For a glorious, shining moment in time, you were happy. Your wedding was cause for weeks of celebration in Philip. You walked down the aisle, escorted by your father, in a beautiful gown of your own design, under the loving gaze of your golden prince, your heart so full of love and joy that your long struggle to be together was over. You were the crown princess, Prince Wilfred in your bed every night, sharing yourselves with one another, talking excitedly of your future together, what changes you were going to work for to make the lives of the people better.
You hadn’t even made it to your one-year anniversary before the affair started.
At first, you tried to deny it. To play off Wilfred’s frequent out-of-town trips without you as him just being considerate. After all, this whole royalty gig was still new to you. The learning curve was steep for someone who hadn’t been born to the life. Whenever he was home, he played the role of the attentive husband; kind, smiling, even coming to your bed from time to time. Your first anniversary passed, and the talk of heirs began to grow stronger. The King and Queen dropped hints at dinner. The press wondered aloud when there would be news of your womb quickening with life. It had been a whole year, after all, and the Crown Prince and Princess had a duty to uphold. It was just stress that kept him away.
Wilfred hadn’t been to your bed, nor you to his, in months. Your innate joie de vivre slowly seeped away through the cracks of your broken heart. You stopped designing clothes, started taking your meals in your suite, and only came out for state occasions where your presence was absolutely necessary. You never saw Wilfred anymore, and you’d long since stopped asking Claude anything about him. You could no longer take the half answers and the pitying looks, which only told you that Claude was aiding and abetting Wilfred in his affair.
You limped along in a fugue state for another year, before finally reaching out online. You needed human contact, even if it was only over the internet. You found a support group for spouses that had been cheated on, and it made you cry to find women in similar situations, women who understood exactly how you felt. You were very careful to never give away any revealing details. After several weeks, the group started encouraging you to seek divorce, but that wasn’t really an option. After a while, you had to speak with the group moderator, a professional marriage counselor by trade, and be completely honest about your identity and why divorce was not an option. She gave you other coping strategies, recommended you start a meditation practice, recommending a spot outside whenever possible.
You began wandering the gardens of the chateau, eventually stumbling across an older section with a small cottage hidden away, deep inside. This became your healing spot.
You’d been coming to the cottage for a few weeks, more so recently as your third marriage anniversary loomed.
One day, you’d finished your meditation and were sitting on a bench, just admiring the flowers, when a gardener happened by.
“Your Highness?” He asked, respectful but curious. “Why are you all the way out here?”
You sighed and offered an almost-smile.
“It’s peaceful and private here. I can be alone, away from prying, pitying eyes.”
His own eyes, a mellow golden brown, the color of fine whiskey, held nothing but compassion.
“I guess being royalty ain’t all it’s cracked up to be?”
This time, your smile was bitter.
“You can say that again. Four years ago, if I’d had a crystal ball, I would have made a very different decision.”
As the days and weeks progressed, you began to look forward to your daily visits to the old cottage garden. You had started taking a lunch with you, so you could have an excuse to spend more time with him.
Your gardener. Zander. He was always kind, and never looked at you with the pity that you saw in the rest of the royal household. Everyone knew now about Wilfred’s affair, though no one spoke of it. In the morning your maid, Jessalyn, brought your tea and breakfast, sometimes helped with your hair, and clucked with concern over her ‘brave, strong lady’. But even her eyes held pity for you and your ‘situation’.
Zander was different. He treated you with respect, but never with pity or sympathy, and he never let you dwell on it. Your conversations were those of old friends. There was no feigned deference for royalty, no holding back of opinions or thoughts. You felt safe and comfortable with him. You could be honest about everything, in a manner that you hadn’t experienced in so long. It was freeing, in a way, and you began to feel flashes of your old self returning.
Your third wedding anniversary was just around the corner. Preparations were being made for the celebration. The princes of the other kingdoms were going to be visiting. All but Edward had married by now, and you sometimes found yourself wondering if your life would be different if you had gone with another prince.
You pulled your thoughts from that direction and returned to your room from the balcony. Jessalyn would be by soon to help you dress for the announcement ceremony.
From the corner of your eye, you caught a flash of movement. Your balcony was within sight of the balcony off Wilfred’s office. You turned to see Wilfred, his mistress in his arms, and you quickly ducked behind your curtains. The bastard. He’d never brought her here before. She wasn’t terribly attractive - mousy brown hair, plain features. But, she was born to nobility. You watched for a minute, until he turned her around, leaning her over the banister, lifting her skirt and dropping his pants. Something broke within you at that moment. Or, perhaps a better phrase is broke free.
You smiled brightly at the announcement ceremony, pretending nothing was wrong. Stephen and Cecile were there, Cecile getting close to giving birth to their first child. The other princes and their wives were there, as well. Even she was there, plain face smug. That night, as you sat pretending at dinner with all the guests, the King was speaking, feeling magnanimous at the prospect of his first grandchild being born, was asking each of his family members if there was some wish that he could grant.
“So, _______, is there a wish I can grant for you?” He asked.
“Actually, Your Majesty, there is. I would like to move to the little cottage in the old part of the chateau gardens.”
You thought for only a split-second before answering.
“Because I would like to be able to look out a window and not be confronted with the sight of my husband,” you didn’t even bother to hide the derision in your voice, “screwing his mistress out on the balcony.”
All sound stopped, jaws and utensils alike dropped.
“If I have to accept the fact that my husband is a cheater, I’d prefer to not have it thrown in my face,” you continued.
You pushed your plate away and stood, staring straight at Wilfred’s mistress.
“I find I’ve lost my appetite,” you said, walking out of the dining room without a backward glance, shoulders squared and head held high.
It was a couple of hours later. You were in your room, sketchbook in hand, your creative spark having reignited, when a knock sounded on your door.
You opened it to find Claude standing there.
“His Majesty says that the old cottage will require some renovations, but that it should be ready to move into by mid-summer.”
“Thank you.” You moved to close the door, but Claude cleared his throat.
“Your Highness.....” he offered quietly.
He looked genuinely uncomfortable, a rare look for Claude.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness.”
“The time for apologies has long since passed by, Claude. Is there anything else?”
You closed the door without another word, returning to your spot on the couch. You reached over to pick up your sketchbook, but grabbed a pillow instead, as tears came unbidden to your eyes.
You were sobbing so hard you didn’t hear the door to your room open, until you felt a hand on hour shoulder.
You jumped at the unfamiliar touch, to see Wilfred standing there. You saw the sorrow and regret in his eyes, but it was too late.
“Don’t touch me,” you hissed. “Get out.” You flung his hand from your shoulder.
“_______, I’m sorry. I never meant.....”
“I don’t care anymore, Wilfred. Get out. Close the door behind you.” You turned away from him, closing your eyes and resting your forehead on the damp pillow.
You could sense him standing behind you for a few more moments, before he turned around, his footfalls heavy in the silence, and it wasn’t until you heard the door close softly that you allowed yourself to cry again.
The day to move into the cottage finally arrived. Since the night of the dinner, when you’d spent all that time crying, you’d felt lighter somehow. The thought of having your own private space thrilled you to no end, and you could feel the spring in your step as you moved the few things you were taking out to the cottage.
While you were waiting to move, you’d continued your habit of taking lunch with Zander out in the gardens. He was one of the workers who was renovating the cottage, so he’d taken you inside, shown you around, asked what kinds of things you’s like to see. He’d helped you paint and hang wallpaper. It was the first time in you couldn’t recall how long that you’d found yourself laughing so hard tears squeezed out of your eyes and your sides ached. Even before it was ready to move in, the cottage had become your sanctuary.
The staff of the chateau had begun commenting on how you’d become your old, joyful self again. Your smile was genuine, your color was back, as was your appetite. Your attitude seemed to infect the entire chateau. What had once been a gloomy and oppressive place began to lighten up. Even the sight of Wilfred, standing on his office balcony and watching wistfully as you packed couldn’t dampen your mood. In fact, you ignored him completely.
You packed your sketchbooks and art supplies, your ‘commoner’ clothes, your computer, phone and toiletries, your stereo. You left the royal regalia and all the gifts Wilfred had given you in the room that had been your prison.
Everything that mattered fit into two large duffel bags. You slung them over your shoulders and walked out of that room, heading toward the gardens and your new start.
As you walked through the halls of the chateau, you noticed Claude and Wilfred at the doors. You steeled your nerves and continued to walk straight toward them.
“__________, can we help?” Wilfred asked, reaching to take your bags.
“No, thank you,” you answered. “I think you have helped enough already. Excuse me.”
You walked between them and through the doors, out into freedom.
They watched you walking away, nearly skipping down the stairs, the sun bright on your hair.
“I’ve lost her, Claude,” Wilfred muttered, and turned on his heel, heading to your old rooms. He opened the door and walked in, running his fingers over the surface of the desk where you’d designed some of your creations, walked to the wardrobe that held all of your gowns. At the very front was your wedding gown. He lifted the plastic and stroked the silk and organza, recalling the day you had worn it, your smile so bright and beautiful, the love in your eyes as you’d gazed at him, exchanging your vows, both of you conscious of the sacrifices you’d made, of the work you’d done, to get to that point. How his heart had been so full and hopeful that day, holding you in his arms, finally his. That first night, the first time making love as husband and wife.
He let go of the dress and closed the wardrobe, walking over to sit in the chair behind the desk, aimlessly opening the empty drawers. The bottom one felt heavy as he slid it open, and the sight inside finally broke down the walls he’d built around his heart and soul. The picture that you’d drawn of yourself wearing the crown jewels, the jewelry he’d given you, even the little protection charm.
He picked up the drawing and walked to your bed, laying down and breathing deeply of your scent. He recalled the stolen moments when you’d been his ‘contracted girlfriend’, the day he’d realized that he’d broken his own rule, and fallen hopelessly in love with you, and your smile was the one thing he needed to see every day.
Hot tears of shame and regret spilled down his cheeks as he clutched one of your pillows.
“I’m so sorry, __________. So unbelievably sorry. I promised to love and protect you, and yet I’m the one who hurt you so.”
He didn’t leave your room until early the next morning.
Your first days in the cottage were filled with organizing, getting things just so. You were delighted to find that during the renovation, a small workout room, with some exercise equipment had been added, and you began starting your days with a workout. You loved the feeling of becoming physically stronger, and it seemed as though your creative fires were stoked by the physical activity.
One afternoon, Zander had left to continue his work in the gardens, and you sat in the warm sun, sketchbook on your lap, and you found yourself recalling his smile. How his full lips lifted into an easy grin that lit up his face and revealed his dimples. You found yourself wondering how it would feel to kiss him, to feel his arms around you, his skin against yours. Your imaginings sent a hot blush to your cheeks, and you returned to your drawing.
The picture was a palm-sized drawing of a phoenix, head raised and fiery wings outspread. A small smile lifted the corners of your lips, and you pulled out your phone, ordering a car for the day.
Warning: Light smut in this chapter.
The leaves of the trees were starting to change colors, yellow and red and orange and purple, rivaling the colors of the flowers.
You were designing a gown for the winter formal at Nobel Michel in a few weeks. You had played the part of the perfect princess all these weeks, attending all the royal activities on Wilfred’s arm, looking for all the world as though the two of you had reconciled. The first time you’d had to dance with him, you’d had to suppress a shudder at his touch, but you’d done a good job at not letting anyone know how it disgusted you to be touched by unfaithful hands. You had smiled and chatted and posed for pictures. Talk of a royal heir had picked up again, and you knew you were going to have to suck it up and do your part, but you weren’t quite ready yet.
As soon as you got back to your cottage, you’d taken a shower.
You sat at your drawing table, a steaming mug of hot spiced cider beside you, music playing on the stereo, when a knock surprised you.
Zander stood there, flowers in one hand, bento boxes in the other.
“Join me for dinner?” He asked.
“I’d love to,” you answered, standing aside to allow him in. “I just made some spiced cider. Would you like some?” You closed and locked the door behind him.
He set the boxes on the coffee table and took seat on the couch, waiting for you to join him.
You set two mugs on the table and sat next to him on the couch, your leg touching his sending a contact thrill through your body.
“So,” he said, opening both boxes, “I wasn’t sure what you’d like most, so I got a little of everything.”
“It looks wonderful,” you reply, distracted.
Neither of you reached for utensils, though.
Finally, a slow song started playing, and he took your hand, pulling you off the couch.
“Dance with me, Princess?”
“I’d be honored, good sir.”
He took you in his arms and held you close, your cheek resting on his chest. He smelled of winter and spices, stroking your hair as the two of you swayed gently to the music. You reveled in the feeling of being held in tender arms, sharing the warmth of another’s body for the first time in so long.
You looked up to meet his gaze, and he ran a thumb lightly over your lips.
“I’d really like to kiss you,” he whispered, his voice husky.
You didn’t even hesitate when you answered.
“I’d like that, too.”
His lips pressed against yours, gently at first, then harder and more urgent. When his tongue came questing, you opened your mouth and met it with yours, you fingers tangling in his sandy-brown curls.
Your lips parted for only a moment, long enough to catch your breaths, before you were locked together again, hands sliding under shirts to find skin.
He growled low in his throat and lifted you, carrying you through to your bedroom.
He set you on your feet at the foot of your bed and pulled away, his eyes searching yours.
“_______, I want to make love to you, but I’ll understand if you don’t feel comfortable.”
You ran your fingers over the stubble on his chin.
“I want you, too, Zander. Just remember that it’s been a couple years since the last time I did this.”
“Sure an’ that’s a crime of the highest order,” he whispered, slipping your shirt off over your head and planting kisses down your neck.
“Such beautiful soft skin, to be neglected for so long.”
His hands slid around your back and unhooked your bra, sliding it down your arms, and running his fingers lightly over your breasts.
You moaned softly, fingers clutching his arms to counteract the way your knees went weak.
His hands continued down to your waist, sliding your skirt and panties off in one movement, then sliding back up your legs as he stood up.
He lifted you again and laid you on the bed, kissing you again before he stood and gazed down at you, slowly undressing himself.
His body was beautiful, the muscles working beneath his skin a most alluring vision. It was plain that his work required physical strength, and his fingers were rough and callused as they ghosted over your skin.
He knelt between your legs, his hands on either side of your shoulders as he leaned down to kiss you. You could feel the hardness of his member, pressed against your nether lips, and you started rocking your hips, your need to be touched, to be filled, almost overwhelming.
“Mmmm, patience, my princess,” he spoke quietly. “I intend to work on making up for all the time you waited, left alone in the dark.”
He kissed his way down your body, leaving you gasping and crying in your desire.
Outside your window, Wilfred stood, stunned. He’d heard the entire conversation, a knife of jealousy and shame twisting in his gut. He wanted to run away, he wanted to confront you, but he knew, though he hadn’t had anything to do with the other woman since that dinner the previous spring, he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
Instead, he stood and watched as another man made love to you, listened to you calling out his name, clinging to him. Watched, too, when the two of you were finally sated, as he wrapped you in his arms and held you close as you cried, mostly in joy, but you’d be lying to yourself if claimed there wasn’t the tiniest bit of guilt. It had simply been so long since you’d been touched with such tenderness and caring and love, the emotions overwhelmed you.
Wilfred was still there in the morning, watching as the two of you woke up together, laughing and kissing good morning. He was surprised at how forward you’d become, watching as you took the other man’s member in your hand, rubbing the length and teasing with your fingers. It was obvious at the look on your face that his hand was teasing you, as well. He watched as you straddled the man, taking him inside yourself and gently rocking your hips, his hands on your breasts.
Narrowing his eyes, Wilfred squinted. When had you gotten a tattoo? It looked like a bird of some sort, though it was hard to make out in the early morning light. You reached behind yourself and between the man’s legs, and his eyes widened as he grinned.
“Hmm, my princess is a vixen,” he teased. One of his fingers slid down to your most sensitive spot, and your head lolled back.
Finally, Wilfred turned away, heading back to the castle.
The weeks until the Winter formal passed quickly. Soon enough, you stood in the entry foyer, the opalescent white satin of your gown shining in the golden light, the red and gold trim echoing Wilfred’s dress outfit. The king, queen, Wilfred and Claude were there, as well, awaiting the arrival of the cars that would take you all to Nobel Michel.
Wilfred slid a heavy shawl over your shoulders.
“You look beautiful tonight,” he said quietly.
“Thank you,” you answered, smiling. His touch no longer bothered you. It seemed that you had come nearly full circle, realizing that Wilfred would always have a special place in your heart, and that the two of you were inescapably bound together for the rest of your lives. You hoped he would find someone to make him happy, but you had learned the hard way, and accepted that said person wasn’t going to be you.
You held his hand as you climbed into the car, then slid across to the far door, putting earbuds into your ears and turning on some calming music as Wilfred and Claude climbed into the car, as well. Your forehead rested against the cool glass of the window as you watched the lights outside passing by.
You heard your name being called, and turned to face your prince, removing one earbud from your ears and pausing the music.
“Are you thinking about him?” Wilfred’s voice was quiet, though husky with sadness.
You weren’t really surprised that he knew, but you didn’t particularly care, either.
“Zander? No. I was just enjoying the view, and thinking on some dress designs.”
“Do you love him?”
Claude looked sharply between the two of you. Apparently the fact that you had taken a lover was news to him.
There’s a first time for everything, you thought.
You gave a sad snort of laughter.
“I’ve been taught that love is for fools. He’s a kind and attentive lover, and I’m very fond of him, but I don’t have it in me to love again.”
“I’m so very sorry, __________, for betraying and hurting you like I did. I don’t know why I did it, but it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse for what I did.”
“As we commoners say, shit happens. You either deal with it and move on, or let it drown you. I forgave you a long time ago, for my own sanity.”
You returned your gaze to the lights of the highway, until Claude cleared his throat.
“Your Highnesses, there’s something else that we must discuss. The question of an heir.”
“You should just put me aside,” you said. “Tell everyone I’m barren, and then go find one of your nobles to make you happy and give you babies.” Your voice was nonchalant. It was something you’d thought about often enough, even discussing the possibility with Zander.
“No!” Wilfred’s hand cut through the air. “You make me happy, ______. I don’t want anyone but you.” His voice was filled with more emotion than you’d heard from him in a long time. Pain and sadness were clear in his blue eyes. The eyes in which you had once drowned yourself.
You met his gaze coolly.
“For how long this time? The first time around, we didn’t even make to eighteen months before you were screwing someone else. You’ve just admitted you don’t know why you did it the last time. What’s to stop it from happening again if you don’t know the cause?”
“I understand what I lost last time. I understand the pain I caused you. Please, let me have the chance to regain your trust, to regain your love.” He had taken your hands in his, lain his forehead against yours.
“Please,_____, allow me to return to your bed, to your arms. Give me a chance to be the husband I should have always been.”
You were silent for a full minute, debating the pros and cons, deciding whether you dared, or cared, to trust this man that far again.
You recalled the conversation you’d had with Zander just yesterday, lying in bed, snuggled against the cold.
“Think you’ll ever get back together with His Highness?”
“I don’t know. There’s still the issue of an heir. I guess if he won’t agree to put me aside, we’ll have to do something about an actual reconciliation.”
He put a finger under your chin and tilted your head up, stealing a kiss.
“Philip needs the reassurance of the royal line continuing on. If he asks, swallow your pride, but don’t give up your autonomy and your power this time. And, if he’s stupid enough to pull the same stunt again, I’ll be here waiting for you.”
You snuggled deeper into his arms.
“You make me wish I’d met you back when I first came to the chateau.”
He chuckled, stroking your back.
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, my princess. All we can do is the best we can do, and let the rest go.”
You sighed, coming back to the limousine.
“I don’t want to go back to the chateau,” you said quietly.
Wilfred’s head shot up, his eyes desperately searching your face.
“What did you say?”
“I want to stay in the cottage.”
His smile was brilliant, lighting up the interior of the car.
“Of course, my princess. The cottage is yours, for as long as you want it.”
He wrapped his arms around your shoulders and placed a gentle kiss on your forehead.
“I swear, I will spend the rest of my life making you happy, _______. I love you so much. Thank you for this chance.”
You looked up to meet his gaze, a teasing smile on your lips. You put your hands on either side of his face.
“Don’t let me down again, chuckle head.”
“Never again,” he laughed, before gently kissing you.