The Girl Who Loved Two Princes
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A tale as old as time… He ran a finger along her burning cheek, his eyes on her lips as he watched them part. "If you're found like this with me, there'll be no discussion about it. You'll definitely be stuck with me then. Are you really, really sure, princess?" Two brothers, vying for the attention of the same woman… "I do see you Zoey, whether you're at an art class or just wandering around taking in the sights. I see everything you do. That's the problem." He rounded the corner and bent down on one knee, pulling the robe over her shoulders. "Lately, all I see is you." Can one heart truly belong to two men? She's engaged. So is he. And according to the headlines, so are the mouths of their betrotheds. How far will he go for revenge? Lady Zoey is the daughter of Duke Arden, only she's never met the man. So what right does he have to marry her off to some pompous, playboy prince? Prince Aaron Condor is in love with Lady Emily Maine. But when King Henry and Duke Arden decide to mend fences, Aaron ends up engaged to newcomer Zoey. Duke James Beaumont returns to Caines after being exiled five years ago. He's only back to propose to his childhood sweetheart, Emily Maine. 3 months later, Aaron and Emily are caught together in a compromising liplock. James wants revenge. Zoey wants someone to tell her it's okay to give her fiance a second chance. When the jilted lovers meet on the streets of Caines and he proposes to her, Zoey learns that that person is not James Beaumont. She meets with James again anyway and accidentally ends up married to him. It was all a drunken mistake, but that doesn't make The King's Guard hunting them any less real. One small-town girl turned noblewoman, an entitled heiress and two best friends who just can't stop getting mixed up with the same women.
Becoming Lady Zoey Arden
2018, December 2nd & 3rd
Zoey hailed from small town Rosa. Now, as anyone from Rosa would tell you, the only thing more mundane than the town was its people. Quaint little suburbs. One book store. One coffee shop. One everything really, guaranteeing that everyone would know everyone, which they did. Rosa was what the set of a suburban utopia would look like.
That's what she liked about the place, though. Everything flowed like clockwork. Nothing ever changed. Bookish, nerdy Zoey liked her predictable life just fine.
How could she have known the simple act of opening the mailbox would drastically change all that?
Everything was different after Zoey sat down to sort through the mail that day. The world seemed to be turned on its head, broken as though the pieces that came together during the time of creation. Even as it spun on, it seemed to spin differently.
Zoey Ranger, with her pretty face and messy curls hidden often behind a book, was raised like most young women in Terres Somnia, a mere ordinary commoner. Having always considered herself average in every way, she had been something more than shocked to find that, after all, she was anything but.
That she was the granddaughter of an earl who lived abroad was not news to Zoey. However, save for the cheque that came in the mail every month, that connection was something of a distant one. As such, Zoey never felt the weight of it.
So, when the news of Duke Arden being her father reached Zoey via mail, it was fair to say the young woman had many questions.
Up until now, Natalie, Zoey's mother, had always avoided the topic of her father. But not today. Today she would have to have the conversation that she had been running from for 23 years. Today, Natalie would have to sit down with Zoey and tell her everything.
Natalie was once involved with a duke. When word got out and the matter turned to scandal, Natalie was exiled from her family despite the abrupt ending of the relationship.
It was by then too late, however, as the dalliance had left Natalie with child. Natalie's father took pity on her and her circumstances, but as his pride would not allow his now pregnant daughter back into his house, a compromise was reached. Natalie was sent to live in the small town of Rosa, where no one would know of her connection to the House of Ranger. In exchange, she was given a comfortable living allowance with which to raise her child.
Never in her wildest dreams, no matter how fiercely they fought, did Natalie Ranger think her father would cut her off. Thus, when Zoey, shocked and angry as she was, revealed that Duke George Arden had sent for her and promised a handsome sum if he could only meet with her, Natalie jumped at the opportunity.
Zoey, headstrong and fuming, jumped at the opportunity too. It meant being away from her mother, whom she was unlikely to want to see for a while, and telling off her father, whom she imagined with a big belly and pretentious moustache. Some time away sounded like exactly what she needed.
When Bart came for her a few days later, Zoey found herself at a loss for words as soon as her bags had left the ground. The drive up to Caines happened in an old yellow mustang in mint condition, with Zoey asking little of her driver and him offering even less.
As the scenery turned from houses to huge buildings to empty stretches of road, she stared blankly out the window, trying desperately to sort through what was happening.
By the end of the 16-hour drive, she had concluded only two things. One was that they needed money and two, that this perfect stranger whom she had only known about for a day, who had already earned at least half of all the anger she could muster, was willing to give it to her. Suddenly all the questions went away, but for two. Could she really give him what he wanted in exchange for said money? Was she ready to meet the father who abandoned her and her mother?
It was dark when they got to the huge, imposing mansion. Even in the dark, however, it was impossible to miss the armed men stationed at every corner as she was shown to a room. Bart told her to be up by five, after which he promptly shut the door on her. The room was as big as the entire upstairs combined of the two-story house that Zoey had lived in nearly all of her life.
Much like what little of the house she could make out, the furnishings were loud and arrogant and the way the room came together made Zoey feel, perhaps for the first time in her life, the depth of her loneliness. There were no friends to call, no mom to comfort her, and no way to know that she even really existed in the world. Zoey threw herself onto the bed and stared at the ceiling until the darkest hour of the night, too numb to cry, wondering how she'd allowed herself to become so alone.
At exactly 5 AM the next day, a string of women streamed into the room, all talking over each other, practically carrying Zoey to the dressing table like a doll. That morning was an icy, cold day, which was bound to bring snow. Zoey felt the chilly air seep into her bones as the women invaded her personal space.
Zoey let the words pass right by her as the women talked. Every now and then they'd say something about The King's Fancy. Stylists and hairdressers, and Zoey knew not what else, had started bustling around her, pulling at her hair and sticking brushes in her face.
Zoey meant to tell them to stop, but no words came out of her mouth. Still feeling drained and exhausted from all the surprises of yesterday, Zoey eventually gave up and let her mind wander.
She did so miss being in a lecture hall, filled with perfect strangers, who wanted nothing from her but that she be quiet so that they might all attend to their lecture in peace. Yes, she missed her boring, predictable life. Already she felt so far from it. Like this was always her life and that had somehow been the dream, but that was absurd, of course.
She was only here to pick up a cheque, tell the duke off and hope never to see him again. As the denial she knew, deep down, she was in began to give way, Zoey stared at the mirror. Before her very eyes, she seemed to disappear entirely.
Don’t think of it. She could barely believe herself to be sitting upright in this chair. Do not think about it. Do not wonder how he looks. Just stop thinking altogether. She knew it was him the moment he entered her room. The duke did not have a round belly. He was a tall man, not as tall as Bart, but still a giant of a man with a dignified air and a handsome face.
The years had been kind to him. He walked well. Zoey hated how he seemed to do everything well. She drew a breath and braced herself as everyone in the room bowed. The duke, however, only glanced disinterestedly at the hired help, came to stand behind Zoey and held her gaze in the mirror a second longer than she could bear. Then he marched off to await his party in the car.
Zoey exhaled and so did everyone else. Her mind, wherever it had been, was suddenly back in that room and focused again.
"My lady should not be alarmed by His Grace," said the woman sticking pins into Zoey's hair. "Been that way since the day I got here."
Zoey tried to turn, but the woman steered her forward again.
"Almost done, My Lady," she said patiently.
"Yes, we'll make sure you are a vision for the prince," hummed one of the other women, as she painted Zoey's nails.
"Excuse me?" Zoey asked, confused.
The hairstylist gave the manicurist a look, and she promptly quieted down. Now Zoey was really curious. Where exactly were they going? She had not been given any information at all.
The King's Fancy was perhaps the most important day on the calendar in Caines. This brunch had become the event of the year.
On this day, business deals were made and rumours that would turn into scandals were spread. But this year, The King's Fancy was more than that. On this day, King Henry and his cousin, Duke George Arden had to meet. This was no mere meal this year. This year, The King's Fancy would change the very nation.
"Come on then," said a restrained, subdued Bart.
Zoey looked to the right of her and there he was, even more dashing than yesterday when he had come to pick her up. Bart, her brand-new half-brother, all 6'6" of him standing tall in his tux. He was arguably the tallest person Zoey had ever known, not that she knew any young men, so to speak. Those brilliant, subdued dark blue eyes put you at ease and on alert all at once.
His athletic build combined with his stature could not but overwhelm and though she knew he was only 19, he hardly looked it. Hardly sounded it as he took call after call on the drive to Caines.
All she had to worry about at his age was getting into her hometown university, The University of Rosa. She could hardly believe that this man, somewhat standoffish but ultimately perfectly put together, was the son of a father she knew next to nothing about. Her thoughts turned to her hometown, Rosa, and her mother, whom she had left behind. Her mother, who, despite herself, cared for Zoey immensely. Present circumstances notwithstanding, Zoey thought how her mother's presence just then might have been comforting.
Bart gave her a half smile that seemed to make his stern eyes soften, but for a moment, as she took the hand he offered her.
Chapter 2: Becoming Lady Zoey Arden (pt 2)
2018, December 2nd & 3rd
"Stay with me at all times today," Bart ordered in an authoritative voice that did not match his youth.
He was only 19, for goodness sake. Just the same, he had banished any thoughts Zoey had of asking where they were going.
Zoey bowed awkwardly.
"And knock that off. Seriously, quit it. We are House of Arden. We bow to no one."
Zoey didn't know much about polite society, but surely even nobles bowed to the king? She shook her head. This was the time to ask, before something else overwhelmed or distracted her.
"Where are we going?" she asked, as Bart rushed them down the stairs and into the limousine where his parents awaited them.
Again, that eerie silence from the night before enveloped her. It seemed to run in the family. The luxury car was like a tomb. Speech seemed forbidden. Zoey's eyes landed on Duke Arden.
"Stop staring!" Duchess Arden snapped.
Zoey looked down immediately.
Duchess Arden gave Zoey a once over, then promptly looked away with another snort. No one seemed particularly interested in anyone else. They might have been in a vehicle of comfort, but it seemed to Zoey that she had had more pleasant experiences riding the bus.
There she was, all alone again with her thoughts. How could her mother have done this to her? Why could she not hold her tongue where grandfather was concerned? All they ever did was fight about the same things anyway. He wanted her to come and work for him and she constantly refused him, still bitter that he had kicked her out twenty-three years ago.
Did she not know what this would do to Zoey's plans? If she was accepted as a PhD student at the University of Rosa, she would be assigned an advisor for her book next month. Did she not know how the duke had no room for her? Zoey scrubbed this last thought from her brain.
They didn't seem to be big on hellos. Fine. She could be quiet. She loved silence. Unfortunately for Zoey, it was all but quiet in her head. Duke Arden had asked for a meeting. She could only hope, therefore, that this would not take long.
With this she consoled herself, but though a lack of life experience and her emotions had clouded her judgment enough that she might have believed this yesterday, Zoey now knew something was amiss. If he really meant only to talk with her and then send her on her way, why bother having her dressed up like this and dragging her along to wherever they were going? Just what the hell was going on?
Get out! Her mind seemed to be screaming. Danger! It told her, as her eyes darted back and forth between three pairs of frosty, disinterested ones.
Upon arrival at The King's Fancy, Zoey could not help being astounded at the sheer volume of people all dressed to the nines. Yes, this was definitely bigger than a picnic.
Rows and rows of long tables topped with white tablecloths and expensive, delicious looking foods were all lined up along the riverbanks so as to offer a spectacular view of the shimmering blue river and its surrounding trees and hills. It was truly a beautiful place and Zoey imagined it might be even more so when all the people had cleared out and it was quiet. She found herself back to wishing for the quiet. Curse her mother for making this man her father!
Their Majesties, King Henry and Queen Mary were announced, just as the members of the House of Arden were making their way to the last empty table.
They received scowls and grimaces from everyone, but the men of the house only hastened the women to their seats, being eager to do their due diligence, say brief greetings as was expected of them and conduct the business that they had come to The King's Fancy for.
Duke Arden had last been seen at The King's Fancy five years ago, following the coronation of the now king. He would have disappointed the king in a similar manner today, had it not been for business that had to be settled between them.
King Henry had come to power by the last-minute decree of an heirless King Maximus. Henry's reign until now had been somewhat volatile, owing to his appointment as opposed to that of his long-time rival, Duke George Arden.
After years of awaiting King Maximus' choice between the houses of Condor and Arden, all of Terres Somnia was somewhat divided. To this day, the Ardens were hailed by many as the royal family that should have been.
Support for the Ardens was so fierce that King Henry feared to see Terres Somnia alight with war even now, five years after his coronation. No, the business between himself and his cousin must be done, the king knew, and soon too.
Families had come in all their grandeur and splendour and offered King Henry gifts the worth of which might buy houses and flattered him according to the best of their ability. After doing so, they would go back and find other friends and acquaintances to pay similar respects to, a good many of them looking ready to leave by the end of the first half hour. But stay they did, as stay they must.
How far removed the Arden family tree was from the Condor family tree was a discussion that could and had spanned debates that dragged on for many hours.
Duke Arden had even attempted to have King Henry dethroned by having his claim to the throne dismissed, based upon evidence of the Condor bloodline not intersecting with the former king's. This did not take, but the two men had been at each other's throats ever since. Until, at last, they came up with a compromise.
All others seemed momentarily dismissed as the House of Arden approached the royal table. It was well known and rather expected that this particular greeting should take a good deal of time.
"My Lord," was all Duke Arden offered.
King Henry smiled.
"How are you, dear cousin?"
"I am not here to make small talk, Henry. I'm here to be assured of my business being done," said Duke Arden curtly.
Duke Arden was short with King Henry, which brought the latter more displeasure than he liked.
But it was only seen a moment, a small change in the face that lasted only long enough to be seen by those paying attention. Queen Mary hadn't been, or at least pretended she hadn't been, and as such expressed displeasure of her own.
"How untoward. Is this to be how you would form such an alliance? We have not even been given the opportunity for us all to say hello," said Queen Mary.
With these words, Queen Mary gave a meaningful look to Zoey, whose knees promptly began to buckle.
Zoey was not a woman easily unnerved, but something was afoot here and she felt she had something to do with it. And although she knew not what it was, she could not stop the bad feeling from settling in the pit of her stomach. She might have dropped or fainted under the queen’s scrutiny, had it not been for her brother's hand on her arm, giving her a tight squeeze. Her eyes darted to his face, and she glared.
With an eyebrow raised in annoyance, Bart said, "Your Majesty, allow me to introduce Lady Zoey from the House of Arden."
Queen Mary looked Zoey over for several moments as King Henry and Duke Arden continued a silent conversation, locked in a competitive glare as though to stare each other to death.
"I suppose she must do, being that you have no legitimate daughter, born and bred as noble," Queen Mary said at last.
At this, Duchess Arden saw red. Perhaps it was simply in her nature to see red, but just now, she saw more than red. Just now, Queen Mary was crimson and might be ash at any moment. How dare Mary insult the House of Arden? How dare she mock her for not knowing of the existence of George's love child? Mary, who had herself—
"Then it is done," said King Henry, interrupting Duchess Arden's thoughts.
"Not quite. What about your side? She is my only daughter. I should hope you would pay me the courtesy of presenting to me the man whom you would have me wed her to, prior to such an engagement," said Duke Arden.
The duke said this frankly and equally, without emotion. It was perhaps for this reason that it took Zoey a moment to understand. And when her brain did once again function, she spat out the word engagement like every letter was a hot coal.
Not too far away, lurking in the shadows, he beheld her. The shadows were not a place Prince Aaron was used to being, but this morning it suited his purposes. He watched her go from excited, to hushed, then pale. This amused him. The whole thing did, really. He could not help being amused. He, married to this mousy little commoner, who could barely keep herself upright in such an amusing situation? His father truly must be in fear for his throne, perhaps even for his very life.
"Insolent child!" Duchess Arden exclaimed.
"Forgive my sister, Your Majesty. She is not accustomed to noble society," said Bart.
Bart's apology was swift and elegant, as though practiced.
"It's true. Lady Zoey only came to us yesterday," Duke Arden added.
Again, Zoey's head spun. Did this man, who deemed it appropriate to call himself her father, who avoided her at all costs, just apologize for her?
But wait, that wasn't what was important. They had said engagement, had they not? Should she ask? Who was it that had said the words?
King Henry gave a nervous chuckle and said, "Think nothing of it."
"One might hardly expect anything less," Her Majesty quipped. "If nothing else, she is at least pretty, and pretty is all she needs to be."
Wait, wait, wait! Stop! Everyone just slow down. Why had she really been brought here? Why were they speaking of her, but not to her? Why would the words they were saying, though crystal clear, just not make any sense?
And I will protect you
2019, March 4th
It seemed it had been pouring summer rain for months. In truth, the downpour had begun only yesterday. It was only yesterday that Lady Zoey Arden's world had come together at last. Only yesterday he looked upon her as though nothing and no one could take him from her and regardless of all the terrible things happening in the world, she could not help being happy. She was a different person. He had opened up her heart and not just for himself, but for everyone around her.
She would mend fences with her father, if only for the sake of the wedding. Her new life had given Zoey something she had never had before. Two somethings, actually. A brother and a best friend. Bart held her hand while she stumbled through every situation, good or bad, since she reached Caines. She wanted to be useful to him. Zoey knew that this marriage would finally remove the burden of the Arden claim to the throne from Bart's shoulders.
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