“She'll think about it?!” Warren demanded. “I gave you a single task. Persuade Naomi to attend the festival, and you bring me a maybe.”
“You gave me an impossible task,” William retaliated, “and that maybe is, in my opinion, a miracle from God. It took every ounce of charm in my arsenal to earn that maybe. So, I suggest you accept it with some grace.”
“Need I remind you that my father will not announce my succession until that wrong in our past is corrected. My crown is on the line.”
“Your past. You scarred her, or did you forget that?. Not just her eye, you scarred her heart. Even after eight years, your words haunt her. If your father chooses another heir, then you have no one to blame but yourself. I've done everything I could for you, but this is your mess. It's your turn to clean it up.”
William expected an angry response, even a threat. Instead, he found himself looking into a quiet face filled with shame and panic. Warren was simply speechless.
So, William added, “I do believe she'll come. Deep down, I could she see a glimmer of hope. Beneath that hard and defensive exterior is the girl she used to be. Somewhere. Somehow. She has a desire to get her old life back.”
It was a lie, but his friend needed encouragement.
“For all our sake, I hope that's true.”
“How far are you willing to go?”
“As far as it takes.”
“What does that mean?”
“I would even propose.”
“Let's take it one step at a time,” William heard himself say feeling a pang a of jealousy.
“I wouldn’t like it,” Warren insisted, “but I would much rather marry a peasant bastard than give my throne to some distant relative.”
“Are you still denying your feelings?”
“I am a crowned prince. I don't have the luxury of love.”
“That mentality is exactly what brought us here. You pretended to despise her, and now she despises you.”
“I thought if I could convince myself that I could convince my father.”
“Instead, all of which your father was convinced was that you weren't ready to be king. Remember what he said before he sent us away: ‘A proper leader must accept and control his feelings.'”
“I know that now,” Prince replied. “I need her to know I know. I need her to be here, so I can tell her.”
“You need her forgiveness.”
“Would you like me to go and keep an eye on her?”
“She told you not to.”
“I will be discreet.”
“No,” he said after an moment's thought. “I need her to make this decision on her own. Otherwise, father may not accept it.”
“In the meantime?”
“Pray for a miracle.”
“Yes, it's going to take a miracle to pull of this entire charade. I want that crown. I need that crown.”
“Even if it means marriage to a dirty untouchable bastard peasant?”
“How many times am I going to answer for that?”
“At least, one more,” William replied sternly. “She remembers everything. If I were you, I'd worry more about earning her forgiveness. Her agreement to come here will be easy compared to that.”
“I know,” he sighed. “One step at a time. That's the only way I'm going to survive this spectacle with my sanity.”
Before will could encourage with more false beliefs, he stalked away.
“Where are you going?”
“My final fitting. The tailor insisted on making me a rand new coat for the festival. She wants me to look my best.”
“I bet she does,” William muttered to himself as he disappeared down the hall.
Then, he turned his gaze to the horizon out the palace window. The sun was already setting. Where had the day gone? Preparations for the festival were occupying every member of the castle's staff. William was fortunate just to get these brief moments to report his progress to the prince. There were simply not enough hours in the day.
His thoughts turned to Naomi. Had her day been as chaotic as his? As everyone else? Where was she now? What was she doing? He wanted so badly to see her again, but he did not relish the idea of waiting until tomorrow night. Assuming she chose to come. If only the prince would allow him to return to the village...
It had been ten minutes since she locked the door behind the final customer. After which she threw her back against the door and sank to the floor. Too exhausted to stand, she observed the war zone that had once been her little shop. Her job was far from over. For now, she just wanted to sit quietly and take in the scene.
Every single rack and model had been picked clean. Even her every day clothes. She imagined that every other shop would be in the same condition as hers. Every daughter and her mother in the entire village must have been out shopping today. Everyone insists on buying new clothes there were no repair requests. No expense was spared. No a single mother complained about her mother's prices. It was all so confusing. It was madness.
“I hate you,” she whispered to Prince Warren, tears welling in her eyes. “I hate that you came back. I hate that you're causing all of this chaos. I hate that you've teased all of these girls' hope. I hate the disappointment you will cause for every single one of them.”
All she could think about was his hateful words.
How could noble blood love a peasant like you?
“Remember your deal,” she told herself. “Remember why you're doing this. Remember. By this time tomorrow, the chaos will all be over.”
At least, she would have more free time tomorrow. Her inventory was cleaned out in a single day. A majority of her work tomorrow would be turning away the people thoughtless enough to wait until the last day to shop. There was hardly a reason to open tomorrow, except out of habit... and the slim possibility that William would return.
Touching her fingertips to her lips, she considered her dilemma. She wanted more than anything to see him again. Why did it have to be there? Of all places. With him?
Tears of exhaustion and anger freely flowing, she climbed to her aching feet and quickly straightened up the shop before retreating into the back.
She was too tired to cook. Instead, she tore off a piece of bread and chewed on it while she straightened up her work space. Her two form/models that once held the sisters' gowns now displayed her own dresses, the black and green companion to William's jacket and the extravagant white gown that her mother constructed specifically for the impending festival.
The sight of them made her sick. They were a cruel reminder of an event she would walk on fire to avoid. They were a cruel reminder of how far she would have to go to win her freedom. She wasn’t even sure she could trust her mother or her promises. What if her mother didn’t honor her part of the bargain?
What if she put on the glittery dress and fur shoes? What if she climbed into the grand carriage? What if Warren changed into a better man? What if he did fall in love at first sight despite her station in life and their complicated history? What if he proposed to her right there and then?
Pathetic. Impossible. It was all a cruel fantasy. Naomi scoffed at her mother’s naivety.
What difference would it make? She didn’t want to marry the prince any more than she wanted to work as a tailor for the rest of her life. She wanted her independence. She wanted freedom. She wanted a man who celebrated her skills and beliefs, instead of judge her for her background and history.
The life of a princess would not give her the freedom she craved. She’d only trade one cage for another. Regardless of how grand and extravagant her new cage would be, she didn’t want it. She didn’t want any of it. She didn’t want him.
What do you want? Her inner voice challenged her.
“Peace,” she replied without thinking.
Will the ball give you peace?
Then, don’t go.
Then, it hit her. She’d struggled with her decision all day, because she’d been over-thinking. Deep down, she didn’t want to go. That was all the reason. She needed not to go.
“You,” she sneered at the white ball gown. “What am I going to do with you?”
She picked up her scissors and tapped the handle to her palm pensively. The dress was more beautiful than anything she could make. She’d adore it if she didn’t hate everything it represented.
Perhaps, some unsuspecting procrastinator would appreciate it. Enough to pay an obsenely high price to take it off her hands. On the other hand, she wouldn’t be able to put a price on the satisfaction she’d feel by cutting it to shreds. She stood in front of the form continuing to tap the scissors to her palm and weighing her options.
Suddenly, the sound of a snapping twig outside her back door. She spun around to look at asked shaking the door.
“Cindy?” she asked, startled and shaking.
Scissors still hand, she slowly approached the door.