My balcony has always been my sanctuary, the one place I could escape to whenever I felt lost or alone. I would lose myself in the stroke of my brush, or the notes of a song. All the instruments or supplies I needed were all tucked neatly away in a small, watertight shed. With Simon here, I can’t imagine any other place or time I would rather be. I can’t even remember the last time I was this happy, this content.
Art is our pastime today, or mine at least. Simon is leaning against the smooth marble railing of the balcony at my direction, staring off at something only he can see. I stand closer to the door, paints scattered around my feet and a paintbrush in hand. I’ve been wanting to illustrate him with my oil paints for so long now, it has to be perfect.
He’s even wearing his best clothes for me today, an unwrinkled white shirt and spotless gray pants. I know he dressed up for me, dressed up because he knew that this painting was important to me. I love him for that, that and all the other little things he’s done to show me just how much he cares.
I’ve just finished the sketch, outlining and darkening the soft lines of his jaw and the straight edge of his nose. The part that gives the drawing life, even just through the sketch, is the wide smile that spreads across his face like he’s unable to contain it. Time to paint. I start with his eyes, determinedly mixing paints to try to match the striking blue of his eyes. Despite the piercing color, they are filled only with the innocence of youth that many boys his age have already lost.
A crisp knock on my bedroom door breaks me out of my thoughts with the subtlety of a battering ram. I can’t help but let out a soft squeak of surprise, almost knocking over one of my paint cans in my haste to hide my supplies. “Just a moment!”
Simon comes to my aid as I struggle with rolling the large sketch of himself out of sight through the vast minefield that is my art supplies. Though it’s completely obscured by the convenient leafy plant sitting outside, I rush to draw the heavy curtains across the entrance to the balcony, taking no chances.
At last, when I’ve decided that all the evidence is suitably hidden, I take a look in my full-length mirror. My hair looks wild from times when I ran my hands over my head, my clothes wrinkled from hunching over the canvas picture of Simon. I run a hand over my clothes and straighten my braid, trying to seem as presentable as possible. Simon comes up behind me, an open smile spread wide across his face. I turn and meet him in a hug before he draws back, taking my hand in his and lifting it to his lips. It's a fair approximation of a courtly gentleman, the facade only broken by our hushed voices and goofy smiles. “I will see you soon, m’lady.”
“Be safe,” I whisper back. He laughs, clear and free as he heads back out to the balcony to climb down the side of the building. He makes the climb seem effortless, though I know from experience it requires a great deal of strength and stamina to accomplish. The ease with which he moves is in part due to his sturdy and nimble physique, but helped along by his stag given grace and instincts.
Still flushed and grinning, I swing my door open to meet the unamused gaze of the head housekeeper and my mother’s right-hand, Eleanor. For a moment, I’m afraid she knows about Simon, but she says only, “The Lady Monchette asks that you join her downstairs.”
“Of course, I will come right now,” I respond, stepping into the hallway before Eleanor stops me.
“Perhaps you should change into more presentable attire,” she remarked pointedly. Ah, so my mother is hosting guests. Probably another suitor she hopes I’ll fall madly in love with.
I shake my head, releasing a sigh. “Of course, please inform my mother that I will be down shortly.”
“As you wish.”
I shut my door and stride to my substantial wardrobe at a leisurely pace. I have no desire to suffer through a half hour or more of tense conversation with an awkward young lordling. But it can’t be helped I suppose. Resigned, I throw open my wardrobe doors and pick out a modest dress that quickly fades from a deep red color to a light gold. Sunsets are my favorite, the time when light and dark are balanced, when the scales are set so bad and good are created equal.
By the time I make it downstairs, my mother and her guests have moved from the foyer to our most elegant sitting room. I knock softly on the door before stepping in. As expected, my mother is in one of her finest dresses, jewelry and makeup resplendent. However, I’m surprised to find that my father has joined her, also wearing his best attire as he passes around glasses of our most expensive champagne.
My parents both rise at my entrance and their guest does the same. He turns to face me as my father steps forward to introduce us though I’m not sure why he feels the need, I already know who it is. This handsome young man, with his perfectly tailored suit, sharp hazel eyes, and crown of auburn hair, is none other than Nikolas Terán, Prince of Wyndali.
I’m already sweeping into a low curtsy, dropping my gaze respectfully. “Your Highness.”
"Please, I try not to stand on formalities, just Nikolas is fine." The young prince takes one of my hands in his, helping me rise, all perfect manners and practiced elegance. He's good looking, no doubt about it. But where Simon’s features are soft and kind, the prince is a study in crisp edges and smooth lines. His chiseled face is almost too handsome to look at and very reminiscent of his eagle connection. There's a distinct sharpness to his eyes that Simon doesn't have, gaze alight with a sly cleverness. "Your dress is very beautiful, though I think you’d look just as good without."
"T-thank you, Your Highness." Suddenly I'm shy, avoiding his gaze as a flush tinges my cheeks pink. I can't think of anything else to say.
At least I'm not the only one thrown off balance, my mother is practically beside herself, glowing with pride and absolutely enthralled with the prince's presence. She makes what is perhaps the worst possible decision for a Lady in her state of disarray: she begins to talk. "Yes, well, Your Highness, this is our daughter Willow, Willow Cherie Belle Monchette that is . . . You'll find she's very accomplished, can play the violin and piano and is an artist as well. She's very good at it!"
The prince smiles indulgently as my mother rattles on, interrupting her only when she decides to come up for air. Where my mother is flustered and thrilled, Nikolas is the picture of royal perfection, words crisp and well-chosen. "That sounds wonderful, my lady, I’d wager that there are few as talented as her, no doubt a sign of excellent parenting."
He flashes her a charming wink which only serves to fluster her further. Before my mother can begin to babble out her appreciation, my father places his hand on her arm gently. "Why don't we leave you two to talk for a moment, Your Highness?"
What about me? I fume silently, my scattered thoughts panicked. Is it okay with me to leave this handsome prince alone with me?
"That sounds wonderful, sir, I'd love to get to know Lady Willow better." Nikolas flashes them another one of his disarming smiles and they leave the door open as they go. He turns to me the moment they're gone, eyebrow raised and eyes twinkling with some sort of silent mirth. "I seem to have charmed them out of their wits."
He doesn't seem too apologetic about it and I giggle nervously. I don't see how anyone can resist his charm. "It's not everyday we're graced by the presence of someone as prestigious as yourself, Your Highness. My mother can finally die happy."
“I’m shocked, my lady.” His eyes are comically round with fake surprise and I giggle again. “I refuse to believe that every prince has thus far failed to recognize your beauty.”
I play along with his charade as best as I can, twisting my lips into a pout. “You are the first prince to call on me personally.”
But I don’t need any princes, I add in my head, I have Simon.
“No matter,” Prince Nikolas replies briskly, eyes still twinkling with hidden laughter. I’m starting to realize that the light in the prince’s eyes can never be extinguished. Since the moment I've met him, they've yet to stop dancing with life and mischief. He winks. “Better late than never, I suppose. After all, what better first prince to court than I?”
“I can’t even imagine one,” I agree, and I realize I’m telling the truth. His suave charm and easy smile are irresistible and I find myself falling under his spell.
“Your mother mentioned something about art?” He tips his head to the side curiously, looking very much like an eager bird in this moment. “I’d love to see some of your paintings, I’m a bit of an art connoisseur myself.”
“O-of course!” My smile falters as I remember the portrait of Simon hidden upstairs with the rest of my art pieces. Dread stalks my footsteps as I lead him upstairs and to my room. I slow as we reach the dark curtain that hides my balcony.
As if sensing my reluctance, Prince Nikolai speaks. “Art is special, an extension of ourselves if we will it. If your art is meant to be private, then don’t show it. We can find something else to do.”
It’s his understanding that pushes me to throw aside my curtains and step out onto the balcony. As nonchalantly as possible, I gesture to the half-finished sketch of Simon. “That’s my most recent project.”
The prince steps closer, examining it with a careful eye, as if tracing each individual line across the canvas with his gaze. I turn away, unable to watch him scrutinize my art, choosing instead to busy myself with retrieving some of my finished paintings. By the time I've set them all out, Nikolas is staring at me thoughtfully, and I'm unnerved by the feeling that he can see right through me. His voice is slightly more distant than before though it’s lost none of it’s crisp notes or courtly gentility. “I'm afraid that it’s time I take my leave now, my lady.”
I freeze, heart pounding. “My apologies, Your Highness, have I done something to offend?”
“Nothing at all, just that I refuse to court someone who is already in love.” He says it so matter-of-factly that his meaning takes a moment to reach me. There’s a wistful smile on his lips, and for a moment he almost seems solemn.
“What could you possibly mean, Your Highness?” I’ve never been a great liar, I know because I’m never able to put my heart into it. But for Simon, my heart is the leader in this deception.
“Call me Nikolas.” He reminds me with a grin, and I can see that his mischievous nature is never far. “All this royal posturing will be the death of me. To answer your question, you have the look of someone in love.”
I open my mouth to protest but he cuts me off. Something I can’t quite identify glints in his eyes, but it’s there and gone in an instant. I realize now that behind his sharp wit and charismatic displays, is someone dangerous who I would be wise not to cross. “Please don’t insult my intelligence, Willow, I’m not blind. I can clearly see what you feel for him. It’s there in the broad strokes of his smile, and the painstaking effort to capture the twinkling in his eyes. If you’re looking, you can't possibly miss it. And I always am.”
His lips curl up in an amused half-smile as I gape at him, momentarily speechless. He picks an imaginary speck of dust off the shoulder of his already-immaculate coat before straightening the cuffs of his sleeves. There’s a finality to his movements, his gaze cool and sharp, but I can see the remnants of a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. “As I said, I am an art connoisseur, and art is simply an extension of the artist.”
I finally seem to break out of my daze and the first words that leave my mouth are coupled with a groan. “My mother’s gonna kill me.”