A Wyndian Princess
By: mintbaby (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Authorís Note: I have always loved the Breath of Fire series by Capcom. I suppose I always will. To show my appreciation to Capcom for the wonderfully entrancing stories and the captivating characters they created, I have written this fanfic. Now while many BoF fans usually pair Ryu with Nina (thank you for writing Kattís Tears, Jason), as an author I have always abhorred the Ďeasy pairingí. Now this isnít to say that I donít agree the two would make an adorable couple! Ryu would make a grand dragon prince. In fact, Iím currently putting together a fic that pairs the two throughout the entire BoF sagaÖ but thatís a different ĎAuthorís Noteí.
In A Wyndian Princess I wanted to hold to my passion for writing the not-so-obvious pairings, stories, or what-have-you. Such as Terra and Edgar, Setzer andó maybe I shouldnít tell you. After all, if you havenít read Ace of Diamonds I donít want to ruin it for you. So Iíve concocted this story that pairs Nina with a gentleman she normally wouldnít have met but for the right circumstancesÖ
Princess Nina of Wyndia adjusted her crossed arms as she stood on the open-air walkway between sections of the castle. Short blonde hair stood on end in the breeze, and blue eyes sparkled with a smile. She gave her fairy-like wings an absent flutter in the slight breeze and shifted her slight, petite form. It seemed like only yesterday when she and her friends had returned from their long journey. In actuality, four years had passed. Four long and fulfilling years of learning more about what it meant to be an involved princess of Wyndia. Deeper aspects of the politics. A more intense understanding of the levels of diplomacy involved. Business tactics that contributed to the realmís growth, and of course a more personal involvement with her people. All had been and continued to be an adventure the 18-year-old never regretted experiencing.
Though she did miss Ryu and her friends.
Ninaís smile widened at the welcome bombardment of memories. I should have them over for dinner again. Itís been ages. Nina nodded absently to herself, giving another flutter of her wings before turning and making her way back into the castle.
Her father the king crested the stairs to her room just as she entered through the hall door. "Hello, father," she greeted with a smile. "How did your meeting go?" When Ninaís mother crested the stairs directly after, the smile wavered. She studied each of their expressions. "Whatís wrong?"
The king motioned to a chair-and-table set near the left corner of her room. "Nina, we need to discuss some things."
"All right." Nina made her way to one of the four straight-back chairs and sat on the extreme edge. She daintily clasped her hands in her lap as she raised her eyes to another examination of her parentsí expressions.
Her mother moved to sit beside her, taking one of Ninaís hands. "You are Wyndiaís treasure, Nina."
"As such," the king interrupted, drawing Ninaís attention, "it is common for the princes or princesses of the royal line to be betrothed in arranged marriages to benefit the realm."
Nina blinked. Her hands went cold. "A-Arranged marriage, father?" She looked from her father to her mother and back again. "O-Of course I understand," she stated feebly, "I only... I-I didnít know you had... considered one."
Queen Sheila looked to her husband with a pleading expression.
"One had not been. Not until my meeting this evening," the king assured her.
Yet Nina didnít feel very assured. "I didnít know we needed an alliance, father."
"It isnít necessarily an alliance, dear," he offered with a gentle smile. "The joining will greatly benefit Wyndia, of course, but in the area of trade and not of power."
Nina arched an eyebrow. "Trade? Iím to marry a merchant?"
The king scoffed. "No, dear, not a merchant. A mayor."
"Oh," Nina gasped, covering her mouth. She flushed and lowered her hand and eyes. "I-I mean..."
The king chuckled. "The mayor isnít a doddering old man on his deathbed, dear. I would never put you into a position such as that."
Nina reluctantly smiled as she raised her eyes to meet his gaze. "Thank you, father." She released a deep breath. "When do we meet?" she asked resignedly.
"Next month," the king said. "The betrothal shall be this evening via proxy, as the mayor has already journeyed home to make arrangements for the wedding here. You and an entourage shall travel to McNeil--"
"McNeil?" Nina asked, eyes wide. "Why, Ryu and Rei are from McNeil." The king raised an eyebrow. Nina flushed. "Iím sorry, father. Please continue."
"You shall travel to McNeil in order to meet and escort Mayor McNeil back here. The wedding ceremony will be held the morning following your arrival, after the mayor and I have settled certain details."
Nina dutifully nodded.
"You had best prepare your wardrobe," he continued. "Your mother and I will begin preparations for the ceremony, including the guest list. Do you wish there to be a ball directly afterward?"
"Just a simple affair, father. If you donít mind."
The king nodded and then gestured for his wife to stand. "We will see you this evening for dinner, dear."
The king and queen left the room, leaving Nina in a somewhat dazed frame of mind. A mayor... Arranged marriages had been a tradition within her family for generations, the pairings always in the best interest of Wyndia and her people. Nina had known and expected the same, but... A mayor?
After dinner, Nina climbed the stairs to her fatherís office. "Father?"
The king looked up from the papers and ledgers spread across the table. "Nina. Come in, come in." Nina stepped the rest of the way into the office. The king motioned to the chair beside. "What can I do for you?"
Nina absently lowered herself into the chair. "Father, Iím curious. About Mayor McNeil."
The king nodded and leaned back in the chair. "How so?"
"To be honest," Nina began carefully, "and fearing Iíll sound like a snob, I wondered what small little McNeil can offer Wyndia." Nina stretched a hand toward her father with slightly widened eyes. "Iím not refusing to marry the mayor, father. I only want to understand how Iím helping Wyndia."
The king nodded several times in succession as he regarded his only child. "What do you know of McNeil, Nina?"
"Itís a small farming community west of here; in the Yraall Region on the other side of Mt. Myrneg."
The king smiled and then searched the ledgers and papers that littered the table. He drew out a specific collection of them to present those to Nina. "A farming community, yes, though not so small as you would think."
Nina accepted the ledgers and papers and began to scrutinize the numbers listed there. Over the last two to three years the community of McNeil had been steadily growing in crop size, production, population, and even dairy production. All of the positive changes had begun soon after the former Mayor McNeil had left office.
"The current Mayor McNeil," the king began. Nina looked up from the ledgers. "The current mayor, Shamus McNeil, approached me with a proposal of a contract with Wyndia in order to access our eastern region and utilize our trade routes to the Rhapala Region."
Nina blinked. "Then... Then he didnít propose the marriage?"
"No," the king admitted with a slight shake of his head, "the proposal was mine."
The king motioned to the ledgers in her hand. "Mayor McNeil has done in three years what the previous McNeils could not in their lifetime. He has raised communal health and wealth. He has earned their trust and built it up. This man would be an asset to Wyndia, Nina, and he would be an asset to our family line."
Nina lowered her gaze back to the ledgers and papers as she absently set them aside. She slowly stood, a thoughtful expression coloring her eyes as she turned to go. "Thank you, father," she said absently.
The king watched her as she descended the stairs, and then he released a slow breath.
Nina rushed down the stairs of the main square just as an athletic built young man with blue-black hair and brilliant eyes stepped from one of the shops. He turned her direction and smiled, catching her as she threw herself into his arms.
"Whoa!" Ryu laughed, stumbling slightly backwards.
Nina giggled and then held the handsome dragon out at arms length. "How are you?" she asked brightly.
"Iím good, Nina. Iím actually spending some time studying with Fahl at the Arena. Itís rough, but good."
Nina nodded along with the telling, her eyes shining. "Have you seen Momo yet? Is she doing well?"
Ryu chuckled. "Sheís doing fine, Nina." His smile lessened somewhat. "What about you?"
"Oh Iím fine. Wonderful now that youíre here." Nina urged him toward the castle with an arm around his and a bright smile on her features. "You must say hello to father and mother. They will be so happy to see you."
"Nina." Ryu halted, pulling her to a stop and holding her gaze with a serious expression. "Nina, I heard about you and Mayor McNeil."
Ninaís bright smile wavered. "Oh?"
Ryu nodded. "Why?"
Nina cleared her throat and lowered her gaze to an examination of her fingernails. "Arranged marriages are common for royalty, Ryu. Itís a necessary tradition for--"
Ryu shook his head. "Thatís not what I meant. Why didnít you tell me before? Because it was McNeil?"
Nina gave a delicate shrug as she sent him a glance. Then she sighed and drew Ryu forward, guiding him to the tables and chairs in the square. She sat across from him and held his gaze. "I remember the stories you told," she admitted. Nina quickly continued, "but the new mayor has made it possible for the community to flourish. Father believes Wyndia would benefit from--"
"I know, Nina. Iíve been staying with Rei up at the old cabin in Cedar WoodsÖ Well, not for a long time because Iíve been traveling around, but I still know whatís going on." Ryu took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "You could have told me."
Nina smiled. "Iím sorry, Ryu." Her eyes brightened with an idea. "Why donít you come with me? Then you can see all the wonderful things that have happened while youíve been away." She squeezed his hand. "Please? It will be so nice to travel together again."
Ryu pushed his lips to one side before sending her a smile. "Alright, Nina."
Nina smiled brightly. "Wonderful! This will be so much fun!"
Nina took in a deep breath as she gave a slight flutter of her wings. She sent Ryu a smile, which he intercepted and returned as he walked beside her.
"Brings back memories, doesnít it?" he asked.
"It certainly does." Nina wrapped her arms around his. "Thank you for coming, Ryu. Itís comforting to have the support of my friends."
"Sure, Nina. OnlyÖ" He sent her a glance. "Only I wish I could stop it. I donít like the idea you being married against your will."
Nina shook her head. "Only father can stop the marriage, Ryu, and even then it would bring disgrace to our family. Agreements have been made. Itís a matter of honor."
Ryu looked a little perplexed. "But isnít there more to it than that, Nina? I thoughtÖ Well, I thought youíre supposed to marry when youíre in love. Arenít you?"
Nina smiled as she looked over at her long-time friend. "Ryu, Iím sure the mayor isnít an orc. If he were, why would he take such great care with the town?"
"Iím not saying heís bad, you just donít know him," Ryu told her, matter of fact.
Nina laughed and gave his arm a pinch. "You mean you donít know him. Ryu, give the mayor the benefit of the doubt. Remember when Garr assumed that you wanted to conquer the world simply due to the fact you were a dragon? You didnít, did you?"
"Then give him the same courtesy."
Ryu smiled. "I never said I didnít like him."
Nina fluttered her wings absently as she chuckled. "You had best be the gentleman I know you can be when I meet the mayor for the first time, Ryu. I wonít hesitate to rain flame upon your head."
Ryu chuckled. "Donít worry about me, Nina."
One of the forward scouts arrived at a gallop, reining in their horse a few feet from Nina. She and Ryu both halted.
"What is it?" Nina asked.
"The mayor approaches with a carriage for you and your guest. He wishes to give you a tour of McNeil as the caravan continues on behind."
"Oh." Nina looked to Ryu. "I think that would be lovely. Ryu?"
Nina pushed at him with a scolding expression before changing her focus to the scout. "Return to the mayor and give him my regards and my thanks."
The scout bowed and then galloped away.
Nina faced Ryu with a hand on hip as she wagged a finger at him. "You promised to be on your best behavior."
Ryu sent her an innocent look. "I didnít do anything."
Ninaís lips twitched. "That is no excuse."
Ryu shrugged. "I thought it was a pretty good one."
Nina laughed and pushed at him again. "You are as impossible now as then."
Ryu laughed, and then his focus was drawn to the approaching carriage. "Here he comes."
Ninaís smile wavered as she followed Ryuís gaze. A pair of chestnut horses drew a simple black carriage with room for four. The driver was dressed in simple black and burgundy livery. Nina took in a deep breath and released it slowly. Her stomach fluttered the same as her wings, nervousness and a touch of dread making her throat go dry. When the carriage pulled to a stop in front of them, though, Nina received a pleasant surprise.
"Princess? Iím Shamus McNeil." The bright-faced man with the smiling green eyes and unruly shock of auburn curls bowed respectfully. He was dressed in a pair of simple pale-brown trousers with a matching brown jacket and a pale yellow shirt beneath. He produced a hand. "Itís a pleasure."
Nina accepted the hand with a genuine smile. "Good afternoon, Mayor McNeil. Thank you so much for meeting us."
"Please. Call me Shamus or Sammy." He released Ninaís hand and presented it to Ryu, still smiling.
"This is a friend of mine, Shamus," Nina offered simply. "Ryu."
"Ryu, a pleasure," Shamus greeted heartily. Ryu accepted the offered hand with a wordless nod of greeting. "Arenít you staying up near Bunyan?" Ryu nodded again, eyebrow raised. "Well welcome back. I heard you were traveling." Shamus gestured behind to the carriage. "After you, Princess."
Shamus fell into step beside her. "I hope your journey wasnít too bad. The winds have been picking up again."
"No, it was lovely. Thank you." Nina sent Ryu a glance over her shoulder. He smiled.
Shamus helped her into the carriage and then sat across from her, leaving Ryu the space beside. Nina arched an eyebrow with an absent flutter of her wings. Shamus gave the driver the go ahead, and the carriage turned toward McNeil.
Shamus faced the two friends with an easy smile. "I figure youíre both a little hungry after the jaunt from Wyndia, so Iíve arranged just a quick tour via carriage before heading over to the house."
Nina felt the contagion of his smile and returned it. "I appreciate it, Shamus. Thank you."
His ears colored slightly. "My pleasure, Princess. If you get at all thirsty, let me know. We can stop in at one of the farms and visit over some lemonade."
"Iím fine, but thank you."
Shamus nodded. "My pleasure."
The tour was simple enough.
From Yraall road the carriage proceeded another mile before turning to the right down a fairly recently added main road. Simple yet productive farms and ranches rose on each side, producing fields of grain or cattle. Nina could tell the farms were well cared for, and Shamus spoke of the families as if he knew them each personally.
They turned right again onto a road leading between Cedar Woods and the main part of McNeil on the right. A portion of Cedar Woods had been cleared to make room for more houses, but Shamus was quick to assure Nina and Ryu both that he tried to harmonize with their surroundings as much as possible. In fact, the burned wreck of Ryuís previous home within Cedar Woods had been refurbished with his help before being sold to Rei. Rei had then been Ďhiredí to tend the woods and plant seedlings where trees had been felled for the building of houses or equipment. Shamus didnít want the natural resource to be depleted.
The carriage turned right again, following the same road that had once gone directly thru McNeil. It now went around as well, so as to not wake the people when late-night shipments moved out. Then the carriage moved past the Ďcommercialí section of McNeil and entered more farmland before turning left and Ďheading toward homeí. Still more farms and ranches rose on each side, bustling with activity.
As the carriage approached the McNeil house, Nina noticed a partially disassembled brick wall. People continued to work on it, too.
Nina pointed to the wall as she looked to Shamus. "What are you doing there?"
"Hmm? Oh. Iím tearing it down. The wall doesnít really do anyone any good as is. So Iím having the bricks salvaged as best they can and making wells and whatnot. I felt caged in with it all around my house."
"I think that was the point," Ryu offered innocently.
Nina surreptitiously pinched him. Ryu looked over at her with a silent protest. She ignored him.
Shamus nodded. "I know it. You should have seen the house. Took me nearly two years to get the floor plan straightened out in some bit of sense."
The carriage turned into the main entry of the grounds and halted. A huge dog barked and bounded toward them. Ryu kept Nina back with an arm behind him as he positioned himself in front of her.
"Rufus! Come here, boy!" Shamus leapt from the carriage with a smile, greeting the monstrous black dog with several vigorous rubs behind the ears, gently chastising him when he would attempt to leap up. Then Shamus turned toward Nina and Ryu, a hand firmly gripping the dogís collar. "This is Rufus. Has a tendency to think heís a puppy, but heís getting better." He looked back to Rufus. "Rufus, this is Princess Nina and her friend Ryu. Say hello."
Rufus barked twice and then sat back on his massive haunches to smile up at them, tongue protruding slightly.
Nina moved out from behind Ryuís protection and climbed down. She presented her hand. "Nice to meet you, Rufus."
Rufus sniffed and snorted her hand for several moments before standing and vigorously wagging his tail, tongue lolling from one side of his mouth.
Shamus laughed. "He likes you, Princess."
Nina scratched the black beast behind his ears. "I like you, too," she told him.
When Ryu descended from the carriage, Rufus sent him a peculiar look as his head tilted to one side.
Shamus looked from Rufus to Ryu. "He doesnít quite know what to think about you, Ryu. Heíll likely follow you around for the rest of your stay."
Ryu smiled before moving his focus to Rufus. "Thatís okay by me."
Shamus motioned forward. "Princess?"
Again Nina moved forward with Shamus falling into step beside her. Ryu and Rufus both trailed behind. "Youíve done some marvelous things for McNeil, Shamus," Nina praised. "Itís wonderful to see."
"Thank you, Princess, but most of it was just common sense. And the people are really the ones who deserve the praise. Theyíve been working hard."
Shamus held the door for her and Ryu both, urging Rufus to hurry up when he lagged behind. Rufus bounded indoors.
Shamus motioned to the doors on the other side of the carpeted hall. "Did you want a tour now, or after dinner?"
Nina looked to Ryu, knowing that he had less than wonderful memories of the house. "Ryu?"
Ryu slightly smiled. "Go ahead, Nina. Iíll wait here."
Nina focused on Shamus. "Now would be fine."
"Alright then." Shamus motioned ahead to a door across the front hall and on the left. "Ryu, if you want to head out to the backyard and play with Rufus, just go thru that door there. The door there," Shamus added, motioning to a pair of double doors on the right wall, "leads to the banquet hall. Weíll meet you there."
Ryu nodded and then looked down to the huge black beast beside him. "Come on, Rufus."
Rufusí ears perked up and his tail wagged. When Ryu headed toward the door previously mentioned by Shamus, Rufus excitedly barked and bounded around the dragon.
Shamus chuckled, shaking his head before guiding Nina to the left. "Rufus plays hard."
Ninaís smile widened. "Ryu will be fine."
Shamus opened the door for her and ushered her inside. The room held a piano, a collection of game tables and chairs, bookshelves complete with books, couches, and a fireplace on the far wall. Live plants brightened the room with welcome just as the hand-loomed rugs on the floor.
"What a lovely room," Nina exclaimed.
Shamus stood near the door with crossed arms and a small smile as Nina explored it more fully. "My sister helped with the decoration. Wouldnít set foot in the place otherwise. She felt sure Iíd ruin the entire building."
Nina returned to his side with a soft chuckle. "Iím sure you exaggerate."
"Not according to Marianne." Shamus motioned to a connecting door on the right. They proceeded toward it. "She says Iím 100% oaf; donít understand a thing about anything except animals and crops." He opened the door to reveal an adjoining library. "I havenít the heart to tell her Iím a good cook."
"As you can see, this is a library. Most of the books are left over from Neilís stay, so I plan on going thru them and seeing what I want to keep and what gets donated somewhere, mostly the trash barrel Iím thinking."
Nina absently nodded as she fought with the curiosity at his relation to the former mayor. Instead, she fingered a few of the leather volumes, noticed the positions of the overstuffed chairs throughout the room, as well as the window looking out on the backyard. Nina made her way toward it. Ryu and Rufus were playing rough and tumble.
Shamus came to stand beside Nina as she watched Ryu and Rufus tug-of-war and chase and tumble with each other around the yard.
Shamus faced Nina with a serious expression. "Princess?"
"Yes?" Nina answered absently, still watching Ryu with a fond smile.
Shamus cleared his throat, drawing Ninaís attention. Then he rubbed at the back of his neck.
Ninaís expression held concern as she faced him. "What is it?" she asked.
Shamusí ears pinked when he met her gaze. "Is Ryu..." He cleared his throat again. "I wonít go thru with this if youíre in love with someone, Princess."
Nina slightly smiled. "Iíve known him since I was a little girl, Shamus. Ryu and I are close friends."
"Oh." Shamusí ears reddened as he looked away.
"Thank you for the thought," Nina offered. He glanced toward her with a smile, and Nina motioned to the door leading out of the room. "May I see more of your lovely home?"
Shamus nodded and gestured for her to go ahead. "My pleasure, Princess."
Because the staff quarters and the bedrooms were on the second floor, Shamus proposed to show them after dinner. Instead, he completed the tour of the lower level and then led her back to the banquet hall. Ryu was inside, leaning back in the head chair with crossed arms.
Ryu stood when the pair entered, and he gestured to the pictures on the walls. "I like these faces a lot better than the other ones."
Shamus raised an eyebrow. "Youíve been here before?"
"Long time ago," Ryu offered vaguely.
Shamus nodded, accepting the answer easily enough, and looked to the paintings. "These are my close family. Neil McNeil was my 3rd cousin twice removed... or something." Shamus focused back on Ryu with a smile. "The other faces gave me the creeps. I sent them along with Neil."
"Good idea," Ryu agreed, chuckling.
Shamus smiled at Nina before stepping forward to pull out the side chair. "Princess."
Nina returned his smile as she sat. "Thank you."
Ryu moved to sit across from her, leaving the head chair for Shamus. He sat, giving both Nina and Ryu a smile before looking down at a silver bell at his right hand. He grimaced and took it up. "I hate this thing," he muttered. "Makes me feel ridiculous."
Nina gently laughed and reached out a hand. "Allow me."
Shamus passed her the bell with a boyish smile. "Go for the gusto, Princess."
Nina rang the bell with just enough volume to get the message conveyed that the group was ready to eat. Then she set the bell down with a smile in the boysí direction. "Definitely a ladyís realm of expertise."
Ryu and Shamus both laughed.
Ninaís eyes twinkled. "You laugh, but you didnít protest when I offered."
"I laughed because Iíve seen you take down an orc with barely a blink," Ryu said. "You can do whatever you set your mind to."
Nina acknowledged the compliment with a smile and a delicate nod. "Thank you, Master Ryu." She looked to Shamus. "And you, Mayor McNeil?"
"Me?" His ears pinked. "What about me?"
Nina smiled. "You laughed...?"
"Oh. That. Well... uh..." Shamus cleared his throat and rubbed at the back of his neck.
Ryu chuckled. "Easy, Shamus. Sheís not going to bite you."
Shamus boyishly smiled, ears still pink as he met her gaze. "I laughed because..." He cleared his throat again. "Because I agreed. You look a sight better holding that infernal bell than I do."
Ninaís smile softened. "Thank you."
Shamus held her gaze with a continued smile. "My pleasure, Princess."
And Nina believed him.
"Shamus," Ryu spoke up suddenly. Shamus moved his focus to Ryu. "How did you get Neil McNeil out of here?"
Shamus chuckled. "Neil didnít really have a choice. Certain shady characters were looking for him, so my family helped him disappear." He looked back over at Nina. "No one really had the time to dedicate to McNeil because of their own farms, so I asked my father if I could, Iíd just turned 20, and he said yes." Shamusí smile widened. "Obviously."
"Twenty," Nina repeated, wide-eyed. "My goodness."
Shamus waved it aside as the staff entered with trays of their first course: salad. "Iíd already been foreman of my fatherís ranch for ages. It wasnít too much different to mayor a town."
Nina arched an eyebrow.
"Not different?" Ryu asked. "What do you mean?"
Shamus answered, "It just takes organization," in an absent tone as he offered Nina a serving of dressing.
Nina watched his expression as she accepted the dressing with a nod. Shamus served it for her with a smile before offering it to Ryu. Ryu pushed the salad plate away with a slight shake of his head.
Shamus motioned for the head waiter.
"Bring some soup."
The head waiter bowed and left.
Ryu smiled. "Soup? I love soup. Howíd you know?"
Shamusí lips twitched upward. "Lucky guess."
The waiter returned a few moments later with a steaming bowl of broth and meat. Ryu tasted it with an "Mmm."
Shamus laughed. "Good?"
Ryu nodded and took another bite. "Mmm," he said again.
Nina shook her head, eyes twinkling as she focused on her salad.
Dinner and dessert passed quickly with stories of Ryuís adventures with Nina and the others. Amidst the laughter and the suspense, Nina noticed that Shamus didnít offer any tales from his own life. When pointedly asked, he would offer an amusing enough tale of childhood frolics, but then deftly guide the storytelling back to Ryu and the Arena or the Angel Tower or one of the groupsí other adventures.
Nina found the fact intriguing.
Dinner and dessert plates were gathered but the stories continued, prompted most often by a question by Shamus. Then a clock somewhere within a hall struck a late hour and Shamus guided them upstairs to their rooms, one on each side of the other.
"Good night, Ryu. Princess. Iíll see you in the morning for breakfast."
Shamus gently clasped her hand with a twinkling smile and a respectful bow, and then he made his way back downstairs.
Ryu faced Nina. "Nice guy. I can hardly believe heís a McNeil."
Nina absently nodded, still staring after him. "Yes. A nice man." She pursed her lips, accompanied by a puzzled frown as she gave a slight shake of her head. Then she faced Ryu and smiled. "Good night, Ryu. Thank you for being here. And for playing so well with Rufus."
Ryu chuckled. "Good night, Nina. See you in the morning."
Nina closed the door behind her, leaning against her hands with an absent flutter of her wings as the frown returned. Hmm.
Shamus watched her with an absent smile as she walked ahead of the caravan with her friend. Ryu and she laughed over a shared joke or Ďremember whení. Her wingtips always fluttered when she laughed.
Shamus adjusted his seat in the saddle, moving his gaze to his hands and the reins he held. During breakfast she had insisted he call her ĎNinaí, but Shamus had respectfully declined, saying he would try to work up to it. Shamus just couldnít even think about doing such a thing. Sheís a princess of one of the oldest family lines in Wyndia. Iím barely a farmer. Shamus could still hardly believe her father had suggested the match. All I wanted was a trade contract! Why would he give me his daughter?
Shamus heard her laughter again and lifted his eyes. They crinkled at the corners when they focused on her. Nina... Shamus intercepted a smile she sent over her shoulder toward him, feeling his ears flush pink as he returned it. Then he looked away with a clearing of his throat. Any other thoughts couldnít survive the shock of his pleasant predicament.
Shamus felt a sudden brief touch on his foot and looked down.
Nina smiled up at him. "Why donít you come and walk with us the rest of the way, Shamus?"
Shamus returned her smile. "My pleasure, Princess." He dismounted and stepped over to the nearest wagon to secure the horse. Then he moved to walk beside her.
Nina slowed her pace instead of hurrying to walk next to Ryu. "Father will likely want to meet with us once we arrive."
Shamus nodded, holding his hands behind his back as he glanced toward her. Each time he did so, her gaze met his with a smile. Shamus could only momentarily return it, then a serious expression robbed away the smile. "I know," he confessed. "We still need to settle a few things." And I need to make sure he wasnít joking when he offered your hand.
"Such as?" Her bright eyes widened slightly.
Shamus looked away as he briefly cleared his throat. "Dowry for one. Wyndia involvement with McNeil for another."
"I doubt father will opt to be too terribly involved with McNeil, Shamus. Heís quite impressed with how youíve managed to help the community flourish in such a short amount of time."
Nina intercepted his sidelong glance with her same enchanting smile. Shamusí ears grew hot as he returned her smile and glanced away again.
"As for dowry," Nina continued, "what had you planned to suggest?"
What do I offer a Wyndian king for his only daughter when that daughter is Nina? "I donít rightly know," he admitted with another quick glance toward her. "Normally I would offer whatever the father needed most. Your father doesnít really need anything."
Nina brightly smiled, and her wings fluttered. "That isnít true. Everyone needs something at some point in their lives. The hard part is discovering what that is."
Shamus returned her smile with an easy one of his own. "Isnít that the truth."
"Did you have any ideas?"
On the dowry, or on how this could possibly be happening? "Actually, Iím expecting a few champion-blood foals this year. Is your father at all interested in horses?"
If possible, Ninaís expression brightened to an even lovelier version of herself. Her wings fluttered with excitement. "Father adores horses!"
Shamus smiled. "Iíll see about offering him his choice of mares. Maybe Iíll throw in free studding for the first five years of our marriage?" Shamusí ears pinked, but he ignored it as he continued to watch Ninaís reactions to the statements.
Nina nodded her approval, eyes twinkling as she rested a hand on his arm. "Oh Shamus, he would love that," she confessed.
"Who would love what?" Ryu asked, walking backwards so as to watch and listen to the duo as they very slowly approached.
Shamusí ears burned as he looked away from Ninaís face and stepped from her touch. Nina excitedly told Ryu of the intended dowry. Ryu nodded his approval and came to walk on Shamusí other side. Nina moved back to her previous degree of closeness, and Ryu left Shamus no opportunity for escape.
Shamus finally settled into the easy pace with a slight smile, occasionally feeling the breeze from Ninaís flutter of wings.
Too soon, Wyndia came into view and the easy banter between Nina and Ryu ceased. The trio halted outside the entry, the caravan moving past to unload.
Ryu stretched out a hand. They shook. "It was nice to meet you, Shamus." Ryu faced Nina and stepped forward to embrace her. "Bye, Nina. Iím sorry I canít stay."
Nina tightened her arms around him with a whispered, "Itís all right, Ryu. Thank you for coming." They pulled back. "Visit again soon. And if you see Momo, tell her Ďhelloí."
He nodded with a slight smile. "I will. Take care of yourself."
Then Ryu moved off in the direction of the Eastern Wyndia region, Nina waving after him. Shamus watched her with an absent smile. Friends meant a lot to her, and she seemed to make them easily. I guess thatís what comes from being a princess.
Nina looked over at him, catching Shamus in his new-found hobby. He flushed but held her gaze.
"Thank you so much for allowing him to stay," she said.
"My pleasure, Princess. It was great to finally meet Reiís roommate."
Nina smiled and surprised Shamus by wrapping her arm around his. She tucked her hand into the nook of his elbow and motioned him forward. Shamus struck an easy pace into Wyndia, oblivious to the hustle and bustle as he focused his attention solely on Nina beside him.
"Father insists we have the ceremony inside the castle, but I so wanted it to be in the square." She looked toward him. "Do you mind an outdoor ceremony?"
Shamus wordlessly shook his head.
Ninaís smile twinkled in her eyes. "I want flowers and doves and ribbons all over."
"Of course." Sammy boy, is this girl for real? Shamus reached around to cover her hand with his. She didnít fade and Shamus was too embarrassed at what he did to pull his hand away. So he only looked ahead of them. "Flowers are always nice," he continued absently. Iím marrying a princess? But I raise crops and breed horsesÖ "Unless you have allergies."
Nina laughed, and Shamus felt the tickle of the breeze from her wings. He looked down at her with a slight smile.
"I suppose youíre right. Perhaps I should create ribbon flowers instead."
"Itís your wedding. If you want flowers, you should have flowersÖ" Shamusí smile wavered. "Though I guess it would be bad to have someone sneezing the entire time."
Nina giggled, nodding up at him as they ascended the stairs of the square into the castle. "Father would be furious."
"And I guess I shouldnít make my future father-in-law angry before the wedding is over."
Nina shook her head with a serious expression, but her bright eyes twinkled. "It wouldnít be recommended, no."
"Then I guess we stay with ribbons."
Ninaís eyes widened. "No doves?"
"Only if everyone brings an umbrella or a hat. Itís liable to get messy."
Nina giggled again. "Ribbons it is."
Shamus chuckled, examining her profile once sheíd turned away. He had heard so many different stories of what to expect from an Ďarranged marriageí; of the condescension, the strained pleasantries, and the barely held tolerance. Nina seemed to be making an actual effort to become a friend. She hadnít looked down her nose at McNeil, or his home, or even himself. She laughed at his jokes and offered her own.
Nina looked over at Shamus as she pointed to the bakery on the way to the entrance to the castle. She explained something about it, but Shamus didnít hear anything except the honest interest in her voice. The princess wanted him to know about where she came from. About what happened there. She wanted his opinion. His approval?
"Did you want to taste some?"
Shamus blinked, finally realizing they had stopped outside the bakery doors. His ears pinked. "Oh. UmÖ" He cleared his throat and looked to the doors. "If we have time." He met her gaze again. She still smiled. "That would be great."
To Shamusí surprise, Ninaís hand moved from the crook of his elbow to take firm hold of his own hand. Then, still smiling brightly, she said "Their berry bread is divine" as she pulled him forward into the bakery.
It was divine. As was the fruitcake, the white bread, and so many others that Shamus felt certain heíd never be satisfied with McNeil cooking again. When Nina looked about to offer yet another slice of something, he shook his head with a chuckle and raised his hands.
"Please. Iím already ruined for Cookís bread. And Iíve got to save room for dinner yet."
Nina laughed as she set down the tray of breads and cakes to again tuck her hand into the crook of his elbow. "All right," she reluctantly acquiesced. "I suppose father and mother are anxious to see how we fared."
How do we fare? Shamus wasnít quite sure.
The duo entered the castle and made their way to the throne room. Instead of halting and waiting for an audience, Nina gave his arm a gentle tug and led him down specific hallways of the castle to a stairway. Nina began to ascend, but Shamus remained on the bottom step.
Nina looked at him with a puzzled expression. "What is it?"
Shamus cleared his throat and motioned up the stairs. "Isnít that your fatherís office?"
Nina nodded as she stepped down to stand beside him. "Yes. Why?"
"WellÖ" He cleared his throat again. "Iíd just feel better if I knew that he knew I was coming."
"But he does know you and I are coming."
"I know," Shamus agreed with a slight nod, "but not into his office."
"I go up all the time," Nina offered.
Shamus looked up the stairs and then back to her. "I know that, too. But youíre his daughter."
"And youíre his future son-in-law," Nina countered with a smile. "Come on, Shamus," she pressed gently, bringing her other hand up to completely encircle his arm. "Itís all right. I promise."
Shamus was at a loss to argue with her.
So they climbed the stairs as Nina called "Father, weíre here," in a singsong voice that tickled his ears.
Shamus and Nina crested the stairs and turned into the room just as the king stood, stepping toward them with outstretched hands and an eager smile. "Nina. Shamus. Marvelous." He greeted his daughter with a gentle grip of hands and a kiss on the cheek. Shamus received a hearty handshake and a grip on the upper arm. "Come, come. Sit. Shamus. Wine?"
Shamus refused with a simple shake of his head as he and Nina were ushered to the table. Then the king gathered and stacked and organized his papers as he asked on Shamusí health. Shamus didnít remember his responses, but they must have been appropriate for neither the king nor his daughter commented.
Finally, the king sat across from them and folded his hands on the table. "How did you enjoy your journey?"
"Very much, father," Nina volunteered. "McNeil is lovely."
Shamus smiled, his face aglow at the simple statement.
"Shamus?" the king asked, returning his attention to the slightly dazed young man. "What of you? She didnít regale you with too much chatter, did she?"
"Father," Nina protested.
Shamus shook his head, wide eyed. "No, your highness. I donít talk much myself, so it was nice. Her and Ryu shared a lot of good stories."
The king nodded along with the telling before asking, "How did you find each other? Agreeable?"
Shamusí ears burned, but he was saved comment when the king focused attention on Nina first. Who promptly smiled.
"Father, you know very well that Mayor McNeil is a kind and thoughtful gentleman."
Shamusí entire face flushed, and the king chuckled. "Yes, yet now I know you find him to be the same."
Ninaís wings fluttered with an accompanying, "Oh Father," as she gave a shake of her head and a slight smile.
"Shamus?" The king drew Shamusí attention from Ninaís profile. "Is the match approved? I know you had an initial hesitation."
Shamus flushed darker still, and he felt Ninaís gaze on him. "Yes, your majesty, I did, butÖ But it wasnít because of your daughter. IÖ" He cleared his throat and forced himself to meet her curious expression. "Iím a simple farmer who happens to be mayor," he explained. "I didnít want toÖ" Shamus helplessly shrugged.
"Take advantage," the king offered.
Shamus looked to the king again, nodding. "Your majesty, I only wanted permission to trade a little farther that what I do."
The king slightly smiled. "Yes, Shamus, I know. I have every intention of allowing that."
"Then why," and Shamus quickly faced Nina, "no offense, Princess. Please." She smiled with a slight shake of her head, and he again faced the king. "Why ask me to marry your daughter?"
The kingís expression softened. "Shamus my boy, you have quite the business mind for a lad of 23. You are also soft-spoken, though you use the facts known persistently to the advantage of McNeil, and fair-minded. Not many men your age are as eager to not only hear the words spoken but to listen to what is said."
The king scrutinized Shamusí flushed face. "I love my daughter, Shamus. Though I know I should utilize her beauty and charm to strengthen our borders when war seems so far distant a possibility, I choose to arrange a marriage to a man I believe most capable of caring for her and her people." The king stretched out a hand. "What say you, Mayor?"
Shamus stared at the hand in muted shock, unable to voice an answer thru the fog in his brain. Then there was a slight flutter and breeze from his rightÖ Shamus accepted the hand and looked up with a gentle smile. "Do you like horses?"
Nina hid a giggle.
Nina minutely examined her reflection in the gilded mirror within the tent raised in the square in front of the castle. The flowing silk crepe of antique white was appropriately lovely, and the veil of handspun lace had served its time and tradition of age and sophisticated beauty. The gems within her blonde hair glistened with the adequate view of romance and poetry, just as the pale pink, yellow, and white blossoms whispered of innocence and purity.
Nina looked a lovely and entrancing bride.
The only item Nina lacked was an emotion of pleasant nervousness or bated expectation. Nina didnít dread the prospect of walking down the aisle to her betrothed, she missed her girlhood fantasy of an expected emotion.
Nina sighed and turned away from the mirror, making her way to the tent opening to look out. Shamus stood quite still near the minister, looking only at something he held within his hands. He didnít move; he didnít fidget with his custom-tailored tuxedo; he didnít look toward the tent. There was something almostÖ awe-like in his expression. Disbelief even.
Nina reluctantly smiled. She liked Shamus McNeil, and she counted that a definite blessing. It would make married life easier. Perhaps even similar to her own parentsí accumulated fondness. If she couldnít have her romantic dream, at least she could count on his friendship.
Nina released the flap of the tentís entrance and stepped back with another sigh, smoothing her gown to wait for her father.
Shamus stared in silent wonder at the rings he held. As a young man barely able to understand what Ďrelationshipí meant, he had told himself he wouldnít take this road. Arranged marriages had caused too much heartache and misery for his brothers, his sisters, and even his parents. The marriages had only one goal, get more land/power/money in order to protect the family. True, his close family hadnít pursued power and wealth as their further distant relatives, but it had still been a goal.
Now he had agreed to an arranged marriage in order toÖ get more? Shamus almost cringed. He hadnít ever wanted that to be a condition of a marriage.
Shamus tightened his hand around the rings, clenching his jaw to keep from walking away. The king had said their marriage would be for Ninaís future, for the future of her people, but the thought didnít settle his conscience. He still felt as if he took advantage of the situation. Like a McNeil would. Like McNeils had.
The wedding processional began, and Shamus slowly opened his hand again. Two rings. One small and lovely resting upon the other so large and simple. Shamus released a slow breath. He wouldnít take advantage, but he wouldnít turn from his responsibility either. He had agreed to the marriage, and he would stand firm in that decision. He would do his best by her and her people. He wouldnít take advantage, but he would be honorable in his duty.
Shamus lifted his gaze, and his breath caught in his throat at the vision that approached; wings slightly fluttered as the breeze tickled the wisps of dress, veil, and flower petal. Shamus swallowed hard. Sammy boy, what in the worldÖ
The vision of white halted beside him, veiled eyes meeting his gaze. Shamus gave a slight smile, vaguely hearing the ceremony begin with histories and duties and honors listed. All he could see were the slight hint of eyes and mouth. All he could hear were the soft words spoken and repeated. Then the rings given, the hands clasped, and the veil lifted by her father.
Shamus released a slow breath, almost shaking his head in disbelief of the face behind: Princess Nina of Wyndia. WifeÖ Shamus tightened his hold on her hands and leaned forward to place a hesitant kiss on each cheek. When he straightened, the crowd roared.
Then Nina smiled and Shamus didnít hear the crowd for the roar in his own heart.
Nina sent Shamus a peek from under her lashes. He stared out the window of their carriage as it took them back to McNeil for another reception. Silence had been her only companion on the way, and he hadnít even glanced toward her. Nina slightly frowned as she moved her gaze to the scenery outside. He hadnít seemed agitated or upset before or after the ceremony. A little distracted, but understandably so. After all, he had just married a complete stranger. Thinking back to the previous day and the dinner and the planning of the ceremony that would follow, Nina still didnít recall anything said by her or him that hinted at any hard feelings. Of course, Shamus didnít look to be upset. Only distant.
Nina released a sigh and felt his glance. She turned her head to intercept it. "Is there something wrong?" she asked gently.
Shamus gave her a reassuring smile. "Iím sorry, Princess. Iím thinking about things. Didnít mean to worry you."
"Can I help?"
"No." Shamusí ears pinked. "I-I mean, donít worry about it. Itís fine."
"Are you certain?" she pressed.
"IÖ" Shamus cleared his throat, glancing occasionally away.
Shamus released a quick breath, looking again to her face as his expression relaxed into a smile. "Can we wait Ďtil we get home?"
"Of course," Nina assured. "I donít want to make you uncomfortable."
Shamus reached out to cover her hand as it rested in her lap. "Iím doing that myself, Princess."
He gave her hand a squeeze before pulling away with a clearing of his throat and a reddening of his ears. He looked away.
Nina smiled slightly. "You do realize itís all right to hold my hand, Mayor McNeil?"
Shamusí lips twitched as he stared down at his hands. He lightly rubbed them together. "I know." He glanced up at her. "I just want to give you a chance to get used to me a bit beforeÖ" He self-consciously rubbed at the back of his neck. "Or maybe itís the other way around?"
Ninaís smile widened. "I guess life as a princess has made me a little too forward."
Shamus met her gaze. "I didnít mean that, Princessó"
Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners as she said, "Please, Shamus. Call me Nina."
Shamusí mouth clicked shut, and he looked back down at his hands.
Ninaís smile faded to concern. "It isnít disrespectful to call me that, Shamus."
He cleared his throat. "Iíll tryÖ Nina."
Her smile returned. "That sounds much better, and Shamus." She reached out to take hold of his hand. He looked up. "Be yourself. Iíve met many unique people in my adventures with Ryu and the others. Very little will shock."
Shamusí expression relaxed. "You donít know me much yet, so I wonít hold you to that, Pró Nina." He finished the statement with a boyish smile.
Nina laughed and gave his large hand a squeeze before releasing it. "Iíll tell stories of Rei and Ryu to prove it. I seriously doubt yours will rival them."
"Maybe," Shamus said vaguely.
Ninaís eyes twinkled. "Very well. I accept your challenge. Each evening weíll exchange stories. If I shock you, you have to tell an extra story. Vice versa of course. Does that sound fair?"
Shamusí smile was slight, but his expression showed a twinkle. "Not really."
"Oh? Why, pray tell," she asked, eyebrow arched.
"Because Iím a farmer and youíre a princess."
Nina crossed her arms. "That is no excuse."
One of his lips twitched. "Because you traveled the world with a dragon?" he attempted again.
Nina softly chuckled. "Good try, Shamus, but I know too much about childrenís active imaginations."
Shamus pointed toward himself, eyes wide. "You think I would dream up a dragon and an evil goddess and an entire city of machines?"
Nina nodded, still smiling.
"Me?" Shamus pressed.
Nina laughed. "Oh Shamus, donít try to pull the wool over these eyes. I can see the vision youíve set into motion for McNeil. That vision took imagination; a desire to dream for greater things." She shook her head, and her lips danced with laughter. "There is no way you can convince me you havenít the ability. I wonít believe it."
Shamusí hand lowered. "Thanks for that, Princess."
Nina raised a finger. "Ah, ah, ah. Nina."
His face softened into a smile. "Nina."
"Much better." She punctuated the statement with a soft giggle, which was interrupted by the jostle of the carriage as it came to a stop. "Oh. Are we here?"
Shamus opened the door and stepped out. "Yep. Home sweet home." He faced the door of the carriage and bent to fold down the step. Then he presented his hand. "Mind your step," he warned as she slipped her hand into his.
Nina gathered the folds of her dark rose traveling gown, worn upon her motherís insistence, and stepped down. Once she had set both feet firmly on the ground, Shamus released her hand. Nina nearly took it back again, so as to help himÖ acclimate to married life; instead, she smoothed her dress and took in a deep breath of the late afternoon air. It tasted wonderfully fresh, and it brought back memories of her adventures with Ryu, Rei, and the others.
Nina focused her attention on Shamus, who examined the road at his feet with hands behind his back. "Do you have time to walk before the reception?"
Shamus briefly looked to her before pulling something from his pocket. Ninaís eyes widened. A time-piece? She had never seen a time-piece that small before, but she kept herself from embarrassing him by asking about it.
"Not really," he told her. He tucked the time-piece away and met her eyes with a slight smile. "But we could be late. I mean, we are the couple of the hour."
Nina returned his smile. "We are, arenít we?"
Shamus presented his arm and then led her into the mansionís renewed gardens. Nina breathed deep of the scents and fragrances it held, closing her eyes to completely experience the soft sounds within. She adjusted her hands around his arm, a smile tickling her lips. The garden was refreshingly calm and silent. The past month had consisted of days and weeks of fittings, flowers, dresses, questions, and demands upon her person that had nearly cost her any remains of sanity. It felt nice to be away from the voices and the people and the measuring gazes.
Nina sighed again. "This is nice," she said softly. "No people. No attention." She absently nodded. "Yes. This is very nice."
A hand covered hers, hesitant, just as in Wyndia. Nina liked the simple touch. It almost seemed to encompass friendship and comfort. Security. Yet another reason she liked Shamus. He was a rock. Well, he gave her the impression of one anyway.
"Yeah," he admitted in a low voice. "I usually wander around here after a bad day. Helps keep things in perspective. ĎCourse, I wander around here after a good day, too. Makes things look better."
Nina gently smiled, opening her eyes to send him a glance. He stared ahead, so she examined his profile. It was a nice profile. Healthy. Rugged. Innately smilingÖ almost. A very nice profile.
Shamusí tone sounded so preoccupied and hesitant that Nina decided against correcting him the title. "Yes?"
Shamus cleared his throat, and his hand slightly tightened on hers. "Iím going to give you your own room."
Nina arched an eyebrow. "Oh?"
Shamus nodded, and he glanced toward her to immediately look away again. "Like I said before. I want to give you a chance to settle in."
Nina continued to scrutinize his profile. "I appreciate the thought, Shamus, but weíre marró"
"Yes, I know," Shamus said as he met her gaze. "I know weíre married. I know that itís okay to share a room. I know it is, butÖ" He pressed his lips together and looked away again. "You donít know me fromÖ from Loki, Princess," Shamus continued softly. "Just because weíre married doesnít mean you know me any better. I canítÖ" He met her gaze and gave a slight shake of his head. "I canít take liberties just because youíre my wife." He shook his head again. "I wonít."
Nina had an inkling this had bothered him awhile. She gave him a reassuring smile. "All right. Iíll have my own room."
His green eyes darkened. "YouÖ Youíre not angry?"
Nina gently laughed. "Why would I be angry, silly?" She pulled him forward with a slight tug on his arm, and her hands nestled deeper within the crook. "It will be as ifÖ no, it wonít be like that at all. Oh well." Nina laughed again. "It seems father has put the cart before the horse and now the horse wishes to woo the already hitched cart."
Shamusí ears burned as he stared ahead.
"Oh Iím sorry," Nina said guiltily. "I donít mean to tease you. Really I donít. IÖ" Ninaís lips twitched. "Iíve never been wooed before. It sounds as if it might be fun."
Shamus cleared his throat. "I donít know anything about wooing, Prinó I mean, Nina. I justÖ I just donít wantÖ" He released a quick breath. "We only met a couple days ago. You should know me better before sharing anything."
Nina smiled at the ground. "Thank you, Shamus."
He looked down at her. "For what?"
Nina halted and met his gaze. "For being yourself." She removed her hand from his arm to touch his chest with a single finger. "For being true to your heart."
Shamus flushed while giving her a sheepish smile. "Oh."
Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners as she gathered up his hands. "I believe we will be great friends, Shamus, and thatís a blessing I hadnít expected in my husband."
His smile faded, and he squeezed her hands. "You deserve more than that, Princess."
"Love?" Nina queried.
Nina released his hands to again wrap her arms around his. They stepped out into the greenery. "Yes, wellÖ Love seldom comes into arranged marriages. Fondness is the best we Wyndian princesses expect. Like my mother for my father." She gave a delicate shrug. "What is love anyway? A fleeting emotion. A whisper."
Shamus watched her profile in silence.
After a moment, Nina lifted her gaze to give him a reassuring smile. "A budding friendship will be enough, and certainly longer lasting."
Shamus examined the expression in her eyes a moment before looking away. "Iíll try to be a good friend, Nina."
Her expression softened. "I know you will, and Iíll try the same."
Nina looked away, and the smile drooped a touch. Nina didnít realize the change, but her escort did.
Shamus cleared his throat as he stood outside Ninaís door. He held a simple yellow flower in his hand and was at his witís end to think of an appropriate statement to give with it. Sammy boy, you might as well give up. You arenít a poet. Shamus gave a slight shrug and reached out to knock on the door.
"One moment," came a muffled reply.
He cleared his throat again, adjusting his hold on the flower as he shifted weight from one foot to the other. I canít believe Iím doing thisó
The door opened to reveal his bride. She had dressed in black leggings, a multi-colored band of ribbons in her short-cut hair, and a dark blue top that settled around her slim hips. Her eyes twinkled with her smile, and Shamusí breath and words died.
"Good morning," she greeted. Her eyes focused on the flower and widened as she looked up. "For me?"
Shamus mutely nodded, sending her an uncertain smile as he presented it to her.
"Oh how lovely. Thank you." Nina took the offered flower, touching it briefly to her nose. She closed her eyes as she breathed in the aroma. Then she refocused on Shamus. "It smells divine."
Shamus swallowed hard, jarring loose the attraction and the fear so that he could speak. "If you like, I can have perfumes made from it."
Ninaís eyes widened as her lips parted with surprise. "Could you?"
Shamus nodded, and then he smiled. "We could call it ĎPrincess Ninaí."
Nina laughed her unique melody with a slight flutter of wingtip. "Please donít. Call it something romantic and lovely."
In for a penny, in for a poundÖ "I thought I did," he offered, in what he hoped to be an innocent tone.
Ninaís mouth opened as she looked up at him with a blink. Then her face brightened with another smile. "Why, Mayor McNeil. You flirt."
Shamusí ears reddened, the only necessary confession, but he didnít look away from her eyes. "No I donít," he denied with a shake of his head. At least not very well. He almost grimaced.
Nina wrapped an arm around his and led him toward the stairs. "Sure you do." Nina touched her nose again with the flower.
Shamus watched her profile.
Nina lowered the flower to stare down at it. "I remembered the last time a charming gentleman gave me a flower."
Shamus looked away, and this time he did grimace. Ryu? Rei? How can I compete with them?
Nina sighed with a shake of her head as she looked over at Shamus. "Thank you for the flower, Shamus," she said softly.
Shamus released a silent breath before gazing down at her. It didnít go the way I wanted, butÖ "My pleasure, Nina."
She looked away, absently adjusting the placement of her hand within his arm. "What do we have planned this morning?"
Shamus racked his brain for something that would bring a smileó His expression brightened, but he kept his tone matter-of-fact. "I need to check on the mares who are nearly ready to foal, make sure theyíre doing alright and things like that. I could use your help with the wee ones. They have a knack for getting in the way."
Nina looked over at him with a slight smile. He intercepted it with his best attempt at innocence. I canít believe Iím doing thisÖ
"Or you can wait here," he offered, "and then we can go together to visit the different farms and ranches, so you can say hello."
She nodded. "That would be lovely. Might I do both?"
Shamus smiled. "Sure can."
"Could we take breakfast with us?"
Shamus grabbed at the idea with a near snap of his fingers. A picnic! Instead, he simply nodded and said, "I could go tell Cook right now. Did you want to meet him?" He didnít give her a chance to answer before he enfolded her hand with his and led her toward the kitchen off to the left of the dining hall. "He used to cook for Neil and decided to stay on with me once Neil left. Iím glad he did. Heís a great cook."
"Yes, he is."
Shamus pulled her into the kitchen, forcing himself to continue to hold her hand once they had come to a stop. "Ed, did you want to meet my wife?" Did I just say that? "Nina," Shamus said as he looked from cook to new bride, "this is Ed."
Ed stood about 6 feet tall with the usual white Ďcookí uniform. He was a hefty individual, but only because he loved food.
Nina smiled. "Hello, Ed. Itís nice to meet you."
Ed turned from the stove to doff his white cookís cap. "Princess. What can I do for you?"
Nina met Shamusí smiling eyes, who then changed his gaze to Ed. "Could you make a quick brunch picnic? Weíre going to the pasture to check the foals."
"Sure thing. Will you be coming back for lunch?"
"No. Weíll be traveling around the different ranches and farms. Probably stop in and have lunch with Rei."
"Maybe." Shamus smiled wider. "Sorry, Ed. Iím playing things by ear today."
Ed returned his smile. "Itís okay, Shamus. Iíll make some dishes that are good cold, just in case."
"Thanks. And the picnic?"
"Give me by the time your carriage is out front."
Ninaís hand tightened on his. "Actually," Shamus said without looking, "we kind of wanted to walk. Weíll be outside in the garden walking around. Just let us know when itís done. Iíll come and get the basket."
"Iíll have one of the boys bring it out front."
Shamus drew Nina back out into the main hall, then they made their way toward the front entrance to exit the double-doors and descend the stairs. At a thought, Shamusí smile wavered. He looked to Nina. She quietly studied the ground at her feet.
Shamus cleared his throat. "Prinó I meanÖ Nina?" She looked up to meet his gaze. "I guess I should have asked about all that stuff. The walking and the picnic?"
Nina shook her head. "Itís all right. In fact, it felt nice to not need to think. A month of planning the wedding ceremony certainly dulled that shine."
Shamus smiled again. WhewÖ "Yeah. I guess it would. Well, just tell me if I ever trod all over you. Iíve been a bachelor a while, you know."
"Yes. And Marianne says youíre an oaf."
Shamus grinned at her, something he hadnít done for years. "Remembered that, did you?" Nina giggled with a slight shake of her head. Okay. This is good. Sheís laughing. Keep at it, Sammy boy. Keep at it.
"Iím glad she came to the reception," Nina continued. "It was great fun to meet her, though I donít believe any of those horrid bad habits she confessed of you."
Shamus swallowed hard. "Bad habits? Like what?" When did Marianne get her alone?
Nina shook her head. "I refuse to give them the attention." Nina glanced toward him, and Shamus could swear he saw a mischievous twinkle.
"And you want to see if I actually do them," Shamus accused with a smile and laugh.
Nina giggled. "Guilty as accused."
"Well this isnít fair," Shamus protested. "Iím painted less than charming, sabotaged by my own sister, and youíre just as perfect and lovely as when I met you." Hey, not bad.
Nina laughed. "Please, please. No pedestal, Shamus. No pedestal."
"Oops. Sorry." Shamus grinned down at her. "Need some help getting down from there?"
Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners with her smile as she met his gaze. "Iíll manage. Thank you."
Shamus looked over his shoulder toward the house. "Oh. Lunch." Shamus released her hand and headed back. "Be right back."
"That was quick," Nina said. "I hardly had time to enjoy the garden."
Uh-oh. Possible problem. Shamus halted and turned. Nina peered toward the far left of the garden. Gazebo. Right. Shamus bit his lip and looked back to their brunch. Then he rubbed at the back of his neck and shook his head. Fruit tree. Gazebo. He nodded and moved back toward Nina. She looked to his hands for the basket and then met his smiling gaze with an expression of puzzlement.
He motioned to the left. "I forgot to show you the gazebo yesterday."
The picnic was instantly forgotten.
Nina smiled and pointed to the left of the garden as she fell into step beside him. "Is that what I see over there in the corner?"
"Thereís a really nice plum tree beside it, too. You could have some for breakfast, if you like plums." Hopefully she likes plums.
"I donít believe Iíve ever tried a plum."
Shamus blinked and moved his focus to an examination of her profile. She looked eagerly ahead toward the gazebo and the plum tree beside. "Youíve never had a plum? HowÖ Youíre a princess. How can you never have had a plum?"
Nina met his gaze, her face still bright with expectation. "I donít know. Where do they most often grow?"
"Weíve just recently planted a grove near Cedar Woods, and I know the soil and climate is perfect for them."
"I donít remember seeing them in Wyndia," she observed. "Perhaps itís too dry?"
Shamusí brows lowered in a frown of concentration as he looked away. "Hm. Letís see. Youíre on the other side of Mt. Myrneg. Maybe the soilís too sandy? I should scope it out and see if we could plant some groves or vines. That would be greatÖ Although maybe the idea of ranches would be better? I should talk to the king about it. Seems to me I saw some prime spots."
Shamus heard a slight laugh and a flutter. His ears pinked as he looked down at his brideís smiling face. He sheepishly smiled.
"I never knew such intense concentration could be so adorable," she confessed.
Shamusí face flamed, and he looked away with a clearing of his throat. Adorable? Thatís goodÖ right?
"And Marianne insists your distractions to be a bad habit," Nina continued. "I donít believe her."
Thatís definitely goodÖ unless sheís teasing. Shamus nearly threw his hands up in frustration. He was beginning to understand why he had never married.
"Oh my goodness," Nina breathed. A flutter accompanied the whisper. "This is lovely."
The gazebo was fashioned of polished stones he had transported from Mt. Myrneg. It had taken nearly a year to have them smoothed and polished for the columns and the steps and the floor. The roof of the gazebo was white-washed cedar, now more green than white due to the ivy that had spiraled up the columns.
Shamus smiled as he followed Nina up the steps to the center of the gazebo. He had always wondered why he took the time with it. Now he knew.
Nina slowly lowered herself onto one of the carved cedar benches. "Shay, this is spectacular," she breathed.
Shamusí smile vanished as he watched Ninaís expression, but she continued to view the gazebo with wide-eyed wonder. Shamus turned away, resting one fist on his hip while the other hand rubbed at his neck. ShayÖ And his mind wouldnít think further.
"Is that the plum tree?"
Shamus gave a slight flinch as he looked sharply to his right. Nina stood beside him while pointing to a deep-purple foliaged tree just outside the gazebo. "Yes."
Nina smiled and turned to hurry down the steps of the gazebo and around to the side. Shamus watched her with a smile as he moved to lean against one of the columns. He crossed his arms, viewing each expression as she reached for a plum, plucked it free, and then examined it with sight, scent, and touch before cautiously raising the deep purple fruit to her rose lips. She hesitantly bit into the juicy meat, wrinkling her nose at the initial tartness of the skin. Then her tastebuds experienced the mild sweet of the meat within and her eyes widened. Shamus shook his head with a growing smile as he adjusted his crossed arms.
"Mmm. This is delicious. So juicy, too." Nina met Shamusí smiling gaze with a serious expression. "Could I pick some for our picnic?"
Nina smiled and then lifted the lower portion of her blue top to act as a carrier for those lucky plums chosen to grace their picnic. Whenever she reached for a plum, a hint of midriff would be seen. Shamus cleared his throat and kept his gaze carefully away; sometimes he even had to close his eyes to keep from glancing. Finally, he gave another clearing of his throat and straightened from the column to turn away.
"Ooo. These must be divine with whipped cream," Nina reasoned.
Shamus made his way down the steps and to her side. "They make a great spread on cakes or sweet breads, too."
Nina nodded, wide-eyed. "I imagine so." She retrieved another plum for her stash before falling into step beside Shamus as he moved again toward the house. She bit into the plum with an "Mmm," and actually slurped some of the juice.
Shamus chuckled while glancing over at her. "Iíll make sure you get plum spread with your breakfast every morning."
Nina giggled as she sent him a sidelong glance. "Thank you."
They made their way to the porch where Shamus took up the basket, and then they struck out down the main jog from the mansion grounds, Nina still holding her treasure trove of plums. Shamus settled into an easy pace beside her, enjoying the sight and sound of her nibbling on each one. She didnít look anything like a princess walking along with her shirt full of plums, her fingers sticky from the juice, and spitting pits a good distance off to the side. If anything, she looked at home and at ease. At total and complete peace with where she was and who she was with. Shamus couldnít help but feel his feelings for her grow.
Nina licked some plum juice from her fingers and looked over at Shamus with wide eyes of interest. "Did you want one?" And she immediately retrieved one from her trove.
Shamus took the presented plum with a slight smile before tossing it up into the air and catching it in his mouth. Then he ate the meat away and spat the pit a good 10 feet down the path.
Nina giggled. "Rei would be jealous."
"Nah." Shamus accepted another offered plum and did the same as before. "Whatís so special about having a big mouth?"
Ninaís smile blossomed to a laugh, and Shamus knew he hadnít ever heard a sweeter sound. He released a slight breath as he studied the ground at their feet, hands tucked safely away from their temptation. Yep, Sammy boy. Youíve done yourself in good this time. A country yokel married and in love with a princess. Shamus shook his head.
"You mean you only want two?"
Shamus looked toward Nina with a "huh?"
She held out a plum. "I offered another and you shook her head." Nina smiled. "Iím afraid if you donít accept this one youíre liable to miss a further opportunity."
Shamus returned her smile as he enfolded her hand in his and gently pushed it back toward her. "I can always pick more."
Ninaís eyes widened with a question. "Are you certain?" Then her eyes crinkled at the corners and she giggled as she looked to her depleted stash. "Iím afraid Iíve made a glutton of myself."
Shamus released her hand and chuckled. "I didnít notice, princess," he said gently.
Nina lifted her eyes to meet his gaze. "Shay, do stop calling me Ďprincessí," she said with a laugh. "It sounds ridiculous. Youíre my husband. You shouldnít address me by my title."
Shamus flushed and looked away, not sure how to confess that he hadnít. "Sorry."
"You donít need to be sorry," she soothed. To his surprise and pleasure, she took hold of his hand. "Itíll take time, I guess. Iíll try to be more patient."
Shamus cleared his throat. Sammy boy, you know you like calling her that. You better Ďfess up or youíll never get to. He cleared his throat again. "Nina, IÖ uhÖ"
Nina examined his profile. "Whatís the matter?"
He glanced toward her and immediately away. "N-Nothing. I justÖ I like calling youÖ that."
"Princess?" she asked, surprised. "But why?"
Shamus gave a slight shrug. "I just do."
"Oh." Nina changed her focus from his face to her stash of plums. "Now I feel a little ridiculous for making such a fuss."
Shamus halted, his hand tightening a little on hers as he faced her. Hundreds of words crashed together in his brain, but he couldnít grab a complete sentence. Finally, he released a quick breath and said, "Iím sorry. I guess I shouldnít have said anything."
Nina raised her eyes. "Of course you should. How else are we supposed to become friends unless we talk to each other about things."
Shamus continued to look into her bright blue eyes, feeling his stomach flip and his throat tighten at what sheíd said and what it would mean if he confessed. Shamus swallowed hard, including the words he wanted to say, and released her hand to start walking again toward the pasture. Nina hesitated before hurrying to walk beside him.
"Do you need to talk about something?"
Shamus gripped his hands behind his back. Words and thoughts wouldnít come.
"What did I say?" Nina asked, and her tone actually sounded concerned. "Shamus?"
Shamus halted and faced her. "Call me Shay," he said quickly. "I like it."
Nina blinked and Shamus flushed. He looked away with a clearing of his throat. IdiotÖ
"No," Shamus said, shaking his head. Let her finish her sentence! He rubbed at the back of his neck without meeting her gaze, tightening his hold on the picnic basket. "Sorry."
"Itís all right. I can be a little short myself when Iím troubled."
Does she have to be so understanding all the time? Shamus released a deep breath as he looked over at her. She blinked up at him with slightly wide eyes. He could see the concern. Shamus reluctantly smiled. "Donít mind me, Nina. Iím an oaf."
Ninaís mouth dropped open with a slight gasp. "Shamus McNeil," she whispered, and she shielded her mouth with her free hand in mock horror. "You said a bad word."
Shamus laughed, and then he wiped the smile from his face to play along. He glanced furtively over his shoulder before refocusing on her twinkling eyes. "Donít tell Marianne," he whispered, leaning slightly forward.
Nina slowly shook her head, and her slight flutter of wing confessed her withheld laughter.
Shamusí serious expression melted to a smile as he guided her forward again with a soft touch to her back. "Really, Nina. Iím sorry. Iím trying to figure out whatís okay and whatís not, and I guess itís making me a little crazy."
Nina nodded as she sent him a reassuring expression. "I completely understand, and if thereís any way I can helpÖ"
Shamusí lips twitched upward. Tell me exactly when I can sayó"Thanks. Iíll remember that."
Nina reached out for his hand and slipped hers into it, giving it a slight squeeze. "Just promise that wonít be the furthest step you take. Remembering I offered and actually asking are two different things."
Shamusí smile widened. "I can tell youíve had this conversation before."
Nina flushed. "Yes, wellÖ" She cleared her throat with a delicate melody of sound. "Iím not overly proud of it, but yes."
Shamus watched her. "What happened?" he asked carefully.
Nina adjusted her hold on the stash of plums within her shirt as well as on his hand. "Iím afraid I acted a bit of an orc with one of my friends while not taking my own advice."
Shamus raised an eyebrow. "What?"
Nina sighed as she looked to Shamus. Her eyes slightly glimmered. "While paying a friend a visit, I decided that she shouldnít be alone anymore; that she must have secretly been miserable in her tower by herself. So once I arrived home, I wrote her a letter telling her that I believed it would be a good idea for her to begin dating. Without waiting for her to reply, IÖ" Nina looked away. "I askedÖ one of my other friends to help her learn how to date. Sheís not very socially adept." Nina sighed. "I justÖ I donít know why I did it. I donít know why I didnít only offer my help instead of forcing it upon her."
Shamusí throat tightened. Nina looked sincerely miserable. What am I supposed to say? Shamus cleared his throat as he gave her hand a squeeze. "NinaÖ Iím sure she knew you only wanted to help," he offered gently.
Nina sniffed, still staring at her plums. "Now theyíre more than likely together and happy," she whispered.
"Ryu and Momo."
Shamus blinked. Well when in the world did that happen? "Oh."
Nina sighed. "I didnít even know until our wedding. I thought he was onlyÖ Then Ryu sent the noteÖ" She sighed again. "Ryu likely didnít want me to be hurt."
Shamus watched her expressions. "You werenít just friends, were you?"
Nina looked up. "We were, Shamus," she assured. "I still donít know whether or not I wanted something more. My feelings for him were always unique and confusing. Even now Iím happy for him, though I know he and Momo are exploring a closer relationship than what I ever had with him. I onlyÖ" She looked away again with a deep breath.
"You want what theyíve got," Shamus said in a low voice.
Nina lowered her head. "Yes. Yes, I suppose I do."
Shamus gazed down at her with a slight smile. And now I remember why Iím making like an idiot. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Thatís alright, princess." Just give me a little bit.
Ninaís smile was faint as she watched Shamus speak tender phrases to the black mare very much ready to foal. He stroked her nose and gave her forelock a tug, all the while reassuring her the wait for the foal would soon be over. He had done much the same for nearly half a dozen bulging mares.
Nina moved her gaze to the band on her finger. She twirled it absently, thinking again of their conversation en route to the meadow. She hadnít intended to confess her feelings for Ryu. Neither had she meant to tell him of her plot with Momo. But it felt wonderful to share. To step out from under the guilt and receive assurance. He hadnít seemed to become disheartened when she confessed that love was still something she wanted.
Nina sighed and raised her eyes. Shamus fed a carrot to a pretty golden yearling. He caught her gaze and lifted a hand to give a slight wave, which Nina returned. Shamus had suggested inviting Momo and Ryu for dinner, so Nina could apologize and repair those damaged bridges. Though Nina knew it was something she needed to do, she couldnít face them together. Not yet.
Thankfully, Shamus didnít press. Once the suggestion had been made, he had guided the subject to safer things such as plum trees and perfumes. Nina smiled. Yes. She liked Shamus McNeil, and it would be easy to grow fond of him. I have but to release my past to the past and move to my future. Nina watched as Shamus jogged toward her. It wonít be a horrible future.
Shamus lowered himself onto his side in front of her with an exhalation of breath and a smile as he absently plucked the lush grass. He smiled his usual easy and charming smile. "A couple of the girls are really close; any day now Iím thinking."
Shamus nodded, expression bright. "Weíll be able to have your father come and pick which ones he wants. We can throw a big dinner party, too."
Nina sent him a soft smile. "I hope you donít think Iím that anxious to see them again."
Shamus met her eyes with a serious expression. "No. I just figured it would make your papa feel better if he saw you and I were getting along okay."
Nina adjusted her position to lay on her stomach across from him. "Iím sure father isnít concerned in the least, but thank you for thought of my family."
Shamusí ears pinked as he examined the grass blade in his fingers. "My pleasure."
Nina examined his handsome features with interest and a soft smile, crossing her ankles as they hung suspended above her. "Shamus?"
He only glanced toward her. "Yeah?"
"Why did you want to be mayor of McNeil?"
Shamus cleared his throat and took up another blade of grass. As Nina had noticed before, he didnít look the least bit comfortable talking about himself.
"I really want to know," Nina pressed gently. "Itís such an amazing responsibility, and youíve handled it so well."
He cleared his throat again as he glanced up and then away, ears completely red. Again he looked resistant to answer. Nina couldnít understand why.
"I uh..." Shamus released a deep breath and tossed a blade of grass away, immediately picking another. "These are good people," he said quietly. "I wanted them to have a better life than what theyíd had."
Nina carefully watched his expression. "At 20? Werenít you still learning from your father?"
Shamus shook his head. "The McNeilís put us on our own early," he confessed with a quick glance her direction. "Iíd basically been responsible for fatherís ranch since I was 12."
Nina blinked, eyes wide. "But thatís so young!"
Shamus gave a one-shoulder shrug. "It taught me a lot of things."
"But... Did you have the chance to be a child?"
"Sure. After chores and before bed." He shrugged again, another glance sent her way. "I didnít mind all that much."
Nina watched his handsome face. "With such responsibilities, how did you remain so... so... kindhearted?"
Shamus smiled as he met her eyes. "Responsibilities donít make a person mean. Thatís a choice."
Nina agreed, softly smiling. "Yes, I suppose youíre right." She held his gaze until he again looked away. "So you wanted to be mayor to be completely independent?" she reasoned as she examined his profile. "To prove something to your family even?"
Shamus looked to her with a blink of surprise. "Prove something?"
Nina cupped her jaw with a hand as her other teased the grass with her fingers. "I believe you wanted to prove McNeil could be successful without using fear. I believe you wanted to make a point to the McNeil clan."
Shamus moved his eyes away from her face without a word.
Nina smiled. "Iím proud of you, Shamus McNeil." She reached out and clasped his hand, lightly stroking it with her thumb. "It takes a lot of courage to stand up to a tradition, and not many people want to be bothered with it." She gave his hand a little squeeze. "Good for you."
Shamus softly smiled, face flushed as he glanced toward her. "I wouldíve done it sooner if I knew Iíd have got you for a wife."
Nina laughed, eyes crinkling at the corners. "Why, Shamus McNeil. You do go on."
Shamus continued to smile at her. Nina felt a touch of surprise when she realized she liked his attention, and not in the common sense of the word. She could actually feel the Ďlikeí moving forward to care and fondness. It instilled in her an emotion of relief, although she supposed there shouldnít have been any doubt of a growing friendship. After all, hadnít they already shown a surprising Ďclickí? Much as she and Ryu when they had first met.
Nina noticed Shamusí smile had faded. When he moved his focus to their clasped hands, Nina gave them a gentle squeeze. "Shay? Whatís the matter?"
"Nothing," he said with a slight shrug. "I just..." He cleared his throat, ears pink. "Can I kiss your hand?"
Nina blinked, smile gone. She hadnít ever been asked that question. Men generally helped themselves. It made her feel special that he had asked. Nina intercepted his hesitant glance with a return of the smile. "Yes, Shay. Yes, you can."
He stared down at her hand a moment before gently and cautiously raising it to his lips for a feather-light touch. Then he simply lowered it again and caressed it with his thumb. Nina continued to smile at him. Yes. She liked Shamus McNeil, and it would be easy to care for him. And what a blessing that is: to actually care for my husband. She knew her parents would be relieved.
Shamus released a slow breath. "I guess we should head out."
Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners at his more-than-reluctant tone. "I suppose so."
"Reiíll pop me one if I donít bring you over for a visit," he added, and he still sounded as if he tried to convince himself.
"More than likely."
Shamus released another breath.
Nina giggled, drawing his attention. "Shay, you silly, we donít have to go anywhere if you donít want to. Rei and the others will understand."
Shamus sheepishly smiled as he looked away, giving her hand a couple gentle squeezes. "I... I guess so. I just..." He cleared his throat.
"You just what?" she pressed, smiling.
He glanced toward her. "Iím having a lot of fun."
Ninaís smile widened as her eyes twinkled. "So then why do you want to run away, Mayor McNeil?" she teased.
Shamus chuckled. "Because Iím having a lot of fun." He brought his other hand over to gently stroke the skin of her hand. "I feel like... I donít know. Like Iím shirking my duties or something. Playing hookie."
Nina gave a little shiver, smiling when Shamus looked over at her. "You are, silly. Itís called a wedding holiday."
He looked away again, a boyish smile warming his expression. Ninaís smile faded as she changed her focus to his hand with an arched eyebrow and an inward examination.
"Yeah. I guess," he admitted.
Nina pulled her focus from his hand as it continued to stroke her skin. She smiled again. "Shay, whoís to say we wonít continue to have fun as we walk around?"
"Oh I know that," he said. "I only... well, I kinda wanted to just... um..."
Nina giggled, lowering her hand from her chin to reach out and cup his jaw. He met her gaze with an expression of muted surprise. "You only want what, Shay?" she encouraged gently.
"I kinda wanted you to myself."
Nina blinked in surprise, and her smile vanished. Her cheeks actually flushed as she dropped her hand from his jaw and glanced away. "Oh."
Shamus pulled his hands from hers very quickly. "Sorry, Nina... I..."
Nina shook her head, eyes searching out his. He continued to look away. She reached out a hand when he sat up and moved to stand. "Shamus. Wait." He didnít stand, but he didnít look at her either. Nina moved to kneel, sitting back on her heels. "My reaction..." Nina sighed and took hold of his hand. "Iím sorry."
Shamusí hand just hung limp within her grip as he said, "Itís alright."
Nina felt a tear prick. "Shay?"
He released a slow breath before looking over at her, green eyes dark. "Yeah?"
"Shay, please donít be angry."
Shamus looked away. "Iím not," he said quietly.
The tears pushed harder. "I didnít mean to hurt you."
He nodded. "I know."
But Nina felt a hint of dread he wouldnít be the same as before. She moved her gaze to his hand that didnít really hold hers and felt a twinge of loss. Then she brought her other hand to hold his between them, gently rubbing it with her thumbs. When a tear actually dripped down, she gave a start.
Shamus released a breath as he moved his hand within hers to gently enfold them. "Donít cry, princess."
Nina sniffed and raised her misty gaze to meet his sad expression. She slightly smiled. "I really am sorry. Shamus."
"I know," he said softly, and he brought his other hand up to wipe the tears from her cheeks with a gentle touch. "Please donít cry anymore."
Only Nina couldnít stop crying. Shamusí touch so full of care; his expression so dark with regret. They made the tears flow faster. She hiccupped a tear with a vague feeling of surprise as she lowered her gaze from his.
"I..." Nina hiccupped again, more tears coming from a place she didnít understand.
Shamus drew her close with a whispered "Come here, princess," and enfolded her within a comforting embrace.
Nina closed her eyes and relaxed into the arms, surrounded also by confusion and a vague yet deep emotion of relief as she continued to softly cry. The only other time she had cried this way had been when Ryu had appeared after so many years believing him dead. Yet even this felt oddly different; as if she mourned and celebrated at the same time.
Shamus stroked her hair as he soothed with a softly uttered "Sh-sh-sh."
Nina tucked her hands close together, holding them between Shamusí chest and her own as his warmth and closeness comforted her. Soon the tears slowed and faded and she only listened to his breathing and his heartbeat with an odd feeling of inner searching.
Then Shamus pushed gently back and the search was lost.
He smiled at her, again bringing a hand up to brush the tear-trails away. "I guess Iím trying so hard not to scare you that I think Iíve scared you when I didnít. Sorry, princess."
Nina returned his smile. "You shocked me, Shamus McNeil," she confessed softly. "Now I owe you two stories of myself."
He gently touched her under the chin with one side of his finger. "Iíll take it."
Nina held Shamusí gaze for a silent moment of quiet expectation, still smiling as relief and that unexpected quiver of mild confusion wrestled with something else. The wrestling quieted when Shamus gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
"Come on," he urged. He stood and helped her do the same. "Letís dawdle over to Reiís. He spent all day cleaning the place. Heíll skin me alive if we donít stop by."
He scooped up the basket and then headed off toward the road leading to Cedar Woods. Ninaís hand remained content within his, and the wrestling quieted still more as confusion grew. Nina wasnít at all confused as to how she could care for him as a friend in such a short amount of time. Nina had always been blessed with that talent. The confusion went deeper than that, but she didnít quite know how to examine it to understand what it stemmed from. To Ninaís surprise, she experienced a Ďhiccupí of eager anticipation at the discovery. Perhaps itís a hope? Ninaís expression brightened as she gave Shamusí hand a squeeze.
He looked over at her with his usual easy smile. She returned it, stepping slightly closer as she changed her focus ahead. Hope was welcome.
A Surprising Decision
"Nina? Well doesnít this just beat all."
Shamus smiled as Nina released his hand accompanied by a flutter of wing as she hurried forward. She enveloped the Woren clansman in a tight embrace before pulling back and inquiring as to his health and life. Rei chuckled before cryptically answering and sending Shamus a greeting nod.
Shamus moved to stand beside Nina. "Hey there, Rei. Sorry weíre late."
"Late? Who knows about late?" Rei countered. "Youíre here and the place is still standing. Come on in. Take a load off."
Shamus motioned Nina ahead of him with a soft touch to her back, he liked how her wings tickled his hand and forearm, and then followed beside her.
"Ryu stopped in before," Rei informed the pair, "but he said you guys couldnít stay, having to go back to Wyndia and all. Sorry I couldnít come to the wedding. Wouldnít you know I was on my way out when we had a fire scare near the main road? Had to stay and babysit it."
Nina smiled over at her friend as she followed beside him up and around to the back entrance of the home. "Itís all right, Rei. It was only a small ceremony."
Rei opened the door and ushered them inside. Then he closed the door after Shamus and grinned at the pair, hands on hips as his feral eyes twinkled. "Nina married. Well doesnít this just beat all."
Nina giggled. "Rei, for heaven sake. Did you believe I would be a maid my entire life?"
Rei chuckled. "Not a bit. Just never thought youíd marry a McNeil. Theyíre a greedy lot."
Ninaís wings stiffened. "Rei, you orc," she scolded, "have some--"
Rei laughed and waved it away as he stepped past. "Tea?"
"Thanks, Rei," Shamus accepted. Nina turned and looked to continue the scold as Rei descended to the kitchen. Shamus enfolded her upper arm with a hand, drawing her attention. "Itís okay. Thatís kind of a running joke between us," he whispered.
"Really, princess," he soothed, smiling. "Itís okay." He motioned to the stairs leading down. "Come on."
Nina reluctantly smiled, her wings relaxing as she turned and descended after Rei. Shamus stepped after her with a continued smile. Now that had to be a good sign. Of course, he didnít know from good and bad when it came to her, or ladies in general. That had been the only reason for the whole fiasco at their picnic. He hadnít ever seen her flush at something said by him, and then what with her smile disappearing so fast and her looking away from him, heíd thought the worst. Then heíd nearly caused the worst by backing off so fast.
Shamus guided Nina to a chair, holding it out for her with a smile and then carefully pushing it in as she sat. Then he sat beside her, vaguely aware of Reiís friendly banter to both. Sammy boy, you nearly broke her heart with that stunt, so quit being all-fired sure she wants nothing to do with you. Youíre trying to get her to fall in love, remember? Well she canít do that if you donít do a little more of the same.
And on an impulse, he covered her hands as they rested delicate and innocent on the table. He didnít look from where he smiled, nodded, and watched Rei moving about preparing tea. When he felt one of her hands slip out from under his and then rest on top, his smile widened slightly as he gave her hand a few soft strokes with his thumb. See? You can do this, Sammy boy. Of course, he knew that meant he had to keep talking about himself. Never something he particularly enjoyed.
Nina had completely floored him with her eerie insight into why McNeilís success held such importance for him. That fact and then the confession of pride... it had all led to the kiss on the hand and then the revealing statement of a truth that had scared him nearly to death. A McNeil never confessed something important or personally revealing without due protection. It had been yet another unwritten law within the McNeil code that Shamus didnít agree with.
Hence the reason he told her what he did.
Shamus felt one of Ninaís fingers begin to trace around his knuckles, so he looked over at her. She spoke intensely with Rei regarding some negative aspect of harvesting old-growth forest without replanting. Shamus watched her with a slight smile as the conversation continued, Rei adding a point that would cause Nina to add yet another. Her finger would occasionally pause as she brought up a poignant point to the discussion, and then her finger would continue its journey around each knuckle when Rei picked up the conversation.
Finally, the tea boiled and the conversation ended as Rei stood to prepare it.
"So," Rei began with his back to the couple, "whatíre your plans today?"
"Weíre just playing it by ear today, Rei. I wanted to give prĖ Nina a chance to settle in."
Rei absently nodded as he brought down the cups and honey. "Good idea. What then?"
Shamus looked to Nina with a serious expression. "That would be up to her," he said simply.
Rei nodded again, oblivious to the moment shared as he stacked the cups, honey, and teapot onto the tea tray.
Nina continued to look into his eyes. "I would love the chance to get to know McNeil a little better," she said softly. "Itís been fascinating so far."
Shamus swallowed slightly, not sure if it was safe to take ĎMcNeilí as him or his home.
"Well if anyone knows anything about McNeil, itís Sammy," Rei said absently. "Geez. Whereíre those cookies I got the other day?" He scratched his head. "Doesnít that beat all."
"I-Iíll tell you what you want to know," Shamus said, quiet. Nina smiled softly, and her blue eyes seemed to dance with it. Shamus swallowed again. Sammy boy, hang on to something...
Nina lifted a hand to his face, brushing some curls from his forehead. "I want to know everything."
Shamus swallowed so hard that he believed he lost his tongue.
"I donít know if Sammy knows everything," Rei confessed, still searching the cabinets for the fate of the cookies. "But heíll do his damnedest to find out... I know I put those cookies here somewhere."
Shamus couldnít look away from her blue eyes. "Itís n-not very interesting."
"Sammy, McNeil isnít that dull," Rei objected. "Weíre just a little small-Ė Ah-hah! I found them!" Rei straightened, cookies in hand, and began to divvy them up onto three plates.
"It is to me," Nina whispered. Nina examined his expression with slightly wide eyes. "I like what Iíve seen and heard so far, Shay."
Shamusí expression and entire person relaxed into the statement with a smile. "I really like it when you call me that, princess," he said soft enough that Rei couldnít hear.
Ninaís face brightened with her gentle smile as she reached out again to smooth some of his curls from his face.
Okay, Iíve got to be dreaming... Shamus took hold of her hand as she lowered it away from his hair. He looked down at her fingers a moment before sending Nina a silent question. She slightly nodded, her smile dancing on her lips and in her eyes. Shamusí lips tilted upward as he lightly kissed her hand. Then he heard Rei finish up the duty of preparing the tea tray and placed her hand tenderly back into her lap. Itís working? Shamus could hardly believe it.
Rei brought the tray over to set it on the table. Then he sat across from the couple. "Nina? You wanna do the honors?"
Nina smiled and nodded, giving Shamusí hand a couple of squeezes before releasing it and serving the tea. Shamus watched her with a slight smile. Delicate. Graceful. Beautiful. Funny. And oh-so-easy to love. Love. Who wouldíve thought? And with Nina, the girl who could have anything she wants.
"Hey, Sammy," Rei called as he stood to his feet. "Can I get your help? We need to haul in a couple armfuls of wood for the stove."
Shamusí smile wavered as he reluctantly stood. "Sure thing." He moved his gaze to Nina and lightly rested a hand on her shoulder. "Be right back, princess."
Nina softly smiled up at him. "Iíll have your tea ready when you get back."
Shamus gently touched her chin, his smile returning, and then followed after Rei up the stairs to the bedroom and then through the back door to the path behind.
Rei stopped him outside. "Man. Youíve got it bad."
Shamusí ears burned. He self-consciously smiled as he rubbed the back of his neck. "That obvious, huh?"
Rei smirked and crossed his arms. He motioned toward the house with a jerk of his head. "You told her yet?"
Shamus shook his head. "I wanted to give her a chance--"
"To get settled. Yeah. I heard you." Rei shrugged. "I guess thatís a good idea, since youíre already married and all." Rei motioned for Shamus to follow. "Come on. We better get some wood or sheíll know we were talking about her."
Shamus followed him down and around the building. "Rei, how do I know..." Shamus cleared his throat. "Do you think sheíll ever..."
Rei chuckled. "Do I think sheíll ever fall in love with a lummox like you? Sure. Why not? She usually tries to like everyone. Even Balio and Sunder. Of course, that was when she was only like 6 or 7." Rei laughed as he shook his head. "You should have her tell the story. Itís funny."
Shamus and Rei stopped at a stack of freshly chopped wood. "Rei, Iím serious," Shamus protested as Rei loaded his arms with wood. He adjusted his hold. "I donít want our marriage to be miserable for her. I want to make her happy. She deserves that. Any girl does." Rei stopped loading Shamusí arms. Shamus sighed and met the Worenís surprised expression. "Iím trying to... Iím doing my best to give her a reason to fall in love with me, Rei, because I know how much she wants that. Love, I mean. Do you know how... Can you help me?"
Rei crossed his arms. "Well doesnít this just beat all." Rei chuckled and shook his head. "Iím the wrong person to ask, Sammy. Sorry." He bent to load his own arms with wood. "She seems to like you, though. Donít worry about the rest of it. Just do what youíve been doing."
"But, Rei, I want her to love me. Thatís what she wants. She told me. She wants to love someone like Ryu-Ė I mean..."
Rei straightened, arms full. "Like Ryu and Momo?" Rei smirked. "Now thereís an odd pair, huh? Anyway, itís a little early to know what those two feel about each other. As for Nina, Iím telling you, Sammy, donít worry about it. Sheís a sweet enough girl. If she likes you, whoís to say she wonít love you a little later on? Keep at it."
Shamus released a deep breath. "Okay. Thanks, Rei."
"Sure thing. Now come on. The teaís getting cold, and Nina never was a very patient person."
Shamus raised an eyebrow. Nina? Not patient? Hm. Never wouldíve guessed. "Yeah. Okay. Iím coming."
Tea went too slow for Shamus. To his surprise, he kept pulling out his time-piece and checking the time. He didnít want to excuse himself too early, it wouldíve been rude, but he did want to get back home. And whyís that, Sammy boy? Hmm? His ears flushed each time he thought about it. But finally, the tea had grown lukewarm and Nina stood with a smile as she told Rei that they had dinner plans to prepare for before it grew much later.
Shamus raised an eyebrow but didnít deny it. Rei smirked as he stood, embracing her, nodding to Shamus, and then sending the couple on their way.
As Shamus and Nina walked the winding path from the cabin and then made their way through Cedar Woods to the main road leading around McNeil to his home, he noticed that her wings had begun a softly rhythmic pattern. It wasnít anything extreme, but it was continuous and very... relaxing? Shamus cleared his throat.
Nina took in a deep breath, releasing it slowly as she sent him a sidelong glance. She adjusted her hands behind her. "Shamus, I didnít mean McNeil. Earlier."
Shamusí mouth went dry. He sent her a glance as he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his simple trousers. He balled his hands into fists. "Earlier?" Donít get cold feet now, Sammy boy. "W-When you said you..." He cleared his throat. Just spit it out. "When you said you wanted to get to know McNeil better?"
Nina slightly nodded, her focus moving to the path ahead. "I meant you," she confessed softly. "I just didnít want to embarrass you in front of Rei."
Shamus swallowed. "Yeah. I know." He glanced her direction. "Thanks."
Nina stopped, her eyes still focused on the path at her feet as her wings continued their rhythmic pulse. Shamus stopped as well and faced her. A lump grew in his throat and stomach that would soon be the size of a mountain. Is this the time when I need to tell her how I feel? Or do I need to wait a little bit? Weíve only known each other for a couple daysĖ-
"Shamus, I know weíve only known each other for a couple days, but..." Ninaís cheeks flushed an attractive rose before she raised her gaze to meet his.
Shamusí breath caught in his throat as his thoughts scattered. Sammy boy, hold on to yourĖ-
"I genuinely care for you, Shay," she confessed softly, "and while I suppose itís silly to hope to fall in love, thatís what I want. I thought you should know, so that you could tell me if you would rather I not try."
Shamus would have searched around the ground at his feet for his heart, but all he could see was the beautiful expression in her blue eyes. "Y-Youíre... Youíre going to try and fall in love with me?" he whispered.
Nina gave a slight nod, and her wings paused the barest hint of a moment before continuing their relaxing and soothing pulse. "I made the decision today during tea." She intensely examined his expression, eyes slightly wide. "Is that all right? If it makes you uncomfor--"
"No!" Shamus responded quickly, vigorously shaking his head as his hands escaped from his pockets to stretch toward her. "No. Thatís fine. Really." Should I tell her? Or would that scare her too bad? Shamus nearly groaned aloud.
Nina smiled, her loveliness intensified with the action. "I havenít ever tried to fall in love before, Shamus, so I donít know quite how to do it. I hope youíll be patient with me."
Shamus nodded with a bit more enthusiasm than he wanted, and he actually grinned. "Of course, Nina."
Nina giggled. "You should see your expression," she said as she pointed.
Shamus felt his ears burn, but he didnít care. Sheís going to try and fall in love with me! It was definitely more than what heíd wanted to hope for. Before he could stop himself, he scooped her up in his arms to give her a warm embrace. He was so enthused that he lifted her clear off the ground, chuckling the entire time.
Nina squealed. "My goodness!"
Shamus held her close as he whispered, "Take as long as you need, princess. Iíll wait. You see, I already love you." He thought he heard a slight hiccup, so he gently lowered her to the ground, pulling back to meet her wide-eyed gaze.
"W-What?" she whispered.
Uh-oh. Shamus cleared his throat and released his hold on her arms, rubbing at the back of his neck as he lowered his gaze to the ground. Sammy boy, you just donít know when to keep it shut, do you?
Nina reached out to touch his arm, drawing his attention back. "What did you say?"
Shamusí ears reddened. "Well I... I said..." He cleared his throat again. Thereís nothing wrong with what you said, so say it again. "I said Iím already in love with you," he confessed between glances.
Nina pulled back her hand, leaning slightly back as she shielded her mouth with a soft gasp. After another moment of a somewhat uncomfortable silence, she lowered her hand. "B-But... But weíve known each other for only... But how?"
Shamus looked away as he tucked his hands back in his pockets. He kicked at a dirt clod. "Because I wanted to."
"I... I donít understand."
Shamus sent her a glance. Sure enough, her expression showed confusion. "Before I met you," he began carefully, "I made the decision to love you. I..." He cleared his throat and looked away. "I know it probably sounds hokey, but I wanted to love my wife."
Shamus nodded, sending her yet another glance. Ninaís cheeks were rosy, and her eyes glimmered. He looked away. "Of course, loving you isnít all that hard, Nina," he said softly, ears burning. "Youíre pretty. And youíre sweet. And youíre... well, it just wasnít hard."
He heard a delicate sniff. "What a darling thing to say," she whispered.
Silence settled over them, and Shamus could feel her regarding him with that same intense gaze heíd seen her use before. He kicked at another dirt clod, not really sure if he should say something more or let things go the way they were. At least you were honest. Shamus nearly rolled his eyes.
He heard a soft footfall and looked to his left. He smiled somewhat sheepishly and gave Nina a slight shrug. "Sorry. Iím an oaf."
Nina smiled as she shook her head. "No, you arenít, Shamus. Iím glad you told me. I am."
He lowered his focus to his feet. "Couldnít I have said it better? Somehow? I kind of sprung it on you."
"Itís all right." Nina stepped closer and surprised him by wrapping her arms around him. She pressed her cheek against his chest. "Really. It is."
Shamus enfolded her within his arms, all the while careful of her delicate wings. He released a slow breath. "Okay," he whispered.
And Shamus couldnít get himself to believe theyíd just had that conversation. Do things like this happen to me? No. They donít. Is this legal? Yes. It is. Weíre already married... Tell me again the reason I married a princess? Oh yeah... her father wanted me to... protect her.
Shamus smiled. "Yeah, princess?"
"What does it feel like?"
"Feel like? What?"
"Being in love."
Shamus pulled back with a blink of surprise. "Havenít you been in love before, princess?"
Nina picked at the front buttons of his vest. "I donít know. I love my friends, and I love my parents, and I love my horses, but..." She raised her eyes. "But what does it feel like to love someone who isnít just a friend? Is it the same, but different? Can you tell me?"
Shamus felt his heart and soul melt completely as he smiled. "This is a pretty deep discussion, princess, and whatís true for me might not be true for you."
Nina shook her head, eyes still slightly wide. "It doesnít matter. If I have something to compare, wonít that make it easier to know if Iím in love with you or not?"
"Well, that certainly makes sense," he agreed with a slight nod, "but sometimes being in love with someone is a choice. Like mine."
"You mean the emotion stems from the choice?" she asked, and her expression showed a captivating expression of intrigue.
Shamus nodded. "Basically. I decided to love you, and so I looked for a reason to do that." He winked at her. "Itís very easy with you." Hey. Itís easier to flirt when she knows how I feel. Hm.
Nina flushed, but she held his gaze. "Perhaps then, since Iíve decided to fall in love with you, itíll be easier?"
"Could be. Depends on how ornery I am," he said with a serious expression.
Nina giggled. "I donít believe you could be anything but charming," she said as she gently pushed at him.
Shamus smiled. This is fun. He motioned ahead. "Come on, princess. We better head back before Ed thinks I donít want to eat his cooking anymore."
"All right." She fell into step beside him, intensely scrutinizing the ground at her feet.
Shamus watched her profile. "You want me to tell you anyway?"
"Pardon?" she asked as she moved her wide eyed expression to his face.
"What it feels like to love you?" And it felt odd to say it.
Ninaís blush heightened, but her expression remained serious as she nodded. "Do you mind?"
Shamus smiled wide. "Of course I donít mind, Iím just not the most poetic person in the world."
This time she smiled. "You donít have to be poetic to tell meÖ to tell me why you love me, do you?"
Shamus shrugged and looked away. "No, I guess I donít, but it would be kind of nice if I could. Donít you think?"
"I suppose so. I havenít had anyone tell me they love me before. It sounded poetic just the way you said it. You know? With your tone of voice."
Shamusí ears burned as he smiled over at her. Her cheeks were nearly as rosy when she met his gaze. "Thanks, princess." He continued to look at her until she smiled and looked away with a self-conscious flutter of wing. Shamusí lips twitched upward. "I never get tired of looking at your face, for one," he said softly. Am I really doing this? "I like watching the expressions in your eyes and the way you smile. It makes me feel like I have about a million rippers in my stomach all flapping their wings at once."
Ninaís lips were caressed with a smile as she delicately clenched her hands behind her back.
Shamus cleared his throat and looked away. "UmÖ letís see. What else?" But Shamusí mind wouldnít cooperate. Finally, he shook his head, which drew Ninaís attention. "Iím sorry, princess," he said while sending her a glance. "I just canít concentrate. IÖ I guess Iím overwhelmed with the whole ĎIím going to try and fall in love with youí thing." Shamus smiled at her and pointed at the clouds. "I feel like Iím up there and down here with you at the same time. Itís kind ofÖ nice."
"Iím glad," she said in a relieved tone. "I thought perhaps you wouldnít appreciate it. It seemed that you were trying to be my friend, but I didnít know how much furtherÖ" Nina cleared her throat with a delicate melody and peeked up at him out of the corner of her eyes. "I mean, I know what you said when we came home from the ceremony, but I thoughtÖ I thought that perhaps you did it so my feelings wouldnít be hurt."
Shamus shook his head. "Nina, IÖ I told you the truth about not taking liberties."
"SoÖ" Nina fully met his gaze. "So if it were my choice to share a room, that would be all right?"
Shamusí mouth went dry, killing all possibility of speaking. He swallowed hard several times before risking it. "What?"
"If I didnít want to have a separate room anymore, you would respect that decision?" she asked, interest and curiosity mingling in her expression.
Speech vanished yet again, so Shamus only gave a slight nod.
"Oh. All right. Iíll keep that in mind." Nina smiled and slipped her hand into his to lead him gently forward. "Can we have plums and whipped cream for dessert this evening? Do you think Ed would mind?"
So Shamus was drawn into a conversation about dessert and the plum grove there in Cedar Woods and the possibility of letting her choose a horse as her very own the next day. Shamus somehow drew himself away from her previous subjects of shared rooms and trying to fall in love with him to do his best to answer with some inkling of intelligence. If he was still distracted, Nina didnít seem to notice. If she did notice, she didnít comment. She only smiled and laughed and giggled along with him as she held his hand and tried to fall in love with him.
Did you justÖ?
Nina stared at the ceiling of her room. She should have gone down to breakfast nearly 30 minutes before, but she couldn't pull herself out of bed. She kept thinking over the few days with her new husband, and the things said, the expressions seen, the touches shared... and that last confession of love which had so surprised her. If he can make the decision and fall in love, can't I do the same? She had already told herself it would be easy to grow fond of him. What step is required? Just a decision to love?
Nina released a sigh as she pulled the covers up about her. Something kept her back from the decision, and she thought she knew what it was: Ryu. A release waited in his hands. She needed to have him tell her... something. Nina frowned. Do I? Do I really? She had married. Ryu had passed by every opportunity to confess a feeling. Instead, he had sent her a note letting her know that he was going to spend more time with Momo. That was my release, she told herself. She sighed.
tap-tap-tap "Nina? Are you feeling okay?"
Nina sighed again. Am I?
Nina sat up and adjusted the blankets around her. Then she straightened her pale pink satin pajamas and said, "Come in, Shamus."
Hesitation and silence. Then the doorknob turned and the door slowly opened. Shamus glanced toward the bed with flushed ears and cheeks before closing the door and stepping toward her. He sat in the chair beside, busy with an examination of his hands.
"You alright?" he asked softly, and he punctuated the question with a concerned glance to her face.
"Thinking," she said vaguely, softly, examining her fingers and the blankets, and her own heart.
"Can I help?"
Nina sighed again, moving her gaze to his face. He met it. "I'm not sure, Shamus."
"You need to be alone? You need to talk?"
Nina leaned back in the pillows as she refocused her attention on her hands as they picked at the blanket. "I don't understand why my feelings for you stop at fondness," she admitted, and she could hear the frustration. Nina looked over at him again. "Thereís no passion, Shay, and I don't understand why."
Shamus lowered his gaze with a clearing of his throat. "Nina, um... I haven't done anything like that. That's why there's no..."
"But shouldn't I feel the desire before that?"
Shamus cleared his throat again. "Not necessarily," he said. "You've led a sheltered life... mostly."
Nina looked away, recalling that she hadn't felt a desire with Ryu either. She looked back to Shamus, who watched her expression. "Could you--"
"Nina," Shamus interrupted as he stood, "I told you I won't do that."
"But Shamus, I know I feel something when you caress my hand or my face," she pressed. "Could you kiss me?"
Shamus swallowed hard and backed away a step. "I... I better go." He turned and made his way to the door.
"Shamus," Nina protested. "Wait." She scrambled from the bed to hurry after him, catching his hand before he passed through to the hall. "It's just a kiss."
He clenched his jaw briefly before looking down at her. "Nina, there's no such thing. Not with me where you're concerned. I don't want to put you in a spot like that."
Nina shook her head. "I don't understand."
Shamus smiled and reached up to touch her cheek. Again Nina felt the tingle of a hint of something waiting. "I know," he said. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and then motioned back into her room. "Get dressed, princess. We're going to get you a horse."
His expression wouldn't let her argue further. Instead, she smiled. "All right. I'm sorry."
"It's alright. I get why you're frustrated. Been there myself. I'll try to think of something to help. Okay?"
Nina gave a nod, still smiling. "I appreciate it."
He touched her nose. "Sure. I'll meet you downstairs."
Nina nodded again, reluctantly releasing his hand. He smiled down at her a moment more before exiting her room and closing the door after him. Nina released a slow breath and turned to her room. It had been there. The tingle. The hint of expectation. A bated breath. What is it? Love? She needed to keep after it.
Shamus rubbed at his scalp and neck as he made his way downstairs. Just a kiss? He shook his head. He knew that she tried her hardest to 'fall in love', and sharing a kiss would have been a natural choice to help it along. But you know better than anyone what would happen. Don't you? And the fact they were married and she tried to love him and he was already in love would have chosen the direction.
Shamus cleared his throat, ears burning. Sammy boy, I hope you chose right. She's floundering and you know it. What're you going to do to help? He scrubbed at his scalp again, releasing a slow breath as he lowered himself onto the final step. 'Thereís no passion, Shay...' Shamus rubbed his hands together to try and forget just how much passion there was. But to her, passion wouldn't necessarily mean love. He knew it. Shamus gave a shake of his head. Oh boy....
Nina hesitated at the top of the stairs when she saw him sitting on the bottom step. Surprisingly, a tear pricked at her eyes and she found herself biting her lip. I want to love him. Really. I do. He deserves as much happiness as I do, and it's cruel to keep him on the outside. Though she tried to usher him in by telling stories of her childhood and her adventures. Shamus enjoyed the stories, she could tell, and they almost seemed to brighten the expression in his eyes.
The stories told of him and by him had helped increase the fondness, and there had always been an initial attraction. He was handsome. So why canít I...? Frustration rose, but Nina fought it back as she stepped down the stairs to sit beside him. She reached out and covered his clasped hands with her left one.
Shamus moved one of his hands to cover it, giving her a smile as he looked over at her. "I've been thinking myself, princess."
"Oh?" She liked the fact that he genuinely attempted to help. How many others would have refused her offer of a kiss?
He nodded, and his smile softened. "You know what? That's the problem. We're thinking too much."
"But I said I would at least try to love you," Nina reminded.
Shamus nodded again. "I know you did, so don't worry about it past that. You've decided to do that. Great. If you push at it, you're just going to keep feeling frustrated when it hides from you. You know?"
Nina's eyes widened. "My goodness. You might be right. So... So then what should I do?"
Shamus' smile grew to a boyish twinkle. "Just have fun. Relax. Be yourself. I'll do the same thing."
"And that will make a difference?"
Shamus nodded. "Yep."
Nina looked ahead with a serious expression. Forget about it. Be myself. Just have fun. She smiled, and it felt as if a huge weight were lifted from her shoulders. She moved her smiling eyes back to Shamus' face. He continued to watch her, and his boyish smile had softened to something much different. Nina liked it when he looked at her that way. No one else ever had. She felt a flutter within, and her breath caught with hope. Then she set it carefully aside and relaxed into the flutter, enjoying its timid presence.
"I feel better already," she confessed.
"I can tell," he said softly.
Nina she lowered her gaze to their clasped hands. "No one has ever looked at me as you do, Shay. I like it."
He caressed under her chin with a single finger, raising her eyes from their intense scrutiny. "Thanks for saying that, princess. It feels nice."
Nina's lips danced in a smile and the flutter changed.
Shamus gave her hand a brief squeeze. "Come on, princess. Let's grab you some breakfast - Ed made plum muffins for you - and get you a horse."
She nodded, her smile brightening as they stood and made their way to the kitchen. "May we ride some? It feels as if I haven't ridden in ages."
"I'd feel better if we gave them a chance to get used to you. They're a bit high-strung; not that I don't think you could handle them."
They turned into the dining room and headed for the kitchen. "I don't mind waiting, but only if you promise to take me out in the carriage."
He held the kitchen door for her with one hand, smiling down at her as the other led her past. "My pleasure, princess. Do you mind if we go to an old fishing hole of mine?"
Shamus released the door and let it swing shut behind them as he stood beside her. Nina looked up into his smiling face with wide eyes. "Will you teach me how to fish? I've always wanted to learn. Please, Shay. Teach me how to fish."
Shamus chuckled. "Only because you said 'please, Shay'."
Nina giggled and then focused her attention on Ed the same as Shamus.
"Hey Ed, can we get a bunch of those muffins to take with us? We're going to my old fishing hole after getting her highness a horse."
"Sure thing. I just finished a fresh batch of cider. You want that, too?"
"That would be great. Just set it out on the porch. I'll stop by and get it on our way back from the stables."
"You got it. Princess," Ed greeted with a nod.
"Ed." She smiled and found herself giving Shamus' hand a gentle squeeze as she stepped a little closer.
"Well we're off, Ed. make something special for dinner."
Then Shamus guided Nina from the kitchen, through the dining room to the main hall, and then toward the back of the house. They took the door on the right.
At the sound of the horses, eagerness and anticipation brightened her smile and tightened her grasp on Shamus' hand. "I so adore horses. It's like flying when I ride."
"Yeah, I guess it is," he said thoughtfully.
When Shamus led her to the corralled mares, Nina released a long slow breath. "Oh Shay... They're lovely."
Shamus helped her step up onto the first rail of the fence and then stood close beside her, a hand on her back to steady her. Black, chestnut, roan, dapple gray, pale white, and golden yellow they were lovely and spirited visions of grace in nature.
"How will I possibly choose?" she whispered.
"Good question. Hm. Let's see." He looked over at her, and she met his gaze. "Can you whistle?"
Nina nodded. "Yes. Should I?"
One side of Shamus' lips lifted. "Sure. See what happens."
"All right." Nina moved her attention back to the horses and whistled long and loud.
"Hey. That was a good one."
Nina glanced toward him, giggling. "Rei taught me."
Shamus motioned to the corral with a brief tilt of his head. "Look, princess. Someone's coming to say 'hi'."
Nina's eyes widened as she looked. A white mare with a mane and tail of bluish-gray trotted over. "Shay, she's beautiful. What's her name?"
Lady slowed to an elegant walk and gave a delicate shake of her head. Once she reached the fence, she extended her soft velvet nose toward Nina with a cordial whinny.
"Hello, Lady. It's so nice to meet you," Nina whispered. She stroked the nose and bit her lower lip. "Shay, I couldn't have this one... Could I?"
Shamus gently rubbed Nina's back. "You sure can, princess. If Lady's the one you want."
Nina wordlessly nodded, accepting Lady's greeting nuzzle with a teary smile.
"Okay then. Lady's yours."
Lady nodded her head with yet another polite whinny before giving Nina's hand a farewell nuzzle and then stepping away.
Nina watched the mare with teary eyes. "No one has ever..." She turned her head to meet Shamus' gaze. He softly smiled. "I don't know how to thank you, Shay."
He took hold of her hand and helped her down, then he held the other. "Are you kidding? The look on your face is enough."
She sniffed and smiled. "You are so sweet."
Shamus chuckled. "Just to you. Now come on. Let's go get our basket."
Shamus released one hand while tenderly holding the other. Nina wiped away a tear. "Did you know that she would be the one to come?"
"Nope. It could've been Tabby, the sorrel over there. Or Agnes, the black with the white fetlock. I was kind of expecting Winter, the dapple. She's usually more sociable than Lady." Shamus grinned over at Nina. "Lady's a bit of a snob. She'll only come to me and never the stable hands. I'm kind of glad she came to you."
Nina wordlessly nodded as she looked away.
Shamus gave her hand a couple squeezes. "Hey," he said gently, "what's the matter?"
Nina shook her head, wiping away another tear. "Nothing. Really. I only haven't ever been given a horse as lovely as Lady before. Not without some expectation or trade, bread or trade rights or the like..." Nina looked to her right and met Shamus' slightly wide eyes filled with concern and care. "It touches me more than you know, Shay. Thank you. So much."
Shamus' expression relaxed into a smile. "Nina, everything I have is yours, not just Lady. The house. The carriages. The stock. Everything."
Nina blinked and halted. "Truly?"
Shamus' smile widened slightly. "Of course, princess. You're my wife, which means you have equal say in what goes on around here. That's why I want you to be involved." He examined her expression. "Sorry. I guess I forgot to tell you that."
Nina stared up at him, dumbfounded. She had reasoned that she would be minutely involved with the populace of McNeil, as per her duties as hostess, but she had never thought to include the business aspect of McNeil in that circle of involvement. That he trusted her to that extent touched her even deeper than his gallantry and patience up to that point.
Nina lifted a hand to lightly touch the skin of his left cheek with her fingertips. "Thank you, Shamus. Thank you so very much."
Shamus swallowed hard, and his lips quivered in a brief smile. "My pleasure," he whispered.
Nina gently smiled as she lowered her hand from his face... but she could still feel the warmth of his cheek on her fingers. Nina's smile faded somewhat as she lowered her eyes to an examination of her hand. Shamus took the opportunity to again lead her forward. Nina touched each fingertip with her thumb, yet they all felt the same. Then whyÖ?
"Hey there, Shamus. I put the muffins and cider in the carriage," Ed said as they made their way through the main hall. "Hope you have fun. Catch me a big one. I'll cook it up nice."
"Sure thing, Ed. Thanks."
Nina drew her attention away from her fingers with a bit of effort and looked over at Shamus. He intercepted her gaze with a smile, and the confusion was instantly forgotten.
"Did you want to go straight to the fishing hole?"
Nina smiled. "Could we? It's been ages since I watched Ryu fish. He became quite good."
"I'm not so bad myself," Shamus offered easily. "Maybe I'll have him come over for a day of it?" He moved his gaze ahead of them before seeing Nina's reaction. Her smile disappeared. "Of course, I won't really have time once the mares start to foal. And the harvest is going to start soon, too. I'll have to wait I guess." Shamus snapped. "I need to have Momo come out and fix the clock in my office. Seems to me it's making weird noises."
Shamus helped Nina up into the carriage and stepped up to sit beside her. Then he took up the reins and urged the horse forward. Nina stared at her hands as she mulled over the possibility. If Shamus invited Momo for an actual necessity, wouldn't that make my apology more believable? Nina wrinkled her nose.
Nina felt a nudge. She looked over at Shamus with a question.
He smiled at her. "What're you thinking about that's got you wrinkling your nose like a rabbit? It's cute."
Nina flushed. "I was thinking of Momo and the possibility of giving her an apology."
Shamus' expression grew serious. "You want that I should invite her? Or both of them?"
Nina looked away, moving her focus to her hands. "Both. Yes. I believe that would be good."
"Okay. I'll send a messenger tomorrow. Can I be honest in the note? Or leave it simple."
Nina met his eyes. "Whatever you feel is best."
He briefly nodded as he clucked at the horse. Then he sent her a glance accompanied by a smile. "How about I let you read the note before I send it?"
Nina's expression softened from seriousness to a smile. "I would like that. Thank you."
"My pleasure, princess."
He changed his focus back to the horse, but Nina continued to watch his profile. The smiling lips. The constant shadow of beard. Auburn curls tickled by the breeze and forever teasing his forehead and ears. Bright, expressive green eyes. And his hearty laugh that always brought a smile to her face.
Nina tilted her head, still examining his face and her reaction to it. There wasn't one. No sigh. No flutter. Nina frowned and looked away, crossing her arms with an exasperated breath. For heaven sake! Am I a woman or a stone?
"Nina," Shamus queried with a chuckle, "what's got you so tweaked?"
"You've a nice face, and I don't feel a single flutter while looking at it." She faced Shamus with hands outstretched, eyes wide. "Am I stone that I donít feel anything when looking at a handsome face?"
Shamusí ears flushed, and he blinked as he glanced over at her. "You think I'm handsome?"
Nina lowered her hands, eyes registering surprise. "Of course."
His ears reddened as he looked away with a slight smile. "That's good."
"I'm sorry. I should have said something before." And why didn't you? Nina pressed her lips together as she quickly thought of what-- "I believe I like your laugh the best," she told him. "It always brings a smile to my face..." Nina took up another scrutiny of his profile. "Then again, I like your eyes, too. They're such a pretty shade of green. And they actually do brighten when you smile. I never noticed that with anyone else."
Nina smiled and reached up to brush some curls from his now red ears. "And I really do believe you have the most attractive auburn curls. They're so soft, and the color is a perfect compliment to your face and eyes."
Shamus cleared his throat as he adjusted his hold on the reins.
Nina's eyes crinkled at the corners as she gently touched his ear. "The most adorable tendency to blush," she giggled, and the flutter happened then. Nina blinked with an audible gasp.
Shamus pulled up on the reins and looked at her, concern evident. "What's the matter? Did you get stung?"
Nina slowly shook her head as she held his gaze. They had darkened to the deepest emerald... "No," she whispered. "I-I'm fine."
She nodded, watching his expression with an odd feeling as his eyes lightened to their normal green.
Shamus smiled. "Whew. Don't do that to me, princess."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay." He clucked the horse back into a walk. "So what gave you a fright, besides my red ears from all the attention."
Nina giggled while vaguely noticing a growing warmth within. "I do apologize for that."
"The attention? Don't." He sent her a glance. "I like how you do it."
Nina's eyes crinkled at the corners, and she found herself smoothing more of his curls from his ear using her fingers. There was a surprising tightening in her chest, so she lowered her hand to clasp it with the other as she looked straight ahead.
Shamus glanced her way again. "Nina? What gave you the fright?" he pressed gently.
"I..." Nina tucked some blonde hair behind an ear as she intercepted a glance. She reluctantly smiled, albeit a little timidly. "After all that fuss I made at not feeling anything when looking at you, I got a fright when it came." She laughed at herself. "I'm a silly thing, aren't I?"
Shamusí hold on the reins bobbled before he sent her a glance. "...Really?"
The warmth grew, and her smile softened. "And when I touched your cheek, and smoothed your hair... It's small, but it's there."
Shamus cleared his throat as he adjusted his hold and his position on the seat. "Just have fun, Nina," he reminded softly. He glanced her way again, momentarily meeting her eyes. He smiled. "There's no rush. I'm not going anywhere."
Again Nina felt the relief at the reminder, and the release of any pressure. She wrapped her arm around his and nodded. "Just have fun," she repeated.
He balanced the reins in his left hand as he reached over with his right to caress hers. "I should try to list your lovelies like you did for me," he said gently. "Only, I'm an--"
"Shamus, please don't say that word," Nina objected with a serious look at him.
Shamus cleared his throat and pulled his hand away. "Sorry."
"I've never found you to be anything but gallant and kind-hearted." She moved her focus to her hand and his arm and began to absently smooth and fuss with the cuff of his long-sleeved shirt. "You do so try to understand me, even when I don't understand myself. How is that anything but a gentleman?"
Shamus smiled at her. "It's easy to be a gentleman with you, princess. You always give me the chance. That's one of the things I love about you."
Nina brushed a non-existent stray lock of hair behind her ear at a slight twitter within. "I've met many different types of people, Shay. Most 'common' men and women hold as much honor as those people having wealth and position. I suppose I decided to give all the same courtesy."
"Yep. Ed. Rei. Me. You treat us all the same. Even though you're a princess in all sense of the word."
Nina smiled. "Please. The flattery will surely go to my head."
He chuckled as he turned the carriage down a somewhat bumpy and deserted-looking road. "I don't mind," he said softly.
And Nina liked hearing him say nice things like that.
Very few minutes later, Shamus pulled the carriage to a stop and leapt down after tying off the reins. He raised his arms toward her and carefully lifted her down with a gentle tone of "There you go," when he set her on her feet. Then he took hold of her hand and led her to the west and a nearly concealed path, fishing pole and basket in hand.
Greenery and perfection rose on each side, fragrant and soothing as only nature could be. "Shay," Nina breathed, "this is heavenly."
They followed the path to the end and then stepped past the brush to the rim of a pond and the slowly flowing creek that fed it.
"Oh my," Nina whispered, afraid to speak much louder lest she disturb the peaceful surroundings. She looked to Shamus, who softly smiled. "Shay, it's... it's gorgeous."
Shamus nodded. "I know. That's why I love it here." He met her gaze and gave her hand a squeeze. "Come on. Let's see if we can catch a fish before opening our basket."
The boyish eagerness on his face grabbed Nina's heart and drew a smile. "All right."
He set down the basket, took up the pole that rested across it, and then drew her forward. "Let's see. Where was my spot... Here it is." He led her to a lush bit of grass near the bank. Then he released her hand and started readying the pole. "We won't use any bait right at first. I just want to give you a chance to get used to the pole and the handling of it. Okay?"
"All right." Nina stepped closer as she watched his handling of the pole and the line. "I haven't ever even held a pole," she confessed. "Is it difficult?"
"Not very," he said, and he sent her a wink. "There's nothing to it, Nina. Promise." Shamus gestured her forward. "Come on. Stand over here."
Nina moved to stand beside him and took the offered pole. "How do I...?"
"Like this. One hand hereÖ The other hereÖ Oop." Shamus gently adjusted her hold. "Not so tight. There you go." He smiled and lowered his arms to his side. "Now keep your wrists loose as you draw the pole back and then whip it forward in the same motion. That will release the line. Give it a try."
Nina stared down at the pole with wide eyes. She looked up at him again and offered forward the pole. "Could you show me?"
Shamus nodded, still smiling. "Sure. Here." He took the pole, adjusted his hold, and then cast the line. "See? Just fluid follow-through." He met her gaze. "You want to try?"
Nina bit her lower lip as she stared across the pond. Shamus reeled in the line. She looked back over at him and caught his gaze. His expression looked a bit serious and concerned. "No, I don't think I will."
"Come on, Nina," he urged gently. "Just once. I'll help you."
Nina stared at the pole again, biting her lower lip as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She sent Shamus a glance, and he offered forward his hand. She released a deep breath and nodded.
"Good girl. Alright. Stand right here." Nina took Shamus' hand and moved to stand close beside him. He adjusted her position so that her back was to him. "Now take the pole. Easy gripÖ That's right." Shamus' arms surrounded her, careful of her wings, and his hands gently covered her hold on the pole. "Keep your wrists loose and just go with what I do. Okay?"
Nina nodded as her eyes stared at their hands on the pole. His breath on her neck feathering her hair... His warmth so close behind... His soft baritone voice... Nina blinked away a tear.
"Okay. Now I'm going to pull the pole back like you saw before. Here we go." He drew the pole back, Nina's upper body moving with his as he did... "And then we continue around in the same flow and let it fly." The line cast out with a somewhat musical buzz. "There now. That wasn't so hard. Now you draw it back in slowly. There you go. Support the pole with one hand and stabilize it against you as you reel in the line. Let me see..." He moved his head from side to side of her to check the position as the base of the pole rested against her. "Good girl. And in comes the line."
Nina stared down at the pole with tears in her eyes and a tightness in her chest, and she felt a shiver when Shamus removed his hands from hers to step away. Nina didn't move.
"You want to try it by yourself, or one more time together?"
The tightening and warmth within heightened, but she shook her head with a whispered "I'll try."
"Good girl. Easy hold, loose wrists... That's right. Pull back and around-- Wow! Look at it go!" Shamus stepped up beside her as he pointed out after the line. "You got quite a distance on that one." He looked back over at her, eyes brightly smiling. "Okay. Reel it in nice and slow. Then we'll try it with bait. I'll help you with that one in case you get a bite."
She wordlessly nodded as she drew in the line, stabilizing the pole as he'd instructed while questioning herself with what the tightness meant...
Shamus knelt and drew out a small knife to start digging at the grass at their feet. "This place always has the best worms-- And here's one right here." He looked up at her with a playful smile. "Give me the line."
Nina did, and then she watched with a distant expression and a growing warmth as he secured the worm onto the hook all the while chatting about his first not-so-pleasant experience doing the same as a child.
Shamus stood and offered her the line, noticing her smile with a slight raised eyebrow while not making comment. "Okay. Reel it in a little," he said as he moved in to stand behind her. "I'll stand here, but you have to do the cast."
"All right." Nina drew the pole back and whipped it forward, the line singing out along the pond to make a delightful 'ploosh' into the water.
"Beautiful," Shamus said with a smile in his voice. "Okay, now slowly draw it in... There you go." His arms surrounded her again, hovering near her hands. "Stop and let it sink a little... good. Okay, just tease the fish with it now. Just like that. Good girl."
Nina noticed a tremble in her hands and a collection of tears and an odd sensation... and blinked and swallowed it away as she tried to... concentrate... on the.... fish.
"Oop oop. I think I see a big one coming to investigate..." Shamus gently covered her hands with his. "Get ready. That first bite is a whopper."
Nina closed her eyes, releasing a slow breath before opening them again. She had never before felt such comfort and... eagerness?
"Did you feel the tug?" Shamus asked in a low tone.
"Yes," Nina whispered, for she had. Like a string tied directly around her heart, something gently pulled and drew her closer...
"One more and then he'll run with it," Shamus warned. "Get ready."
"I am." And it was the oddest feeling...
Tug, pull, and "screeeee" as the fish bolted with the bait and hook firmly submerged within it's mouth.
"Oop! There he goes. Hold on, princess!" Shamus warned with a chuckle and a smile. "Let him have it for a bit and then draw him in. Let him get the fight out of his system and calm down a bitÖ" The line continued to be drawn out until Shamus slowed its progress and began to draw it in, his hands coaxing hers into the reeling of the line. "Slow and steady. Pull back on the pole a bit. There you go. Come on big fella."
Shamus gently coached and guided Nina to the actions that drew the fish closer to the shore. Then he reached around to take up the line, carefully leaning against her as he drew the fish in and continued to help her support and hold the pole.
"Wow. That's a beaut," he said, smiling. "Here. Turn around here away from the shore, so he doesn't flop back in. Easy. Easy. Don't slip. Okay. Lower the pole a little. There. Hold it steady while I get the hook."
Shamus moved around from behind her, slowly releasing his hold on the pole once he had gauged her own. Then he knelt and began working at the fish's mouth as it flopped on the ground. Nina watched him, her face relaxing into a tender smile as she kept a firm grip on the pole and tension on the line, easing up or pulling it taut when he asked.
"You did great, Nina," Shamus praised as he intensely worked on the freeing of the hook. "Ease up a bit. There. That's good... gotcha!" He lifted the hook with a smile before looking to Nina. "Could you get the muffins and juice out of the basket? That way we can put this monster in there and not get all smelly."
"All right," she said softly. Nina set the pole down and went over to the basket, setting aside the muffins and juice in a daze at a realization she wasn't sure she wanted to hold too tight. She was almost afraid it would leave.
Nina brought the basket back over and knelt beside him as she set it close. "He's beautiful."
"Yep, and all slimy, too," Shamus chuckled. "Oop, oop, in you go." The fish squirmed its way straight into the basket. "There. Now we have dinner." He met her gaze with a continual boyish smile. "You want to see about getting another one?"
Nina nodded. "Could we?"
"Sure." He stood and helped her to her feet. "You need my help?"
She held his gaze with a serious expression. "Please?"
Shamus smiled. "Sure. I like how your wings tickle my arms and face."
Nina giggled and followed him back over to the shore, feeling very much the adolescent enjoying the attentions of her beau.
Shamus leaned against the carriage as he watched her. Nina. A Wyndian Princess dangling her feet in the cool water of a fishing hole. Fishing, joking, and telling stories of adventure over crumbly muffins and chugs of juice straight from the jug. Each day he knew her he found a different part to her intensity. A different depth to her. A new reason to love her: his wife.
Nina leaned back onto her elbows and kicked at the surface of the water, sending the spray up and over her. She giggled and Shamus sighed. Then he double-checked the security of the fish-holding basket Ė theyíd reeled in three of the huge fish Ė and made his way back over to her, barefoot as he was.
She welcomed him with a bright smile. "I would love to sleep out here," she confessed as Shamus sat down beside her. "Itís so lovely, and the ground is so soft, and the air smells so wonderfulÖ" Nina moved her gaze out to the pond and the surrounding brush. "Yes. I want to sleep out here."
Shamus leaned back on his elbows the same as her, their elbows almost touching. "Iíve done that once or twice."
Nina took in a deep breath, eyes closed as she released it slowly. Then she laid back completely, resting her hands behind her head as she continued to peacefully smile. Shamus watched her, fully believing he couldnít love her any more.
"Itís a thrill of adventure to sleep surrounded by so much beauty," she said.
Shamusí expression softened. "I canít argue with that," he agreed quietly, fully enjoying the beauty of her face and her smile and the brightness of her eyes.
"It scared me as a child, but I knew Ryu would keep me safe. Then I had Momo, and Garr, and ReiÖ I never knew a safer time." She opened her eyes and turned her head to meet his gaze, smiling. "Until now." Nina reached out and gently held his forearm, caressing it with her thumb and her very touch. "Thank you, Shay. Youíve given me a second home. Another place to feel safe."
Shamus couldnít look away, mesmerized as he was by the blue and the light and the sparkle within her eyes. He smiled. "My pleasure, princess," he said softly.
"I know, and that touches me the deepest of all."
Nina held his gaze a moment more before rolling onto her side and propping herself up onto her elbow. The action made her close enough for Shamus to feel her breath against his face and her knee touching his leg. Sammy boy, hold on toó
Nina leaned forward and touched his lips with hers, brief and soft. Shamus closed his eyes at the warm caress and brought his left hand around to gently hold her arm as he hesitantly touched her lips again. Nina accepted his kiss and gently returned it. Shamusí mind spluttered, conscious thought lost as his lips whispered against hers. Again she received and returned the gentle touch, almost seeming to smile against it.
Shamus forced himself to pull his lips from hers and sat fully upright. Nina followed his movements, sitting up and edging closer as she again touched his lips with hers, accentuating the touch by a feather-light caress of her fingers across his cheek. Protests vanished again, and Shamus vaguely recognized a feeling of horror as he returned her kiss and followed it with another.
One more lingering touch of her lips to his and then she lifted hers away, arms surrounding him as she snuggled against his chest with a sigh. Shamus stared down at the crown of her head with wide-eyes, arms encircling her of the their own volition as thoughts finally began to sluggishly flow. Sammy boy, did you justÖ? Did NinaÖ? Kissing? Nina?
"Hmm?" Her tone suggested a smile.
Shamus cleared his throat, finding it difficult to think when she held him so close and the memory of her soft lips still so freshÖ "Did you justÖ? Did weÖ?"
Ninaís wings began a soft rhythmic pulse as they had the night before, barely tickling the air. Ninaís arms adjusted their hold. "Yes." The rhythmic pulse continued, almost hypnotically calming.
Thoughts scattered and Shamus swallowed hard, desperately trying to figure what it meant and if he should ask and if he could kiss her again.
Shamus shrugged into his pale yellow shirt as he made his way to the door of his room. "Just a second." He fumbled with the first button and then stopped to open the door. He blinked, ears instantly flushing. "G-Good morning, Nina." He cleared his throat and looked down at the front of his shirt to try and hurry his progress with his buttons. It never worked that way.
"Good morning, Shamus." She stepped close and gently urged his hands out of the way. "Here. Let me help."
Shamus cleared his throat again, swallowing the rippers and flutters and bunches of other things at her presence outside his bedroom dressed in different shades of blue and looking very lovelyÖ "Th-thank you."
He still couldnít get himself to believe the kisses had happened, or the carriage ride home with her planning their next excursion to the fishing hole at the end of the week with tent and sleeping bags, or the laughter and held hands over the dinner of the fish they had caught together while sharing still more stories of the other. Then the quiet walk up stairs, the hesitation outside her room, and then the kiss on the cheek followed by a whispered "Good night, Shay" before she had disappeared behind the door. Shamus couldnítÖ No, he didnít want to think about what it could mean, for fear of getting his hopes up too high.
"There you go." She smoothed the front of his shirt with gentle strokes before looking up with a troubled smile. "Can we write that letter to Momo and Ryu now?"
Nina passed by him into his room before he could stop her, heading straight for his writing desk. Shamus swallowed hard and rubbed at the back of his neck. He looked at the door, propped it wide, and then stepped toward her. Nina almost seemed to clutch the back of the chair as she stood behind it.
Shamus stood beside her and rested a comforting hand on her shoulder, drawing her attention. "Are you okay, princess?"
She sent him a tremulous smile. "Iíll be all right."
Shamus didnít like seeing Nina troubled by something; it made her look frightened and smallÖ His hand lowered from her shoulder to take her hand and give it a gentle squeeze. Then he released it and moved to sit in the chair, Nina still behind him. "So, what did you want me to say in the letter?"
Nina stepped closer to the chair as Shamus gathered pencil and paper. Then she rested a hand on each of his shoulders and released a deep sigh. Her breath tickled his neck and pinked his ears, but he liked it and the soft pressure of her hands.
"Iím not certain," she sighed. "I want to apologize, but the apology they deserve shouldnít be drafted in a letter. I want to invite them to visit, but I want them to know that I am sincerely sorry for my choice and decision so that they will come." Nina sighed again, and her hands momentarily increased their slight pressure. "Shay, IÖ I donít know what to do."
He heard the tension of tears in her voice and reached up to enfold a hand in his, drawing her around to stand beside him. Sure enough, her blue eyes glistened like gems of sorrow. It hurt to see her like that.
Shamus took a gentle hold of her other hand as he stood. "Princess, why donít you write the letter? I think itíll help you feel better." He smiled and gave her hands a succession of squeezes before stepping away from the chair and offering it to her.
Nina hesitantly sat. "B-ButÖ What should I say? How should I address them? What would be--"
"NinaÖ" Shamus went down on one knee beside her. She slowly met his gaze. His smile softened even further as he rested one hand on the desk and one on the back of her chair. "Princess, itís alright. Just write what you feel. Theyíre your friends. They know you." He caressed her cheek. "Youíll do okay."
Nina smiled, and the glisten changed to a glitter as she leaned forward to embrace him. Shamus felt a bit of surprise, but he settled into the embrace and the warmth within with a smile as he enfolded her into his arms.
"Stay here as I write it, Shay," she whispered. "Please?"
He pressed his lips to the softness of her hair. "Sure."
Nina sniffed and pulled back, wiping the tears from her cheeks. When Shamus made a move to stand, Nina stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Her eyes searched out his. "Shamus, I need to talk to you about yesterday at the fishing hole. Please donít let me forget."
"Sure, princess," he agreed, ears burning, hope tumbling and rising at the same time, and mouth suddenly very dry.
She smiled and the room brightened. "Thank you." Nina changed her focus back to the letter. "All right."
She slowly lifted the pen and dated the letter, this time allowing Shamus to stand. He rested a hand gently on her shoulder.
"ĎDear Momo (and Ryu if present),í" Nina dictated as she wrote. "ĎI sincerely hope this letter finds you well, as I have missed your company and the adventures of laughter and heroic rescue we once shared.í" Nina sighed and lowered the pen to look over her shoulder to Shamus. "ShayÖ Shay, it doesnít soundÖ" Her lips tilted downward as she refocused on the letter.
"Keep going, Nina. Just work up to it," he urged gently.
Nina took up the pen again while softly biting her lower lip. "IÖ I donít know what to say."
"Then write that down." He crossed his arms, resting them along the back of the chair to bring his face beside hers. "Itís okay, princess," he whispered. "Youíre doing good. Keep going."
Nina sighed. "ĎMomo, I missed your presence at my wedding so few days past and hoped you and Ryu would come for a visit. Shamus has mentioned a misbehaving clock in his office and a desire to go fishing, but I sincerely wished to see your faces and talk.í" Ninaís voice broke. "ĎPlease come.í Signed ĎYour friend, Nina.í" She lowered the pen with a sniff and hugged herself as she stared at the paper.
Shamus rested his chin on his arm as he reread it. "Itíll do good, princess. Just wait. Theyíll come."
"I hope so," she whispered. Nina tilted her head to the side and touched his. "I hope so."
Shamus smiled as he gave her head a gentle nudge with his. "Come on. Letís give it to the messenger and go have some breakfast. Then we can go walk around in the garden and you can talk to me about the fishing hole." Shamus had no idea how he sounded so unconcerned.
He straightened and gave her shoulders a couple fond rubs as she took up the letter and folded it, sealing it into an envelop which she labeled ĎMomo at Repsolís Tower, Eastern Wyndia. Ryu, guest of same.í Then she stood and stared down at it a moment before looking to Shamus. He smiled and reached out a hand. Nina looked again to the letter before placing it deliberately into his hand.
Shamus offered his other. "Come on, Nina," he coaxed. "Donít worry."
Nina slipped her hand into his and followed beside him out of the room and downstairs. "I just feel as if I didnít say enough."
"You can say it when they get here," he reminded. He caught the attention of a passing young man on his way outside. "Richard, can you take this to Sydney and have him deliver it as soon as possible?"
"Sure thing, boss." The young man took the letter, nodded to Nina with a smile and a greeting of "Princess," before stepping again toward the outside.
"Sydís the best messenger Iíve got. Heíll get it there in no time. Knows every shortcut." Shamus tucked her hand around his arm and led her to the dining hall.
He halted and looked down at her, still smiling. "Sure."
She met his gaze with a soft expression. "Can we talk first?"
"Sure. I havenít given Rufus his morning run yet. You mind?"
Nina shook her head. "Is he in back?"
Shamus nodded and then moved toward the back of the front hall. "I usually throw a stick around and wrestle with him first thing. I slept in this morning. Just couldnít get up." Shamus felt his ears go red, mostly because heíd spent most of the morning reliving their kisses the previous afternoon.
"Neither could I. Same as yesterday."
Shamus remembered all-too-well what had preoccupied her then. A lack of passion and the request of a kiss. And didnít she get one? But what a kiss! It had been a perfect ending to a perfect scene.
Shamus opened the door for her and ushered her past to the dogrun beyond. Rufus barked a greeting and bounded toward them, tongue lolling out of his mouth as his tail wagged a furious and ecstatic welcome.
"Hey, Rufus. Did you miss me?" Shamus asked. He released Ninaís hand to kneel and scrub the dog behind his ears. "Good morning, big fella. Hope you donít mind me spending so much time with princess. Been helping her get settled in."
Rufus grumbled and groaned, but only because Shamus had found the spot behind his ears. Nina giggled and knelt beside them. "I believe as long as you keep scratching that spot, Rufus wonít care a bit."
"Yeah, you like that dontcha. Right there." Shamus laughed and then pushed Rufus back. "Whereís your toy, Ruf? Huh? Go get your stick! Go on!"
Rufus turned and bounded back to the boundary of his dogrun, sniffing and searching for the requested item. Shamus gave a shake of his head as he moved to sit on the grass. He watched Nina do the same. "SoÖ" But his smile wouldnít fade, even with all the negative possibilities that tried to steal his blissful ignorance.
Nina wrapped her arm around her legs as she drew them close. "Iím glad you took me fishing," she began carefully. "I had great fun."
Shamus changed his focus to Rufus, who still searched for his toy. "So did I."
"I also discovered many things about myself and my thoughts and feelings for you."
Shamus leaned back on his hands, stretching his legs out in front of him. He still smiled. He couldnít stop. Sammy boy, I do believe youíve lost your mind. "Iím glad I could help," he said softly.
"And you did," she told him as she faced him. He met her gaze, a brilliant blue. "You continue being steady and warm, and trustworthyÖ allowing me to feel safe and secure and welcomeÖ You never ridicule me, or force your attentions on me, or disrespect meÖ ShayÖ" Ninaís serious expression softened to the most wonderful smile heíd seen. "Shamus McNeil, you let me see who you are and give me every reason and opportunity to not only be your friend, but to grow even more fond. Youíve even confessed your own feelings, which encourages me to try for something deeper. An emotion Iíve dreamed of experiencing since childhood."
Nina looked away, still smiling as she watched Rufus amuse himself by chasing a goblin around the yard. "When you took me fishing, little did I know you would actually draw my heart to yours." She met his gaze, which now looked a little dazed. "That was why I kissed you. The day had been so perfect and lovely. You were so boyishly charming. I felt so much like I dreamed I would when falling in loveÖ I had to kiss you. To seal the feeling inside. To answer the expression in your eyes. To proveÖ To prove so many things to myself."
Shamus stared at her with an expression of amazement. "NinaÖ" He sat up. "Princess, do youÖ?"
Ninaís smile widened as she nodded. "I feel it, Shay. Like a flood of warmth and an eagerness to please and comfort and shareÖ I could hardly sleep last night for wanting to talk to you about it."
Shamus stared at her, but Rufus bounded over and into him before he could respond or react. In fact, Rufus was so exuberant about finding his toy, that he knocked Shamus over.
"Rufus!" Shamus complained, laughing as the dog licked and slobbered all over his face. "Rufus, you big lummox, I was having a deep conversation with my wife. Get off!" Shamus tossed away the dogís toy and Rufus charged after it, barking the entire way.
Nina moved to lay on her stomach beside Shamus, propped up on her crossed arms as she smiled down into his face.
Shamus put his hands behind his head. "I could stay like this for a long time."
Nina shook her head. "I will need your help with a few things."
He adjusted his hands behind his head. "Sure. Like what."
"Such as moving my things into your room."
Shamus sat up. "What?"
Nina giggled. "Shamus, be careful. Youíre going to hurt yourself."
He faced her completely. "Nina, think about this a second--"
"I have. All night and most of this morning. This is the other subject I needed to talk to you about." Nina moved to a kneeling position, sitting back on her heels. "I understand that sharing a bedroom is a large step, especially in trust, but I want to keep moving forward. Sharing our bedroom is the next logical step."
Shamus swallowed hard. Is this happening? "Of course, if you want, I justÖ"
Nina nodded, smiling. "I know, and I appreciate that, but--"
Rufus interrupted with a nudge and a lick, fussing and grumbling and yipping for the toy until Shamus tossed it far away. Then he refocused slightly wide eyes on Nina.
She continued to smile. "There will still be the two beds, and I hadnít planned on moving anything around Ė itís still your room Ė but I wanted to at least take that step forward." Her smile slowly faded to seriousness. "Shay, I donít want to make anything difficult for you. If youíd rather not, I do understand."
Shamus lowered his gaze to the grass as he rubbed at the back of his neck. "Itís not that, NinaÖ well, not really. I meanÖ" He met her gaze. "Sure you can move your stuff, princess. I justÖ" He cleared his throat and looked away again. Yeah. How do I say that?
Nina reached out and covered his hand with hers. "I know, Shay. Really. I do. That was the one hesitation I had all night."
Shamusí ears burned. "I donít want to hurt you, Nina, and Iím afraidÖ I meanÖ" He released a deep breath and clasped her hand. "Are you sure?"
Nina gave his hand a squeeze. "Shay, I know what might happen, and I thank you for being so concerned, but I had alreadyÖ accepted that intimate moment as a future. I donít dread it, so neither should you."
"I donít," Shamus said softly, "thatís why I wanted to wait." He glanced at her, meeting her reassuring smile. "Iíll try my best, princess. Really I will."
Ninaís eyes sparkled as she cupped his jaw with her other hand. "You arenít super human, Shamus McNeil, and I donít expect you to be. I am more than fond, so donít fight your own feelings. Please?"
Shamus wordlessly nodded. HelpÖ
She caressed his skin with her thumb and then leaned forward to place two soft kisses on his lips. Nina raised her head and smiled. "I am so much more than fond," she whispered.
Shamus returned her smile, not seeing the sun for the brightness in her eyes, and tenderly brushed some wisps of blonde hair from her face. "I love you, princess."
Rufus bounded between them, breaking the tender moment while licking faces and whipping arms and bodies with his tail. Nina and Shamus giggled and laughed respectively, exchanging fond glances while giving Rufus the attention he wanted. Sammy boy, you just got the world handed to you. You know that? He helped Nina to her feet and touched her under the chin. She smiled. Yep.
Shamus couldnít help but notice Nina picking at her food that evening at dinner. Her expression was thoughtful, too. Of course, dinner time had been the first moment they hadnít been busy with something else keeping their mind from the important change happening that evening.
There had been rough-housing with Rufus, picking up breakfast of fresh fruit and buttered bread from Ed on the way to the stables to visit Lady, and then the task of moving and organizing Ninaís things within his room. That task had been punctuated with lunch and a visit from Bunyan to wish the newlyweds blessings as well as talk business regarding the grove. Shamus had made doubly sure that Bunyan and Nina both knew and understood she was involved in any decision made regarding McNeil.
Bunyan gone, lunch over, and Nina shifted from one room to the other found them relaxing, reading, and playing the piano in the drawing room. Shamus read certain interesting articles to Nina Ė feeling very much the husband Ė and she asked difficult and insightful questions regarding the article read. Then they would exchange smiles and go back to their previous activity.
Then dinner had been served and silence had settled.
Shamus set down his fork and napkin as he read the time on the wall clock. It was an hour before bed. "Nina."
She looked up. "Yes?"
He stood and offered her his hand. "Come on. Letís go up and get used to the idea."
Nina smiled and set her fork and napkin aside as well. "All right."
She took his hand and stood, stepping along beside him as they left the dining room and moved for the stairs. She ascended ahead of him. Okay Sammy boy, youíre both in an awkward spot. Take it easy and slow. They crested the stairs, and Ninaís step hesitated.
Shamus brought a hand up to her back. "Nina, we donít have to do this," he said softly.
"Oh. No, Shamus," Nina assured as she faced him. "I didnít hesitate about that. I canít remember where I put my pajamas."
Shamus laughed. Nina giggled, and the action caused a nearly audible tear and break in the tension. He enfolded her hand in his. "Well letís go on a search. Are they the pretty pink ones you had on yesterday?"
"Thatís one pair. I also have a pale yellow one, a cornflower blue one, and a pin-striped one of burgundy and ivory." Nina examined his profile. "Did you want me to wear the pink?"
Shamus cleared his throat, ears and cheeks red. Sheís asking me what she should wear to bedÖ? "Whatever you want." That sheís coming to bed is fine! He cleared his throat again.
"Isnít your favorite color blue?" she prompted.
Shamus sent her a sheepish smile. "Yes."
"Then Iíll wear that oneÖ" She giggled. "If I can remember where I put them."
Shamus chuckled and opened the door for her, ushering her in and releasing her hand. "Like I said, Iíll help."
"And see my under things? I donít think so, Mayor McNeil."
Shamus laughed. "Okay, okay. Iíll change in the bathroom while you look for your p.j.s. Howís that?"
"A much better idea." Nina headed toward the dresser set to the right of her bed, the right-most one. She opened one of the drawers just as Shamus reached the door of the bathroom. "Oh. Wait." She turned to face Shamus.
He faced her. "Yeah?"
Ninaís cheeks flushed an entrancing shade of rose as she kept her expression serious. "Do you wearÖ" She cleared her throat. "I canít believe Iím asking, but I guess I want to know what to expect."
"Oh. Right." Shamus cleared his throat and picked at a suddenly very intriguing splinter in the side of the bathroom door. "I usually wear pajama pants." He cleared his throat again. "Donít like wearing a shirt. Cuts me off at the neck."
Shamus changed his focus to her. She picked at a nail and bit at her lower lip. "Nina, did you need me to wear a shirt? Iím sure I can find a T-shirt thatíll work."
Nina tucked some hair behind her ear. "I hate for you toÖ" She peeked over at him. "I meanÖ This is still your room, shouldnít youÖ?"
Shamus smiled. "Itís okay. Iíll just put on a shirt the first couple nights. I donít mind. Remember, weíre still getting used to the idea."
"Will you take it off during the night if it hurts you?"
Shamus nodded. "I will. Okay?"
Nina softly smiled. "All right. Thank you, Shay. I so appreciate it."
"My pleasure, princess." He entered the bathroom and closed the door.
Shamus gripped the doorknob with a release of breath as he pressed his other hand against the door. Is this happening? He heard Ninaís absent chatter to herself about the possible location of previously misplaced pajamas and reluctantly smiled, shaking his head at the absurdity of the situation while enjoying the absurdity and tension in a sick, twisted way. Sammy boy, youíve lost it. Might as well sell the deed and bankrupt the town, because too much of a good thing canít be healthy. But Shamus felt more alive now than he had a month before.
He was independent.
He was in love.
He was married.
Shamus rubbed at his scalp of curls with another shake of his head as he went about changing into his pajamas, finding a loose-fitting T-shirt to wear as the other half, and then finishing certain other duties one had to do before venturing to bed. Then he turned for the door and halted, staring at the doorknob and wondering if he would look and sound ridiculous if he knocked and asked his wife if he could come inÖ Shamus rubbed at the back of his neck, fist on hip. Hm. This is a puzzle.
Finally, Shamus shrugged, closed his eyes, and leaned out the slightly opened door. "Nina? You decent?"
He heard the pad of bare feet and cautiously opened one eye and then the other. Nina stood in front of him with a somewhat childish smile, eyes brightly shining and set off by the shimmering blue of her pajamas. Shamus straightened and opened the door the remaining way, feeling the coming of his silly smile and hearing his just-as-silly chuckle as he passed her. Nina closed the door behind her, and Shamus rolled his eyes as he threw his hands up into the air. Sammy boy, just relax!
Shamus released a slow breath and shook his head as he moved over to his bed, the left one, and pulled back the covers. Once down, he sent a glance to Ninaís and rubbed the back of his neck. He shrugged and went around to do the same for her, turning down the covers and plumping her pillows with a crooked smile and another shake of his head. Then he went back to his bed and slipped inside, adjusting the covers around him before reaching to the bedside table and taking up the book he tried to read each night. Youíve got to be kidding. Your first night in your bedroom with your wife and youíre going to read? Shamus cleared his throat and deliberately opened the book to the marked page.
He heard the clunk and click of the bathroom door opening, the light being extinguished, and then her soft pat-pat-pat-pat of her bare feet making their way to her bed. Shamus kept his eyes on the book and then frowned. Youíre not really going to do this, are you? He released a breath, closed the book, and then set it aside. He met Ninaís smiling gaze with an easy one of his own as she climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to her waist.
"You found your pajamas," Shamus innocently offered.
Shamusí lips twitched with his withheld laugh. He looked away and adjusted the covers around him.
Nina released a deep sigh. "Now what?"
"Donít really know. Never been married before." He looked over at her in time to get a pillow in the face. He laughed and caught the offending plushness before it tumbled to the floor. "Nice shot."
Her eyes twinkled as she crossed her arms. "Thank you."
"You want it back?"
She arched an eyebrow. "Please."
Shamus tossed it over at her, but only so that she could catch it. "There you go. I figure Iíll wait on the pillow fight until day three or four. Since youíre new here and all."
Nina giggled as she plumped up her pillow again. Then she stuffed it behind her and pressed herself back into them. She twiddled her thumbs, still smiling as she looked around the room at the pictures of family, McNeil, and his fatherís ranch. Shamus watched her face as she examined each picture in turn. Now what? And he wished he had the answer to the question.
Ninaís examination traveled to him and stopped. She snuggled deeper into the pillows as she scooted under the blankets a little more. "Rei used to tell ghost stories when we werenít tired," she said simply.
Shamus lifted his hands and arms with a shrug. "Sorry. Donít know any."
Ninaís eyes widened. "Oh thatís all right. I never did like them. I just wanted to tell you something about my adventures."
"Oh." Shamus turned onto his side and rested his temple onto his fist. "Me and my brothers used to swap stories. Of course, we had to make them better each time around because weíd already heard them a million times over."
Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners with her smile. "Yes. I often complained to Rei that he retold the same stories with embellishments instead of creating new ones. Garr was always the better source for stories." Ninaís expression saddened, and she changed her focus to the ceiling. "I miss him."
Shamus watched her in silence before carefully asking "What was he like?"
"Garr?" Nina scrutinized the ceiling as if recalling an image from her colorful history. "Garr was the embodiment ofÖ honor and purpose. He was steadfast. Loyal to his beliefs, almost to a fault." Nina lowered her gaze to her hands that clenched and unclenched the blankets. "But he was such a good friend. I donít know what we would have done without him." She sniffed and released a sigh.
"Iím sorry you lost him, Nina," Shamus offered.
Nina nodded and looked over at him. "So am I, but I never regret the time and adventures we shared. I learned so much from him."
Shamus offered her a comforting smile, which she returned. Then he sat up, stretching toward the large lamp between their beds. "We better turn out the light, I guess. Get used to the sounds of each other breathing and stuff."
Dark. Silence. Soft breathingÖ bed sheets movingÖ satin on sheetsÖ hair on pillowÖ soft breathingÖ
Shamus smiled wider. "You lost your pajamas."
Nina giggled and Shamus laughed, ducking when he heard the sound of pillow leaving bed. It thwapped him in the face just the same.
She giggled again, softer this time, and he heard the sound of her adjusting her position in bed. "Thank you."
Shamus turned onto his side, staring into the darkness at the general area of her bed. "Want it back?" Though he didnít know if he wanted to give it back. It smelled like her.
"Thatís all right. I have plenty."
Shamus pulled one of his pillows out and set it on the floor, shoving it over to her side of the room. "In case you change your mind." He tucked her pillow under his head and closed his eyes.
He heard her take up his pillow and adjust it within her own bedding. Then hair on pillow as she faced him. "Shay, did you ever have such a friend?"
Shamus nodded. "Bunyan."
"Really? I like Bunyan." And Shamus could tell from her tone that Ninaís face relaxed to a smile again. "Heís a little gruff, but I think thatís why I like him. He has a kind heart. A good heart." Pause. "What did he help you with?" Seriousness and curiosity had replaced the smile.
"Life." Shamus smiled. "Pretty much everything about it. I was the second youngest of 13--"
"My goodness," Nina breathed.
"Yeah.10 boys and 3 girls, so I kind of got the brunt of a bunch of bad stuff. Made me a bit of a brat."
Nina gasped. "You? Really?"
Shamus chuckled and turned over onto his back. "Yep. Sweet, innocent little Shamus McNeil." He sent her a look, but all he could make out was her silhouette. "I mouthed off at Bunyan one time, I donít remember why, and he whooped me good. I needed it too, so donít think Ďoh you poor boyí or anything."
Nina giggled. "Iíve heard the same tale from Ryu and Rei both about Bunyan."
Shamus grinned. "Yeah. I bet you did." He looked away. "He took me under his wing, so to speak. Taught me stuff I needed to know, things I didnít think I did, and stuff I never would have thought to ask. I think I was eightÖ or ten. Canít remember. Been a long time." Shamus looked back over at Nina. She watched his reactions with a soft smile, covers snuggled close about her. She looked too adorable for words. "Heís the one that made me see how much I really did like ranching. I just never thought I would because all my brothers were in line ahead of me."
"Why bother if you werenít going to get the ranch?"
Shamus nodded with a slight smile. "Exactly. But Bunyan helped me see that didnít matter. If I cared about the ranch, if I wanted a future for myself and for my family, then I needed to pull my head out of my assósorry. I needed to quit feeling sorry for myself and get to work. I donít know how he got me to see it, but he did. I worked my butt off that summer, impressed the dickens out of my dad, and then found that he kept giving me more and more responsibilities because of it. Ticked my brothers off, but what could they do? They were going to be married off one by one because they hadnít taken the time to get involved."
"You must have been very surprised at how much fun you had taking care of the ranch. Learning so many new things. Understanding what your father talked about with the other hands. Having an important opinion to offer." He heard a sound of moving bedclothes and supposed that she hugged her blankets closer. "Your little heart was likely about to burst with it."
Contentment lightened his face as he put his hands behind his head. "Yeah. Youíve got it right there."
"Iím glad you had Bunyan, Shay. I like the Shamus McNeil Iíve come to know."
Shamus smiled and heard her yawn. "Thanks, princess. I kind of like him, too." He adjusted his hands behind his head. "Did you ever give your folks problems?"
Nina giggled. "Of course. You donít believe they wanted me to go with Ryu and have all those adventures do you?"
Shamus chuckled. "No, I guess they wouldnít." He faced her silhouette. "So how did you get out of the castle?"
"I didnít intend to leave the castle," Nina confessed. "I had only gone down to the dungeon to let Ryu out, heíd been confused with some unsavory characters as their accomplice, you see. Well, they tricked me into letting them out instead, and then proceeded to kidnap me. Ryu broke out of his jail cell and rescued me, even at the danger of his own life. When they left, he and I escaped out of the dungeon by way of the catacomb of tombs beneath the castle. Then, when we stopped at a house just outside Wyndia castle to rest, these same fiends grabbed me and him and took us to the Arena. We were able to escape though, due to the fact that the man set to watch us had a drinking problem."
Shamus chuckled. "Boy. You have had adventure, havenít you?"
Nina giggled after another telltale yawn. "Yes, and these adventures taught me so much about people. I would never have learned that within the walls of Wyndia castle."
"No, I suppose you wouldnít." Shamus stretched, releasing his own yawn, and faced Ninaís silhouette again. "Good thing, too. I donít think I wouldíve liked you nearly as much." He gently smiled. "Actually, maybe I would. Youíre really cute, you know."
Nina giggled again. "Thank you, sir."
Shamus released a deep breath and changed his focus to the ceiling. He yawned again. "Man. All this relaxingís made me sleepy. Maybe we better cut the chatter and try to sleep?"
Shamus heard her turn over onto her side before she whispered "I guess so." It sounded like she said it through a yawn.
Shamus smiled. "Good night, princess," he said softly.
"Good night." Snuggle into covers. "And, Shay?"
He looked over at her silhouette. "For what, princess?"
Shamus breathed deep. "Sure."
Nina hugged the pillow to her with a soft smile as she lay on her side. Shamus still slept; curls tousled, shirt removed some time during the night, covers kicked cattywunkus down around his legs and waist. Occasionally during his early morning sleep he mumbled some indiscernible phrases and scrubbed at his scalp.
Each mumble and squirm and smack of his lips endeared him to her a little more. Of course, their conversation the previous evening had soothed her heart even more toward the rightness of the decision she made. The timing had been right, and he had done more than his best to help with the transition.
Nina's eyes crinkled at the corners with her attraction and fondness that so smoothly and easily blossomed to that long-time romantic dream. She felt an eagerness now to discover even more about the man she married; his favorite foods, favorite song, sweets, poems, books... and so many other things. A pleasant adventure into the unknown to draw it closer to herself.
Shamus mumbled again; this time he stretched long and smacked his lips with a grimace. Then he scrubbed at his scalp, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and kicked the covers off completely before sitting up with a slight grunt and dangling his legs over the side of the bed. He gripped the mattress a moment before pushing himself to his feet, a hand again going to his tousled curls to give his scalp another rub.
Nina watched with a continual soft smile, thoroughly enjoying the intimate view of his morning persona.
Shamus padded toward the bathroom. He scratched at his jaw and budding beard, and then at his trim stomach and abdomen. When he looked toward her, he gave a sleepy smile and yawned "Good morning, princess."
Nina rolled over in bed to her other side as she watched his progress to the bathroom. "Good morning, Shay. Sleep well?"
"Oh yeah. I dreamt I married a beautiful princess," he said thru another yawn. "Isn't that a stitch? A farmer/rancher/mayor with a princess."
Shamus gave his head a shake and stepped the rest of the way into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
Nina giggled and pushed back the covers to slide out of bed. He isn't a morning person, I guess. That was fine. Rei hadn't ever been one either. Rei even had a tendency to sleepwalk. Then there had been Momo, who had usually forgotten to sleep because of being engrossed in some mind-boggling question that took most of the night to solve. A couple of times she had napped while they journeyed, Garr carrying her without complaint.
Nina padded to the bathroom door just as it suddenly opened. Nina focused on Shamus' wide-eyed gaze of surprise and his partially shaved chin with a wider smile than before. "Yes?"
Shamus raised a finger to point. "Nina."
Nina softly laughed. "Good morning again, husband."
Shamus' ears burned, and he cleared his throat as he lowered his finger with a sheepish smile. "I'm not the brightest candle in the morning. Sorry."
"It's all right, Shay. I understand all about mornings."
She stood across from him, softly smiling up into his still sleepy expression half covered in shaving cream. Then she surprised both herself and him by relieving him of the shaver and pushing him gently back into the bathroom until he sat on the toilet.
"Hey. I need that to shave," he protested feebly.
"No," she countered with mock seriousness. "I need it to shave. Now hold still."
Shamus regarded her with mock suspicion. "Have you shaved a man before?" He lifted a hand to hold her wrist, keeping her hand from his face. "Just curious."
Nina smiled. "No. You're my first. Do you mind?"
Shamus expression relaxed into his genuine smile. "No." He released her wrist. "Just go slow and don't press too hard."
Nina's smile faded to serious concentration. "Will it hurt badly if I accidentally cut you?"
"Nah. It'll just sting a little. Don't worry about it."
Shamus' eyes twinkled as she began to shave the other side of his face with steady strokes and equal pressure. Nina occasionally met his gaze to smile.
"Your hair is poking up," Shamus commented softly, and then he reached up to stroke and pat it down.
Nina's lips twitched. "Pillows do strange things to one's appearance, don't they?" She tenderly wiped a bit of shaving cream from his ear before again shaving stroke by steady stroke.
Shamus tilted his head as directed, smiling fondly. "Yep. They make a wife look even better."
Nina's eyes brightened, but she didn't hesitate her stroke or meet his gaze. "Thank you," she said softly. "I had already noticed the same of my husband."
Shamus' smile widened. "I like it when you call me that."
"Shay, be careful," Nina gently scolded. "I don't want to cut you."
"I don't mind."
She met his gaze. "I do. Now hold still."
He grinned. "Okay."
Nina giggled and shook her head before continuing the shave; gentle stroke, wipe on towel, gentle stroke, meet gaze and smile as wipe on towel, gentle stroke, stroke, stroke. "All done."
She wiped the remaining patches of shaving cream from sections of his neck, ears, and nose. Shamus' lips held a silly smile the entire time.
"Do you put anything on your face after shaving? Your chin looks a little red," Nina observed, concerned.
Shamus waved it aside as he stood. "It burns a little, but that goes away fast enough."
Nina urged him back down. "Hold it, mister," she said firmly. "Let me see what I have for that." She stepped to the counter to the right of the sink and searched certain small bottles of lotions and astringents. "This one, I think." Nina retrieved a small bottle and stepped back as she removed the lid. She measured a small amount onto her palm and then took it up with her fingers. She met his curious gaze with a reassuring smile. "This might be a little cold, but only at first. It may sting, too."
Nina gently applied it to his chin and cheeks, spreading it evenly and light with soft motions of her fingers. She liked the feeling of her fingers on his skin, and couldn't help but smile as she kept on. Too soon, the lotion was applied to her liking and she lowered her hand from his face.
"There. Does that feel better?"
Shamus nodded with a soft "It does."
"Good." Nina secured the cap onto the bottle. "It's a moisturizer. You may use it as often as you need it." Nina turned the bottle to read the name. "Oh. I haven't used this in a while. I'm glad it worked for you." She smiled and raised her eyes to meet his.
Shamus reached out and took the bottle from her, ears and cheeks flushed as he read the label. "Thanks, princess."
A strong flutter rose within, widening Nina's smile. "Now I suppose I should leave you alone, so you can do whatever else you need to do." She rubbed at his upper arm, drawing his attention. "Thank you for letting me do that."
"Shave me?" he asked in surprise.
Nina nodded, eyes twinkling. "A little thing for you, but to me... Another treasured first."
Shamus' expression softened as he chuckled. "Same here, princess." He stood and gently enfolded her hand in his to give it a squeeze. "I'll be out in a bit."
Nina gave his hand a returned squeeze and then stepped from the bathroom, the door closing after her as she made her way to her dresser to choose an outfit for that day. A knock sounded at their bedroom entry, so Nina gathered her robe and slipped into it on the way to the door. A young man she recognized as Richard stood on the other side with a note.
"Princess," he greeted. "Syd had this for you. Just came in this morning."
Nina took the note with a whispered "Thank you," and then turned to stare down at it in silence. She bit her lower lip and opened the note very slowly, dreading what it could say.
"'Nina, thank you for your letter. Ryu and myself should arrive there some time in the next couple of days. Momo.'"
Nina's eyes filled and overflowed with tears, and her smile quivered. "Thank you, Momo," she whispered.
Nina heard the door of the bathroom open and looked up. She showed the letter as Shamus approached. "They... They're coming."
Shamus softly smiled down at her as he took hold of her hand, not saying a word while being just as comforting as if he had.
Nina stepped forward and embraced him. "They're coming," she whispered.
Shamus held her close and rested a cheek on the crown of her head. He released a slight breath. "I told you so," he teased.
Nina sighed and pulled back. "Shay, thank you so much. I hadnít intended to tell you, but Iím so glad I did."
Shamus brushed a few wisps of hair from her cheeks. "My pleasure, princess." Then he held her gaze, ears burning, and asked "Can I kiss your cheek?"
Ninaís heart melted completely, and her expression softened as she raised her hands to cup his face. "Shamus, you donít need to ask. Your kindness deserves a lot more than a simple kiss."
"A kiss is a moment, princess," Shamus whispered. "Iíd rather have your trust than a wee thing like a kiss."
Ninaís eyes glimmered as her throat tightened. "Oh ShayÖ" she pressed her lips lightly against his, then again, and a third time before pulling slowly back. "How can I not trust you," she said in a choked voice.
His eyes twinkled with mischief, and the boyish smirk made him look even younger. "Iím a prankster."
Nina laughed. "Yes. I donít doubt it, what with 10 brothers." She caressed his cheeks. "Iíll keep my eye on you."
He grinned. "Okay."
Nina giggled. "Shamus McNeil, you flirt."
Shamusí ears pinked a darker shade as he took her hands from his cheeks and held them in his. "I better get dressed. You want the bedroom or bathroom?"
Ninaís smile faded to seriousness, and then she absently bit her lower lip. "When would it be all right to dress in front each other?"
Shamusí entire face reddened, even down his neck. He cleared his throat. "UmÖ wellÖ" He noticed he still stood shirtless and crossed his arms across his chest.
Nina nodded. "I know. Itís an uncomfortable question." She lowered her gaze to her pajamas and fiddled with the bottom hem. "I supposeÖ" She looked up again. "I suppose it would be best to wait until weíre more comfortable sleeping in such close quarters?"
Shamus nodded, some of the red receding. "I-Iíd rather not be inÖ well, thatís kind of an awkwardÖ I meanÖ" Shamus released a quick breath and lifted his arms in a gesture of frustration.
"Just say it, Shay," Nina encouraged.
Shamus cleared his throat and rubbed at his neck, eyes carefully averted. "Nope. Too humiliating. Iíll pass."
Nina smiled fondly. "I understand that." She motioned to the bathroom. "Iíll change there."
"Okay." He shyly smiled, finally meeting her gaze. "Thanks for the shave. Can you do it tomorrow?"
Nina rubbed his arm. "Iíd love to." Then she gave it a slight squeeze and moved toward her dresser, where she pulled out a rose blouse, black leggings, and certain other necessities. "Did you have anything specifically planned today?"
"I should go around and check up on how everyoneís doing." Shamus pulled his own trousers and shirt from his dresser. "I was hoping you could come and meet everyone."
"I would like that," and Nina constantly felt amazed at how his request for such in-depth involvement touched her so deeply.
"We could take horses instead of a carriage. That way you and Lady could finally get to play."
Ninaís eyes twinkled as she turned to look over at him. He still gathered socks, etc. "That would be wonderful, Shay. Thank you."
"Sure." He cleared his throat and turned from the dresser, clothes held behind his back. "Bunyan will probably want to take us around the grove."
"Oh I would love a chance to see it."
Shamusí smile was easy and welcoming. "I thought you might. Some of the trees are still blooming. Itís really pretty."
Nina adjusted her hold on the clothes. She so wanted to continue talkingÖ Seriousness overpowered her smile. "Shamus, could we try it. Please?"
His expression darkened with concern. "Try what?"
"Changing here." His cheeks flushed as his gaze lowered. Nina hurried on. "Couldnít we just turn our backs to each other? I donít want to stop talking."
Shamus rubbed at his neck and scalp. "I know, princess, butÖ" He sent her a glance and then sighed deep. "Call me a softie. Okay."
Ninaís face brightened, and they both turned around. "What did Bunyan decide about those trees near the creek?" She sat on the bed and began changing out of her blue pajamas.
"Thatís one of the things we were going to look at. We donít think the bank will give way, but it might be a good idea to transplant them some place else anyway."
Nina stood and slipped out of her bottoms, hearing Shamus do much the same. She smiled slightly, feeling much the risk-taker. "Theyíre fairly young, arenít they?"
"Yeah, so their roots havenít expanded 100% yet. Bunyan figures itís best to move them now. I think I agree with him. What do you think?"
Ninaís hands paused as the warmth at the statement settled deeper. "I think itís a wise idea," she said softly. "Just to be safe, and to give them a better chance against root rot."
"Do you think some grass should be seeded there? To give the bank more stability?" Nina offered.
Shamus paused, then the sound of his dressing continued. "Good idea."
Nina smiled at the pleasure felt with his comment. She stood and tucked her blouse into her leggings, though they were more like knit slacks than leggings.
"Did you want to have lunch with Rei after?"
Nina heard a clomp of boot from his side of the room. "That would be fun." She sat back onto the bed and pulled on each lightweight black sock. "Could we go fishing with him? He cooks a wonderful trout."
"Sure. I kind of wanted to talk to him about the cabin on Mt. Glaus anyway. That would give me a good chance to do that." Second clomp.
Nina eased her feet into her slippers as she absently bit her lip.
Shamus cleared his throat. "You decent?"
Nina giggled. "I was about to ask you the same thing."
She cautiously looked over her right shoulder. Shamus did the same, but over his left. Their gazes met.
"I guess that wasnít so bad," Shamus admitted.
Nina smiled and stood, as did Shamus, and they headed to the door of their room. Shamus ushered her past once he opened it for her, his fingers lightly making contact with her wings. Nina gave a shiver, which Shamus didnít notice, and noted her inner change of emotion with a near clearing of the throat.
"What did you have in mind for the cabin?" she asked.
The two headed downstairs.
"Thatís what I was going to talk to Rei about. I hate having it just sit up there."
"What was it before?"
"A hunterís cabin. I think."
"Are there any mines up there?" Nina paused at the foot of the stairs until Shamus stood beside her. Then she made her way to the dining hall.
"Iím not sure. I havenít heard of any. Maybe I should have Momo check for metals and minerals?"
Nina nodded. "That would be a wonderful addition to McNeilís trade list, donít you think?"
Shamus looked over at her with an adoring smile. "It would. So far we only have foodstuffs going out. And horses."
Ninaís expression brightened. "Oh I hope Momo finds something. I would love for us to be able to export metal items like nails, hinges, or tools."
Shamus sent her a smile. "I guess I should see if Rei or Bunyan know of any blacksmiths and metal workers."
He opened the door for her, ushering Nina into the dining hall with yet another soft touch to her wings. Ninaís cheeks flushed.
"Seems to me somebody mentioned a friend of a cousin or something," Shamus continued.
Nina wordlessly nodded. When did I become sensitive to touch on my wings? She remembered many a time when her friends would accidentally touch them. Ryu once touched them on purpose, it had been the first time he had seen her with wings, but there had been no feelings like this. Is that another step past the fondness? Is thisÖ Is this the passion?
Nina blinked, and her eyes focused on Shamusí concerned expression. He held her seat out for her. Nina flushed darker and sat. "Iím sorry."
"Thatís okay." Shamus sat in his seat and watched her as she spread her napkin across her lap.
Nina smoothed the cloth napkin with a deliberate action before looking up to meet his gaze. She smiled. "Iím fine, Shay."
He returned her smile and then pushed the bell toward her. "Go for the gusto, princess."
Ninaís eyes twinkled.
Shamus stood over her sleeping form and quietly watched, hands in pockets to keep from touching her face. Their previous day together had been a collection of fun and adventure. Laughter. Touches. Smiles. Shared ideas. Glimpses into a deeper part of each other.
Shamus released a slow and deep breath as he lowered himself onto her bed, pulling his hands from his pockets. Nina wrinkled her nose and stretched, pressing the backs of her hands against her cheeks. Then she lifted them up over her head and yawned.
Nina rolled onto her side, hands cupping her cheek as she opened her eyes to catch Shamusí gaze. She smiled. "Good morning," she mumbled sleepily.
Shamus leaned over her, resting his hand against the bed on the other side of her slim form. "Good morning, princess."
"What are you doing up so early?" she asked thru a delicate yawn.
"Just sitting here."
Her eyes crinkled at the corners. "I see that."
Nina watched him watch her while adjusting her cheek in her hands. "Yesterday was fun. Do you think we could do the same today?"
"Sorry, Nina. Today will be an inside day. Paperwork."
"Thatís all right. I havenít spent much time in the library, or at the piano. Maybe this is my chance?"
"Sure." Shamus watched her bright eyes and expression with a soft smile. Nina did much the same. Then she adjusted her position onto her back, her left hip pressing against him as she reached up to cup his jaw and lightly stroke his cheek.
"You want that shave now?" she asked quietly.
Shamusí ears burned at a clear picture in his mind of something differentÖ He cleared his throat and straightened as he took her hand in his. "You can sleep, Nina. Iíll do it."
"I know, but I want to," she told him, and her hand lightly increased pressure on his.
And he wanted her to. "Okay."
Nina smiled and sat up, slipping her legs out from under the covers and over the bed before Shamus had a chance to stand. Her pale yellow pajamas glistened in the early morning sunlight from the windows and made her eyes sparkle and her skin lookÖ like a doll?
She stood to her feet and smiled at him. "Have you thought about growing a short beard?"
Shamus blinked. "A beard? No. Why?"
Nina touched his chin just beneath his lip. "Right there. I think it would look wonderful." She took hold of both his hands to pull him to his feet. "You donít have to," she told him as she led him to the bathroom. "Youíre handsome as you are."
Shamus flushed and smiled.
Nina sat him down on the toilet and then set to work preparing the shaving cream. "Do you think Momo and Ryu might come today?"
"Could be. Thatís one of the reasons I want to do paperwork today, that and Iím falling behind. Itís more likely theyíll come tomorrow, though."
Nina mixed the water and powder until it was a soft foam. Then she faced him, brush in hand. "Chin and cheeks?"
Shamus nodded. "Want some help?"
Nina smiled. "Maybe."
She stepped closer and began gently applying the cream. "Did you want me to go thru the books in the library? Or did you want to do that yourself?"
Shamus, whose mouth was completely covered in shaving cream, was only able to look at her serious expression with twinkling eyes.
"I could separate them into piles for you to go through later," she offered.
Shamus slightly nodded.
Nina set the brush and cup aside and took up the towel, which she draped over the sink, and the razor. "I planned on contacting father and having him send me my books from the castle," she commented as she began the shave.
Shamus noticed she didnít call it Ďhomeí.
"If there are any subjects youíre particularly interested in, Iím sure he would be more than willing to send them along."
Wyndian history, so that I can be a good kingó
Nina moved a little closer, actually stepping between his legs. She bit her lower lip in concentration when she began shaving near his jaw and neck. Her fingers were light against his scalp, and the warmth of her yellow-clad legs could be felt through his pajamas. Shamus swallowed very slowly as his hands gripped his knees.
"Shay, this part makes me nervous," she confessed. She performed a slow stroke up his neck.
"Youíre doing fine," he assured as she cleaned the blade.
Nina smiled softly and stroked again. "You nervous?"
"No." At least, not about you shavingÖ
Stroke. "Then why are you playing with the hem of my pajama top?" Swipe clean.
Shamus looked in horror at his hands. Sure enough, he rubbed the soft material between his thumb and index finger of each hand. He flushed and lowered his hands to his knees.
Stroke, stroke. "You didnít have to stop, Shay," she told him softly. "I only wanted to make sure I wasnít the reason for it."
But you are. Shamus smiled between strokes. "I guess I like soft things."
Nina leaned in to give him a soft kiss on the forehead. "There you are."
Stroke. Swipe clean. "Speaking of soft things, I think I need to give you a haircut. Not too much, because I adore your curls, but enough to keep them out of your eyes." Stroke, stroke.
"Oh. Okay." Shamus believed he would get drunk from the constant close contact.
Nina finished the shave, applied the lotion, and then regarded him with a purely ĎNinaí smile after washing her hands while drying them with a towel. Then she set the towel aside and began searching the drawers of the inset vanity.
"What are you looking for?" he asked as he stood and moved behind her.
"Ah. Here it is." Nina turned and pushed gently on his chest to direct him back to the toilet. "Iím going to comb your hair," she said, matter-of-fact.
Shamus sat. "Oh."
Nina dipped her fingers into the water basin before running them lightly through his hair. Then she doused the comb and gently began to comb out the curls. "Your hair is so thick and soft," she giggled. "Iím jealous!"
Shamus swallowed hard and gripped his knees. He hadnít ever had anyone else comb his hair. It wasÖ It feltÖ Shamus smiled, tilting his head different directions as instructed. Sammy boy, Marianne would be shocked speechless if she saw this. And Shamus very nearly laughed aloud at the visualized expression on his elder sisterís face.
Nina set down the comb and loosed the curls from the dampness into their natural curl using her fingers, rubbing her nails lightly against his scalp. It tingled, but it felt better than great.
"There," she said with a wide smile, giving his scalp a few more light scratches. "It encourages growth." Nina wiped her hands on the unused portion of the towel, still smiling at Shamus, and then picked up the comb and offered it to him. "Could you?"
Shamus slowly took it, looking up from the comb to meet Ninaís gaze. His mouth had gone very dry. "You want me toÖ"
"Comb my hair, silly," she said. The statement was adorned with a giggle as she turned her back to him and sat on the floor between his legs, hugging her knees to her chest.
Shamus swallowed hard. Oh boyÖ "Okay."
He ran the comb through her hair cautious and hesitant. When the comb caught on a sleep tangle, he stopped. Curls had a wicked tendency to tangle, so heíd had a lot of experience with persuading them out, butÖ
"Itís just a snarl," Nina assured.
"I know, butÖ uhÖ"
"Just take out the comb and work at it from the bottom, combing little sections at a time. The comb will work it out."
Shamus cleared his throat and did as he was told, finding out very quickly that Ninaís hair was so fine and soft that the tangles practically loosed themselves.
"I find it hard to believe you donít fight with snarls," Nina said, smiling. "Those wonderful curls? Why, they likely have a mind of their own. Why do you think I used a little water and that particular comb?"
Shamus cleared his throat again. "YeahÖ umÖ well, combing your own hair is different. I can tug at my mop, but I donít want to hurt you."
"You wonít, Shay, but thanks for the thought."
Shamus finished working on the snarl and resumed running the comb gently thru her hair, amazed at how much he enjoyed the simple act. Soon he also began lightly stroking her hair with a soft touch of his fingers; sometimes alternately, sometimes immediately following. Nina didnít comment, and her wings had taken up the familiar slow and rhythmic tickle of the air.
"Your hair is really soft," Shamus commented absently. Sammy boy, just be quiet.
"Thank you," Nina responded, and it was almost a whisper.
Comb, stroke, stroke, comb, comb. Shamus was at a loss to describe what happened inside. TheÖ closeness. The companionship. Shamusí chest tightened, and he felt a hint of burning at his eyes. He hadnít ever shared something like this with someone.
Shamus lowered his hands and the comb from her head, clenching his jaw as he gripped the comb. "There you go," he whispered.
Nina stood. "Ohhh, that felt wonderful. Thank you." She ran her fingers lightly over her scalp while giving him an almost coy smile. "Can you do that tonight, too?"
Shamus stood, but he was certain he left his heart on the floor behind the toilet. "Sure." Then he stepped almost too quickly toward the escape of the close quarters.
He strode to his dresser and blindly began pawing through a random drawer. He could still feel her hair and her closenessÖ Oh boy.
pad-pad-pad-padÖ touch on arm. "Did you want to take a bath?"
Shamus paled and then flushed as he continued to search his dresser for something. "What?"
"Iím going to soak in the tub. Did you want to take a bath first?"
Shamus fought back the Ďno, Iíll take it with youí and gripped a pair of wool socks. "Iíll take it this evening before dinner."
"All right." Her hand didnít lower from his arm. "Shamus?" Nina asked softly, "are youÖ are you all right?"
Shamus stared at the socks in his hand, wondering how much to tell her, how much to show her, and how much to lead. "Iím fine, princess," he said in a careful tone, "itís justÖ wellÖ" He sighed and faced her. "Itís tough to give youÖ space." He could feel his face flush red and looked away from her blue eyes. Definitely his favorite color.
"You donít need to," she pressed gently. "Shay, that was the one thing I didnít want you to do. Remember?"
"Thatís a pretty big door to open," he whispered. "I donít want to scare you."
"I know, but what scares me is that I might cause you even more misery by not realizing youíre struggling." Nina gently urged him to face her. "Are you struggling?"
Shamus kept his gaze on the collar of her yellow pajamas, and the line of her throat, and the delicate hint of collar boneÖ He swallowed hard and gave a slight nod. "Sometimes," he reluctantly admitted.
Nina sighed deep and took hold of his hands. "Shay, why didnít you tell me last night?"
Shamusí ears reddened. You know exactly why, donít you, Sammy boy? "Itís okay, Nina. Weíre stillÖ" Shamus finally met her gaze. "You just need a littleÖ time."
"For what? To know that I care? To know that I trust you? To know that I like the feeling within when you touch me? Iíve come to know that already, Shay."
Oh boyÖ Shamus cleared his throat. "NinaÖ Princess, being together" ears burned "as a man and woman is a lot different than just" cheeks flush "kissing or caressing a hand or arm."
Nina nodded, eyes slightly wide. "I know, Shamus. Mother told me before the wedding. She wanted me to be ready."
Shamus lowered his gaze. "Oh." Here you were trying to protect herÖ
"Shay." Nina placed a hand gently under his jaw, raising his gaze to hers. "Shay, if you donít believe Iím ready, I trust that. Until I am, what can I do to help you?"
Shamus stared down at her, millions of questions and requests making it impossible to talk. Just being close to her was difficult for him, but he didnít want to tell her that. He liked being near her. He liked the feeling of being in love, totally and completely lost. It was tough to resist how she smiled and laughed and twinkled, but he did it because he wanted to. He did it becauseÖ because he loved her.
Shamus smiled as he drew her hand from his jaw. He gave it a gentle squeeze. "I donít know, princess."
"Should I stop--"
"No," Shamus interrupted. He gave her hand another squeeze. "Nina, if you like doing those things, why should you stop?"
"Because they make it harder for you to wait." Nina shook her head, tears threatening. "Why should only you resist?"
"Because I love you," Shamus said simply. "Because Iíll do what it takes to give you what you want. You deserve that, Nina."
Nina blinked the tears from her eyes. "ButÖ But I want to help make it easier."
"I know, but itís okay. Really."
Ninaís lower lip trembled, making Shamusí throat tighten. Her gaze lowered and she pulled her hand from his. "How can hurting you be Ďokayí?"
Shamus released a slow breath. "Nina, come here a second." He motioned her toward an oak chest at the foot of his bed with a hand to her back. She sat down, Shamus sitting beside her. "You arenít hurting me, Nina. I like the shaves, and the combing hair, and the way you look at me when I ask to kiss you. I like the way your wings tickle my skin when you want me to help you fish, even though I know you could do it yourself. Thatís enough to get me through the waiting."
She looked over at him. "Are you certain thereís nothing I can do?"
Shamus enfolded her hands in his. "Just keep trying to love me, princess," he whispered.
Ninaís blue eyes darkened as she slightly nodded. "I amÖ I willÖ Maybe I do and I donít yet know?" She held his gaze and then whispered, "Shay, will you kiss me?"
Shamus smiled feebly as he swallowed the eagerness. "I donít think that would be a good idea here, princess. Maybe when we go play with Rufus?"
Nina watched his face and expression with tear-filled eyes. Then she smiled and enfolded his face in her hands. "Shamus, please donít change who you are. I want to love this man."
Shamus nodded, his breath caught in his throat. "Okay, princess."
The day of Ryu and Momo's expected/hopeful arrival found Shamus and Nina finishing up the duty of organizing the library. Bunyan stopped by the latter half of the project to offer some suggestions for the grove's fruit as well as to drop off unwanted books found in his storage basement. Shortly after Bunyan left, accepting an invitation for dinner the following week, Shamus and Nina both heard Rufus excitedly barking.
They exchanged eager expressions before hurrying to the front door and descending the porch steps. Sure enough, Rufus had taken to the task of welcoming an old friend and a new one. Momo regarded the massive black dog with technical interest, her rabbit-like ears of white and light purple doing their familiar delicate wave as she adjusted her spectacles on her petite nose. Ryu accepted the dog's attentions with a broad smile, scratching behind his ears as vigorously as Rufus would have wanted.
Nina noticed a change in the older woman's style of dress. Momo no longer wore the familiar engineer's uniform that had served her for their adventures years previous. Neither did she wear her mortar-board hat. Instead, she wore a pant/vest/shirt suit that looked similar in style while affording a better 'view' of Momo's natural and feminine lines. Nina hadn't expected such a complete change in the engineer in the month since Ryu had begun spending more time at Repsolís Tower.
Nina smiled. "Hello, Momo. Ryu. I'm so glad you came."
Ryu and Momo both looked toward the approaching pair.
Ryu straightened from Rufus and offered Nina a genuine smile as he stepped forward to give her a hug. "Hi, Nina. Hey, Shamus. Nice to see you again." And Ryu made the statement even more believable by his offered hand.
Nina stepped over to Momo while Ryu and Shamus exchanged conversation about McNeil and Rei and the grove. "Momo," she greeted softly.
Momo adjusted the spectacles on her nose. "Nina." Her expression looked a bit uncertain.
"Thank you for coming," Nina continued, and then she stepped forward to embrace her. "I've missed you."
The engineer returned the embrace after a moment's hesitation.
Nina sighed and pulled back, smiling as she held Momo out at arm's length. "Momo, this is Shamus." She looked over at Shamus with a smile and motioned from one to the other. "Shay, this is Momo."
Shamus chuckled. "I know, Nina. She's come out before. I told you, didn't I?"
"Did you? I don't remember. Hmm." She looked back to Momo with a laugh. "Oh well. It doesn't matter. Come in and have some lemonade before lunch. You must be thirsty."
"Nina, why don't you show Momo the gardens," Shamus suggested. He motioned to Ryu. "We can get the lemonade and bring it out."
Nina sent him an appreciative smile. "That's a wonderful idea." She looked to Momo. "Do you mind?"
Momo adjusted her spectacles as she looked around. "I would be interested to see what improvements have been made since the former McNeil left office. Ryu and Rei told many stories of a conundrum of paths. Do you remember?"
Nina nodded, sending Shamus another smile before leading Momo to the right. "I do remember." Nina clasped her hands behind her back as she alternately looked to the grass at her feet and to Momo to gauge her expression. "You look wonderful, Momo. I like the new look. It's very feminine."
Momo self-consciously smoothed the front of her vest and pants. "Thank you." Her ears twitched.
Nina released a silent breath as she scolded herself for beating around the bush. Almost literally. She stopped. "Momo."
Momo faced her. "Yes?"
Nina raised her eyes to meet Momo's gaze. "Momo, I'm sorry."
Momo let out a quick breath as her ears did their usual wave. "Why didn't you ask, Nina?"
"I don't know."
"It would have been a courtesy to voice your concerns before acting on them."
"I know," Nina acknowledged with a slight nod.
"I didn't appreciate it. It hurt my feelings that you believed me either too infantile to handle the decision or too unaware of the difficulty to set a resolve into action."
Nina nodded again. "You're right."
Momo sighed, and this time she crossed her arms and looked away. Her ears waved and twitched at nearly the same instant. "Thank you."
Nina blinked. "Thank you? For what?"
"For caring enough to do what you did. I've learned quite a number of things of myself." Momo faced her with a raised finger. "Though I still don't appreciate the under-handed method used..." The finger lowered. "Ryu has been an invaluable source of help and information. I would never have thought to ask him."
Nina couldn't tell from the statement or from Momo's expression and attitude if they had moved past the initial 'experimental dating' stage. "How... How are things progressing?"
Momo seemed to flush... maybe. "Steadily. We talk. We socialize when appropriate. He brings flowers, and I act appropriately flattered and flustered. He compliments me, and I stammer an acceptance. I cook dinner and he doesn't make faces if it tastes less than perfect. I believe Ryu has even less idea of what Ďdatingí encompasses than I do."
Nina smiled and then giggled. "Oh Momo. You're priceless."
Momo returned her smile, though hers was more slight. "Nina, thank you for the letter. I wasn't certain of any regret on your part until I received it. Surprisingly, it helped dissuade the anger. I've come to realize I don't like being angry."
Nina shook her head, seriousness darkening her eyes. "Neither do I. I'll try not to do anything like that again."
There was the sound of a bark and approaching laughter, and the girls turned. Ryu and Shamus attempted to approach with full lemonade glasses without getting tripped by Rufus or his dragon-strength tail.
Lunch comprised of adventure stories, explanations of inventions, concepts of new ones, and an innocent enjoyment of each otherís company. Nina enjoyed the time together as well as the opportunity to view Momo and Ryuís interaction. There wasnít much difference between the present interaction and Ninaís memories of past interactions as friends.
After lunch, Momo took a moment to examine and immediately fix Shamusí weird-sounding clock in his office. It turned out to be a worn gear, easily replaceable. Once the repair had been made, Nina and Shamus both tried to get Ryu and Momo to stay the week. Apparently, the pair had made plans to stop in with the fairies to help with some issues.
Nina and Shamus escorted them to the main gate with arm clasps and embraces and promises of visiting the Tower, as well as a request for Momo to return to perform mineral samples of Mt. Glaus. Then the pair moved off with Ryu being heard to ask Momo a question about one of the new concepts sheíd mentioned over lunch. An intriguing pair, but Nina felt they had a chance to be a pair just the same.
Shamus and Nina had made no plans for the afternoon and evening, hoping that Momo and Ryu could have been persuaded to stay. So they both rifled through the books donated by Bunyan and took those of interest to the garden gazebo.
Nina opted for the bench while Shamus settled himself on the floor of the gazebo. He supported his back against the bench while draping his left arm across Nina's crossed legs, gently caressing her upper foot and ankle with his thumb and fingers. His right hand held his book on Wyndian history. Nina balanced her book Horse Breeding & Training for the Modern Rancher in her left hand while alternately twirling, scratching, and stroking Shamus' head of curls with the other.
They looked more than content.
Nina lowered her book, her right hand pausing its tease of a particular curl to drift to his shoulder as she leaned closer. She looked to the chapter he read. "What?"
Shamus pointed to a particular paragraph dated several generations previous. "Here's another Wyndian Princess named Nina who battled an evil goddess; 'Tyr' it says. It looks like this Princess Nina joined a young man named Ryu just like you did. And you know what? He was a dragon, too."
"I think I remember my governess telling me that story. That adventure happened back when the Wyndians could fly. Some could even change into large birds."
Shamus looked over his shoulder at her. "Really? Wow. It sounds like something that would only happen in a story, but it's true." He focused back on the book. "It's like the destiny of the Wyndians is to always protect us. Like they're... guardians or something."
Nina's eyes crinkled at the corners with her smile as she wrapped her arms around his upper shoulders - careful not to hit him with the book in her hand - and pressed her cheek against his. "That does sound wonderful. I will have that statement added to our history texts. Our children and our children's children should have the opportunity to remember and be proud of their history."
Shamus lowered his book. "Nina... How many..." He cleared his throat. "How many kids do you want, anyway? I was... I was kind of hoping for a big family like what I had."
"And how many would be a 'big family'?" she asked in mock seriousness.
"Oh I don't know." He cleared his throat again. "Seven...? Maybe?"
"Seven children or five children and then us?" Nina teased, while not sounding as if she teased.
"Seven kids... if you don't mind...?"
Nina softly smiled and then pressed her lips against his cheek. "Why not eight? Even numbers sound so much... lovelier," she whispered.
"No complaints here," he assured as he stroked her ankle.
She kissed his cheek again, the lotion had made it even softer than before, and then caressed it with her nose. "I don't think I've heard you complain about anything, Shamus McNeil. I'm beginning to wonder if you're real."
Shamus chuckled. "Well, to be honest..."
Nina giggled. "I knew it. It was a plot. You're a figment of my imagination." She straightened and tousled his curls. "Take that."
Shamus laughed, and hunkered down. "Mercy! Mercy! It wasn't my idea!"
"Oh really? And who's idea was it, pray tell?" she pressed, giggling and tousling and leaning after him.
"The little voices in my head! They told me to do it," Shamus laughed.
Nina pushed his head away with an "Oh you!" and a bright giggle.
Shamus looked over at her before moving to lean his arm and side against the bench, smiling up into her face. "Nina... I'm glad you think I'm too good to be true," he confessed. "I know you are."
Nina adjusted her position on the bench to her stomach, her face scant inches from his. "And I believe that is a perfect cue for a kiss," she whispered.
Shamus caressed her cheek, brushing hair from her forehead and cheeks. "Princess, your face is cue for a kiss."
Nina felt the tingle and the warmth from head to toe, and it hurried a tear from the corner of her eye. Shamus gently brushed it away before gently pressing his lips against hers... and this kiss felt different than the others shared. There was no pause or hesitation. They continued the touch and the kiss as if it were the only way for a deeper part of themselves to talk, to whisper, to confess something that Nina hadn't confessed before.
Nina pulled back in surprise.
Shamus blinked, cheeks and ears flushing as his eyes darkened with concern and a little embarrassment. "Nina?"
Nina could only watch his expression and scrutinize her own inner response to it and the kiss before.
Shamus cleared his throat, still examining her face and eyes. "Did I... Was I out of line?"
Nina mutely and absently shook her head, still questioning herself... She leaned in and timidly touched his lips again, welcoming the warmth and the emotion and intensity that she couldn't name. Shamus accepted the kiss almost hesitantly at first. That hesitancy and caution and concern brightened the intensity and coaxed the emotion even deeper. Nina found herself crying, against his lips and within the kiss that served as such a deeper touch than what it had first been.
Shamus pulled carefully back. "Nina? What's wrong?"
Nina opened her eyes with a teary smile as she shook her head. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Everything is wonderful," she whispered.
"Then why're you crying?" he pressed, doing his best to wipe the continual flow of tears from her cheeks.
"Because it's beautiful and romantic and a multitude of other things I never thought to have."
Shamus met her gaze. "Huh?"
Nina's eyes crinkled, which encouraged more tears. "I love you, Shamus McNeil."
Shamus blinked several times, eyes wide, before words made it through the haze of shock. "What?" he whispered.
Nina slid from the bench to sit beside him, holding his face in her hands and his gaze with hers. "I love you."
"Y-You... Y-You..." The haze of shock and wonder captured the words back again.
Nina slightly nodded.
Shamus stared at her slack-jawed. Then he slipped her hands from his face, adjusting them into one of his to smooth the hair from her face with a gentle touch from the other. "You love me?" he whispered.
Nina nodded again, tears escaping her eyes to trace silent exclamations of truth along her face. "I love you, Shay. I've loved you since that first day at the fishing hole. Since before? I don't know," she whispered in a choked voice.
"I don't care about where or when, princess," he whispered as he pressed his cheek gently against hers. "I don't care about where or when."
The love she felt burned with a brightness, warmth, and intensity much stronger than what she had ever felt for friends and family. Nina wrapped her arms around her husbandÖ her loveÖ her securityÖ and cried.
"Good night, princess."
The room went dark.
Nina snuggled further under her covers. "Good night, Shay."
Nina smiled up at the ceiling of their room as a content and happy silence settled like a warm and soft blanket. Then she looked beside her to Shamusí bed and silhouette, and her smile widened as her eyes crinkled at the corners.
Nina kicked her feet out from under the covers, dressed as she was in his favorite color of blue, and padded over to his bed.
"Whatís the matter?" he asked, pushing himself up to one elbow.
"Nothing," Nina said simply.
She pulled back the covers of his bed and slipped inside, turning onto her side and snuggling her back against him with a sigh at the tingles and the twitters that glowed on her face.
Shamus looked down at her for a silent moment before carefully enfolding her within his arms. He rested his cheek against hers. "Hi, princess," he whispered.
Nina relaxed into his embrace with another sigh. "Hello, husband."