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Heartless Prince

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“ARE YOU SURE you’re okay?” Damon’s eyebrows draw together.
I nod.  “I want to learn.”
Brushing the dust off my shorts, I pick myself up off the floor and stand my bicycle up.  A small drip of blood trails down from my scraped knee, and I ignore it.  Now is not the time to let a little scuff stop me.
Yes, I’m nearly thirty years old, and no, I don’t know how to ride a bike.
That’s about to change.
I grip the handlebars and swing a leg over it. 
Damon checks my helmet and gives me a nod, stepping back.  “You can do it. I believe in you.”
Taking a deep breath, I look at the stretch of deserted castle pathway in front of me.
A noise coming from Damon breaks my concentration.  I glance over at him to see him wiping a smile off his face.
“Nothing.” He shakes his head.
“Tell me.”
“You’re cute, is all.  You get this really serious expression on your face like you’re about to go for a world record.”
“Well, it might be a world record for someone as old as me to be learning how to ride this thing.”
Damon grins again, and quickly hides it.  “Come on,” he says.  “Let’s try again.  Remember, the faster you go, the more stable you’ll feel.”
I take a deep breath and nod. “Okay.”
My hands grip the handlebars and I stare down the path.  This is ridiculous—I know it is.  My two kids—toddlers—can almost ride their bikes better than I can. I’m a college graduate, I’ve been married for over five years, I have two children… but I can’t pedal down a road without falling over.
Well, today is the day.  I’m going to learn how to ride this bike if it’s the last thing I do.  With one foot on the pedal, I fill my lungs once more.  I ignore the burning skin on my knee, and I stare down the pathway…
…and I push off.
Wobbling, I put my other foot on the pedals and start going.  The bike shakes and I almost lose control, but then I remember Damon’s words.
The faster I go, the easier it’ll be.
I love him and I trust him, so I do as he says.  I grind my teeth together and start pedaling like I’ve never done before.  Around and around and around my feet go, and pretty soon I’m flying down the path.  Damon’s footsteps pound behind me.
“Keep going, Dahlia!  You can do it!”
The wind rushes around my face as my adrenaline pumps.  As I pick up speed, a smile stretches over my lips. 
I’m doing it.  I’m riding a bike! Finally, after years of avoiding it, years of being scared of it, I’m doing it.  Nothing can stop me now!
Laughter bubbles up inside me as I go faster and faster.  Damon calls out encouragement, still running behind me.  I can hear his labored breaths behind me, but I don’t care.
I’m flying.  I’m going so fast I feel like I’m about to take off.  I pedal and pedal, going faster down the pathway as more and more laughter comes out of me.
My grip on the handlebars loosen as euphoria floods my veins.
I’ve been afraid of this my whole life.  I haven’t wanted to learn, and as I got older, it became less and less of an issue.  When Damon bought me this bike last year, I left it in the garage for months without touching it.
I was letting my fear stop me.  I was letting this little bicycle control me.
Well, not anymore. 
I can’t keep the smile off my face.  I pedal harder, picking more speed.  The pathway inclines slightly downward, and pretty soon I’m travelling faster than I’ve ever done before.  Damon’s footsteps are fading in the distance, but I can still hear the words of encouragement he calls out to me.
And then, I wobble—and catch myself.
My heart thumps, and I grip the handlebars more tightly.  My breath hitches, and sweat gathers between my shoulder blades.  I’ve already fallen once today, I’m not going to do it again.
But the path is getting steeper, and I don’t feel entirely equipped for this kind of speed.  My front tire catches on a pebble, and I wobble once more.
Again, I catch myself and right the bike. By now, I can taste blood in my mouth.  My teeth are gnashing together as my heart leaps in my throat.
The pathway dives down steeper, and I start to scream.  “Damon!”
I can’t think straight.  How do I brake again? 
“Brake, Dahlia!
Words aren’t working.  How the heck do I brake on this thing?  I pedal backwards, but that just makes me wobble some more.
“Brake, Dahlia!”
“Try again!” His voice is fading in the distance, but I can’t look back.  All I can see is the hard asphalt of the pathway looming ahead of me.  More scraped skin is in the cards for me, I can already tell.  I’ll be more bruised and battered than Damon was after the warehouse. 
Fear spikes through me.
“I can’t!”
Damon’s footsteps are pounding on the pavement behind me.  “Squeeze the handlebars! Or aim for the bushes!”
Of course—the handlebars!
At the bottom of the hill, a thick hedge looms.  In the depths of my brain, I know what Damon said.  He gave me two choices—brake, or aim for the bushes.  But in the heat of the moment, my mind gets muddled.  Somehow, I do both. I scream, turning the handlebars toward the bush and pressing down on the brake levers as hard as I can.
The bike stops, but I don’t.
The crash isn’t as bad as I expect.  I go flying over the handlebars and land in the bush, which softens my landing considerably.  The branches scrape up my arms and legs as I tumble through them, landing with an oof on the hard packed earth below.
Damon runs up to me, panting.  He crouches down, pulling me from the bush and cradling me in his arms.  “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” I pant.  I move my arms and legs.  “I don’t think anything’s broken.”
“What the hell, Dahlia.”
“I forgot how to brake.” I sit up, wincing as the stinging pain of a hundred scrapes and scratches starts to burn. I unclip my helmet and toss it to the side.
“Well, looks like you remembered,” Damon says, standing up.  He helps me to my feet and wraps me in a hug.  “I’m sorry, Dahlia.  Maybe we should stop there for today.”
He pauses, and I can tell he’s fighting back a smile.  I don’t even have to see his face to know he’s on the verge of cracking up.  He wraps his arms around me and a small chuckle slips through his lips.
“I’m not laughing.” A chuckle slips through his lips.
“It sounds like you’re laughing.”
“I’m not, I promise.”  He giggles  “It’s just the sight of you crashing into the bushes…”
I pull away from him, doing my best to look angry.  The second I see his face, though, I know it won’t last.  The two of us break down into peals of laughter.  Damon laughs loudly, with his mouth wide open.  Every time he looks at me, he starts laughing again. 
We quiet down, but then the Prince reaches over and pulls out a twig from my hair, and we start laughing again. 
Finally, Damon pulls the bike out of the bush, leaving a massive dent in the shrubbery.  My bike looks no worse for wear, and we start heading back toward the castle.
I take a deep breath.  “Well, at least I made it farther than last time.”
“Well, you did pretty well.  You picked up some speed!”  Damon’s eyes are gleaming, and I nudge him with my shoulder.
I try my best to keep my face serious.  “I could have been hurt.”
“Good thing there are lots of bushes around.” He fights back a laugh, and I groan.
Damon is wheeling my bike and me carrying my helmet in one hand.  My husband glances at me.
“You okay?”
“I’m just not sure I’m cut out to ride bikes.”
“I don’t get why it’s so difficult for you.”
“Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?”
Damon grins.  “Tolstoy?”
“Ah, of course,” he grins.  “Well, things aren’t too dire if you’re still quoting the Russians.”
“The Russians never had to learn how to ride a bike as an adult.  Whoever said, ‘it’s just like riding a bike’ had no idea what they were talking about.”
My whole body aches, but every time I glance at Damon, all I want to do is laugh.
That’s how the past five years have been.  Every time I think something is difficult, every time I feel bad or angry or hurt, Damon makes me feel like everything will be okay.
So, when we round the last bend and make it to the castle, I have a smile on my face, too.  Elle, the Queen, is there with two nannies, sitting on the grass with her youngest daughter in her arms.  My two children are running around with her two eldest.  She looks at us with wide eyes.  As we get closer, her gaze drops to my scraped knees and scratched-up arms.
Her eyebrow arches. “How did the lesson go?”
“Dahlia did wonderfully,” Damon grins.
Elle looks at my banged-up body.  “Uh huh.”
“Progress is progress,” Damon says as another giggle escapes his lips.  He reaches over and pulls another leaf out of my hair. 
Elle fights to keep a grin off her face.  Dawn, our eldest, runs up to me and wraps me in a big toddler hug.  She leans over and kisses my knee.
“For your boo-boo.”
“Thank you, Dawn,” I say, leaning over to kiss her head.  She runs off again with Little Charlie.  The two of them have been inseparable since they were able to crawl.
One of the nannies produces a first aid kit, and Damon and I take a seat next to Elle.  I tend to my scrapes and watch our children play.  Damon drapes an arm over me and pulls me close.
“I’m proud of you,” he whispers in my ear.
“For crashing into a bush?”
“For having the guts to try it, and for getting back up after you fall.”
He lays a soft kiss on my lips, and I melt into his arms.  King Charlie appears in the doorway with a basket full of food, and the four of us—with two nannies and five children—share some snacks and drinks on the castle lawn.  Damon gives an excruciatingly accurate account of my dive into the bushes, and I laugh until my cheeks hurt.
“I would pay to see that,” Elle grins, winking at me.
“I’d pay to have you not see it.”  I laugh, shaking my head.
“If Gabe were here, he’d be able to teach you in no time,” Damon says.  “He can do jumps and ticks on his bike—he was a bit of a daredevil when we were kids.”
“Is he still at the country estate?”
Charlie grunts in response.  His face darkens and he shakes his head.  “Hasn’t come back to Farcliff Castle in almost a year.  I had to send one of our gardeners out there to make sure he was still alive.”
Damon sighs, and the four of us fall silent.  No one says anything until Dawn and Little Charlie come tumbling toward us.  Their laughter brightens our moods, and I gather my daughter in my arms and cover her in kisses.
Elle and Charlie look as happy as I feel.  Damon wraps his arms around us as our youngest, Damon Jr., comes flying into his embrace.
I may not be the best bike rider in the Kingdom, but I am the luckiest.  Surrounded by friends and family, with happy, healthy children, I know that I’m the most fortunate woman in Farcliff.  Damon puts his arm around me and kisses my temple.
“Same time tomorrow?”
“I might let these scrapes heal first.” I lift up my battered arms and nod to my scuffed knees.
Damon chuckles.  “Okay, deal.  Next week, then.”
“You’re enjoying this far too much.”
“I’d enjoy anything with you, Dahlia.”  He kisses me softly, and breaks away when a laugh tumbles out of him. “But yes, it was the best entertainment I’ve seen in weeks.”
Before I can protest, he wraps me in his arms and lays a wet, loud kiss on my cheeks.  I yelp and laugh, and our children jump on top of us and my heart overflows with gratitude.
I may not know how to ride a bike, but I do have a loving family and healthy, happy children.  Elle smiles at me, winking.  We stand up and head back to the castle—back to our home.  I clean up my wounds and wrap my arms around my husband.  I don’t know if I’m deserving of this kind of happiness, but I am grateful for it.
“I love you, Dahlia,” Damon says as he kisses the tip of my nose. I melt into his arms and sigh in contentment.  Bruised and scraped as I may be, I’ve never felt better than I do right now.

Beauty meets the Beast...and likes what she sees.

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