsons, Steward? Mattone and Palo?”
“A pleasure,” Harris said, smiling pleasantly.
Darian cleared his throat, nudging Harris to move things along. They were still standing, as Lupita had not offered them an invitation to join her at the table, and his legs were tingling again. She was showing off her power, reminding them they were on her turf. Harris cast a sideways warning glance at Darian, then smiled his warmest smile at Lupita.
“Madam Puerco, I trust you have reviewed our proposals?”
He pulled a chair out for himself and sat without being invited. Another power move. Darian joined Harris at the table, earning a glare from everyone there before they once again forgot he existed.
“Your proposals are ridiculous,” Lupita said. “Absolutely out of the question.”
Darian could have sworn she snapped her teeth at them.
“They are not open for negotiation,” Harris said. “His Royal Highness Crown Prince Darian has already approved them. I simply sent them ahead as a courtesy so that you would be aware of the impending changes.”
“Changing the name of the town?” Lupita said. “Tearing down city hall?”
“It is well within His Highness’s rights,” Harris said. “He will build you a new city hall.”
“Hmmph. This town has been Abberley for centuries. I see no reason to change the name to Rosewell simply to satisfy His Highness’s whims. He’ll forget the matter soon enough.”
She nodded as if that settled the matter. Her grandsons mirrored the gesture. The red-haired one looked solid as a brick wall, and the brown-haired one’s arm muscles bulged.
Ridiculous. These country bumpkin officials were trying to intimidate Harris.
“You dare to defy the command of His Royal Highness?” Darian said. “If you have objections, why has the mayor not come to discuss the matter?”
He met Lupita’s glare with one of his own. Her silver eyes seemed to pierce straight through him. For one moment he thought she recognized him. Then her eyes narrowed, and she turned to Harris.
“Send that young man away until he has learned his place. I came here to meet with you for an official discussion, not to have some young pup question my every move.”
Darian leaned forward at the insult. The red giant leaned forward as well, shielding his grandmother. Harris glared at both of them.
“No need for that,” he said. “Jones, I believe you have errands to run in town. Now would be a good time to complete them.”
“That was not a request.”
Darian’s eyes flashed, but he swallowed his rage and stormed from the room before he said something he would regret. Insufferable provincial commoners. They were lucky their town had such a scenic view, or he would forget this place and take his business elsewhere.
Speaking of business, Darian had an order to make. He stood in the middle of the town square, considering the shops. He had planned to have the Puercos handle this. They had proved competent so far.
But he was in no mood to give such insufferable people more of his business. Darian’s eyes settled on the shop with the rose carved above the doorway, and he laughed to himself as he walked toward it. A rose. Perhaps it was meant to be.
A. G. Marshall
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