I applauded as Markus acknowledged the audience, bowing modestly, his face as expressionless as it had been when I’d first met him. Because everyone’s focus was on the victor, no one noticed Lucian slipping away into the building that led to the stables. I knew he would be waiting for me there, but I had to bide my time and disappear when no one was watching me.
‘Let’s go congratulate your champion,’ the King said, smiling falsely at me as he took my arm, leading me out onto the field forcefully. The crowd fell silent and Markus turned to face us as we approached. When we stopped walking the Prince dropped into a low bow.
‘Congratulations your highness,’ I said, making sure I chose my words carefully. ‘You fought bravely and valiantly and are deserving of my favours.’
‘That is all I hope for my lady,’ Markus said, his head still bent in reverence.
‘Then accept this token as a remembrance of your success and my favour.’ I reached into my pocket and drew out the embroidered lace handkerchief I had been instructed to present to the winner. Markus took it in his large hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it.
‘I have no words to thank you my lady. I shall treasure this.’ He held it close to his chest, bowing his head again so his blonde hair flopped over his eyes.
‘I am sure you will want to celebrate your victory,’ I said clearly so the crowd could also hear me. ‘But I hope to see you at the ball tonight and share the first dance of the evening with you.’
‘Of course my lady.’
I turned away and walked elegantly out of the arena, linking arms with Helena, who was waiting for me.
‘Where are you meeting him?’ She whispered as we walked back towards the castle.
‘The stables. He says he has things he needs to tell me. Is that good?’
‘I don’t know,’ Helena said, unsure of herself. ‘I’ve never been in this situation before. I wish Lucinda were here to help me advise you, I’m not being a very good older sister.’
‘I couldn’t ask for a better one,’ I said, squeezing her hand. ‘But I’ve got to hurry to the stables before someone decides they want to go for a ride.’
We picked up our pace; shutting the door behind us and walking briskly down the corridors, the heels of our shoes clicking on the stone floors. I could smell the horses as we got closer to the stables and by the time we had reached the stable door it was all I could smell.
‘I’ll keep watch out here for you,’ Helena said, clasping my hands. ‘Good luck.’
‘Thank you,’ I breathed back, kissing her violently on the cheek. My hands were shaking as I opened the door to the stables and stepped inside. There were stray bits of straw on the stone floor that stuck to my dress as I walked further in. ‘Hello? Is there anyone here?’
‘Lili?’ I heard Lucian’s voice reply.
‘Yes it’s me.’ I turned the corner and saw Lucian, still dressed in his armour and carrying his sword hiding in the entrance to one of the stalls. ‘Are you alright?’ I saw his face for the first time and noticed the blood coming from a gash on his cheekbone and a split lip. ‘You’re bleeding.’ I rushed over to him, concern overriding my nervousness.
‘It’s nothing,’ he said casually. ‘I’ve had a lot worse.’
‘I’m sorry you lost the fight,’ I said, not moving away from him even though I knew I was standing far too close. ‘I wanted you to win.’
‘There will be other fights. Right now all I want is to win you, nothing else.’
‘Do you really mean that?’
‘Of course I do. I promise you that I’m not like the other guys out there. I’m not going to lie to you. That’s why I asked you to meet me here.’
‘You wanted to say something?’
‘Yes I did. Something very important. Now I think about it you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I can’t hold it inside. I’m not used to hiding my feelings Lili and I’m not going to make an exception for you. The truth is I think I’m falling in love with you.’
I took a sharp breath in, only half shocked by what he had said. I had felt something going on between us, some sort of spark; I just hadn’t known what it was.
‘I know I only met you last night and it’s unfair of me to ask you to say you feel the same way when you hardly know me but sometimes you just know. And when I looked at you for the first time last night I knew I wanted you and I would do anything to get you.’
I wanted to say something, tell him I loved him too but my mouth wouldn’t work. My throat was dry and my hands were shaking, partly with nerves and partly because of Lucian’s presence. He was so close I could feel his breath on my face.
‘Please say something. Even if it’s just that you don’t feel the same way now but I can hope-‘
‘I love you too Lucian,’ I blurted out, surprising him and myself. ‘I can’t explain why I just do.’
‘Thank God,’ Lucian said, his arms wrapping themselves around my waist and pulling me against him. My heart pounded as the skin of my cheek touched his neck. Even in this small gesture I could feel the heat between us. ‘I was so worried you wouldn’t say that,’ he breathed into my ear.
He pulled back, his hands travelling upwards from my waist until they were resting on either side of my face, turning it upwards to face his.
‘I’m not sure how I would have coped if you’d rejected me,’ he said.
‘I could never do that,’ I whispered. ‘Never.’
I began to sink into his dark eyes not noticing as his face drew nearer until my head tilted to the side and our lips met. The kiss was tender and slightly hesitant, like he was unsure how I would react and when I didn’t protest he kissed me again.
My arms immediately went around his neck, pulling him closer, hungry for more now I’d tasted his lips. His arms went around my waist pulling me closer to him. There was nothing else around us, it was just me and Lucian in our own world.