*Nainika’s Note* Hello everybody!! I’ve commented a detailed explanation of this story down below, so read that first!!
It’s something I would have never vowed a year before. Or any year before. I never thought I’d think this. Or vow it. But right now, I vow that Morgan Serril will never, ever be the man who haunts me at every turn, physically or mentally, anymore. I’m done with the image of us, or him, to be the focal point for the rest of my life. It’s time to move on. In my eyes, Morgan Serril is just another man at my sister’s coming-out-ball.
I slowly turned around, my heart racing at that familiar deep voice that had haunted my every waking minute for years before I forced myself to let the fantasy I’d had of the two of us go. I made myself meet his hazel eyes. And nearly buckled at the knees. When I’d run into him in the street, I had only glanced at his face, not wanting him to recognize me. But now that he was standing right in front of me, I let myself take in the older version of the young man I’d given my heart to so naively.
Even though I thought I’d prepared myself for seeing Morgan again, my heart and brain didn’t think so. His red-brown hair, originally tousled by the wind, was combed back. The hairstyle left his hazel eyes free to pierce, and his cheekbones highlighted. He was wearing a white cotton shirt under a navy blue vest, paired with gold buttons, and black dress pants. But what I couldn’t get over was…his body. The boy I’d fallen in love with was gangly and lean. The man who dared to show his face to me, filled in his suit nicely. His rolled-up sleeves complimented his buff arms. I barely noticed Sadira gently squeezing my arm before slipping away to give us some privacy.
“You’ve outdone yourself,” he said softly, gesturing to the decadent desserts spread out behind me. I gave him a thin smile in response, then turned around, trying to compose myself. Whatever resolve I’d had before walking into the ballroom had been shattered. No longer did I want to humiliate Morgan. I wanted to scream, vent my frustrations pent up over the five years he’d left me. I wanted to punch him. I wanted to make him feel my pain. But my vow had to be upheld. He would no longer get the satisfaction of being in my head anymore. I was done with him. Morgan was just like any other man in the ballroom. And I would treat him as such. “Are you going to ignore me forever?” He asked, gently placing his hand on my elbow. I wanted to rip his hand off, then his arm for good measure.
“On the contrary, I was just going to talk to my parents,” I said, trying to slip away. But his hand tightened on my arm, so I had no choice but to steer us toward my parents. I caught Velora’s eye as she was mingling, talking with one of the aristocrats. I bugged my eyes out, and her eyes widened. ‘Help me’ I mouthed, and she nodded, instantly cutting off the aristocrat and smoothly maneuvering her way over to me. She possessed courtly manners far superior to mine, evidenced from the way Morgan was still clinging to my arm.
That and as Magnolia’s tradition demanded, if the firstborn had already married or was engaged before their royal ball, then they were eligible for the throne. That’s why I was allowed to pursue my baking passion and move into town, as I wasn’t engaged formally yet. Velora technically wasn’t engaged yet, but she was courting a man who I thought was perfect for her. He adored her, yet gave her space when she needed it. Much better than someone over here.
“Is that Morgan Serril I see?” Velora gasped, fluttering over to Morgan. True to his nature, he puffed his chest out, and bowed, kissing her hand.
“Your Highness,” I rolled my eyes, but caught Velora’s subtle shooing motions, and slipped away. I made my way through the throng of people congregating around the dessert table, catching the whispers.
“…really makes these desserts pop,”
“…no wonder her parents let her become a baker,”
“…did you see Morgan Serril here?”
“…remember the scandal a few years back?” At that, my stomach turned over, so I walked away from the gossiping ladies. It hurt me that the court still talked about this stuff behind my back. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself when I bumped into a man walking the opposite way. I tipped backward, but he caught me, pulling me against his chest.
“Oh, I’m-” I broke off, staring into his green eyes. He was taller than me, with light brown skin, a smattering of dark freckles across his nose, dark hair swept across his face, and deep green eyes. He was wearing a dark vest over a pale blue shirt, and his cravat was loose.
“Pardon me,” he said, graciously steadying me and stepping back.
“Um, I, um,” I mumbled, trying to prevent a blush from spreading across my face. Then I realized how perfect this was. He had no idea who I was. I certainly had never seen him before. “Dance with me?” I asked suddenly, offering him my hand. He raised his eyebrows at me.
“Trying to escape from someone, are we?” He said with a knowing look. I laughed, and it felt like a burden was raised off my chest.
“Something like that,” I said. He smiled.
“Me too. Shall we?” He offered his arm to me, and I took it, following him to the dance floor. It had been ages since I’d last danced, so the steps were rusty, yet still there implanted in my brain.
“So, what’s your name, mister,” I asked, as we twirled around the dance floor, around other couples doing the same.
“So you’ve asked me to dance, yet don’t know my name?” he asked in a mock grievance. I smirked.
“It wasn’t exactly the right ask either,” He laughed.
“Callum Thornshade at your service, m’lady.” He dipped me in tune to the band, and we swung around, changing partners. I found myself dancing with a jolly older man, while Callum partnered with the older man’s wife. The man twirled me around a few times before we changed back to our original partners. Callum grinned. “And what might your name be, fair lady?” I hesitated, not wanting him to know who I was quite yet.
“Natilee Quick,” I said, taking Sadira’s last name. Natilee was a pretty common name, so he would have no reason to suspect me. His eyes didn’t light up in recognition, nor did he pull away, hurt, so I exhaled quietly in relief.
“Well, Natilee, how are you finding all of this,” he waved a hand at the ballroom, “party?” I shrugged my shoulders, ducking under his arm as we twirled again around another couple.
“To be honest, I’m finding it a bit stuffy,” Callum said frankly, and I giggled, imagining the look on my mother’s face if someone said Velora’s coming-of-age ball was stuffy. “What?” He said, grinning down at me at the look on my face.
“I feel the same way,” I replied. His eyes lit up.
“Well, have you tried the dessert table yet?” I wanted to tell him that I was the one who made the damn desserts, but that would give me away instantly, and besides, I was enjoying myself far too much right now.
“Not yet I haven’t,” Callum tugged me off the dance floor and to the table in question. Thankfully Velora and Morgan weren’t there anymore. Callum led me to the far end of the table where my lemon tarts were situated. He picked one off the table and showed me it, gleefully.
“The baker piped piles of poop on them, can you believe it?” He grinned and shoved it in his mouth, and I almost died at the expression of utter devotion on his face. There’s nothing as satisfying to a baker to see their treats being adored like this. We wandered down the table, and Callum pointed out his favorite desserts. I enjoyed watching him talk about my desserts. It was a nice change of pace from when I talked about them. I didn’t eat my desserts though, content with the image.
“Wanna get out of here for a couple of minutes?” I asked as Callum finished his slice of the almond and vanilla cake after he was ready to pledge his life to the towering cake. He smiled.
“You read my thoughts. What did you have in mind?” I grinned mischievously, and his gaze instantly turned wary. “Why do I instantly regret that?” I smirked, and took his hand, leading him around the party guests and down a servent’s tunnel. This one, in particular, led to the balcony right above the ballroom and provided the best views. Although, you had to climb a little to get there. Velora and I used to come here all the time to escape from annoying tutors or even our parents.
We turned down a side passage and emerged on a small balcony on the edge of the castle. I took off my heels and kept them on the small balcony, grabbed my skirts, and hoisted myself onto the railing.
“Come on, I promise it’s safe!” I said to Callum who watched me with a concerned expression. He shrugged and pulled off his shoes before following me. I climbed the roof, then sidestepped onto the railing that overlooked the ballroom. Dropping down onto the balcony, I made space for Callum to stand. We both leaned on the railing and watched the crowd for a few moments.
“What are you thinking about right now?” Callum asked quietly. I turned to find him watching me, and I brushed back a couple of strands of hair that had gotten loose.
“Have you ever felt that someone who you’ve loved but who you don’t love anymore can just be a regular person to you?” It was a silly question, one I didn’t expect him to answer, but he surprised me by snorting.
“I don’t think they’ll ever be just a normal person to you anymore. I mean, you’ll see them, and there will always be that pang in your heart of what could have been, but it’s up to you to forgive and forget. Until eventually, it doesn’t hurt so much anymore.” I looked at him in surprise and he smiled. “It happened to me before, as well.” I looked down at the crowds of people talking and laughing, unaware of us up here, and smiled.
“Thank you,” Callum laughed.
“For what? For giving you some advice? That’s hardly worth thanking me for.” I shook my head.
“No, for helping me understand. But your advice was pretty damn good, too.” I added, smiling.
“Well, enough moping around. Shall we go back down and dance the other couples to shame?” I grinned.
“Let’s do it.” We climbed back down to the small balcony and put our shoes on, walking back down the hallway, and slipped back in amongst the other party-goers. The band was playing a lively song, so we jumped right back onto the dance floor, twirling and dancing in tune with the music. Everything was going swell until a slow song started.
Callum was about to draw me closer when a hand tapped on his shoulder.
“Excuse me, may I cut in?” Morgan’s voice jolted me out of my trance and I stiffened.
“No you may not,” I interrupted as Callum was about to open his mouth. My eyes met his, and he widened his slightly, indicating that he was surprised. He looked questioningly at me, and I nodded almost imperceptibly. His gaze narrowed. Callum knew this was the man I was running from. Morgan looked taken aback, then his gaze sharpened. He scowled and looked rudely at Callum.
“You’re dancing with my fianceé,” I gasped so loudly, that couples on the dance floor stopped to look at us. How dare he? Callum took a step back, hurt flickering in his eyes. I wanted to tug him back. My mouth worked, but no sound came out. Morgan scoffed.
“Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have some dancing to do.” Morgan took my arm, but my brain finally processed what was happening, and I raised my arm and punched him in the face. He staggered back, blood streaming down his face.
“What the hell, Natilee?” He shouted. By now, the entire ballroom was quiet, watching us. I could feel my parent’s gazes as they took in the scene before them. I looked beseechingly at Callum.
“He’s not my fianceé,” I claimed. Callum looked between Morgan and me, and I could see the dawning realization in his eyes.
“That’s the man you asked me about?” He said softly, but in the quiet room, it might as well have been a shout. I nodded.
“This is Morgan Serril, the cook’s apprentice, who five years ago, proposed to me the night before my coming-of-age-ball and ran away the night after.” Gasps rose from the crowd as all their questions about the scandal five years ago got answered, but I clapped my hands to my mouth as if that could stop the words from coming out of my mouth. Callum looked at me, fresh hurt replacing the concern in his eyes.
“Coming-of-age…you’re the older sister of Princess Velora? You’re the one who baked the desserts I was eating? I’ll bet you were laughing at me in your head as I stuffed those tarts down. And then what you and I were talking about? Did you mean any of that?” Callum’s voice rose as he spoke to me, but at the last question, his voice dropped until he was whispering. I nodded, furiously dashing away tears.
“Of course I did, Callum. I meant everything.” Morgan harshly laughed, and I started. I’d almost forgotten he was there.
“So you didn’t tell lover boy over here about yourself, huh?” His voice had turned mean, cold, and vicious. I was about to punch him again when I heard Velora’s voice. She stormed into the center of the circle the crowd had formed around the three of us.
“Enough.” She looked at Morgan. “You’re a disgusting person, Morgan Serril. You should be ashamed of yourself, the way you’ve treated my sister, and poor Wilona Heath.” Morgan’s eyes shot to hers, confused. “Oh yes, I know all about your bakery plans, Morgan. Who do you think invited you here? I was hoping you’d changed and made amends, but you’re still the same selfish pig I knew all those years ago. You didn’t deserve my sister then, and you sure as hell don’t anymore. Get out. I don’t want to see you step foot in Magnolia ever again.” My baby sister sounded like the queen she was going to be soon. I was so proud of her.
“Vel-” I started, but she cut me off, eyes flashing.
“And you, sister. I’d hoped you would talk to Morgan, and not make a scene during my ball. But you’ve gone and ruined it.” Her voice broke on the last word, and she sobbed, running through the crowd. I didn’t hesitate. I ran right after her. I knew where she was going to go. She ducked through the servent’s hallway and down the small corridor. She was vanishing over the roof when I came gasping onto the small balcony. I kicked off my shoes, and climbed up after her, landing on the railing and dropping down to the balcony beside her.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, hugging her. We rocked there for a while, just two sisters for a few minutes. Not queen and sister. Just two sisters together.
“Did it feel good to punch him?” she finally whispered, and I laughed through my tears.
“So good.” She smiled, then straightened. I looked at her, my baby sister, still beautiful despite her red-rimmed eyes and stuffy nose. “I’m sorry for ruining your ball,” I said again. She shook her head.
“It’s ok. I understand,” I smiled, my heart swelling in relief, “to be honest, it was getting a bit boring anyway. Most people don’t understand fine art anymore.” She said and I laughed.
“You’re a bit too modern for this kingdom,” I smirked. She paused.
“Speaking of which, who was that man you were dancing the night away with?” She asked nudging me slyly. I blushed, and she crowed. “You like him, don’t you?” I ducked my head, nodding. “Well then what are you waiting for, go get him. My older sister deserves to have a life after all she’s been through.” I smiled and kissed her cheek before climbing back down over the roof. Forgetting about my shoes, I ran through the corridors and down the staircase out the front door.
The night air was cold and refreshing on my flushed skin. The ballroom was emptying and I caught a flash of dark hair amidst the white and gold dresses.
“Callum!” I called, running toward him. He turned, but I was going too fast, and I crashed into him.
“I’m so sorry for not telling you who I was.” He shook his head.
“I forgave you. I understand why you did it.”
“Let’s start over then,” I said and he smiled.
“Ok.” He bowed and kissed my hand, “M’lady, Callum Thornshade, at your service.” I curtsied.
“Natilee Mavena Krisia Saena,” He smiled, and tucked my hand in his arm, and we walked down the steps of the castle and into the moonlight.