Lady Jessenia Elsden took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an attempt to ward away the hopelessness that threatened to swallow her. She paused on the steps and waited for her brother to exit Elsden Manor. Today their guests would leave, but they would also take her family with them.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Rogan stopped alongside her, his gaze across the courtyard where the king’s carriage sat waiting.
Jessenia looked at her handsome older brother and tried to smile. “Don’t worry about me. I’m concerned for Mother. Is this what she really wants?”
“They aren’t forcing her,” Rogan said. “If you ask me, she was lost the moment she met her great-grandchildren.” He pulled on his riding gloves.
“But Fayterra is so far away,” said Jessenia, willing her nerves to settle. “And why there instead of in Demarde with you?”
“I think returning to Demarde after all this time is too difficult for her.” Rogan offered her his arm. “She’s so happy, Jessenia. I haven’t seen her smile so much since you were a baby.”
Jessenia wrapped her arm around his and leaned against his shoulder. “It’s going to be quiet with you gone.”
He kissed the top of her head. “You’ll be busy enough running this estate. You won’t have time to miss me before I’m back for a visit.”
“The newly crowned king of Demarde thinks he’ll be free to come all this way for regular visits?” Jessenia turned to gaze up at him. “And you tell me I’ll be busy. You have to reorganize an entire kingdom.”
Rogan gave her a smile. “Why don’t you come along.” He began to lead her toward the carriage.
She sighed and turned her head, willing the tears away. “No. Someone has to stay, and I’m his heir. It’s my responsibility.” She’d been at it some months, but always with her mother at her side directing her.
“Delegate,” he said. “Your father never wanted you in charge of his estate. He made that clear enough.” His tone betrayed his intense dislike of her father.
How she wished he understood. “All the more reason I should stay.”
Rogan lost his teasing smile. He turned and put his hands on her shoulders. “You can’t prove anything to a ghost.”
Jessenia folded her arms across her chest. “I’m not trying to prove anything. My place is here, just as yours is in Demarde.”
Rogan sighed with enough force to move her hair. “Just remember two things for me.”
She smiled up at him, relieved he had changed the subject. “What?”
He leaned in and kissed her forehead. “If anyone questions your authority, I’d be happy to set them straight.”
For a moment Jessenia considered how wonderful it would be to rely on him, but then she caught herself. She’d have to stand on her own—she had no choice. “And the second thing?”
“There is always a place for you in Demarde.”
His warm tone embraced her. Jessenia looked away, the sadness returning in full force. “I don’t belong there.”
“You are family. You are the queen’s daughter.” He took her arm again and they resumed walking.
“Yes,” she said with a hint of derision. “I am also the daughter of the queen’s kidnapper. You know that isn’t going to make me very popular.”
“No one can blame you for what Duke Elsden did,” Rogan said. “That’s not reasonable.”
Jessenia worked to keep her voice calm, and she slowed her steps to prolong their discussion. “People tend to struggle with reason where their hearts are concerned. Think about it. My father kidnapping Mother threw Demarde into chaos. You know the history. You’ve heard the rumors.” She sighed. “I’m a living reminder of that.”
“That doesn’t make you responsible,” said Rogan. “Don’t make yourself an outcast in your own family.”
“I’m not,” she said. “I just see the situation more clearly than you do.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Do you?”
Jessenia chose to ignore his tone of disbelief and quickened her pace. “Come. Mother is beckoning us to say goodbye.”
Being stronger—and still having a hold of her arm—Rogan slowed her down. “What do you think of them?”
Jessenia bit her lip, trying to put her thoughts into words. “The king and queen of Fayterra seem perfectly nice, if a bit, um, unusual.”
Rogan grinned. “You mean Queen Krystal.”
She nudged him, embarrassed he’d seen through her so easily. “Well, she’s not what I expected.” Not that the queen of Fayterra wasn’t lovely. Her waist-length golden brown hair and striking blue eyes only complimented an honest face and kind smile.
“You didn’t expect a trouser-wearing, sword-wielding queen?” He shook his head. “How odd.”
How she’d love to wipe that smile from his face. “Yes, in part.”
“She has strength of character. I think that’s what draws people to her.” This time Rogan increased their pace. “You two might become great friends.”
Jessenia bit her lip; her reply could now be overheard.
Krystal turned as they approached. “I’d just finished telling your mother what a charming hostess you are.” She clasped Jessenia’s hands. “And I have to beg you for the recipe for last night’s dessert. I won’t be satisfied until my cook can make that unusual pie as well as yours.”
“Portia is a gem, and I’m sure she’d love sharing the recipe.” Jessenia smiled. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“I never would have thought to blend a creamy cheese with sugar and bake it all in a sweet crumb crust. It was heavenly.”
Jessenia agreed with a nod. “We don’t usually have it in the warmer months, since the final step is to chill the entire pie thoroughly—much easier to do with a healthy snow outside. But we wanted to do something special for the end of your visit.”
“It’s especially delicious with berry topping,” said Rogan. “Though I’ve seen Jessenia drizzle chocolate sauce on hers.”
“We had a late crop of blackberries one year.” Jessenia sighed with the memory.
“You must let me return the hospitality,” Krystal said. “Send me the recipe, and then come to Fayterra and see for yourself if my cook has it right.”
Jessenia’s throat tried to close over the polite lie. “I’d love to.”
“It’s settled. Rogan, don’t let her back out of it.”
Rogan gave the queen a half bow. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Queen Krystal.”
She rolled her eyes. “How many times must I ask you to simply call me Krystal?”
Rogan smiled. “At least once more, my queen.”
Krystal turned to Jessenia. “You see what I must put up with?”
“You didn’t grow up with him,” Jessenia said, emphasizing her frown just for her brother.
“Jessenia, dear.” Queen Roweena approached them, leaning heavily on King Jareth’s arm. “I shall miss you.”
Jessenia embraced her mother. “And I you. Journey well.”
“Jareth will take good care of me, won’t you?” She patted his arm.
Jareth gazed fondly down at her. “Of course, Grandmother.”
Jessenia studied the golden haired king, and not for the first time since he’d arrived with his family. He was ridiculously handsome for a nephew.
Krystal leaned against his free side. “You love saying that.”
“I do.” Jareth leaned to kiss his wife’s forehead. “I’m so happy to have family that my sons will remember.”
“It pleases them, too.” Krystal scanned the courtyard with her eyes. “Where are they?”
“Lysabith took Jon back into the manor to clean him up, and Landry followed.” Jareth smiled fondly. “I think he wanted another look at the weapons room.”
“That’s your son,” said Krystal as she turned back to the manor house. “I’ll go see if Lysa can use my help with our boys.”
“We need to get on the road before much longer,” Jareth said.
“I know, dear.” Krystal kissed his cheek before walking away.
Their obvious fondness for one another made Jessenia smile. These were likable people. Maybe they could like her, too.
Roweena glanced back at Elsden Manor. “I have such mixed feelings about this place. After spending half my life here, it will not be easy to leave.”
“I can easily understand,” said Jareth. “It’s been both a prison and a home to you. Sometimes I feel the same about my castle. There are rooms I still don’t enter if I can help it.”
Jessenia watched her mother’s eyes cloud. She read her so well. She was thinking of Gregory, her son—who had also been Jareth’s jailer. How could he not understand how painful the memories were for her?
He continued. “You will love Fayterra. I’m certain of it. Are you ready to get into the carriage?”
Roweena looked adoringly up at him. “Yes, I think so.”
Jareth turned her toward his stately carriage. Jessenia followed. Rogan opened the door for his mother, and she put her hand on his as she stepped inside.
Roweena leaned out the doorway. “Take care of yourself, Jessenia. I’ll be back soon.”
“I will, Mother.” A tear threatened to break free and tumble down her cheek. “Have a pleasant trip.”
Queen Krystal exited the house and walked down the steps, her baby son in her arms. Prince Landry and his nurse, Lysabith, followed. Jessenia heard Krystal reply to her son.
“Yes, you may sit next to your grandmother in the carriage,” she said. “But you must promise to behave. Lysabith will be watching you, and I will check on you from time to time. If you misbehave, you will have to ride with your father.” She smiled at Jessenia as they passed her. “I hope we see you soon. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.”
Has it? “And you as well. Safe journey.”
Landry ran to his father, and Jareth lifted him into the carriage. Lysabith climbed in, and Krystal handed her baby Jon. Rogan latched the door, then approached Jessenia.
In a low voice, he said, “Promise me you will write to me often. I want to know how you are, and if you have any trouble.”
“I will,” Jessenia said. “And you need to write and tell me all about Demarde.”
“I’d rather show you.” He pulled her into a fierce hug. “Be good, little sister, or I may come back and make you.”
Jessenia squeezed him tightly. “I will. Be a good king.” The tears fell unchecked now.
“I love you, Peanut.” Rogan gave her an extra squeeze before releasing her.
Jessenia watched him mount his horse and join Jareth and Krystal, who had both also opted to ride. They waved, prompting an automatic response. She didn’t lower her hand until the riders and the carriage were out of sight.She didn’t stop crying the rest of the day.
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