It took all my resolve not to gather her in my arms and carry her to our bed. I’d overstepped a line tonight and I wouldn’t take advantage of her vulnerability in this moment. Especially given that I couldn’t tell her what she asked of me. “Some secrets aren’t mine to share.”
“Then there’s our problem. All of me is yours to share.” A sob wrenched from her and she shook her head. “At least, it was.”
“Clara, please—” I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for her then.
“Don’t!” She pulled back. “Not tonight. I’ll get over it. I’ll learn to live with it. Tonight, I need to be alone with the truth.”
“What truth?” I dared to ask, even though I didn’t want to know.
“That I let myself be swept into the fairytale,” she murmured. “I fell under your spell. I let myself believe in happily ever after. I swallowed a pretty story because I fell in love.”
“It isn’t a fairy tale. This is real.” I moved toward her, but she darted past me. “Clara, we’re real.”
She paused at the door and turned sad eyes on me. “Maybe we were.”
The tree would never do. It had been delivered from the village earlier this week, and there were far too many scraggly patches that revealed its crooked brown limbs. No amount of ornaments or decorations could hide that fact. On the off chance that his grandmother decided to join them for the holidays this year, she would send it back immediately, but that wasn’t what concerned him. This Christmas had to be perfect. The family had eschewed tradition last year and stayed in London for the holidays. Elizabeth was still a newborn and there had been the chaos surrounding Belle and Smith—knocking off to Scotland hadn’t been a priority. That meant this was David’s first year celebrating with him at Balmoral, and since Edward hadn’t given him a wedding yet, he could give him a proper Christmas morning.
That was easier said than done, given how hard David was pushing back against his preparations.
Strong arms wrapped around his waist as he studied the tree, and he felt David’s chin drop to his shoulder. “It’s fine.”
“It’s ugly. What will Belle and Clara say?” He knew David had a soft spot for his best friends, and he wasn’t above using it to his advantage.
“They’ll be too busy worshiping their husbands to notice,” he promised.
David had a point, but Edward didn’t miss the edge to his words. Both Clara and Belle had husbands to command their attention; David did not. Maybe he was less obsessed with the perfect Christmas as he was with distracting him from that fact. He hadn’t been able to explain to David why he’d continued to push back their wedding date. Just as David didn’t know nearly enough about the events that transpired a year ago. Edward had kept the secret out of respect for his friends, but also under the command of his brother.
“I thought we came earlier to be alone,” David said pointedly.
“We are alone,” he snapped, and David pulled away.
“Alone together, not separately. I can’t help but think you’ve dragged the whole of England’s problems with us.”
Maybe he had. Edward had brought the Royal Family’s problems at least.
“You’ve been distracted.” David stepped closer, frustration blazing in his eyes. “I’ve been understanding, but you can’t keep avoiding your own life.”
“I know that you—”
“This isn’t about me,” David interrupted. “I’m not making threats or ultimatums. Although Christ knows that I should be. I’m simply pointing out that you’re only hurting yourself.”
They both knew that wasn’t true. “And you.”
“All things considered, you’ve come out of the closet, declared your love for me, and upset hundreds of years of tradition just by proposing to me. I shouldn’t expect any more miracles in such a short time frame.”
“I was the one who proposed,” Edward pointed out. He’d made a promise when he asked David to marry him. He didn’t take that lightly, but he’d done it when he had no idea about the threat looming over his family. It was possible that whoever was behind the attacks on his brother and father had only been after Alexander. Edward had almost convinced himself as such until Belle had fallen in love with the wrong man. Smith Price, now her husband, had proved his love for her but the secrets he’d revealed had shown that Alexander’s paranoia had been warranted. Most of this had been kept from David. In truth, Edward knew very little. His brother hadn’t been eager to share his information with anyone. Despite everything, Alexander still believed it was his role to martyr himself for the sake of his family. What bits of information Edward was privy to didn’t paint a clear picture. Edward had proposed in good faith and that faith had been slowly stripped away over the last year.
“Yes,” David said, drawing his attention back to him, “and if you’ve changed your mind…”
It took a second for Edward to process what he was saying, but then realization dawned on him. David thought this was about him. How could Edward reassure him otherwise when he couldn’t tell him the truth? Alexander had commanded secrecy, and since he wasn’t sharing news of the investigation with his own wife, he couldn’t breach his trust. “This isn’t about you. Or us. It’s—”
“Then marry me,” David cut him short.
“I will,” he promised, but David shook his head.
“But the wedding and…”
“Everyone will be here for Christmas. Everyone we care about, and if your brother doesn’t have the authority to marry us, no one does. I don’t need a big wedding, I just need you.”
Edward’s heart melted a little at the sincerity shining in his brown eyes. He’d made this man wait for him to be ready for years. “I want to, but there are laws.”
“Sod the laws.”
“I am the Prince of England,” Edward reminded him dryly. If something happened to Alexander, the throne would have to pass to him until Elizabeth came of age. He had to consider his place and responsibility.
“You will always be the Prince of England.” There was an implication in David’s words that Edward didn’t want to consider. “That’s not going to change. If you feel that you can’t be both Prince and my husband, then maybe it would be best if…”