Happily Never After

Annabelle Hearst is just another person in the Headow kingdom, ruled by the Tomlinson family. Pressured by his father the king, Prince Louis is searching for a bride, a wife to make him a heir. He stumbles into Annabelle, one of the few who doesn't venerate the royal family. Can he convince her to come to the live the royal life with him willingly, or will he have to force her into it?

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18. Rekindling

It’s been a wonderful three days. So far, Louis’s been gifting me with colorful bouquets of flowers every single day, making the farmhouse smell like heaven. Not only that, but he’d proven to be very sweet and attentive, from the crack of dawn to the moment where we’d let sleep take over.

More often than not, I’d found myself gazing at him fondly, smiling to myself and biting my lip reflexively. And when it’d so happen that our eyes would meet, he’d smirk and shake his head in disbelief before returning to whatever he was doing. But in accordance with our agreement, he hadn’t rushed me into doing anything. Clearly, he wanted me to be the first one to initiate contact; making sure things were going at my pace. He hadn’t even tried going for a kiss: the only touching we’d done was accidental and happened as we did our daily chores such as cooking meals and washing the dishes.

I realized on the evening of the third day, as my gaze lingered a second too long on his lips, that maybe I was ready to take the next step.

My eyes fall upon Louis sitting on the bed as I step out of the washroom in my silk night gown, the only one that’d been packed in my suitcase. Usually, what would happen is that Louis would look away as I walked to the bed and snuggled into the sheets, before he’d get under the sheets himself and blow the candles outs. But not tonight.

“Do you think we can hold each other before we go to sleep?” I ask bravely. “Can we try that tonight?” I question

“Of course we can,” he exhales, almost in relief. “I’d love that.” I watch him as he shifts to sit on the bed, leaning on the headboard before opening his arms.

I get on the bed and carefully nestle into his arms, pressing my back to his chest as I let him embrace me lovingly. The heat is oddly welcoming, and the overall position reminds me of the one we had in the carriage not long after our departure from the castle.

“So what flowers would you like tomorrow?” Louis enquires casually. “I think lilies would be great in the living room,” he reasons, but my mind is elsewhere. Somehow, it’s stuck on my mother’s lullaby, the slow tune etched in my mind. “White lilies,” he specifies.

“They would yeah,” I agree absentmindedly.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks, looking down at me. I look up at him.

“I’m not―”

“Love, I’ve caught on all your facial expressions,” he chuckles. “Something is bothering you. You’re tense and you aren’t focused on the person talking to you.” His fingers intertwine with mine and he hugs me closer to his chest. “What is it?” he mumbles in my hair.

“The lullaby,” I sigh, scrunching my eyebrows. “The one you sang in the carriage.”

“What about it?”

I play with his hands abstractedly.

“How old were you when your mother first sang it to you?”

He sighs.

“Four or five I think? I’m not sure.”

“Well, when I was about ten, my mother admitted she was the one who wrote the lullaby. For a friend,” I trail on. “So I don’t understand how it possibly could’ve gotten to the castle’s ears, let alone the prince’s. Let alone a young prince.”

He’s speechless for a few seconds.

“Word does travel fast around town…” He frowns, also perplexed. “But I agree, that is peculiar. I’m going to have to talk to my mother about this,” he mutters. I bite my lip, wanting so badly to know more about the Queen but knowing he needed to be the one to develop on the matter first. “Want to go to town tomorrow?” he questions, suddenly changing the subject. “I’ve heard they’ve got this amazing marketplace. It could be fun?” the prince continues. “Zayn will be very close by of course, but it’ll spare us cooking and doing the dishes for a day.”

“You don’t like cooking and doing the dishes?” I scoff playfully, my eyes meeting his.

“I do, but I believe our honeymoon could and should be spent doing some more interesting things…” He lets his sentence hang, his eyes clear about what he means. I decide to play along, shifting my body so I’m facing him.

“What type of interesting things?” I enquire, my fingers still locked with his.

“Oh you know… getting to know each other a little better maybe?” He very visibly gulps.

“It’s what we’ve been doing for the last three days,” I counter, cocking my eyebrow up. “Learning about each other to make sure we make a great team,” I add.

“And do we make a great team?”

“I think we’re doing well so far,” I nod, approaching our faces slowly.

“That’s good then,” he murmurs.

My eyes shift from his eyes to his lips.

“Don't move,” I instruct softly, inching my body closer to his, my gaze still fixed on his lips. I place my hand on his chest to keep myself steady as I near our faces. I feel his heartbeat quicken underneath my fingers. “Are you nervous?” I breathe out.

“Why wouldn't I be?” he responds, just as breathless. “The most beautiful girl I know is inches away from kissing me willingly.”

I smile, placing my free hand behind his neck before carefully pressing my lips with his. His body loosens up leisurely as I deepen the kiss, taking control. His hand reaches over behind my neck, pulling me closer as my arm slides down his back, letting our chests press against each other.

“God I’ve missed your lips…Can I kiss your neck?” he mumbles. I acquiesce. He doesn’t waste any time pressing his lips to my neckline, leaving a trail of greedy kisses up and down my neck. My eyes shut and my head rolls backwards, giving him more room. Our ragged breathing as well as the sound of his mouth on my skin are the only things that can be heard.

Our lips join once more into an ardent kiss. The room feels distinctly hotter as I let him wrap my legs around his body, drawing our centers significantly closer.

“Okay,” I exhale, pulling away carefully as his hands begin wandering up my thighs.

“So what are we now?” he breathes out, in awe. “You can’t expect me to believe that this is teammate behaviour,” he teases, his eyes solely focused on me.

“How about two friends?” I respond.

“Darling, trust me, we’re past the friend stage,” he chuckles. “We’re more along the lines of young lovers.”

“Alright,” I agree. “Young lovers it is. And tomorrow we can hold hands in town and steal a couple kisses when the townspeople aren’t looking.”

“I’d be alright with that,” he nods, grinning.  I also smile, joining my lips with his once more. Butterflies dance in my stomach and I break the kiss.

“Good night, Louis,” I say softly, rolling over to my side of the bed.

“Good night, Annabelle,” he responds, blowing the candles by the bed. I’m falling in love with him.

Darkness fills the room as I let this sink in.

 

*****

 

“I have a message for the Princess of Headow,” the royal messenger announces, barging inside the room. “Your mother and siblings have all fallen ill.”

My heart is just about to jump out of my chest.

“What?” My voice is barely above a whisper.

“The food has been scarce in the kingdom for the last couple of weeks, weakening the population. Unfortunately, the poorer people have succumbed to the pandemic roaming our streets.”

 “These people have to be quarantined immediately!” the king declares, standing up. “Get the guards to find the ill and isolate them from the rest of the kingdom!” he instructs to the messenger.

“Doctors. We need to send them our best doctors!” I deny. “Louis please!” I beg, turning to my husband, hoping he can change his father’s mind. “Stand up to him!”

“Annabelle I can’t—“

“No doctors shall help the ill!” the king booms. “They shall remain at the castle to look after the health of people who matter!”

“Every life matters!” I shout out, tears streaming down my face. I turn to look at the prince. “Louis, help me!”

“I can’t Annabelle!”

“He’s nothing but a coward!” his father agrees.

“No please!” I sob, falling to the floor, my deep red dress pooling like blood around me. “We have to help them! Innocent children will die!” I continue, my voice breaking.

Louis bends down beside me, holding me tightly in his arms.

“Shhh it’s okay Annabelle,” he says softly. “Everything is okay. Shhh.”

I blink away tears and release my grip from Louis’ shirt as I wake up shaking from yet another nightmare.

“We’re going to have to get you checked out by doctors when we get back to the castle,” Louis begins softly, caressing my skin with his thumb.

“I’m fine Louis,” I deny, trying to calm my breath and regain control over my emotions.

 “You keep having nightmares and it’s worrying me,” he states, features pulled into a pained grimace. “Four nights out of four is pretty alarming.”

“The last few weeks have been harsh on me…I’m just stressed out,” I insist, standing up from the bed.

“Stressed out about what?” he persists, going over the bed and stopping me before I cross the room’s doorway. “Annabelle, I want to know these types of things, especially if they are detrimental to your health,” he tells me.

“My family worries me Lou,” I exhale finally. “I haven’t seen them in so long. And then there's the fact that somebody has been plotting my death at the castle.  And there's also this constant pressure that comes with being a Princess that torments me."

"You're not supposed to be thinking about these things on our honeymoon love," he shakes his head, before engulfing me into a hug.

"I know but I can't help it,” I reply, letting my head rest on his shoulder. "I've always been there for them and now I'm not. At least when we were at the castle, I could send someone over to check on them."

There's a moment of silence whilst all we do is stand in each other's arms, Louis rubbing my back comfortingly.

"I recall we made a deal, didn't we?" he begins. "You get to see your family with some food every week or so if you change your attitude?"

I acquiesce.

"You've been making remarkable progress these couple of days."

I look up at him hopefully.

“I think we ought to check up on them and make sure they have enough to make it through next week. Of course I can't let you go now due to all the turmoil at the castle, and neither can I send Zayn: he'll be wary with us going to town today unprotected," he reasons.

My shoulders slump, my head hanging low. His finger lifts my chin so our eyes meet.

"But I can send him this evening when we're safely back in the farmhouse."

"Really?" I whisper.

"Really," he acknowledges.

"You'd do that?"

"Of course, you’re my lover," he chuckles, inching his face closer. My heart melts at his words. I don't stop him as he bends down kiss me tenderly. "Come on. Let's get dressed and head to town for some much needed change of scenery," he ends.

The two of us proceed to change ourselves into our day clothes. But even if the weather was significantly hotter down in south Headow near the kingdom boundaries where we currently resided, jackets proved to be necessary today due to chilly winds. Of course, it’s nothing compared to the genuine cold and snow that would occasionally blow over the castle, but it was enough to make goosebumps rise on my skin.

Barely an hour later, Zayn stops our carriage at the edge of the quaint town. I hold on to Louis hand as I step outside, breathing in deeply as I admire the little houses stretching in front of the road. December really hadn’t been harsh to these southern parts of the kingdom.

Zayn clears his throat behind us as Louis hand stays latched with mine.

“Sir, before you go, could I talk to you for a moment?” he enquires. “In private,” he precises, eyes briefly falling on our intertwined fingers. Somehow, this ticks me off. If Louis is the Prince, and I’m the Princess, we should be treated as equals.

“Whatever you have to tell Louis, you can tell me too,” I intervene, keeping my fingers locked with Louis just as he’s about to release my hand.

“Annabelle, I doubt that’s a good idea,” Louis shakes his head.

“But I—”

“I know you mean well love. I know you do,” the Prince insists, encompassing my hand with his. He kisses the top of my fingers. “But sometimes it’s best to let me handle certain things, especially concerning political tensions. Your recurring nightmares show you aren’t completely ready yet,” he emphasises, releasing my hand.

“It’s about the person who tried to murder me, isn’t it?” I realize, a shudder racking my body. Louis’ eyes soften.

“We’ll just be a moment darling,” he says, turning away from me and stepping closer to Zayn. I look at the two men as they talk in hushed voices, Louis making big movements with his hands. A couple minutes later, he walks back over to me, sliding his fingers with mine.

“Will you teach me about the politics and all of Headow’s laws one day?” I ask once we begin walking, Zayn shadowing silently behind us.

“I’m pretty sure I’d bore you to death if I did,” he chuckles. “But Liam Payne, your tutor, will fill you in on the most important parts when we return to the castle.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it in no time. You’re a quick learner,” he praises. It’s only then, as we arrive at the town’s square, that I realize how many eyes are on us. More importantly, how many frightened eyes. I look up at Louis. He doesn’t seem fazed at all.

The whole town seems to have stopped functioning, their fear-filled eyes locked on us.

Zayn must’ve also realized the hostility and fear emanating from the townsfolk because next thing I know, he’s pulling sideways. As my hands release Louis’ fingers, I wander off to a small stand filled with trinkets on the other side of the road.

The vendor takes a wary step backwards as I approach.

My fingers reach for the little wooden figurines. I bring a small horse up to my face, staring at the details in awe.

“Did you make these?” I ask the young woman, admiring the fine carvings on the horse as well as its brilliant colors.

She doesn’t reply.

“They are beautiful,” I continue, taking another one in my hands before setting them down.

“My husband makes them,” she says finally, her voice barely above a whisper. "And I paint them."

"Well you two are very talented folks,” I say, smiling. “These are absolutely amazing.” This seems to ease her, her body visibly relaxing. I turn to look at Louis over my shoulder. He’s still talking with a very apprehensive Zayn. “If you don’t mind me asking,” I begin, “why is everyone so fearful of us?”

“You two are royalty,” she replies. “And he’s the King’s son. Who knows what he’ll do to us?”

I suddenly understand where all of this fright is coming from, knowing very well how the King’s actions spread terror over the kingdom since his rise to power. Unfortunately, for the nobles and the royals, fear had always equaled power.

I reach for her hands over the stand.

“I can promise you he won’t do anything―”

“There you are Annabelle,” Louis says, pulling me away almost harshly. “You can’t go wandering off like that,” he trails on, tugging me away. “Zayn was right: coming here wasn’t a good idea after all. These people don’t like us—”

I pull my arm from his grasp, my eyes briefly meeting with the one’s of the frightened vendor’s.

“You’re mistaking hatred for fear Lou,” I deny. “These people are afraid of us. Of royalty. And I don’t blame them. I felt the same about you, and especially about your father before we married.”

His eyes grow big.

“You never told me you were afraid of me,” he states. “Please tell me that last night’s kiss happened because you wanted it and not because you were afraid I was going to lose patience.”

I take a step closer to him. “Of course I’m not afraid of you anymore,” I reassure him. “But that is because I got to know you and understand what motivates you to do things,” I say. I kiss his fingers. “You need to put yourself in their shoes. Your father has done a lot of wrong to Headow, and you happened to do the same when you decided to walk in his footsteps.”

He tugs me farther away, hiding behind a wall to give us a little more privacy to talk.

“You know why I did all I did, Annabelle. The acting as if I’m superior. Using people to do my bidding. Manipulating them. With my father looking down at me, I had no choice,” he responds, jaw tense. The image of his bloodied and scarred back comes to my mind.

“But they don’t know that. And whether you want them to know of not is your choice, but you need to show them that you aren’t like your father.”

“Annabelle,” he shakes his head. “I can’t possibly let Headow know that the King beats up his son. Not only is it none of their business, but my father would find a way to make me pay for telling them.” His voice wavers as he continues. “He always does. When I decide to pretend his whippings don’t affect me, he takes it out on my mother. His own wife. He’s a sick man Annabelle. So sick.”

I wrap my arms around him as tears fill his eyes. I feel a surge of hatred for the king. How could someone destroy his own son with such vile manipulation?

“All I’m saying is you can start rekindling your relationship with the people of Headow, starting with this town. We’re far enough from the city: your father won’t know anything of it,” I end softly, hugging him even tighter.

"You are the best thing that's ever happened to me, you know that, right?" He mumbles, pulling away so only our foreheads are touching. I smile, lifting myself on the tip of my toes so I can kiss him.

"Come on. Let's show this town who you really are, one step at a time,” I say, lacing our fingers once more. "And don't forget that smiling helps," I add, motioning his strained features.

As we turn around, we're brusquely stopped by Zayn.

"This is a terrible idea," he protests.

"Were you eavesdropping?!" I exclaim, shocked.

"It is my duty to protect the two of you and acting vulnerable is not your best decision," the guard counters, speaking to Louis.

"Zayn, your Princess asked you a question. I strongly suggest you answer her," Louis advises.

"I did eavesdrop Miss," he acknowledges, bowing his head down. "I apologize. But if the Prince lets his guard down and exposes any weakness, I can't be everywhere at once. I can't protect the two of you alone."

"I wasn't implying that we should openly state that you are the only one guarding us. But all these people need is for us to show some interest in what they do," I correct, keeping my voice at a low level. "Because the king certainly wouldn't." Zayn's stare is blank. I exhale. "I'll show you."

I lead Louis back to the stand with the beautiful wood carvings. As soon as she sees us, the young woman takes five steps away. I can feel a dozen other pairs of eyes on us but I don't care.

"Look at these," I say, urging Louis to take a look at the wooden horses. “She painted them. Her husband carved them.” He takes one in his hand, his eyes growing.

“Is this oak?”

“No,” she bites her lip. “It’s pear tree.”

“These are brilliantly done,” he breathes out, staring at the wooden figure in wonder. “Wow. How much are they?”

“I uh…” the woman seems confused as Louis reaches in his pocket, pulling out a small handful of coins and setting them on the stand. My eyes grow big, similarly to the vendors.

“Will this be enough?” he enquires.

“That is too much,” she shakes her head. “Way too much. I don’t want your pity.”

“What if we take two horses then?” I propose, knowing very well Louis would want to leave her the money and that she wouldn’t accept it for a single wooden carving. My fingers latch on the black horse, decorated with gold and red designs.

She purses her lips and nods.

I smile.

“Thank you. These are really impressive,” Louis says, also letting himself smile.

The vendor wraps the wooden trinkets in brown paper before placing them in a bag.

“Thank you,” she says, bowing her head down as she hands me the bag.

“No, thank you,” I reply.

“That was okay,” Louis admits as we walk to another little kiosk.

“It was,” I grin. The next stand is held by a baker and his daughter. I bend down to her level as she hides behind her father's legs.

“Are your pies as good as they look?” I ask her, trying to make my tone seem as friendly as possible. The little girl shrugs her shoulders.

Louis also squats down.

“Which one is your favourite then?”

“The apple pie,” she answers finally. “Because Dad and I picked the apples together in the orchard.”

“We'll take three apple pies then,” Louis tells the baker.  His daughter grins, grabbing the said pies and preparing them to be taken away.

“Three?” I chuckle.

“I'm tired of baking,” Louis shrugs, pulling yet another handful of coins from his pocket and placing them in the bakers open palm.

“You bake?” the baker snorts, unimpressed as he counts his coins. “Royal folks don't usually do much when it comes to chores.”

“I've only started since recently to be honest,” Louis acknowledges. “My wife has been showing me the strings.”

“Has she?” he rolls his eyes. “I thought she was only to be used as a baby vessel,” he sneers. I grab Louis’ hand as I see them clench into fists.

“Thank you for the apple pies,” I nod, taking the parcel the little girl was handing. “Have a nice day!” I end as I steer Louis away.

“He was vile―” Louis begins.

“Lou, you can't please everybody. You were civil and that's all that matters,” I reason, rubbing his arms.

“He does know I could send him to prison for such lack of respect, doesn’t he?” Louis spews, suddenly spinning on his heel to head back towards the baker.

“But you won’t because you aren’t your father,” I deny, placing a hand on his chest. “Let’s go take a look at the beautiful scarves over there,” I continue, motioning the other direction.

He doesn’t move, glaring at the man.

“Louis please,” I demand, fingers turning his face towards mine. “You can’t please everyone,” I repeat.

His shoulders slump. “You’re right,” he agrees finally, his arm wrapping around my shoulder. “Let’s go take a look at those scarves,” he sighs.

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