Stuart and Velena: With an ever-growing appreciation, Stuart watched her now, as she walked beside him, light on her feet and in high spirits. He slowed his pace a little letting her walk ahead. Her figure from behind was pleasant. The curve of her hips—the way she moved. “You look lovely, Velena.”
Velena turned around to face him, but continued in a backward walk, a full smile alighting upon her face.
Stuart continued, “The color of that gown is pleasing, and it suites you well.”
“Thank you, Cousin. I believe it’s your favorite color on me.”
“And you remembered?”
“A woman always remembers when she’s been given a compliment by a handsome man—no matter how much time has gone by.”
Stuart raised his eyebrows. “So, you think me handsome, then?”
Velena took in her cousin’s muscular frame and cinnamon-colored hair and eyes, resting above a strong jaw line that narrowed at his chin. There she noticed a fading scar that he must have received sometime in their absence from one another. Still, it in no way detracted from his looks, which, consequently, had always stood out in complete contrast to his brother Peter’s blonde hair and blue eyes. Standing side by side, Peter had always been the one more admired, but Stuart was still, in no way, someone to whom any young woman would stick their nose up at.
Velena giggled. “The world thinks you handsome, Stuart. As do you, I’d be willing to wager. How many times a day do you stop and compliment yourself?”
Stuart chuckled, not used to Velena’s flirtations, but very pleased. He could get used to this, he thought as he caught up to her so that they might once again walk side by side. “You should try it yourself. I’m always able to leave my room bright and cheery that way.” He was rewarded with a hardy laugh and another smile. “But don’t worry,” he added, “I’ll be doing the complimenting today.”
“Oh yes. I have several others I plan on delivering as time goes by,” he said, chuckling then at her expression. Their friendly banter continued as they walked on towards the orchard, recalling childhood memories from before the Plague, when their families were once whole.
Having no expectations of what to expect from this older, more-womanly version of his cousin, Stuart found himself thoroughly taken with her. They took their time walking in and out of the blossoming apple trees, until they came to one with especially low-hanging branches. There, Velena set up their picnic, as Stuart plucked one of the pale-pink flowers from its place above their heads and handed it to her. It had a sweet aromatic quality that seemed to be affecting them both. More and more, it began to appear that Peter’s death had not been the end of a thing, but rather, the beginning of something else entirely. Velena had never supposed to love Stuart, but she found herself now blooming under his attention.
After all the food had been consumed, Stuart took great joy in making Velena laugh until her sides ached, as he detailed some of his more comical exploits with his cousin, Jaren. Velena finally begged him to stop, as she wiped at the tears seeping from the corners of her eyes.
“No more,” she begged, “I have to catch my breath. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.”
Stuart paused then, staring very directly at his cousin until she began to fidget beneath his scrutiny. He couldn’t help but smile, finding her innocence charming. He reached out his hand to gently cup her chin, swiveling her head from one side to the other as he examined her profile. “Do you know what your hair needs?”
“What?” Velena asked in expectation.
She inhaled. “You would put flowers in my hair?” Her tone did nothing to hide her pleasure.
Without another word, he helped her up and led her over to a large patch of red and blue poppies. Velena felt like a queen as she settled down amongst them. She could feel Stuart’s hands against her hair as he tucked stems in and around her circlet, creating a crown of flowers. As he worked, she began making a daisy chain from those within her reach, blissfully unaware that Stuart was having a difficult time keeping his fingers from lingering too long on her hair as he pressed the flowers into place. What he wouldn’t give to see it loose and tumbling down about her shoulders.
Stuart wanted to remove the pins that kept her dark tresses captive. Pushing all honorable thoughts aside, he imagined running his hands through them, burying his face in them and breathing her in. His eyes roved from her hair down to her neck, shoulders, and…
“…can you believe that?” Velena’s words interrupted his thoughts.
Stuart blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Tristan has never made a daisy chain. They’re so simple…” she mused. “I think I’ll bring him this one.”
Here was this Tristan again—interrupting his thoughts. Stuart had plans now that he was here, and he wasn’t going to lose Velena to this Tristan or anyone else. Before today, it was clear that she had seen him only as her cousin, but now—now he felt confident that things were beginning to change. Stuart had intended to act slowly and delicately, allowing her time to love him, because he didn’t just want an arranged marriage, he wanted her devotion. But as he knelt beside her, listening to her bemoan Tristan’s lack of female-type craftsmanship, he began to feel as though time may not be on his side.
“How does it look?” Velena asked, suddenly.
“The daisy chain?”
“No, my hair. Have you finished?”
“Yes, my dear cousin, stand up and let me have a good look at you so that I might judge the full effect.” Stuart helped Velena to her feet and then held her out at arm’s length. “Ahhh, yes,” he said, stepping in closer to place his hands on her hips, gently nudging her to the left. “Just stand here, out of the shadows. It’s breathtaking, indeed.”
Velena was not unaware, nor particularly displeased, at the way Stuart let his hands linger too long at her waist before removing them. But still, she did her best to hide any reaction to his touch.
Stuart watched her face with keen awareness. Smiling, he leaned back against a tree. “Do you remember that game we used to play together—you, me, and Jaren? I used to pretend to be your hero-knight while Jaren played the invading barbarian Scot. I’d fight valiantly to rescue you, and then take you away with me to my castle where you’d be safe.”
“My, but that was a long time ago,” Velena said, reflecting on the years gone by. “You were still a page.”
“And I’d pretend to kiss you,” he continued.
“Except for the time that you actually tried to.”
“You slapped me, as I recall.” Stuart laughed, placing a hand to his cheek in remembrance. “You had a forceful swing for one so small.”
Velena narrowed her eyes at him, feigning anger. “You deserved it. How very forward of you.”
Stuart grinned as he searched her face, curious if she’d slap him now. “Aw well, the sins of our youth, eh?” He stepped away from the tree so that their faces were only inches apart, his gaze fixed upon her mouth as he gauged his next move.
Velena stood stone still, holding her breath. What was she doing, acting like this? Flirting and leading him on…she had no power or permission to give Stuart her heart. But oh…how exhilarating it was to feel wanted. “Will I have to slap you again, Cousin?” she asked, willing herself to breathe.
“What if I thought the slap was worth it?” he asked, his voice low and compelling.
“Surely, you jest,” Velena replied, even as she took a step backward, ensuring that he wouldn’t try.
Stuart cocked his head to the side before flashing her a boyish grin—difficult to resist. “You’re no longer spoken for,” he stated simply. “Though…I suppose you’re still at the whim of your father.”
Stuart sauntered back over to where they’d picnicked and scooped up the empty food basket before motioning that it was time to return to the inner bailey.8 “Does it frighten you to think about marrying someone other than Peter?” he asked.
“I wasn’t in love with Peter,” Velena confessed, not wanting to speak ill of the dead. “I suppose I don’t know how to feel about it either way, really.”
Stuart nodded. “I overheard our fathers talking about us.”
“Yes. Would that please you?”
“Are you saying they’ve already come to an arrangement?” Velena asked, surprise registering on her face.
“I’m saying that you might want to start thinking about kissing me…and then who knows—maybe someday you’ll want to.”
Velena glanced over at her cousin, thinking it better for him not to know that she already did.
~Taken from A Little While Longer: Chapter 1