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A SINGLE CANDLE FLICKERS on Neva’s three-tiered birthday cake as the last few notes of the Happy Birthday Song ring out. Why a one-year-old needs a multi-tiered cake, I’ll never understand—but then again, a lot of my life as a royal has been new to me. I grew up in a wealthy family, but living in a castle and having a personal butler and a chef…that’s not something I’m used to.
Having an army of servants following me around, having people bow to me and call me titles I can hardly remember for myself—it can be an exercise in patience sometimes.
Not that I mind. The benefits far outweigh the few moments when I want to disappear.
Penelope smiles at me from the other side of the table, her hands clutched at her breast. Tears shine in her eyes as she shifts her gaze from me down to our daughter in my arms. Love soaks through her stare, and a beautiful warmth spreads through my chest.
That’s what we are. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a real family. I nuzzle my face next to Neva’s face as she points her finger toward the white cake. It has delicate, multicolored flowers piped all over its sides, with big swirls of frosting piped all along the top.
Outrageous for a one-year-old? Yes. But not surprising.
Silas lifts a glass of wine toward my daughter and me. “And many more…” he sings, grinning. The room full of family and friends waits in hushed silence for my daughter to huff out the candle.
“Blow it out, Neva,” I say to my daughter, inching her forward. “Ready? One, two, three…” I take a deep breath and blow out the candle for her as she lets spittle fly from her mouth. Everyone claps. I laugh, looking up to meet Penelope’s gaze.
My eyes snag on hers, joy filling me up from head to toe. I feel so light I might float up to the ceiling. In this room, with Silas, Wolfe, Jonah, Rowan, and Logan, we have all our siblings together. My eyes shift from Logan to the man and woman beside him, and I can’t help but let my smile widen.
My mother and father stand there, looking slightly uncomfortable but happy, nonetheless. My relationship with my father is still tense, but having him here means a lot to me.
We’re celebrating the birthday of Nord’s heir, my daughter. Daughter. I never thought I’d have a wife, let alone a child. I thought I’d fill my life with work until I died. I thought I’d end up alone, because I never thought I could have true happiness.
But I’m here. I have it. All contained in Penelope’s eyes…
…which I stare at for a few moments too long. Neva obviously gets impatient staring at the tower of sugar and deliciousness in front of her and tips her face forward.
Damn, this kid is strong for someone who was in the womb a year ago.
Her body pitches toward the cake, slipping out of my grasp. It happens in seconds, but it almost feels like I watch everything happen in slow motion. Neva’s body leans forward as my hand slides over her front to try to catch her. Her little hands grab at the white cake in front of her, a gleeful, mischievous expression on her giggling face.
She gets it from her mother. I remember that exact face from our time in boarding school.
And my daughter’s beautiful, cute, photo-ready, trouble-finding face?
It lands right on the top tier of the cake. Her hands smash into the second tier before I can pull her away. The kid is still freaking giggling. She leans her head back against my shoulder and stares at me, laughing. Her hairline is caked in frosting. Bits of cake cling to her forehead, her chubby little cheeks, her lips, her eyelashes.
My daughter, the future Queen of Nord, is covered in cake. She reaches for me, smearing cake all over my shirt and still, the girl is laughing.
And so is everyone else. Silas shouts, raising his glass, and everyone drinks to my daughter’s cake-covered face.
“Neva.” I sigh, reaching to wipe a glob of frosting and cake crumbs from her eyes.
Penelope appears beside me with a cloth, cleaning our daughter’s face in moments. She purses her lips as she moves to the hands, flicking her eyes up to mine.
“What?” My voice rises a few octaves. “You’re looking at me like this is my fault.”
“Say cheese!” We both turn to see Wolfe with a phone in his hand pointed at us, grinning from ear to ear. He looks at the screen, tilting it toward Silas as they both burst out laughing. Penelope makes an exasperated noise, and Wolfe glances at her. “You’ll be laughing about this your whole life, Pen. I’m just making sure you remember it.”
“This cake was gifted to us by one of the local bakeries. What are we supposed to tell them?”
I shrug, licking frosting off my finger. “Tell them Neva loved it.”
Finally, Penelope’s lips tug ever so slightly into a smile. She flicks her eyes from me to Neva to continue cleaning the cake remnants off our daughter’s face, but I catch her smile widening.
One of the castle staff members moves to the cake and starts cutting it, and another waiter refills everyone’s glasses. I hold Neva still as Penelope does the last of the cleanup, then I lean over and catch my wife’s lips in mine.
She softens against me, then smiles against my lips. “You’re insufferable, Asher.”
“I think you secretly love these moments. When you’ve slipped back into queen mode for too long, you need something like this to pull you out of it.”
“Queen mode?” Penelope pops a brow.
My heart expands. Even when she’s looking at me like she can’t stand me, there’s always a glimmer in her eye. I love this woman so much. I see her lead her country with determination and strength, then stand by my side and tell me I’m strong. She has no idea how much I admire her. “My queen,” I answer, nuzzling my nose against hers.
Neva leans over and plants a sloppy kiss on her mother’s cheek, softening the last of the ice from Penelope’s features. Penelope takes Neva from my arms and snuggles our daughter close, taking a deep breath. “I can’t believe you’re one already, baby girl.”
“Best year of my life.” I reach over to tuck a strand of Penelope’s golden hair behind her ear, leaning my forehead against hers. “Let’s eat cake.”
AFTER THE PARTY DIES DOWN, I find myself staring out one of the palace windows at the lawns surrounding us. A thick blanket of snow still covers everything here in March, but it’s starting to melt. The days are getting longer, and I know my second winter in Nord will soon melt into spring.
It’s…home. Even in the dead of winter, when we only had a couple of hours of daylight. Even when it was so cold outside my lungs felt like they were freezing solid, I still haven’t felt the desire to go home.
Someone clears their throat behind me, and I turn to see my father in the doorway. He lifts up a glass of alcohol toward me and I nod, accepting it.
“Congratulations, Son. Neva’s beautiful.”
I let my lips slide into a smile. “Light of my life.”
My father takes a sip of his drink, shifting his gaze to the window. The sun has sunk below the horizon, and the last few rays of light will soon fade. He turns to face me and holds out his hand for me to shake. “It’s good to see you happy, Asher.”
A lump lodges itself in my throat. I nod, shaking my father’s hand, then try to wash down my emotion with a sip of alcohol—whiskey. Penelope’s choice. Turns out she’s right. I had terrible taste in whiskey.
“Dad,” I start, my voice nothing more than a croak. “I wanted to say I’m sorry about everything that happened. Selling the mine in Roston…”
“It’s okay,” he says, surprising me. My father snorts, shaking his head. “I asked you to close the merger with Donovan. I didn’t ask you to start a new branch of the business.” He shakes his head. “The things we do for love, huh? Did you know your grandfather didn’t want me to marry your mother? He didn’t speak to me from the day we got married to the day he died. It…it hurt your mother. I didn’t want to put your wife through something similar.”
“I didn’t know,” I rasp.
“It was before you were born.” He looks in my eyes and nods. “You deserve to be happy.”
Such simple words, but they shake me to my core. I’d always looked at my father as a businessman before anything else, as ruthless as I’d aspired to be. I never thought of him as anything more. I’d never thought of him as a man who might feel.
He shakes his head. “The older I get, the more I realize I might have been stupid to spend so much time at work. I’m nearly seventy now, watching you and Logan grow up and move away, and it makes me think maybe I got everything all wrong.”
“Asher, just promise me you’ll give that little girl all your time. You won’t forget that she’s the most important thing in your life.” His eyes shine as he meets my gaze, lips pursing as if he’s trying to contain a torrent of emotions.
I put my glass down on a side table and wrap my father in a hug. It’s unfamiliar—I’m not sure I’ve hugged him since I was a child—but after a few seconds he wraps his arms around me and pats my back. We pull away, both clearing our throats, and my father finishes his drink and nods. He walks away without another word, and I let out a long sigh.
Penelope enters the room a few moments later, tilting her head. “Everything okay?”
I smile, opening my arms for her to come to me. She nuzzles against my chest, head over my scarred skin, and wraps her arms around my waist.
“Everything’s fine,” I finally answer, resting my chin on her head. “I think my father might actually agree with my decision to stay here.”
“It’s Neva,” Penelope says, pulling away to smile at me. “He couldn’t resist her. Next thing he’ll be spoiling her rotten.”
I laugh, shaking my head. “I’m not sure he’s the spoiling type.”
“Just wait, Asher. Babies have power over grumpy, old men.”
I grunt, smiling. “And you have power over me.”
She laughs, rising up onto her toes to lay a soft kiss on my lips. “Let’s go to bed, husband. I want to show you how much I love you.”
My wife—my queen, the love of my life—takes me by the hand and leads me through the silent castle halls to our bedroom.
She doesn’t get the chance to show me anything, though, because I lay her down and show her just what she means to me again, and again, and again.
Maybe I’m hoping for another baby, or maybe I just can’t get enough of Penelope. Either way, I’ll die happy if I get to prove my love to her every night for the rest of my life.
Journalist Jacinthe Crawley wants to abolish the monarchy…until the fateful Halloween party that brings her face to face with the person least likely to be the man of her dreams: Prince Silas.
Read Book Nine: ROGUE PRINCE!