Authors: Rachelle McCalla
You have been no more trouble than you are worth.
Warmth flooded her on a deeper level than the tub waters could ever reach. The good king, she’d realized already, had a gift for speaking deliberate, well-measured words. He’d certainly known what he was saying when he’d paid her such a compliment.
She’d caused a great deal of trouble.
* * *
In spite of his exhaustion, King John lay awake, disquieted by doubts raging inside him. By rights, he should have checked Gisela’s injury before retiring for the evening. He’d promised to suture the gash to minimize the appearance of the scar—and should have performed the procedure already.
But the thought of being sufficiently close to the princess to study her eyelid was enough to send him running to the far end of the castle, or even to the far end of his kingdom.
He tossed and turned on his bed trying to sort out why she had such an effect on him.
It wasn’t just her beauty. The festering wound on her face had done enough to minimize that, though it could in no way diminish her stately bearing or the alluring curve of her lips.
John beat his pillow and tried not to think about her lips.
What would Princess Gisela say if she knew his thoughts? What would her
say? The good princess had done nothing unbecoming, save for the way she’d clung to him while on the brink of death, and he couldn’t blame her for that, given the circumstances. Her behavior had been nothing but honest and pure. She was a godly, Christian woman who’d read the New Testament and knew the scriptures well. She was faultless, above reproach.
No, the fault was all his. He’d sworn never to look at another woman after his queen had died. He couldn’t bring himself to consider another woman, even at his courtiers’ urging. Why, then, did Gisela fill his thoughts? Why was he drawn to her like a bee to a flower?
John pushed aside his pillow and tried not to think about bees or flowers.
How long would it take for Boden to return, for Gisela to leave his household? At least a fortnight or two, and that was assuming favorable winds and avoiding the Saracens. How would he ever make it that long without pulling her into his arms and confessing the feelings she provoked in him?
How would he hide his feelings, which Luke had already begun to suspect, which were surely as visible as the glow of a candle in darkness? He couldn’t avoid the woman.
wouldn’t be proper at all. She was a guest in his house, and given her father’s influence in the area, John knew he ought to do everything he could to foster friendship between them.
Purely platonic, practically emotionless friendship. His relationship with Gisela should mimic his relationship with his little sister.
His little sister. Yes, Elisabette!
could help him. Bette was eighteen, only a couple of years younger than Princess Gisela. And ever since the loss of their mother when John was twelve and little Bette only two, there had been a void of royal womanly leadership in their household.
John thanked God for providing him with a solution to so many problems all at once. Gisela could mentor Bette. The two would become fast friends, Elisabette would learn the ways of a royal woman and John wouldn’t have to torture himself by pretending to feel nothing in Gisela’s presence, because
wouldn’t be the one spending time with her—his sister would.
He could ride off to the borderlands and monitor his brother, and all would be well.
As well as they could be, anyway, given that he fell asleep with his thoughts dancing with visions of the golden-haired beauty.
* * *
“King John to see you, Your Highness.”
Gisela’s heart rate quickened at Hilda’s announcement. She checked her reflection in the large mirror of polished silver that hung on one wall of the suite she’d been appointed.
She looked as well as she had in a week. Even her right eye was now capable of opening, though she’d replaced the bandage to hide the ugly gash. “See him in.”
Gisela rose to greet the king. In the full daylight that streamed through the large open windows with the lush ocean breeze, the king looked even better than he had the day before. Hilda bowed low before retreating through the curtained doorway to the bedroom, leaving Gisela and John more or less alone in the open receiving room.
Birdsong and the laughter of men in the courtyard below reminded her that she had nothing to fear, even if the king hadn’t already proven himself to be honorable. No, her fear stemmed from the growing sense of attraction she felt toward the king and the knowledge that she must somehow stifle her inappropriate affections. Warrick would expect her heart to be his alone.
So she couldn’t possibly let King John capture any more of it.
“Your Majesty.” She was tempted to mimic Hilda’s bow but settled for dipping her head slightly his way. She was the emperor’s daughter, after all. There was no reason for her to bow to King John, just because everyone else did.
“Your Highness.” He dipped his head in return. “Did you find your accommodations acceptable?”
“More than acceptable. I adore this ocean air—the scent is fresh, the temperature perfect and there are no insects.”
“Then perhaps I shall have some ocean air bottled up and delivered as a wedding gift. Prince Warrick lives many leagues inland, past the mountains.”
Gisela appreciated the reminder of her approaching wedding. It was nearly enough to keep her heart from fluttering at John’s witty response. Still, she couldn’t help giggling, whether from nerves or his words or the way her heart shivered happily when he smiled at her.
Fortunately, King John moved on. “I hope I’m not intruding, but I do recall having promised to suture that gash for you. The procedure probably should have taken place yesterday, but this morning will have to do.”
“Thank you for remembering. I examined my eye in the mirror this morning and was hoping you’d take a look at it.” Gisela saw that the king carried a small wooden box, which he placed on a side table next to a vase of fresh-cut flowers. “Should I sit?”
“Sit or stand, however you’re most comfortable. The biggest issue will be the pain. I must warn you, the eye is a particularly sensitive area. I’ve brought along an herbal numbing solution—” he opened his box and drew out a small bottle “—but it will only decrease the sensation, not limit it entirely.”
“I see.” The procedure didn’t sound very pleasant, though Gisela was certain it needed to be done. She wanted to look her best for her marriage and that meant dealing with the scar above her eye before it was too late to do anything about it.
“There’s a fine beam of sunshine coming in through the window.” John picked up the table and set it closer to the sunbeam. “This will be the best spot for me to see what I’m doing.”
Gisela followed him and stood in the bright beam of light. “I suppose I should stand,” she noted as he reached toward her with a small brush, which he’d dipped in the bottle of numbing solution. She held herself still as he peeled back the bandage that covered her eye. “How does it look?”
“It’s healing nicely.” He daubed the tender spot with the numbing solution. “I believe I should be able to close up the scar with two or three stitches. I’ve brought my finest needle, and a slender thread of silk.” He held it up for her inspection.
“Thank you for your consideration.” The silk thread was so fine she could hardly see it at all. And she knew from her earlier examination of the wound that it needed attention. Still, she found herself growing tense at the thought of being stitched up so close to her eye.
John must have sensed her nervous state. “Breathe slowly and deeply. The most important thing will be for you to hold completely still. Don’t get nervous or you might twitch at the wrong moment.”
Panic nipped at her. “I might twitch,” she confessed.
“No.” He held her head steady with one hand and met her eyes. “Breathe with me. In—” He paused. “Hold it until you feel your lungs asking for air. Now out, slowly. And breathe in again.”
She gazed back at him and felt a sense of heady calm envelop her. “I’ve never paid so much attention to breathing.” She followed his lead as he led her through the pattern again.
“Feeling calmer now?”
“Yes, thank you.” She’d breathed in the woodsy scent of him. It evoked memories of the way he’d made her feel protected and cared for on their flight through the woods. How luxurious would it feel to rest against him again? And yet, that was the very indulgence she must try to avoid.
“Good. All right now, keep breathing. In, hold it.” The tip of his needle touched her eyelid.
Gisela froze. The numbing solution dulled the pain, but she could still feel the movement of the needle as it passed through her skin. She wanted to cry out, but she knew the men in the courtyard would hear, and the last thing she needed was for an audience to come running and witness the rest of the procedure.
“You’re doing very well. Don’t forget to breathe out.” His fingers caressed her skin lightly as he held her face steady. “Stay calm,” the king whispered. “You’re doing just fine.”
Reassured by his words, she focused on breathing in again as he leaned closer, intent on his work, his brow knit with focus, his lips slightly pursed. Gisela had closed her right eye while he worked on it, but in the brilliant illumination the sunbeam provided, she was able to study his face at close range as she hadn’t before.
He’d shaved off the stubbly beard that had grown over the course of their travels. While her father and many of the other kings she knew preferred to wear a well-trimmed beard, John’s strong jawline was most favorably displayed without any obscuring facial hair.
“Remember to breathe,” John whispered, all his attention on his work.
Gisela realized she needed the reminder. She exhaled slowly, still captivated by watching his face as he worked. The man had a fine, high forehead and deep blue eyes. His nose was well shaped and not as prominent as her father’s and his skin, in its freshly shorn condition, begged to be touched.
A hum escaped her lips as she exhaled again and tried to disregard the sensation of the thread passing through her skin. Her fingers itched. She needed to hold on to something to distract her from what the king was doing, but there was nothing to hold on to.
Her arms rose of their own accord.
“Breathe in,” John reminded her.
She inhaled as instructed and grabbed his tunic at the waist, bunching the fabric between her fingers to ease the tension she felt.
John paused and glanced down.
“Sorry.” Gisela bit her lip.
“You’re fine. I should have thought to give you something to hold on to. We’re almost done. One more stitch. Can you make it, or shall I pause?”
“I’m fine. Finish quickly if you can.” She didn’t let go of his tunic. The needle speared through her skin and she breathed out slowly, twisting his tunic in her hands as she waited for the moment to pass. “Are you done, then?”
“That was the first half of the stitch.”
“They come in halves?” Her tense hum raised in pitch. Gisela fought to keep her volume down. She still didn’t want to attract any attention, even if he was almost done.
John finished the stitch and nipped off the remaining thread with scissors.
Gisela slumped against him, still tightly gripping his tunic. “You’re done now?” Her question came out almost as a moan.
“I’m done. You did very well.” He settled his arms lightly against her back.
Trembling with relief, Gisela knew she ought to peel herself away from him, but she’d used up all her reserves of fortitude holding still for so long. He didn’t push her away, and she didn’t move. She breathed in his calming scent and wished she had an excuse to hold him without letting go.
ohn was pleased with how the sutures had turned out. Perhaps that was why, when Gisela embraced him, he didn’t immediately step out of her arms. That, and standing near enough to her to stitch up her wound had stirred up a longing to be far closer still, and she settled against him like a bird to its nest, clinging tenaciously to his tunic as though she feared he might try to wrest her away.
“Your Highness?” He settled his arms against her back, unsure what foreign custom she might be invoking, or what the prescribed reaction on his part might be. Perhaps all Frankish royalty embraced after minor medical procedures.
“Thank you,” she sniffled as she burrowed her face against his shoulder.
“Are you weeping?” he whispered a moment later, as she clung to him still, and he fought the urge to plant a kiss on the face that nuzzled just under his chin. The soft scent of rose water wafted up from her, further muddling his thoughts.
“My tears were provoked by the needle, I think.” She pulled back from him and took a step away.
Though he could see her face clearly now at arm’s length, he immediately missed her closeness.
But what was he thinking? They weren’t supposed to be close. Her embrace was an indulgence he couldn’t allow himself. He gathered his thoughts. “I should be able to remove the stitches in five or six days. I’ll watch how it heals, but now that the infection is gone it appears to be mending rapidly.”
“I am indebted to you for your expert help.” She looked up at him through lashes that glistened with moisture.
John felt a stab of irrational fear. He’d had enough difficulty resisting her when her face was swollen with infection and her wit muted by fever. How would he ever keep his feelings suppressed once she was completely healed and in possession of all her feminine faculties?
The princess continued. “I know you have said I owe you no debt, but in truth you must realize I owe you my life and would do anything for you. While I am here these next several weeks living off your generosity, if there is anything I can do, any service I can render, please name it. I’m afraid I suffer from a horrible sense of indebtedness, and I’d give anything to appease that sensation, however slightly.”
“Your Highness.” John fought off the temptation to request her embrace as full payment. The last thing he needed was to have her in his arms again. And yet, he so ached to hold her. He stepped back toward the side table where he’d left his box and fiddled with putting his things away, taking far longer than was necessary as he tried to straighten his thoughts.
He did not want or need her touch, nor would it be appropriate for him to request it.
So why did he find it so difficult not to beg to have her in his arms again?
“I have a sister.” He managed to only slightly mangle the order of his words as he shoved his thoughts into proper order. “Slightly younger than your age. Elisabette. Our mother died when she was two. She’s had many maids, of course, and we’ve courtiers to guide her. Your Highness has no doubt had the best possible imperial training in etiquette. Since you’ll be with us and might enjoy female companionship, I thought perhaps you could befriend her and encourage her in the art of regal behavior.”
Gisela beamed at him with such happiness that John was forced to look back down at the box he carried, though he’d already closed it and it held no interest. It was that or stare at his own pale face in the mirror before he fled in terror from the longing he felt.
“I would be most honored to make your sister’s acquaintance.” Gisela threw up her hands in delight.
John shuffled away before she could embrace him again. Frankish custom or not, he doubted he could endure another without confessing his feelings. “She’ll lunch with us. I’ll introduce you then.” He fled for the door, then spun around, fearing an abrupt exit might be too rude, but not knowing what he could safely say without risking further exposure of his true emotions.
Nor did the princess seem eager for him to leave. On the contrary, she followed after him and asked, “Does the fortress have a chapel?”
“Yes. We have services there on Sunday and Wednesday mornings.”
“Does that disappoint you?” He judged from her fallen features that it did.
“My father insists on daily worship services. Hilda and I kept the tradition on the ship, but I’d missed praising God in a larger community.”
“I pray and study the scriptures daily.” John felt suddenly inadequate. “As a private discipline.”
“Oh!” Her face brightened.
Realizing he ought to make an invitation for her to join him, John immediately regretted revealing his personal spiritual practices. Praying daily with Gisela would be impossible. His heart wouldn’t handle it, not without increasing affection for her. And he didn’t need that.
“The midweek service will be tomorrow—Wednesday.” He felt as though he’d offered her a meager consolation. The woman wanted to worship God. He couldn’t begrudge her that. “Perhaps I can speak to our deacon about holding services more frequently,” he offered, recalling only after he’d spoken that old Bartholomew went to Sardis when he wasn’t at Castlehead, and likely couldn’t add anything more to his schedule.
But Princess Gisela looked pleased. “I shall pray on my own again today, and look forward to the worship service tomorrow.”
John felt grateful that she was willing to accept what had to be a disappointing answer. “You’re free to explore the castle and grounds with your maid, or I can provide attendants, if you prefer. I would gladly give you a tour myself, but I’m afraid I must make preparations before leaving to monitor the situation at the border.”
“Yes, of course. I understand. I’m so sorry for disrupting—”
“Please don’t apologize. None of this is your fault.”
She nodded in understanding, though she did not appear to be convinced. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
John wished there was some way for him to reassure her completely, but he couldn’t think of anything—could hardly think at all, with the majority of his mental faculties intent on absorbing the radiance of her beauty. Her response goaded him. “You don’t have to call me that.”
“Your Highness, you may address me as John.”
“I couldn’t possibly—”
“My title is for use by subordinates. You’re the daughter of the emperor.”
“He’s not your emperor. We’re on your soil. I suppose I should bow to you as your servants do.”
“No.” John took a step closer to her with a stomp of finality. “I forbid you to bow to anyone in my kingdom.
should bow to you—protocol would dictate I do so on imperial soil.”
“We are not currently in my father’s empire. You are the ruler here.” Her eyes glinted up at him with challenge in their blue depths.
“I’ve told you already—you owe me nothing. No debt of gratitude, and certainly not any deference.” John wavered between taking her by the shoulders and backing toward the door again. Really, he ought to leave. Why was it so difficult for him to excuse himself from her presence? But he had to make her understand so they could avoid having the same conversation again.
His finger covered her lips before she finished the word. Her wide eyes mirrored his shock.
He withdrew his hand quickly. “I apologize. Your lips—” He licked his own and tried to make them utter coherent words. “Forbidden.”
Princess Gisela stared at him as though his touch had frozen her.
“I’m so sorry. I must go.” Bowing deeply to her from the doorway, he fled.
* * *
“Your Highness?” a servant called from the doorway. “Lunch is ready. If you’ll follow me?”
“One moment, please.” Gisela bit the side of her finger as she paced the room.
She couldn’t face him. How could she face King John? He’d bowed to her. She’d embraced him. He’d touched her lips—they burned with awareness at the contact. They burned for his contact still.
“Your Highness?” The female voice drew closer as the servant approached the bedroom through the waiting room.
Gisela couldn’t put off their meeting any longer. She’d promised to meet the king’s sister, to befriend the girl and teach her all about proper regal behavior. That she could do easily enough. Hilda and the maids back home were all the time reminding her of proper regal behavior, most especially whenever she did anything they felt transgressed those standards, which was often.
“Coming.” She followed the woman through the hallways, thinking frantically. How was she supposed to address the king now? He’d said she ought to call him John, but that sounded impossibly
She had to keep the formal titles prominently displayed between them at all times. They were quite nearly the only wall she could find to put up between them.
The enticing scent of finely prepared food drifted down the hallways as they neared the dining hall. Gisela felt her stomach rumble. After hardly eating at all during her illness, her appetite had returned clamoring to make up for every morsel she’d lost out on.
Lovely. She’d just turn her attention from King John and focus on eating, then. The food smelled good enough to gorge upon. There was no rule that said a proper princess shouldn’t have a healthy appetite, though Hilda often chided her if she thought she’d taken too many helpings, especially of dessert. But that, Gisela suspected, was only so the maid could gobble up the leftovers as she returned the dishes to the kitchen.
Gisela didn’t begrudge Hilda her interest in food. She had the woman’s appetite to thank for her absence now—Hilda had excused herself an hour before to see if the cooks needed help in the kitchen. With the maid gone, Gisela had been free to pace and fret and repeat snippets of her conversation with the king to herself while watching her reflection in the mirror, in order to analyze every interaction and determine how much of a fool she’d made of herself.
Enough of a fool that she wanted to grab hold of the sides of the doorway to the dining room like a cat being dragged off to its bath and scramble away before she had to face the king again.
Unfortunately, the very regal protocol she’d promised to teach Elisabette stipulated that she not cling to doorways, yowling and trying to escape.
“Your Highness.” King John appeared in the doorway just as she was longingly examining the stonework.
Startled, she straightened herself to the proper regal posture. “You can’t address me like that,” she refuted quietly, leaning close so others wouldn’t hear. “If I’m to call you
then you must address me as
Gisela,” the king countered.
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak and walk at the same time. King John had taken her arm to escort her in and had stolen her voice in the process.
The room was already full of strangers dressed in fine lace and silks. Either the Lydians held themselves to higher luncheon apparel standards than the people of the northern regions, or word of her arrival had spread, and King John’s courtiers had dressed in their finest for her. With a sinking stomach, Gisela realized she didn’t know any of them.
The king seemed to sense her apprehension and patted her arm as he led her toward the first beaming cluster of noblemen and ladies. “Don’t worry, no one expects you to remember any names. They’ve all heard about your brush with death, and they’re excited to meet you. But if you feel overwhelmed and want to leave—” he leaned close so his whispers wouldn’t be overheard “—just stomp on my foot three times and we’ll make our escape.”
Gisela nodded, still not trusting her voice, and feeling all the more indebted by his thoughtfulness. As the courtiers turned and bowed low to greet them, Gisela couldn’t help wondering how many times she’d have to stomp on John’s foot if she wanted to escape from
She found his presence on her arm more overwhelming than the crowds that filled the room. She was used to being surrounded by courtiers, even if the folks at home tended to be rowdier and less interested in impressing her. But the effect King John had on her was both unfamiliar and unsettling.
They made the rounds until smiling faces blurred together in her mind and she’d lost track of everyone but King John himself. To his credit, he never once let go of her arm and even thoughtfully supplied her with a light tea to drink, which was helpful since his proximity tended to make her mouth go dry.
Just as she’d begun to wonder if there would ever be any food served or if she was doomed to circle endlessly through a sea of strangers, John led her to the head of the table, where two chairs indicated she’d be seated at his side.
She’d never sat at the head of a table before. Her father’s household was filled with aunts and uncles and siblings of far higher rank than she. Even when she traveled, it had always before been with older siblings who were given precedence above her. She’d feel more comfortable squeezing onto the side benches with the lesser nobility than sitting in a high-backed chair beside the king.
John must have sensed her panic, though she tried not to show it.
“Is the seating arrangement acceptable? Do you need to step out before we eat?”
“Do you intend for me to sit beside you?”
“I thought, given our earlier discussion about rank, that an equal sitting arrangement would be most practical. Or I can have your chair placed upon a raised dais, if you prefer.”
She leaned close to him and turned her head so those present wouldn’t witness her distress. “I’ve never been seated at the head of a table before. Everyone will be able to see me.”
“You’re very lovely to look upon.”
“But I don’t know your local customs. How will I know what to do? If I make a mistake it will be visible to everyone.” She kept her voice to a whisper, but it inched up several panicked octaves. Having John on her arm was distracting enough, and circulating through the crowd had drained her sense of decorum. And she was absolutely starving. What if she fell ravenously on her food and made a fool of herself?
“Watch me carefully. Do what I do. If you’re not sure, ask. You can always stomp my foot, you know.” He looked apologetic and gestured to the place setting. “We only have one gold cup. Do you mind terribly sharing with me?”