‘So what do I do now?’ Lucian asked as we re-entered the Great Hall.
‘You’ll be fine, just follow me.’ I lead him up towards the top of the hall, our arms still linked. ‘I’ll present you to my father and then he’ll declare you the winner of the first challenge.’
‘And after that?’
‘We lead the first dance.’ I looked up at Lucian’s face and was surprised to see some nervousness there. He seemed so confident it seemed out of place. ‘Don’t look so scared,’ I said reassuringly, squeezing his arm. ‘My father isn’t going to eat you. You don’t have to say much, just how wonderful it is to be here. Flatter him.’
‘That’s easy for you to say, you’re his daughter.’
‘It’s not as easy as you think. He’s hard to please and as the youngest daughter I have to do better than both my older sisters, in every way. How am I supposed to beat Lucinda, who married the heir to the throne of Rosarin?’
‘Marry the heir to the throne of a more powerful country.’ I thought he was joking but when I turned to look at his face I saw he was perfectly serious. ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’
‘Because the idea that I could marry someone more powerful than my sister’s husband is beyond me. And I wouldn’t want to marry an heir. There’s too much pressure when you’re royalty, especially when you’re the foreign princess, an outsider.’
‘Is that really what you think? That because you would be foreign you wouldn’t be welcomed?’
‘Not exactly. I just can’t be bothered to go through the ceremony of making myself fit in. I’m very happy with who I am and I’m not going to let anyone, not even my husband, change that.’
‘I admire your strength,’ Lucian said sincerely. ‘I haven’t seen it in many women.’
‘I’ll take that as a compliment.’
We had reached the dais at the top of the hall now and my father rose as we approached. I squeezed Lucian’s arm once more for good luck before addressing my father and the rest of my family.
‘Your Majesty,’ I said, curtsying. ‘May I present to you, Lucian d’Arco, son of Emanuel d’Arco, Lord of Kindree and the chief advisor to the King of Rosarin. Mr d’Arco, may I present my father, the King.’
Lucian bowed appropriately and my father nodded his head slightly, approvingly. My father took my hand and Lucian’s leading us to the front of the dais.
‘My lord, ladies and gentlemen,’ my father announced to the room. ‘I am pleased to announce that this young gentleman, Lucian d’Arco, has correctly identified my daughter.’ There were a few groans from the other suitors and I had to fight with my self-control to stop myself from smiling. ‘We will now prepare for the first dance of the evening, led by Lady Liliana and Mr d’Arco.’
There was applause as my father ceremonially placed my hand on Lucian’s and we walked out onto the dance floor. Lucian’s face had gone from a slight green colour to white as he bowed to me in the middle of the hall, where people had dispersed to create a dance floor.
‘Are you alright?’ I whispered as Lucian put his arms around me and waited for the music to start.
‘Yes,’ Lucian said unconvincingly. ‘Just a little nervous.’
‘Why?’ Then it hit me and I felt sick to my stomach. ‘You can dance? Can’t you?’
‘Of course,’ Lucian said as the music started and we began to waltz. I needn’t have worried, Lucian was an excellent dancer, leading my smoothly around the floor.
‘So if you can dance why are you so nervous?’ I asked as other couples joined us.
‘Meeting a king is scary enough, let alone when you’re wanting to marry his daughter. There’s a lot of pressure. You’ve made that clear. I have to be so many things, both to you and your father. I hope I’m good enough.’
‘That’s really sweet.’
‘Acting like you care what my father thinks of you. My impression of you was that you weren’t taking this contest seriously.’
‘That was before I knew you.’
‘You can hardly say you know me,’ I laughed. ‘We’ve only just met.’
‘That’s true. But I want to know more about you. You fascinate me because you are unlike anyone else I have met. I’m not sure what it is that’s different, but I want to find out what it is.’