Giselle jumped and came to an abrupt halt when she realized Eric was standing in front of her.
"Hey," she said, her heart-rate picking up when she locked eyes with him. She had been in such a daze as she walked to breakfast that she hadn’t even seen him. She was about to smile then noticed the gray under his eyes and how pale his brown skin seemed. Her brows lowered slightly. "Are you okay?" She asked. Eric looked away and chuckled. "Nothing a decent coffee won’t remedy," he said as he looked back at her with those gray eyes. She had never thought gray eyes could be so beautiful, especially with a black shirt.
Giselle eyed his casual outfit and frowned. Dark jeans with his converse and a black, v-neck t-shirt.
Her eyes lifted back to his and he grinned knowingly.
"Shane offered to give me the day off. I’m joining you guys while he covers my desk for a few hours. Something about what you said last night made sense. Sometimes there are more important things than work."
Giselle smiled faintly, trying not to feel as pleased as she did.
He gestured towards the direction of the dining hall. Giselle could only offer a small smile before walking alongside him to breakfast.
"On the way, we can discuss Kayley’s future," Eric said with a glimmer in his eye. "I pulled some strings this morning before handing the reins over to Shane, maybe your family’s connection with the university can pull few more."
Eric knew he was gone too far when he saw Giselle that morning. If he had gotten half an hour of sleep the night before, it would be a miracle. He couldn’t stop thinking about her, not that any of his thoughts were constructive. He dreamt, he wasn’t sure what he dreamt but Giselle was in it somehow. His alarm going off gave him a sense of relief and distraught at the same time. He knew he would be a mess all day, he felt like it from the moment he lifted his head from the mattress. Not even a shower could bring him back from the state he was in. Then Shane, being Shane, knocked on his door long before breakfast, saw the condition he was in, and took full advantage of it. Eric didn’t need much convincing. Half a day with the kids sounded pretty amazing and there was nothing that required his immediate attention, nothing Shane couldn’t handle, maybe it was time he gave his little brother more credit. How was he going to learn if Eric didn’t give him the opportunity? Next thing he knew, he was sitting in his office, downing an americano, crash coursing Shane on what his obligations were for the morning.
He was good and ready for breakfast and his second caffeine boost by the time he left his office.
The moment he saw Giselle, he knew the coffee wouldn’t be required anymore. Her eyes were focused on the floor as she walked, a white ball cap in her hand, dressed in a striped black and white t-shirt dress with white sneakers. She was dressed like such an ordinary girl, but the feelings she stirred inside of him made it clear she wasn’t. What on earth? He had thought himself incapable of feeling this way until her.
As he watched her now, chatting with Kayley on the playground while balancing Maira on her hip, he felt himself smile, unable to look away.
He loved playing with the kids. Seeing their faces light up at the surprise of him being there, made him forget that he had left all his morning obligations to Shane. He was dusty from kneeling in the sand and kicking balls around, but he was content and happy. Hearing Giselle’s laughter as she and some of the kids played around on the xylophone made everything seem that much sweeter. He caught her eye across the playground every now and then, and in those little moments when she smiled at him, he forgot that they weren’t together, that their lives were going in opposite directions as soon as she got on that plane; he was staying in one place his whole life, she would be on the move for the rest of hers.
He lowered his eyes. Surely these feelings would disappear as quickly as they came. She would leave, and he’d be able to focus again. She’d soon fall back into her normal pattern of performing and studying, meet someone that shared her passion . . . fall in love . . . Eric felt the painful stab of jealousy stronger than he had expected and tried to steer his thoughts away from that but failed. How someone like Giselle was still single was a mystery to him. The only excuse would be because she was so driven by her passion that she saw little else. She had said as much hadn’t she?
He raised his eyes again when he heard her laugh. She placed Maira on the ground and watched the little girl run after another kid. After watching Maira for a moment, Giselle turned back to Kayley and continued speaking.
He heard a shutter closing and glanced over his shoulder, smiling when he saw Elaine lower the camera from her eye as she came to join him on the porch he stood on with his arms crossed and his shoulder leaning against one of the poles. He turned back to the two girls that spoke a few feet away, far enough that neither he nor Elaine could hear but Eric knew exactly what they were talking about. Giselle and he had decided on the way there that she would be the one to break the news.
"She’s beautiful, that Balaco girl," Elaine said.
Eric smiled, not looking away.
"Both of them are," he answered, not wanting to give Elaine the satisfaction she dug for. He watched as Kayley’s shoulders lowered, her expression smoothing out because of the awe she was in at what Giselle was saying.
"What are they talking about?" Elaine asked. Eric grinned as he watched them.
Kayley’s yelp of excitement cut of his words. His smile deepened when Kayley threw her arms over Giselle’s shoulders. Giselle laughed as she embraced the girl. Kayley bounced on her toes then ran towards them.
"Elaine! I’m going to Cashadin!"
Elaine’s eyebrows came together over her eyes but a smile began at her lips. "What?" She asked. Kayley twirled around happily.
"Giselle arranged an audition for me next month," she said. Eric straightened and turned towards Elaine. He placed a hand on her shoulder. "And she’ll need a chaperone," he said, smiling at her. He watched as the awe reached Elaine’s face as well then chuckled and removed his hand.
"We’ve arranged for you to take a week of paid leave."
"And you two are coming for dinner with my family while you’re there!" Giselle said as she neared them. Kayley continued bouncing on her toes then ran to meet Giselle before she even reached them. Kayley threw her arms around Giselle again, making them both laugh. "Thank you!" she said into Giselle’s shoulder.
"You’re gonna do great. I just know it," Giselle said, hugging her tightly. Eric lowered his eyes at the way his heart responded to the sight.
"Oh, I have to start practicing!" Kayley let go of Giselle and turned around. She grabbed Elaine’s arm. "C’mon! Let’s go to the studio." She turned to Giselle. Giselle understood immediately. "I’m coming," she said. Kayley gave another squeal of excitement then rushed into the building, pulling Elaine with her. Eric watched them disappear into the studio before turning back to Giselle.
He delighted in the shy smile she gave as she walked up to him.
"Nicely done, Miss Balaco," he said as she neared. For a flicker of a moment, Eric lost all reason and put his arm around her shoulders to pull her close and press a kiss to her hair. The moment he felt her body tense against his, he realized what he was doing and pulled away. Heat flooded his neck and cheeks as he looked at her. Giselle stared back in a state of horrified shock, her cheeks pale but quickly gaining color as well.
"I’m sorry, that was inappropriate," he said, his heart beating wildly in his chest. Giselle shook her head quickly. "No, it’s okay . . . Uh, I’m gonna go help in the studio," she said and jogged up the steps as she headed towards the hall.
"Giselle!" Giselle stopped and spun around at the sound of Maira calling her name. The little girl ran up the steps and clutched onto Giselle’s legs tightly. Giselle laughed, still breathless from what had just happened, her heart pounding in her chest.
"Hey, what’s happening?" She asked and crouched down slowly, making Maira let go of her legs. Giselle could feel her fingers trembling as she pulled a strand of hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear.
She saw the tears in Maira’s eyes and felt her attempt at a smile fall.
"You’re gonna leave."
Giselle blinked, her heart shattering in an instant. "Oh, sweetie . . ." When she reached out, Maira latched onto her neck and fell into her arms. Giselle hugged her to her chest, moved deeply by this little girl. She felt Eric’s gaze on them and looked at him over Maira’s shoulder, pleading with her eyes. Eric seemed to understand immediately.
"Hey," he said quietly as he crouched before them. His gaze turned to Maira as he placed a hand lightly on her shoulders. She clutched tighter onto Giselle to the point where it was almost painful. "What’s wrong?" He asked. By the gentleness of his tone Giselle could tell he knew exactly what was happening. Maira dug her face deeper into Giselle’s neck and began to cry quietly.
"Oh," Giselle said as tears sprung to her eyes before she could think to stop them. In a near panic, she looked at Eric. His eyes met hers and what she saw made her stifle a gasp. Unending care and compassion and understanding seemed to seep form his gaze. He looked at the Maira again.
"Maira, are you sad that Giselle has to go soon?" He asked. Maira nodded, but didn’t move her face from Giselle’s neck. "Well she’s not leaving yet. Hey. . ." Eric gave Maira a light tug at her arm and that seemed to get her to look at him. He smiled encouragingly. "There she is." He ran a finger down her plush cheek. "Giselle’s going to play for Kayley while she dances," Eric said and glanced towards the studio then turned back to Maira.
"Do you want to come with?"
Maira nodded. Eric’s grin widened and he placed his hands around her little tummy. "Why don’t you come and take a ride on my shoulders there? Then you can either dance with me or play with Giselle. How’s that?"
Giselle felt Maira’s arms loosen around her neck and turned towards the child. Maira nodded again and, after a light tug from Eric, released her grip on Giselle and fell into his arms.
"There’s a good girl," Eric said as he effortlessly lifted her onto his shoulders and stood up. Maira gave a small, teary giggle and placed her hands on his head. Giselle rose as well, watching them with a small smile. Eric looked at her.
Shane had mentioned half a million things after Eric had gotten back from visiting the orphanage. It was comical, actually. His ever relaxed, ever chilled brother was suddenly frantic, as if he had five shots of espresso in one go. Shane went on about things Eric was already fully aware of.
The sugarcane exports were starting to drop due to a disease breakout that needed to be quarantined, money had gone missing from the cabinet, meaning there was some corruption going on, a foreign family had been murdered a week ago, not only was this tragic but it shed a terrible light on their kingdom for tourists, how were they going to fix this?
Eric had to put both his hands on his brother’s shoulders to get him to stop. He laughed quietly as he met Shane’s eye.
"You were only supposed to sit in on one meeting with mother and the minister of agriculture. It wasn’t even required that you speak, you just needed to be there. How did all of this happen?" Eric asked. Clarity slowly came back to Shane’s dark gray eyes and he blinked, looking at Eric as if he saw him for the first time in his life. "Are things really that bad?" Shane asked. "No," Eric said, shaking his head slightly. He steered his brother over to his desk and brought up documents on the screen before them.
He took Shane through everything, providing solutions where he could, explaining that most of what was happening was being handled already.
"Aren’t you the one who always tells me that I can’t save everyone? That we have people in government handling these things?" Eric said, smiling as he lifted his brow. Shane shook his head. "Yeah, but . . . I mean, the murder took place early this morning, I knew about everything else but . . . I think I just realized what it’s like to be hit with the reality for once. These aren’t just messages that get relayed anymore, you’re expected to say something, plan something. Hearing about it is different than addressing it," he said, shaking his head. "I’m sorry," Shane said and pushed his fingers through his hair and let out a breath of air. "I think it was all just a bit of a surprise."
Eric straightened from his desk as he looked at his brother. He smiled. "Maybe I should start trusting you more with things," he said, hearing Giselle’s voice in his head. "You did fine, Shane. Thanks for covering for me today."
Shane’s eyes jumped to his. "Anytime," he said, smiling.
The next morning a package arrived just after breakfast had ended. Eric knocked lightly on Giselle’s door, his heart pounding against his chest as he waited, wondering why he was here. Anyone could have offered to do this, but he wanted to see her, to speak to her alone one last time before she left.
"I’m coming!" Giselle called from inside.
The door opened and Eric found her eyes with his. A flicker of joy flashed in her eyes that made his chest tighten, but it was quickly replaced by confusion.
"Morning," she said.
"Good morning," Eric said and held up the present in his hands. "It’s from the orphanage."
"For me?" She asked quietly then looked at him. Eric smiled and nodded. Her expression softened as she took the wide, shallow box from him. He watched as she ran her fingers over the little violins printed on the outside.
"It says a lot about the effort they put in that they got it here in time. Elaine sounded pretty desperate to have it to you before you left. She said they wanted to have it to you sooner but they had expected you to only leave later this week."
Giselle lifted the lid and gasped softly.
"Oh, my soul," she said. Sheets of paper lay at the bottom, crinkled due to the overuse of paint that covered them; drawings from the smaller kids. On top of that lay folded pieces of paper tied together with a lace ribbon; letters from the older kids and likely Elaine. A small stack of photographs tied together with a piece of string was next to that. Giselle lowered the lid onto an ottoman that stood near the door, never removing her eyes from the contents of the box, and reached inside to take the photographs from it, her fingers shaking as she did. Eric took the box from her arms when he noticed it wobbling in her hands and placed it on the lid she had put down. He watched her expression which was almost emotionless as she pulled the string loose and dropped it in the box. A sheet of moisture covered her eyes as she slowly went through pictures of her and the kids, some were of the kids smiling at the camera, some were of her sitting with them on the playground, there was one of her and Kayley chatting the day before, and a few others. She paused when she reached a picture of her and Maira sitting behind the drum kit, both laughing. She let out a shaky breath slowly through her nose.
"That was harder than I expected."
Eric looked at her and saw the tears slowly beginning to pool in her eyes.
She had said nothing on the drive back the day before. He saw her heart break with each goodbye she said and he had expected her to cry at any moment, but she held them back.
"You handled it well," he said. She brought a hand to her mouth and in the split second before her sobs began, Eric knew that she had reached the end of her resistance. He swiftly stepped in front of her and placed his hands lightly on her arms. "Hey, hey," he said gently when he saw the silent stream of tears flowing down her cheeks. Eric couldn’t do anything but wrap his arms around her shoulders and pull her close. Her head fit perfectly beneath his chin. He ran his hand up her back as he tried to comfort her.
"I’m sorry," she said between sobs. "For what?" He asked smiling slightly. "Being human? You have nothing to be sorry for, Giselle."
"You just said that I handled it well."
"You handled saying goodbye well. I see how much those kids mean to you, no one should expect you not to cry."
She didn’t say anything for a while, and Eric didn’t expect her to. After a few seconds of quiet sobbing, her muffled voice came out quietly against his chest.
"I don’t want to leave."
Then stay. The words were so close to coming out that it scared him. Only logic made him hold them back.
"I think I fell in love too," she said.
Eric’s heart skipped a beat. His hand stilled on her back. He pulled back and looked at her. Giselle lifted her wet eyes to his.
He cupped her face with one of his hands and wiped her cheek with his thumb, loving the soft, smoothness of her skin and the warmth of it. His eyes traveled over her pink cheeks, her lips, her nose. . . He felt a smile tug at his lips as his gaze swept over her freckles. The smile melted when he met her eyes. She had stopped crying, her gaze uncertain, almost afraid, but he saw something else in them that made him forget he was the prince of an entire kingdom. He forgot that she was leaving soon, forgot that this wasn’t a dream, that he was supposed to think about the consequences. All he knew was that Giselle was in his arms and that all his senses were swimming in emotions he had never felt before.
Bringing his other hand to her cheek, he cupped her face and brought her face to his, his thoughts dissolving when he felt the texture of her lips beneath his. When he deepened the kiss, Giselle gave a quiet squeak, her free hand coming to his arm as though she wanted to fight him. But after a moment, her hand relaxed then clung to him, causing his already pounding heartbeat to pick up speed.
Giselle thought she had left earth when Eric kissed her. Her first thoughts were that this couldn’t be real, then, as he pulled her closer, her thoughts disappeared and nothing existed other than Eric and the feelings he roused in her. His kiss slowed until he broke it completely. Giselle felt him press his forehead against hers and couldn’t open her eyes. Reality slowly came back to her and she gripped tighter onto his arm as if she could hold on to the euphoria somehow.
Giselle became aware of his breathing as well as her own. Her entire body seemed to be trembling and her heart was trying to break through her chest. She couldn’t move, sure if she did her legs would give in from beneath her. She opened her eyes and everything hit her at once.
Her hand shot to her mouth to quiet her gasp.
He smiled half-heartedly and wiped what remained of her tears with his thumb.
"I supposed I’ve wanted to do that for a while," he admitted, lowering his eyes. "I’m sorry, I should’ve asked . . ."
Giselle dropped her eyes and tried to laugh but felt too breathless to do so. Ever the gentleman. Eric pulled away from her forehead but didn’t let her go.
"Giselle." She looked at him, sure she had never heard anyone say her name like that. It was like a melody, a love song. She lowered her hand from her mouth and brought her trembling fingers to his chin, lightly tracing his jaw line. This was actually happening, she realized. She had never felt this way with anyone.
And she was leaving in an hour.
"I guess we need to discuss a few things," she said when she finally found her voice.