Royal Rebel Read Chapter 3
It's time we saw chapter 3, don't you agree? (I didn't intend to rhyme, but here we are.)
Obviously, there are some major spoilers if you haven't finished Royal Captive. You've been warned.
And if you missed chapter 1 and chapter 2, you can read them with the links below.
Clare woke slowly. Awareness seeped in as gradually as the morning light that crept around the pulled drapes of the room.
She was in her bedroom, which was attached to Serene’s suite. The room was small, but no part of the Mortisian palace was plain. Even this maid’s room was decorated with painted landscapes, fine linens, and soft rugs.
Murmuring voices drifted through the closed door. One sounded like Serene, though Clare couldn’t make out any specific words. A low but booming whisper—that was Wilf—was followed by a smooth, deep voice—Cardon.
Clare’s cheek pressed against her damp pillow. Her throat stung—both inside and out. The tears had made her throat raw, and the shallow cut from Michael’s blade ached. The Devendran rebel had tried to kill her, because he blamed her for Eliot’s death. Latif had killed Michael to defend her, and that still made her head spin.
Latif had been her abductor once, though he’d been blackmailed by Prince Liam Kaelin to do so. A prince who had also tried to kill her last night, though he’d thought she was Serene at the time. He’d ordered Latif to kill her, but Latif had only pretended to stab her. Fates, remembering that moment brought back every bruising ache on her body; she’d fallen down several stone steps in the prison when Liam had kicked her down the stairs. And none of that had been the worst part of last night.
Her eyes burned. Fates, she didn’t want to remember the worst part.
Warmth radiated at her back. The strong arm that draped over her waist kept her secure against a hard chest that rose and fell . . .
Clare’s breath caught, and memories from last night flared.
Miss Ellington, I regret to inform you of an unfortunate incident.
Her fingers had gone numb. She’d dropped Commander Markam’s letter.
It has been my task to check in with your brothers during your absence.
Bennick had grabbed her, his face pale and his eyes sparking with alarm.
On my most recent visit, I learned there had been a fire in Lower Iden. It destroyed most of the homes on your street—including yours. I’m afraid your brothers and their caretaker were inside, and there were no survivors.
Denial, sharp and fierce.
She could see Thomas and Mark—only thirteen and ten—smiling at her.
She had become the decoy for them. She had left them safe in Iden with a caretaker, and she’d recently asked for Serene’s help in bringing them to Duvan. They couldn’t be gone.
But they were.
She had no family left. She’d lost Eliot, and now . . .
She hadn’t realized she’d started crying until Bennick had gathered her into his arms. “I’m so sorry,” he’d whispered. “So, so, sorry . . .”
So many tears, then. Her body had shaken with them. Her breath broke with them.
There in the princess’s sitting room, Clare’s heart had shattered.
Bennick had pulled her onto his lap as he sat on the nearest chair. She buried her face in his neck, and her fingers clenched in his shirt. She sobbed until she thought her lungs would burst. Bennick had rubbed her back, his fingers skimming her spine, his other hand buried in her hair, keeping her pressed close. His strong arms were all that held her together.
When Serene, Cardon, and Wilf had entered, Bennick softly told them what had happened. Their shock and compassion were almost too much to bear, and Clare was grateful when they soon disappeared, leaving her alone with Bennick.
When her tears finally faltered due to exhaustion, he’d carried her to her room and laid her on the bed. She’d grabbed his wrist before he could fully straighten. “Don’t leave me,” she begged, her voice ravaged from all the tears she’d cried.
Bennick leaned in, his blue eyes intense as he stroked away the tears on her cheek. “Never.”
He hadn’t left.
He was still here, in her bed, holding her. Both of them were on their sides, her back to his chest. He was curled around her in a protective, comforting embrace. His low, even breaths stirred the loose strands of her hair, and one bent knee pressed against her leg. They both still wore their clothes from last night; Bennick had only removed their shoes and his weapons before he’d joined her.
This wasn’t the first time Bennick had held her through the night. On Syed Zadir’s ship, after a nightmare, he had offered the same comfort. That didn’t lessen the intimacy of this moment, though. Not just because of the physical reality of sharing a bed, but the vulnerability of sharing her grief with him.
She pulled in a slow, wavering breath. It was morning. The sun had risen, and her brothers were gone.
It seemed unreal. Wholly wrong.
Bennick’s breathing changed—thinned. He stirred, his arm pulling her even closer. His head angled, ducking until his stubbled jaw gently scraped against her cheek and his mouth pressed a tender kiss against her neck, just below her ear.
Warmth spread through her hollow chest, and her eyes burned.
“I love you,” he whispered, his voice rough with sleep.
The first words he gave to her, the morning after her world ended. She couldn’t think of a more perfect gift.
She slid her hand over his, which was flat against her stomach. She didn’t trust her voice, so she just pressed her hand against his, trying to ignore the slight crookedness of her fingers, which Salim had broken so many weeks ago.
Bennick pressed his forehead against the nape of her neck. Silence grew, but it wasn’t empty.
Beyond the bedroom door, the voices grew louder. The outer door of the suite opened and shut, and silence once again descended.
Bennick’s thumb moved in slow, soothing circles against the soft material of her dress. She never wanted him to stop. She never wanted to move from his arms. But this moment couldn’t last forever.
“I need to prepare for the coronation,” she whispered, her voice thin and scratchy.
Bennick’s hold tightened. “You don’t have to go. Serene said last night that she’d go herself. You can take all the time you need.”
She didn’t remember Serene saying that, but she certainly believed the princess had. Even though Serene didn’t always show her true self to the world, the princess of Devendra was fiercely protective and remarkably kind.
“Even if I don’t go,” Clare said, “you need to.”
Serene was down two royal guards; Dirk had been killed during Ryden’s attack at the betrothal signing, and Venn was still missing. He and Vera had parted from Bennick and Wilf in Krid, a city in northern Mortise. They should have arrived at the palace before Bennick, Clare, and Wilf had—but they hadn’t. She prayed to the fates Venn and Vera were all right. She couldn’t lose anyone else.
“The coronation isn’t until this afternoon,” Bennick said quietly. “I don’t need to go anywhere yet.”
They both knew that wasn’t necessarily true. After the three-fold attack last night, there had been chaos in the Mortisian palace. Clare could only imagine that chaos was still being felt this morning.
Her thoughts flickered to Imara, who had been stabbed in the leg. Fates. She’d been so consumed in her own grief, she’d almost forgotten that. Hopefully Serene had been there for her cousin during the night.
“The coronation may not even happen today,” Bennick said. “From a security standpoint, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to delay.”
Silence stretched once more. Bennick’s love for her was a warmth that settled all around her. It gave her peace when all she wanted to do was scream.
Her lower lip trembled. “How long?” she asked, her voice cracking.
He knew what she was asking. His arm flexed as he drew her impossibly closer. “With the fastest messenger, it would have taken at least three weeks for the letter to make it here.”
Thomas and Mark had been dead for more than three weeks.
Her stomach pitched, and she blinked as her vision blurred. “I should have known,” she rasped.
Bennick made a soothing sound in his throat as his lips brushed the back of her neck. “You couldn’t have known, Clare. Don’t invite more pain.”
Her lungs seared with the pressure of holding back tears. “I don’t know what to do.”
She couldn’t even bury her brothers, because they’d turned to ash. Her baby brothers were gone, and she was in an entirely different kingdom.
Bennick kissed her shoulder, keeping her tethered despite the storm that was trying to tear her apart. “You don’t have to do anything, Clare.”
They remained on the bed for nearly an hour before Clare asked, “What will everyone think of you spending the night in here?”
“They’ll think I care about you.”
She frowned a little. “You don’t sound concerned.”
“We’re supposed to keep this a secret.”
“I know.” Bennick’s thumb was still tracing circles, though his hand had shifted so the soothing pattern was drawn against her side. “But all the bodyguards already know.”
She jerked in his arms. “They do?”
He only tucked her closer. “It’s fine. Apparently they guessed the truth before we even left Iden. They won’t betray us. They know I’m still dedicated to protecting Serene.”
He sounded so calm, her anxiety settled a little. “We still need to be careful. What about Serene, or Bridget?”
“After last night, they’ve probably guessed, if they hadn’t already figured it out.”
She craned her head around so she could eye him. “If the king finds out, you could lose your position.” Or his life, if Newlan decided to interpret Bennick’s actions as treasonous. Technically, King Newlan owned her; she’d pledged her life to him in her service as the decoy. Until she died, she was nothing more than Newlan’s servant. Now that he couldn’t threaten her brothers, there really wasn’t any punishment she feared—except what he might do to Bennick.
“He’s in Iden,” Bennick said. “And if word did make it back to him . . . I’m not sure how much I care anymore.”
That made her stomach tighten. Before she could express her concerns, there was a soft knock on the door.
Bennick kissed her cheek, then gently rolled away. He rose on the other side of the bed and crossed the small room to the door.
He opened it only a crack, but Wilf’s gravelly voice traveled easily. “Is she still sleeping?”
“No, but she’s resting.”
Wilf grunted. “I asked Bridget to order food for her.”
“Cardon and I can attend to everything. You stay with her. She shouldn’t be alone.”
There was an undercurrent of old grief in Wilf’s words, and Clare’s broken heart fractured a little more. Wilf had lost his wife years ago, and he’d mourned her deeply—and not always well. He’d drunk to excess, gambled away most of his coin, and lost his position as captain of Prince Grandeur’s bodyguards.
“I won’t leave her,” Bennick said, assurance in every word.
Clare pushed up from the bed and walked with bare feet to join him at the door. Bennick watched her, something like caution in his gaze, but he opened the door a little wider so she could see Wilf.
The giant towered over them. It looked like he hadn’t slept much, either. There were wrinkles in his uniform, and his pox-scarred face was hard. His eyes, when they met hers, went soft. “I’m sorry for your loss, Clare.”
She dipped her chin. It was the only acknowledgement she could afford at the moment. “Is the coronation still happening?”
Wilf frowned. “I haven’t heard anything official yet, but everyone seems to be proceeding as if it is.”
Bennick glanced at her. “You’re not going.”
She knew she wasn’t up to pretending to be Serene right now, so she didn’t push that. But she did hold his gaze as she said, “You need to be there. Serene needs all of you.” Bennick’s mouth opened, but she overrode him. “It will ease my mind to know you’re with her. Please, Bennick.”
He didn’t look pleased, but he nodded.
Clare pulled in a deliberate breath. “I would also like a moment to change, and I think you should do the same.”
Wilf rumbled, “I’ll stay at her door.”
Bennick finally gave in with a sigh. “All right.” He hesitated, then reached out and squeezed Clare’s hand. “I’ll return soon,” he promised. Then he was gone, leaving the princess’s suite for his own room, which was located down the hall.
Clare missed him instantly.
Wilf rubbed the back of his neck. “Is there anything I can do?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. But thank you.”
He hesitated, then pulled her into his arms for a tight embrace. “You’ve been landed far too many blows, my little defender,” he whispered roughly. “Don’t ever feel like you need to weather them on your own. You’ve still got a family. You have all of us.”
His words hit deeply, because she knew he spoke from personal experience. She squeezed him as tightly as she could. “Thank you, Wilf.”
In response, he kissed the top of her head.
Royal Rebel releases on April 21st
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And don't forget to claim your pre-order gift: an EXCLUSIVE short story:
THE PRINCESS AND THE NEW BODYGUARD
Serene knows things have been strained between her parents since the civil war ended. She hopes a trip to Lambern Lake will bring her family back together. What she doesn’t expect is to grow closer to her new bodyguard, Cardon.
Serene is about to learn that one day can irrevocably change the course of a life.
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