It took just about everything inside of Eric to pretend he wasn’t bothered by what was happening right next to him. From across the table James Alexander spoke to him about business and politics, something he was used to and could give enough attention to without being rude. He enjoyed the man’s insight, his intellect. His twenty-three-year-old son, Thomas, however was grating on Eric’s nerves more and more as the evening went on. Thomas smiled and hit on Giselle every chance he got. He probably would have done the same with Rosaline if her hand hadn’t been in Shane’s when they walked in. From the bottom of the table, Eric could tell Shane shared his irritation. Shane and Thomas had never gotten along well, they were too alike. Both were good looking, flirtatious, and competitive, especially when it came to sport, always trying to one up one another.
What got to Eric even more was that Giselle had avoided his gaze since they walked in for dinner. She was fine when they finished the cake, more than fine. As he dressed for dinner all he could think about was the way she smiled. Now it felt like she was retreating from him. He took some pleasure in hearing her casual rebuff of Thomas’ flirtation, as if she weren’t even aware she was doing it, but he knew. Eric had to steel himself against his own laughter when Thomas took a shot, asking her with all the cockiness he possessed, if she liked rugby, a sport he excelled in. It seemed Giselle was reaching her last nerve when she responded with a "no" filled with enough exasperation to kill whatever hopes Thomas had of impressing her. Eric had to lower his eyes and press his tongue into his cheek to keep from reacting. He glanced at Shane a moment later and they shared a look that confirmed they were both thinking the same thing and he almost lost it again.
After dinner, everyone moved to the sitting room where Giselle sat down behind the piano and began to play. Everyone sunk into a lounge chair to relax as the music filled the room. For the second time that week Eric felt an undeserving swell of pride at the way James and Thomas stared, mesmerized, as Giselle played. Both were lost in her music, the same way Eric was when he first heard her play. He watched her as well, unable to stop until she lifted her fingers from the keys.
James Alexander stood up and clapped as he crossed the room and walked towards her. The man was in his early fifties and slightly graying at his temples. He stood tall and upright, dressed well and always had a focused, driven look on his face.
"Giselle Balaco." He said her name as if it were an old beloved song. "I’m not a man that is easily impressed. That was exceptional. You are more than worthy of that last name. Bravo."
She smiled as he took her hand and kissed it.
"Thank you," she said as she lowered herself into the stool again.
Eric’s brows lifted expectantly when James suddenly turned to look at him. "Congratulations, my boy."
It took Eric a split second of confusion before what James said clicked in his brain. His eyes shot to Giselle’s and she mimicked his alarm.
"Uh, no . . . no," Giselle said first, making James turn back to her. "We haven’t even known each other a month," Eric added quickly, glancing at Giselle again. A short, painful silence fell when James glanced between the two of them, bemused.
"Oh, I’m sorry."
"He was betrothed to Rosaline just a few weeks ago, James. Give the boy a break."
Eric glanced at his mother and smiled at her playful tone, relieved that she said something.
"Well we all know how that worked out. Good catch, Shane," James said, smiling at Shane and Rosaline.
He glanced at Giselle again. "Your father would have loved them," James said and looked at Eric. Eric felt an ache settle inside of him then smiled sadly at Shane and Rosaline sitting next to each other on one couch. He would have, Eric thought, seeing the way Shane looked at Rosaline. Eric lowered his eyes as the ache settled and fought against the comfort he knew he would find in Giselle’s eyes.
"Well that was fun," Rose said as she came to stand next to Giselle. She placed her fingers on the balcony rim and smiled at her cousin. Giselle shook her head, a smile playing at her own lips. She sighed and looked out at the kingdom. The kingdom was just as beautiful at night.
"If I had a euro for every Thomas Alexander I’ve met in my life," she said and resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
"You’d be able to buy that little house in Paris."
Paris. Giselle felt her nerves bundle together in her stomach and tried to take a deep breath to hide them. "What’s eating you? You haven’t been yourself all evening," Rose said. Giselle breathed in and let it out in a huff. "I got a call from my dad earlier, just before dinner."
"They received such a great success from the show that they’re extending it for another week."
"That’s great! Your dad must be ecstatic."
"He is." Giselle smiled but it didn’t make her feel any better. "He also urgently needs an extra trombonist. One of them is getting married next week." Giselle looked at Rose. Her excitement had vanished. "When are you leaving?"
"He wants me to go in two days."
Rose nodded solemnly.
"Rose, I told him I’d let him know tomorrow. I’ve still got to be here with you and the kids and –."
"Giselle." Rose placed a hand on her cousin’s arm. She smiled encouragingly. "You have been dreaming of Paris with your dad for so long. I’m leaving at the end of the week and if it’s such a danger to propriety then we can get Rosie on a flight. She’s feeling much better." Her hand gave a gentle squeeze. "You’ll still be with the kids tomorrow and you can see them before your flight. Shane and I can visit for the last few days."
Giselle dropped her eyes again. A week ago she would have jumped at the opportunity. Her father needed her. She knew every piece meant to be played. She had even helped in writing some of it. It would be an amazing experience.
This was what she wanted, wasn’t it?
She had a way out. She could be an ocean away from Eric in less than 48 hours if they could arrange an early flight. But the idea still made her miserable, especially after the way he looked at her while they were baking. Something had changed, she couldn’t ignore that.
"Unless you want to stay."
Giselle looked at Rose. "I –."
"Alright, the arrogant coquette is out of the castle, let’s go get that cake!"
Both of them turned see Shane and Eric step onto the large balcony, Shane’s arms raised enthusiastically. Eric looked at his brother. "Coquette refers to a female flirt."
"Don’t give me ideas," Shane said dryly as he lowered his arms. He looked at the girls and then only seemed to notice their expressions.
"I just disturbed something deep, didn’t I?"
Giselle smiled. "It’s fine. I just . . ." She looked at Rose then sighed. There was no use in hiding it. When she turned back to the princes, her heart skipped a beat at Eric’s gaze on her. A low warmth settled in her stomach.
Oh, my soul.
She took another deep breath then went on to explain.
Eric was so confused by his own emotions that he felt torn. He knew one thing, he didn’t want her to leave yet even when there was no logical reason she should stay. He knew nothing romantic could ever materialize between the two of them. He had other plans. So did she. She had a wanderlust and a talent that would feed it. That aside, it just wouldn’t be right to hold someone like Giselle down, not to her, not to her talent, and not to the world that still needed to hear it. His gaze followed her as she walked from one end of the balcony to the next, confirming with her father and getting admin out of the way for her trip.
Shane came to stand next to him. He watched Giselle as well.
"You can’t possibly still be in denial."
Eric dropped his eyes and searched the floor blindly. "Two days. . ." Even if he tried, he couldn’t ignore the emotions stirring and rising inside of him. He looked at his brother. "I want to figure it out." Shane’s brows shot up. "You mean . . ."
Eric looked back at Giselle before Shane could finish. She ended the call and stared at her phone. It hit him again just how beautiful she was, especially in the moonlight now with her hair down and wavy. Rosaline went out to join her. "I don’t know, Shane," Eric said when he looked back at his brother. "What do I do?"
Shane’s face took on an expression of surprise Eric hadn’t seen before. "You’re asking me for advice?"
The bizarreness of the situation hit him and he laughed bitterly and shook his head. "I must be losing my mind, but yes, I am," he said. Shane turned to the balcony again. When Rosaline looked at him, he smiled and gestured with his head that she come over. "You’re gonna have to trust me then," Shane said as Rose came over. Giselle turned back to facing the kingdom. "Go talk to her. We’ll grab the cake," Shane said as Rose approached. He smiled and tucked her under his arm.
"What’s up?" She asked. "I need some company to the kitchen," he explained then steered her out of the room.
Eric grinned and shook his head.
"Smooth, Shane," he said dryly then headed towards the balcony. Giselle glanced over her shoulder as he neared. He held her gaze and stood next to her. After a moment of silence, Giselle lowered her eyes.
"How are you doing?" He asked, leaning forward a bit. He saw her chest lift as she took in a deep breath then lower as she let it out slowly. She shook her head and turned it to the kingdom.
"I didn’t think it would be this hard for me to go when I first got here," she said quietly and placed her crossed arms on the balcony rim. Eric’s watched the thin sheet of tears form in her eyes. His heart gave a squeeze.
"I mean . . . I’ve wanted to be in Paris with my dad for years. He took me once while he was on tour. I was so disappointed." She shook her head again. He noticed a slight frown cross her brow. "It’s so overrated. We did everything mainstream tourists do and I found it so . . . boring. I ventured out eventually and took a non-touristy walk. Still, it didn’t satisfy what I thought I wanted. The only time I found it beautiful was when I was sitting in the theaters listening to the music and the street performers. I figured that was what was missing."
"You want to perform," Eric said, placing both his hands on the balcony rim. "I thought I did." She dropped her eyes again. "After this last week, I realize what I’ve been craving all this time." He tried to see into her face a bit more to figure out what she was thinking as she paused. "The thing is, I could go to Paris a thousand times over and never find anything like what I found here."
Eric watched her, sensing how she fought against her burning tears. Giselle straightened and pulled her hair over her shoulder then twirled the bottom around her fingers.
"Something about being here makes me . . . incredibly happy. The music, those kids, the people and their kindness, the culture . . ." Giselle looked at him. "You’ve got something unworldly here, Eric."
Eric found it hard to breathe. When had she stopped addressing him by his title? He let out a breath slowly, evenly, trying to settle his pounding heartbeat.
"And you’re still going?" He asked, not sure what else to say and knowing it wasn’t the right thing. She shrugged half-heartedly then turned to the kingdom again.
"My dad knew I would jump at the opportunity, he counted on it. I can’t let him down now."
Eric nodded solemnly. He could feel the wedge they both were trying to force between them.
"Yeah, I can relate with that," he said.
"You mean your own dad?"
Eric nodded, not looking at her. He almost sighed as James Alexander’s words came back to him. Along with a blow of pain he knew would come every time he thought of his father. It got less painful, but days like this reminded him of everything the king was missing and would miss.
"Tell me about him," Giselle said. From his peripheral vision, he saw her turn to face him. Eric lowered his eyes. "Well, firstly, James was right, he would have adored you," Eric said.
"Really?" At the sweetness in her voice he turned to look at her. The light was back in her eyes and she had a small smile on her lips. He felt his own return.
"Without a doubt." Giselle’s childlike energy and charisma would have crept deeply into the late king’s heart. Eric bent slightly to rest his elbows on the balcony rim and braided his fingers together. "He loved music, loved his violin." Giselle’s smile deepened.
"He was passionate about his kingdom, a complete workaholic. Sometimes weeks would pass where he would be in the castle living with us and we wouldn’t see him."
"So that’s where you get it from," Giselle said, a teasing smile at her lips. Eric dropped his eyes and laughed quietly.
"I would probably be just as bad if it weren’t for Shane always dragging me out of the office whenever he thinks I’ve been working too hard." Eric couldn’t fight his grin. He shook his head to get rid of it. "It’s very frustrating sometimes." He looked at her again.
"I’m glad he does it, though," Giselle said, her brows coming together. "You can’t just dive into work and forget there’s people who love you."
"Sometimes I’m required to do that."
Giselle shook her head. "No, you’re not. Don’t forget, I chat with your mom every evening before dinner and from what I gathered from her, you pile way too much work on yourself. You’ve got a brother, a royal advisor that’s been raised the same way you have. Give him a chance and share the load. Plus, your mother is on the throne now, not you, don’t forget that, Eric," she said, crossing her arms sternly. Eric blinked at her spunk. A brow lifted.
"Are you reprimanding me?" He asked, strangely amused.
"I’m backing your mom."
"Why do you two enjoy ganging up against me?" He asked, straightening up to face her.
"Because you’re so stubborn and selfless. More people should get you to slow down."
He stared at her, trying to piece together the girl in front of him. He probably never would. Every day he had known her, Giselle showed a side of her that amused and fascinated him.
"I’m confused, are you insulting me or complimenting me?" He asked. She smiled patiently. "It’s a compliment, Eric, but it’s also a concern. For you and your mom. She worries about you," Giselle said. Eric felt his chest tighten. That’s the last thing he wanted to cause.
"Were they in love?"
Eric looked at her sharply, surprised at the sudden twist in conversation. "Your parents," she clarified, reading his expression. "We’re they in love?"
Eric felt a small frown cross his brow as he dropped his eyes.
"I don’t know," he said and he looked at her again, stunned that the question had never occurred to him. It had never mattered before, he realized. He had never been in love, never considered love to be a factor in any political decision. The closest he had come to witnessing it was Shane’s recent infatuation with Rosaline, and he wasn’t even sure if that was real love, if he were to be honest with himself.
Giselle’s smile deepened at her eyes. "Very much," she said. "Still are. My dad is a real romantic. They still go away every year for their anniversary. He plans dates and – oh! – he takes Marie and myself on daddy-daughter dates sometime too. He randomly shows up with flowers. According to my mom, he’s always been like that. She lived a very isolated life so when he showed her what real love was like, she gave up everything she knew for that – her words not mine."
Eric smiled. "And then she had myself and Marie." Giselle lowered her eyes and shook her head. "Her life changed," she said, looking back up at Eric. In her eyes, Eric saw the love in everything she had said.
"You’re very happy," he said. She blinked, taken back by his words. "I am," she said and lowered her eyes. "I have more, way more, than most people dream of having."
Her smile faded as she searched the floor. "I’ve never been made more aware of that until I came here." She looked at the kingdom again.
"This kingdom is changing me," Giselle almost whispered, feeling her heartache as she watched the lights in the distance. It’s been less than two weeks. How much more could she learn here? She had lost her heart to this place.
"In a good way?" Eric asked.
"In the best way." She suddenly felt angry at herself. "But it’s not exactly encouraging to know that you’ve lived your entire life as a brat when you thought you were a good person."
"You weren’t a brat."
"Oh, yeah? You wouldn’t know, Eric." She scoffed at herself. "I wouldn’t do things just because I didn’t feel like it, because I didn’t like it. I wouldn’t give things a chance because of preconceived ideas. I wouldn’t talk to certain people for exactly the same reason. The day I met you I thought you were the most stuck up person alive. Now –" She stopped herself but Eric leaned forward to see into her face better. She couldn’t look at him.
She breathed out slowly and dropped her eyes. "You’re one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life," she admitted.
Giselle smiled at that. "Strange as it may sound, getting to know you was my favorite part of this visit." She looked at him then and felt a tingling warmth spread inside of her at his smile. She looked away again.
"I can’t believe how much I wanted to be in Paris when I landed here." Her eyes scanned the town and noticed the mist that was starting to form. "I didn’t want anything to do with this kingdom and now I’m so in love with this place it’s painful. I even –." She stopped, realizing what she was about to say. A deep fear of losing her stability hit her. She wasn’t sure anymore. She’s always had her life planned out and now she wasn’t even sure of what she wanted. She knew where her talent could take her. She could possibly even make a mark on history someday, especially in this point in time.
But did she still want to devote her life to her music when there was so much more out there? Would she still be able to use her talent to live out her own selfish desires? She had the talent, and there was so much more than that she could do with it than she initially thought, but in doing that would she be giving up the success she thought she always wanted?
She groaned and kicked the balcony wall with frustration.
"Eric, I’m freaking out," she admitted, her voice breaking at the end. She shook her head as tears stung the back of her eyes. A teary breath escaped her throat.
"I don’t know how I’m going to go back home and just continue going on like I did before. I still want my degree but I don’t know about afterwards." She swallowed. "And I’m scared of sinking back into my normal life. I’m scared of dwindling back into the ignorance I’ve been living in."
She looked over at him, tears now swimming in her eyes.
"How would you know?" she asked, almost desperate to know the answer. "I just know," he said, holding her gaze. Giselle felt her nerves tighten. She believed him.
"You’ve got too big a heart to allow yourself to fall into ignorance, Giselle. I’ve never met someone like you. You don’t fit the social mold you grew up in. You recognize what you have but you also recognize what others have. You seem to always seek a means to make people happy, especially those who don’t expect it from someone like you. Even your music comes from the joy you find in the relationships you build with those around you. I think that’s why it draws people in the way it does, it gives the rich and arrogant a chance to feel something they don’t recognize," he said and smiled. "Getting a chance to know you made the drama of ending the engagement worth it."
Giselle laughed at that over the flutter in her chest.
Miha: Ah, so sweet! I can't :))
Monika: Lol (I actually laughed) Thanks for that. It's such a compliment that you went to read my other stories to compensate for my lack of response (at least, I think that's how I'm understanding this - if not, haha, awkward)