Please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for November: 11/2 Lois Winston 11/9 Christin Brecher 11/16 Laurie Lowenstein 11/23 M.V. Byrne

Thursday, November 24, 2022

"A Present Predicament" by Sarah E. Burr

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you all are enjoying this special time. My post marks the start of a Writers Who Kill tradition: posting holiday short stories. Today, I'm sharing one of my Realm of Virtues Stories. This collection features supporting characters from my Court of Mystery series. I began writing these stories as holiday gifts for my newsletter subscribers. It's now my honor to share A Present Predicament with you. A Present Predicament is on the longer side of the short story spectrum, so if you'd like to download and read an ePub copy on your favorite eReader, you can do so by following the instructions here. Happy Holidays!


 A PRESENT PREDICAMENT
By Sarah E. Burr

Chapter One

  

“Excuse me, Miss Uma? Might I have a word?”

Lord Percival Pettraud had clearly startled the young woman, for she leapt back from the pile of dresses she’d been sorting, her hand flying to her chest.

“Virtues, my lord, you gave me quite a fright.”

Perry’s cheeks warmed as he waited for the petite lady’s maid to compose herself. “Apologies. I should have knocked.”

“Before entering the private chambers of the Duchess of Saphire? Yes, that would probably be wise in the future.” Uma Dorrow gave him a polite curtsy, although a smirk twisted on her lips.

Perry ran a hand through his thick, dark curls. “I’m still learning the ropes, I’m afraid. As the lowly seventh son of a Duke, royal etiquette wasn’t seen as a priority for me.”

Uma turned back to her work, sifting through the elaborate gowns lying across one of the plush sofas. “I don’t think it’s royal etiquette to knock on a lady’s bedchamber before entering, my lord.”

Perry’s jaw went slack. Was meek, mild-mannered Uma actually teasing him? In the eight or so months he had been living at the Saphirian palace, she had always acted like a timid shadow. Where was this spritely spirit coming from?

Uma must have read his thoughts for her cheeks colored, and she began to sputter. “It-it is my turn to beg forgiveness, Lord Pettraud. The Duchess asked me to help her sample some cordials for the grand Yuletide gala. The gingerbread malt seems to have made me quite bold.”

Perry laughed, waving her apology aside. “Then I must be sure to seek it out. I’ll need plenty of courage of my own to survive the night.”

Uma tilted her head, clearly intrigued by his comment.

Perry continued for her benefit, “High Courtier Jaquobie has repeatedly informed me of the importance of the evening.” He shuddered at his memory of the most recent encounter. “It seems all eyes will be on me to see if I am suitable to be the Duchess of Saphire’s…companion.” Perry almost choked on the last word. Not that he was disgusted by it, but because he was still in a blissful state of disbelief that Jacqueline Arienta Xavier, the intelligent and engaging Duchess of Saphire, would one day become his wife…that is if he didn’t embarrass himself in front of the Saphirian high lords and ladies.

Uma cleared her throat. “Were you looking for the Duchess, Lord Pettraud?”

Perry realized he was likely keeping the young woman from her duties with his rambling. “No, I was looking for you.” He looked around the beautifully decorated sitting area. “I was wondering if you might help me with a little mission.”

“Mission, my lord?” Uma’s nose wrinkled, and she nervously tucked a strand of loose, mousey brunette hair back behind her ear.

“Oh, nothing dangerous. I’m simply inquiring what Duchess Jacqueline might like for a Yuletide gift. I’d like to give her something special, something that she can use.” Perry’s gaze dropped to the polished stone floor. He felt devious for asking, as he’d already arranged for a present. He was merely here to ensure the gift remained a surprise. No doubt, Uma would inform her Duchess that Perry had stopped by inquiring about ideas, thus putting Jax off the trail. At least, he hoped so. Jax did have an uncanny knack for solving the trickiest of puzzles.

At his question, Uma chuckled. “A challenge, for sure, my lord. What do you get a woman who has everything?”

“Ah, so you can see what I’m up against?” Perry grinned. With her guard down, Uma was a delightful young woman. He could see why his longtime valet and friend, Hendrie, had taken a liking to her.

Uma tapped her chin in thought. “Indeed. Although, I’m not sure I’ll be able to help you, Lord Pettraud. I think…” she paused, looking back over her shoulder at the closed doors to Jax’s bedroom. “I think as long as you don’t give her some old tome reeking of leather, you’ll be fine. High Courtier Jaquobie and her council of advisors presented the Duchess with several history books as a Yuletide offering only just this morning. As if she’d want to do more reading outside of her work.” Uma chuckled. “The Duchess really put her acting skills to the test. I almost believed she was an ardent book lover.”

Perry did his best to join in Uma’s laughter, but inside, his heart sank. A leather tome? It was just his luck. The one thing Jax wouldn’t want was the one thing he’d gotten her.


Chapter Two

  

Bidding Uma a hurried goodbye, Perry dashed out into the hallway of the residential wing of the Saphirian palace.

“Virtues,” he mumbled to himself as he began to stalk back to his private apartment, “Yuletide is only a day away. How am I supposed to come up with another present before tomorrow’s gala?” He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. He had thought he’d come up with the perfect gift, something not only meant for enjoyment but meaningful to them both.

Perry had spent the last few months secretly compiling different accounts from Jax’s companions regarding their thrilling summer visit to the Duchy of Mensina earlier that year. At the Feast of Champions, a knight had been found dead in his tent, and Perry was accused of his murder. Jax had thrown herself into the investigation to clear Perry’s name and see justice done, even going so far as to confront the killer herself. For a Yuletide gift, Perry had written a detailed account of the adventure, interviewing Hendrie, Uma, and the Ducal Guard to describe the events that had taken place while he’d been imprisoned in the Mensina dungeons. In order to keep the book a complete surprise, Perry’s informants all believed he was writing a report to send home to his father, the Duke of Pettraud. Once he had written and illustrated the harrowing tale, painting Jax as the fierce and brilliant heroine that she was, Perry had enlisted the services of a Saphirian master crafter to bind the book for him in ornamented leather.

Uma’s glib words battered around his mind. It wasn’t that he was giving Jax a dusty old tome. But it was still a book…one newly made and sure to smell of the violet-dyed leather he’d selected while visiting the crafter’s shop.

Perry sighed. Maybe he could find Jax something else in the Saphirian marketplace after he picked up the book from the crafter’s that afternoon. But what to get the woman who had everything?

Lost in his troubled thoughts, Perry ambled back to his suite.

“Now, where is your Yuletide spirit?”

A musical voice dissolved his gloomy mood, and a grin twisted onto Perry’s lips as he turned toward the welcome sound.

“Much better.” Jax laughed as she glided toward him.

She looked lovely in a dark gray riding habit, her long, caramel waves plaited and pinned up under a smart, stylish hat.

“Back from a ride?” Perry wished she had invited him along. Exploring the palace grounds with her was one of his favorite pastimes.

Jax sighed. “Heading out, I’m afraid.” She pulled a black glove off one of her elegant hands before taking hold of his. “I’m off to catch the Yuletide bounty.”

Perry nodded. Jax had explained the lovely holiday tradition to him earlier in the week. Every Yuletide, Jax’s father, the late Duke Richard Xavier, had embarked on a grand fishing expedition, donating his entire bounty to a Saphirian village’s Yuletide feast. As Saphire’s Duchess, Jax had taken up the mantle herself and would be spending the day fishing on Lake Saltrine.

“Is everything all right?” Perry examined Jax’s refined features. She seemed uneasy; her beautiful amethyst eyes were tight with worry.

She sighed, the corner of her lip curling in a sheepish smile. “I’m usually not so transparent.”


“You don’t have to wear your regal mask around me, Jax.” Perry placed a gentle palm on her forearm. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Her gaze dropped to his hand for a moment. “Just your being here is enough.” Her expression glowed with gratitude.

Underneath his tunic collar, Perry’s neck warmed. She really was the most dazzling creature he had ever laid eyes upon. Jax often left him in a euphoric daze with her wit, charm, and intelligence.

When Perry had first been informed that Duke Richard and Duke Cornelius Pettraud had arranged Perry and Jax’s marriage, he’d been suspiciously hesitant and downright appalled. He and Jax had both been ambushed with the news over a state dinner, shortly after Jax’s coronation. It hadn’t surprised Perry to learn about the life-altering arrangement through a junior Pettraudian courtier. His father couldn’t even have been bothered to inform Perry himself ahead of his visit to Saphire. But Perry had been taken aback that he’d been the Pettraud son selected for this arrangement. Growing up, as the youngest of seven sons, Duke Pettraud had rarely shown Perry any kindness, so why start now? At the time, Perry had assumed his father was using him as a simple bargaining chip, sending him off to marry some cold, uncaring woman for Pettraud’s own political gain. Perry had heard stories about Jacqueline’s beauty, but not much about the strength of her character. Yet, after being in her company only a short while, his entire outlook regarding his father’s decision had changed. With her, Perry could see a bright, happy future. A future he dared hope to dream about.

Of course, that future currently remained undecided. Since Jax had not been aware of the arrangement made by her father and Duke Pettraud, she had been quite stunned to learn about it from one of Duke Pettraud’s junior courtiers. Perry would have even gone so far as to say she was disappointed, heartbroken that her father had done this without her consent. Yet, Jax put on a brave face and welcomed Perry into her home, under the condition that they would spend an extended period getting to know each other before an engagement was announced. At the time, Perry couldn’t help but wonder if Jax had been simply delaying things until she could find a way out of the marriage agreement. In her, Perry saw a kindred spirit. She wanted to marry for love, just like he did. Although, their situation suited Perry just fine. He was certain he had fallen in love with her the moment she called him “Perry” for the first time.

He gazed at her now, desperate to make her feel better. “Are you worried the fish will prove too elusive for your nets?” Since the spoils of the Yuletide bounty went to a village in need, he imagined Jax was feeling the pressure to perform well.

At his concern, Jax snorted. “I am a very skilled fisherman, thank you very much. I’ve participated in the expedition for many years now.” Her teasing words softened. “It’s just…this will be the first time in a long, long while that Papa hasn’t been at my side.”

Perry’s heart tightened at the sadness pooling in her eyes. This would be the first Yuletide without her beloved parents. “Your father will always be at your side, Jax.” Perry lifted a hand to his heart. “In here.”

A lone tear fell onto her cheek. “My heart feels quite empty at the moment.”

Her admission touched him. Jax was usually so closed off regarding her feelings. Without thinking, he gathered her into his arms, wordlessly offering her comfort and understanding.

She tensed at his affectionate touch but soon pressed her cheek against his chest. They stood there for a time without speaking.

A throat cleared at the end of the corridor. “Ahem, Duchess? Sorry to bother you. The envoy to the lake is ready.”

Perry and Jax parted, their attention turning in unison to the armored figure at the end of the hall. Captain George Solomon of the Ducal Guard stood, a sheepish expression on his face.

“Nonsense, George. I’m sorry to have kept everyone waiting.” Jax’s features smoothed into her regal mask, a fa├žade Perry had become quite familiar with by now. He could practically see her barricading her emotions and weaknesses away from the world.

George dipped his head in response, clearly embarrassed to have interrupted a private moment between the two of them.

He does it often enough, you’d think he’d be used to it, Perry grumbled to himself.

Jax turned to Perry, a bright, endearing smile settling onto her lips once more. “I shall see you when I return victorious, Lord Pettraud.”

Perry laughed at the theatrical bravado she displayed. “I’m sure you will capture every fish in the lake, Duchess.”

As she hurried toward George, Perry gazed after her longingly. Just as you have captured my heart, Jax.

 

Chapter Three

 

 “Are you sure, Perry?” Hendrie scratched at his straw-colored hair. “I don’t mind riding down to the city square myself.”

Perry batted the comment away. “Please, I need a distraction.”

A knock sounded from the entrance to Perry’s apartment.

Perry shot a questioning glance at Hendrie. With Jax gone for the day, who could be on the other side?

Hendrie moved quickly to the door and opened it.

High Courtier Jaquobie stood in the doorway, his hands clenched in front of him in a pensive manner.

“High Courtier.” Perry struggled to sound friendly. The thin, spindly man unnerved him a great deal. “What brings you by?”

“I hope I am not interrupting.” Jaquobie strode into the sitting area of Perry’s suite, eyeing the saddlebags seated on one of the sofas. “Planning a trip, Lord Pettraud?”

Perry shook his head. “Hendrie and I were just getting ready to ride into Sephretta. Duchess Jacqueline has told me the marketplace is a holiday marvel this time of year.”

Jaquobie stroked his long, pointy black beard. “Lovely.” His nasal tone did not sound lovely at all.

“May I help you with something, High Courtier?” Perry wrung his hands. Usually, Jax was around to deflect the shrewd man’s attention.

“I wanted to speak to you about the importance of the Yuletide gala.”

Perry swallowed. “Again?” Did Jaquobie think him some unruly child? He was twenty-eight-years old, for Virtues’ sake.

“The High Lords of Saphire have Duchess Jacqueline’s ear. If any of them feel that you are not up to the task of Prince Consort, well…” Jaquobie motioned a flippant hand toward the door.

Perry folded his arms. “High Courtier, I find it hard to believe you would allow Saphire to break an agreement made with the Duchy of Pettraud.” He hated that his relationship with Jax boiled down to an “agreement” in so many people’s eyes, but he spoke in terms a man like Jaquobie would understand.

Jaquobie scoffed at his bold statement. “As crude as this may sound, the agreement made by your father was made with a dead man. Duchess Jacqueline is the sovereign of Saphire now. The only reason she is upholding her late father’s arrangement is out of respect. To both Duke Richard and Duke Pettraud.”

Perry stilled, barely believing Jaquobie spoke so frankly with him.

“Which is why Duchess Jacqueline would have no objection from me, should she choose to dissolve the agreement if she deemed it in Saphire’s best interests.” Jaquobie’s dark amber eyes narrowed pointedly before the man sighed. “If you want this marriage to come to fruition, I cannot stress enough the importance of impressing the high lords and ladies of Saphire. Jacqueline is very fond of you, Lord Pettraud, but if you are not strong enough to stand by her side, she will put duty before her own heart. She’s done it before.”

Perry took several steeling breaths, processing Jaquobie’s curious words. While they had been harsh, the High Courtier had spoken plainly about what needed to be done to win Jax’s hand in marriage. “I appreciate your candor, High Courtier. Please know your words of wisdom will not be dismissed.”

A mischievous twinkle flashed in Jaquobie’s cunning gaze. “I’ll leave you to enjoy your day, Lord Pettraud. Although, I might suggest you stop by the library while visiting the capital. It houses an extensive collection on the Saphirian noble families, who will be attending the gala. It might prove useful.” With a dip of his chin, Jaquobie departed the chamber.

Hendrie locked the door behind the man and leaned against it with a sigh. “Would Duchess Xavier do that? Would she really break the pact made by her father?”

Perry forced a confident smile. “Not without good reason. And believe me, I have no plans to give her one.”

Putting Jaquobie’s chilly encounter behind them, Hendrie helped Perry into his riding clothes and by late morning, the two were on their way to the stables.

“Virtues, Hendrie, even the snow is brighter in Saphire, isn’t it?” Perry stared in awe at the sprawling grounds that lay between them and the palace stables. Having grown up in the dreary confines of his family’s formidable, gloomy castle, Perry was continually enchanted by the ethereal beauty he had encountered in Saphire.

“Greetings, Lord Pettraud.”

Perry had been so engrossed by the snow-covered landscape, he had failed to see a senior member of the Ducal Guard approach until now.

“Corporal Highriver.” The broad-shouldered man supplied his name when Perry didn’t immediately respond.

“How is the season treating you, Corporal?” Perry asked, ashamed he hadn’t remembered the warrior’s name, despite having been introduced to him before. The Corporal had served the Ducal Guard since Jax was a young girl, and she was quite fond of the gruff soldier. Perry could almost feel the phantom drip of Jaquobie’s disapproval down his spine. If he was to be the Prince Consort Jax deserved, he should start by taking a more active interest in those around her.

“Very well, thank you.” Highriver nodded a greeting to Hendrie. “You look like you’re about to set off for a ride. Do you require an escort, my lord?”

Perry shook his head. “Oh, no. I’m just off to the Sephretta marketplace for a bit of holiday cheer.”

Highriver frowned. “I must insist you take an escort, my lord. It’s not safe for you to travel alone.”

“I won’t be alone.” Perry patted Hendrie on the shoulder. “We’ve made the trek before, Corporal. No need to bother any of the Ducal Guard.”

Highriver shifted his weight to his back foot, revealing more clearly the empty sleeve hanging lifelessly from his side. Perry didn’t know the story behind the injury that had cost the man his arm and respectfully avoided his gaze.

“Ah, but the fresh snowfall has a way of toying with one’s mind, my lord.”

“As a Knight of Pettraud, I am aware.” Perry immediately regretted his sharp, clipped tone, but after the tongue lashing he had received from Jaquobie, he’d grown quite tired of everyone in Saphire assuming him incompetent.

Highriver bowed his head, chastened. “Forgive me, my lord. I meant no offense.” He gave them both a curt smile. “Enjoy your ride.”

Perry debated calling the man back over and apologizing, but before he could make up his mind, Highriver disappeared into the ducal gardens.

“That could have gone better, mate,” Hendrie whispered, his brown gaze trailing after the distinguished soldier.

Perry tugged his cloak a bit tighter. “I know, I know.” His mood darkened. Between Jax’s gift, Jaquobie’s visit, and his encounter with Highriver, the day was not going in his favor.

As if sensing his sour spirits, Hendrie puffed out his chest as they resumed walking toward the stables. “I think I shall ask the Duchess’s lady’s maid to the Yuletide gala.”

Perry cocked an eyebrow. “Really? Do you think you’ll be able to get a word out? You always get quite tongue-tied around her.” He ribbed his valet with an elbow.

Hendrie turned the color of a holly berry. “I-I do not.”

“Well, mate, you better get a move on. The ball is tomorrow.” Perry patted Hendrie’s shoulder. “Who’s to say she doesn’t already have some fine suitor escorting her?”

Hendrie paled. “You think? She didn’t mention she was going with anyone when we spoke at dinner last night.”

Perry shrugged, enjoying his role of antagonist. So often, Hendrie was the one teasing him about his shortcomings.

Hendrie gnawed nervously on his lip as he looked back over his shoulder toward the castle.

“Why don’t you go ask her now?” Perry suggested, a sneaky idea brewing in his mind.

“Now?” Hendrie stopped in his tracks. “What about going into Sephretta? If we don’t leave now, we might not make it back before nightfall.”

Perry waved a hand. “No worries, Hendrie. I can ride into town myself and collect Jax’s gift.”

Hendrie glared at his charge. “You heard what Corporal Highriver said. The trails can get confusing in the snow.”

“And you heard what I said,” Perry countered. “I know a thing or two about riding through the winter woods. And what’s more,” he said, motioning to the vast landscape, “all I’ll be doing is following the road. It couldn’t be any easier.”

Hendrie’s gaze was filled with doubt.

Perry sighed. “Would it make you rest easier if I asked Corporal Highriver to find me an escort?”

“It would.”

“Fine.” Perry hiked his saddlebag up further on his shoulder. “I’ll go track him down. Now, you go find your lady love and woo her into attending the gala with you.”

Hendrie grinned. “Thanks, Perry.” With a chipper salute, Hendrie took off toward the castle, a bounce in his step.

Perry waited for Hendrie to disappear behind the snow-dusted hedges lining the inner courtyard before turning around and resuming his journey toward the stables.

While he didn’t enjoy lying to Hendrie, Perry didn’t need some member of the Ducal Guard traipsing after him. The time alone would serve him well to mentally prepare for the Yuletide trials ahead. As a very capable rider, he could follow the road into the capital without issue. He was a Knight of Pettraud, after all.

 

Chapter Four

   

As the capital city of Sephretta came into view, Perry marveled at the picturesque, wintry scene. The tiled rooftops were covered in freshly fallen snow, soft flurries still dancing through the air all around. Massive wreaths adorned the gates to the city, welcoming the approach of Yuletide. As Perry neared, he slowed his mount, taking in the sight. Unlike his homeland of Pettraud, known for its impenetrable fog, Sephretta was bathed in bright light, even amidst the snow flurries.

At the gates of the city, he dismounted from his horse, maneuvering amongst the crowd milling about. It had been ages since he had wandered in anonymity. Even as the lowly seventh son of House Pettraud, Perry had still been confined to a castle growing up, surrounded by guards and servants. Rarely did he ever get to venture out on his own, and freedom had become even more elusive since arriving in Saphire. Jax took his security very seriously, and he rarely could go anywhere without some kind of escort. To have been able to shake Hendrie today…well, it had been a stroke of devious luck.

After securing his horse at the entrance stables, Perry tossed his saddlebag over his shoulder and began to wander into the heart of the city. Garlands and pine wreaths peppered doors and windows, crimson candles shining their light brightly in Yuletide wonder. Against the canvas of falling snow, it was a beautiful, charming sight. Perfect for one of his paintings. Perhaps while he was in town, he would stock up on some new colors to capture the scene.

Recalling his last visit here to meet with the master craftsman, Perry navigated the busy streets, doing his best to remain invisible. He kept the hood of his cloak low, partially obscuring his lavender-colored eyes from the crowd. His eyes declared his royal heritage, and he had no desire to have the public fawning over him. Word had begun to spread that a Prince of Pettraud had come to court Duchess Jacqueline, and any passersby would likely be able to put two and two together if they saw him strolling around the Saphirian capital. Given that he was on his own, he knew it would be tempting the Virtues to flaunt his presence in the city square.

Delicious smells of sugar and cinnamon caught his attention, his stomach rumbling. The ride into town had taken little over an hour, as Perry had enjoyed a leisurely trot, admiring the forest lining the well-worn road. If he had enough time after meeting with the crafter, perhaps he’d stop by a tearoom or bakery for an afternoon snack. 

 

“Ah, Lord Pettraud. Good to see you, sir.”

Perry closed the door behind him, letting the warm, earthy air of the master crafter’s shop wash over him. He smiled at Edgard Gurns, the owner and proprietor, as he lowered his hood. “Am I that obvious?” Inwardly, he cringed. He thought he had worn a subtle disguise.

Gurns chuckled and pointed to the saddlebag slung over Perry’s shoulder. “You purchased that the last time you were here. I never forget one of my wares.”

At that, Perry’s shoulders loosened in relief. “It’s a fine piece of equipment. Likely to outlast everything else I own.”

Gurns patted the stained apron covering his portly middle. “I couldn’t call myself a master crafter if it didn’t.”

Perry surveyed the empty shop. “How’s business?”

“I can’t complain, although the weather today has driven customers home early, it seems. With the snow we’ve had of late, folks are needing their leather shoes repaired and the like.”

“Good, steady work,” Perry commented, unable to imagine what it might be like to spend one’s days fixing shoes.

Gurns rubbed his hands together. “Boring work more like it. Unlike our little project. Would you like to see it, my lord?”

Perry’s stomach flipped. He had been so excited to see how the book turned out when he’d awoke this morning. Now, he prayed he could summon the skill to force enthusiasm. “By all means.”

Gurns leaned down behind his workbench and returned with a large, burlap wrapping. Placing it on the table, he slowly lifted the cloth back to reveal what lay bundled inside.

“Virtues.” Perry’s eyes grew wide at the violet cover, the title he’d selected etched in shining, shimmering gold. Gurns had stitched gold and silver thread along the edges of the binding, pairing together the regal colors of Saphire and Pettraud in a beautiful, yet simple way. Under the title, the master crafter had embedded a small amethyst gemstone and an emerald Perry had procured, another symbol of Jax’s and Perry’s duchies. The jewels were framed in gold plating, capturing every ounce of light the shop offered. Perry didn’t have to fake his amazement at the fine craftsmanship. “Gurns, old boy, this is a masterpiece.”

The man beamed at Perry, his cheeks reddening with pride. “Aye, Lord Pettraud, you’re pulling my leg.”

Perry shook his head. “Believe me, I have seen many treasures in my day, but nothing so magnificent as this.” His heart lurched into his throat as he took in the novel he’d written and illustrated. What would Jax think of it? Would she see the time and love that had gone into its creation, or would she see it as just another book to add to her growing pile?

 

  

The smell of parchment overwhelmed his senses as Perry stepped into the foyer of the grand library. Situated in the heart of the capital, the Library of Saphire was one of the oldest archives in the realm. Jax had taken him here once, but only in passing. Today would be the first time Perry made use of the library’s extensive resources.

As he stood admiring the tall and seemingly endless rows of overflowing bookshelves, a robed scholar shuffled over to greet him. In no time at all, Perry was situated at a polished wooden table laden with research material.

“Excuse me, sir?” a raspy voice interrupted his reading a time later. “I’m afraid the library will be closing soon.”

“Already?” Perry glanced up from his stack of books and scrolls, searching for a clock. Virtues, he’d been here for over three hours! He felt like he’d barely scratched the surface of his research.

The scholar nodded. “Normally, we remain open until well into the evening, but the snow is falling much more heavily now, and many of our scholars live outside the city walls.”

“Of course, of course.” Perry rose and began gathering all the books and documents he’d been reviewing. “I wouldn’t want them to be snowed in on my account.”

“Please, sir, you can leave your books here,” the elder man shooed Perry away in typical scholarly fashion. “We’ll take care of them in the morning.”

Perry thanked the man for his assistance and grabbed his saddlebag. If the library was shutting down due to inclement weather, he’d better begin to make his way back to the palace and soon.

“I hope Jax’s fishing expedition hasn’t been hindered by the snow,” Perry murmured to himself as he stepped outside once more into the cold air blanketing the marketplace.

Despite the handcrafted book nestled safely in his pack, Perry strolled through the marketplace with a watchful eye, examining the various wares being peddled. While part of him hoped Jax would appreciate the novel he’d written, Perry couldn’t risk disappointing her.

It didn’t help that Jaquobie’s words still haunted his thoughts. Up until this morning, Perry had never seriously considered that Jax might break off the agreement made by their fathers. They cared for each other; of that he was certain. But Jax had been trained to put duty above her own desires. If he proved not worthy of the title Prince Consort, would she really send him home, regardless of her feelings?

As he made his way toward the stables to collect his horse, a glassmaker’s stall caught his eye. The prismatic light sparkled like a beacon in the increasingly heavy snowfall. Perhaps he could find a trinket for Jax here, and then give her the book at some later time.

“Looking for anything in particular, good sir?” the merchant purred, her accent Savantian.

“Something for a lady,” Perry answered gruffly, making sure to keep his lavender gaze down whilst in public.

The merchant twirled a strand of long, dark hair. “A special lady?”

Perry nodded as he surveyed her wares. Decorative glass balls were hardly a suitable gift for a Duchess.

“Might I suggest this?” The merchant pulled forth a handheld mirror, framed in ornately molded glass. “The glass comes from Kwatalarian sand, the very last shipment to leave its borders before Duchess Amyra’s embargo. Very rare. Very beautiful. Perfect for capturing the light to illuminate a lady’s fine features.”

Perry ran a finger along the long handle. The glass had been designed in the shape of a vine, ending with a blooming rose. He liked the idea of giving Jax’s something unique, something no one else could give her. “I’ll take it.” He reached into his saddlebag bag and pulled out his coin purse. He would have just enough gold left after this to pay the stable hand for taking care of his horse.

His purchases tucked away in his saddlebag, Perry felt a glowing sense of accomplishment as he escorted his mare away from the city gates. The book had turned out better than he could ever have imagined. Perhaps he’d keep it for himself, as a souvenir of his time with Jax. The tome deserved to be appreciated. After his conversation with Uma, he feared if he gave it to Jax, it would just be hidden away in her library, never to be touched. The mirror would be a special enough gift. Who’d ever heard of glass made from Kwatalarian sand? Surely, Jax would be impressed.

During his time in the library, he’d also discovered a wealth of information about the Saphirian noble families and the duchy’s traditions, although he knew there was still much to learn. Perry hoped the archives up at the palace might aid him further in his quest to learn more about his new home.

 A gust of wind pelted wet snow onto his exposed skin. Pulling his hood tightly around his face, Perry shivered. Not only had the snow picked up, but the temperature had fallen quite drastically, as well. He opted to keep his saddlebag strapped to his back, the leather pressed against him keeping him warm. He climbed atop his horse and set out toward the palace, keeping to the main road. The snow had accumulated several inches, but he could make out a set of carriage tracks and used them as a guide.

He’d been on the road for nearly forty minutes when he heard voices up ahead of him. Through the thick, falling snow, an opulent carriage came into view, traveling in the same direction as he. Perry slowed his mount as he neared, wondering who could be traveling along the palace road in such refined luxury this time of day.

“I wish we had brought another footman along. Who will ride ahead and announce our arrival?” a high-pitched, whiny female voice rattled from inside the carriage.

Surprised he could hear the voices clearly, Perry spied smoke coming from the other side of the coach. Someone inside must be smoking a pipe with the window open.

“The Duchess’s courtiers will announce us, my pigeon. Please, will you let me enjoy my leaf in peace?” A gravelly male voice floated through the air.

“We should have brought another footman, especially where we are staying at the palace overnight. What will the other nobles think?” the woman complained. “Rumor has it that this will be the most opulent gala in decades.”

The man scoffed. “The Duchess is probably hoping all the glamor will distract the High Lords from the disastrous suitor at her side.”

A chill ran down Perry’s spine, and not from the cold.

“Ha!” the woman shrieked. “To think, the mighty Duchess of Saphire chained to a son of Pettraud.”

“A seventh son, no less. He doesn’t even have a title.”

“What is she thinking?” the woman clucked. “I would have broken the engagement the day it was revealed.”

“Mind you, pigeon, she hasn’t officially declared the two of them engaged. A wise move on her part. If I know Duchess Saphire, and I do, she’s likely waiting for the poor sod to make a fool of himself so she can back out gracefully.”

The woman giggled. “Well, this gala certainly just got more interesting, my pumpkin.”

Perry yanked the reins of his horse, falling farther behind the carriage until he was out of earshot. He’d heard enough.

Snow peppered his face, mixing with the tears spilling from his eyes. The cruel words he’d just overheard spun viciously in his head. Disastrous suitor? Poor sod? These people didn’t even know him, and they’d already declared him a failure, simply because he’d been born seventh in his family line.

He couldn’t bear the sight of the carriage any longer, nor did he wish to ride by. Knowing these pompous fools, they’d think him rude for not stopping and introducing himself, and he didn’t wish to give them any further fuel to use against him. With a hard tug of the reins, Perry urged his mount off the road. He was close enough to the castle grounds; he could travel the rest of the way through the forest.


   

“A seventh son, no less.”

Perry mimicked the high lord in an unflattering manner, picturing the speaker as a grotesque, toad of a man. As he rode through the tranquil forest, Perry tried to push the unpleasant near encounter out of his mind, but out here all alone, he continued to stew over the harsh words. Did all the high lords and ladies of Saphire think him a hopeless case? That soon, he would be sent packing back to Pettraud, drenched in shame?

One thought clamored through the din raging inside his head. Had Jax been merely humoring him all these months, stringing him along until she could cut him loose?

“No,” Perry snapped out loud, his voice echoing throughout the snowy woods. What he and Jax had was real…right?

Perry’s horse snorted in retort, tossing her mane as she stumbled through a growing snowdrift. It was only then that Perry realized several more inches had accumulated. The snow fell steadily through the tree canopy, obscuring the sky above.

Perry slowed his mare, surveying the silent forest around him. The trees stretched on for miles in every direction. Without the sun guiding his path, he felt rather lost.

He gritted his teeth as he looked every which way, trying to regain his bearings. The snow had already made quick work of covering the horse’s hoofprints, so he wasn’t even sure which way he had ridden from.

“Virtues,” he seethed. “I never should have left the road.” He should have faced those pompous clowns head-on. Instead, he had retreated like a coward and gotten himself lost in unfamiliar territory. A Prince Consort worthy of Jax’s heart would never have backed down from a challenge. Maybe those nobles in the carriage were right. Maybe he was hopeless.

A low growl shattered the serene peace of the forest. The hairs on the back of Perry’s neck went rigid as his lavender gaze darted between the trees.

Another snarl echoed. Perry’s mount danced nervously, the snow muffling her hooves.

Perry reached to stroke the horse’s neck, whispering calm words of reassurance. His eyes never stopped tracking the shifting shadows within the forest. What creature had made such a beastly sound?

The growling continued, the vicious noises layering on top of one another. Whatever hunted him was not hunting alone.

Perry reached for his waist, where a sheathed sword normally would have hung…but not today. No, he had left his weapons at the palace, not expecting them to be needed for a simple ride into Sephretta. Virtues, what a Knight of Pettraud he was turning out to be.

He pushed his self-loathing subconscious into oblivion and focused on the situation at hand. Perry scanned the forest floor around them, searching for a large branch sticking out of the snow or anything that could be used as a weapon. He found nothing.

The growls were now accompanied by snapping jaws, the terrifying sounds growing closer by the moment. Desperate to protect himself and his mount, Perry yanked his saddlebag off his shoulder and rummaged around inside. His fingers brushed over the wrapped book before finding the cold, hard handle of the glass mirror. He seized onto it and pulled it from his satchel. With its clublike design, the mirror was better than nothing.

Securing his bag on his shoulder, Perry held the mirror out with his right arm, like a knight prepared to duel. The prismatic mirror captured the natural light illuminating the forest and sent beams of pretty colors across the snow.

The light reflected off the cool stare leering at him from the underbrush. A white wolf, its fur almost blending in perfectly with the snow, bared its fangs as it prowled forward.

Perry sized up the animal with a practiced eye. This beast was larger than any he had ever seen before in the wilds of Pettraud. And it was not alone. Two more wolves flanked either side, their colors a tawny brown. Despite being smaller than their leader, they were no less threatening.

Before Perry could properly react, his horse caught the scent of the predators and squealed in panic. The noise propelled the wolves forward, their jaws snapping as they pounced.

Perry urged the horse forward, the mare darting away just in nick of time. The white wolf’s jaw only snagged the frosty air.

Perry’s good fortune ended there. The tawny wolves rounded on the horse’s front, sending the mare rearing. With only one hand holding the reins, Perry lost his grip and tumbled to the ground. He landed hard on the snow, a jolt shooting up his spine. Dazed, he shook his head and his focus cleared just as his horse took off into the depths of the woods, the tawny wolves giving chase.

The white wolf crouched a mere six feet in front of him, ready to pounce.

Perry scrambled to his feet, grappling for the mirror to defend himself. Dismay flooded through him as he snatched the trinket up from the ground. It had landed on a rock jutting out of the snow and snapped in two. He grabbed the handle, the broken glass where it had once held the head of the mirror now a sharp spike. With it, he just might stand a chance of wounding the creature.

Perry held the broken mirror handle in front of him like a dagger, doing his best to keep calm and focused. The wolf paced back and forth with its tongue lolled to one side of its mouth, seeming to relish Perry’s fear.

Then, without warning, the wolf lunged for Perry’s cloaked arm. Instinctively, Perry yanked his arm backward, causing his saddlebag to slip down his shoulder. The wolf rammed hard into the bag, its jaws digging into the leather.

An idea formed in his mind and Perry adjusted his grip on the satchel, wielding it like a shield. As long as he kept the durable hide between him and the wolf, he might have a chance at tiring the beast out enough to land a blow with the glass shard.

The wolf lunged again, its weight sending Perry stumbling, his back smacking against the trunk of a tree. The impact left him breathless for a moment. The wolf sensed his weakened state and lunged again. Perry barely got his saddlebag between them in time.

The wolf snapped its jaws in frustration, straining to get around the leather bag and into Perry’s flesh. The creature had more stamina than Perry had suspected, and with his weapon-wielding arm pinned against the tree trunk, he couldn’t move to attack the beast. He smelled its rancid breath as its teeth snapped within six inches of his face. Virtues, he wasn’t going to best this beast.

The sound of hooves startled both Perry and the wolf. Had his mare rounded back for him?

“Perry!” a musical voice called, laced with fear.

Her voice filled him with both joy and terror. What was Jax doing all the way out here?

“Run, Jax!” Perry bellowed, still not seeing her anywhere. “Run! Wolves!” His strength was beginning to fail him, and the warning was all he could muster. She had to get away from here before the wolves descended upon her.

The white wolf dove for him again, this time, its fangs seizing the dangling strap of the saddlebag and yanking it away. The wolf had been smart, parting Perry from his last line of defense.

He held the broken mirror handle aloft, praying he could keep the wolf occupied long enough for Jax to getaway. He had to protect her at all costs. “Go, Jax. You must get out of here.” His voice broke as the wolf crouched, preparing to launch itself at him for a final, lethal blow.

From behind Perry, branches crashed and the ground shook. A black stallion burst forth, heading straight for the white wolf. Atop the stallion sat a woman clutching a thin sword, its blade glinting with menace. The wolf jumped out of the way, but not before the blade came down on its thigh, red blood peppering the snow-covered ground.

The beast emitted a sharp whimper, backing away from the horse and its rider. Its predator gaze fell to Perry once more before it limped into the forest undergrowth and disappeared, leaving a trail of blood.

Relief overwhelmed Perry as he slumped against the tree trunk.

“Come quickly, dearest.” Jax beckoned him to her horse. “That was only a flesh wound. He’ll recover and be back with the pack.”

Perry stared at her atop her mount, still brandishing her sword, slick with blood. Her caramel hair had come loose from its plait, flowing wildly behind her. She looked like a warrior goddess come to life.

“Are you hurt?” Her nose pinched with concern when he did not move. She made to lower herself from her horse, snapping Perry from his dazed state.

“No, no, I’m quite all right.” They needed to get away from here before the pack returned seeking vengeance. He darted forward, snatching up his saddlebag and throwing it over his shoulder. He would have to send word to Master Gurns that his well-crafted bag had survived a wolf attack without so much as a single tear.

Jax held her hand out to him, ready to assist him onto her horse Mortimer’s back. Her amethyst gaze, still wide with trepidation, flickered to his other hand as he reached for hers. He still clutched the glass mirror handle.

Perry tucked the useless trinket into the folds of his cloak and hoisted himself onto Mortimer’s saddle.

Jax glanced at him over her shoulder. “Some Pettraudian wolf-fighting tradition I don’t know about?” Her eyes twinkled.

At her jesting comment, he dissolved into heady laughter.


  

“When I returned from Lake Saltrine to find you gone, I tracked down Hendrie to see where you’d run off to,” Jax explained a while later. Together, they sat curled up in front of the roaring fire that bathed Perry’s sitting room in delicious heat. “He said you’d gone into Sephretta and taken one of the Ducal Guard as an escort.” Her features contorted into a scowl. “Of course, when I asked George who had gone with you, we quickly found out that was not the case.”

At her rebuke, Perry’s cheeks warmed with shame. “You mustn’t blame anyone but me, Jax. Corporal Highriver tried to assign me an escort, but…”

“Oh, don’t worry, dearest. I’m not blaming anyone but you.”

Perry glanced at Jax. She appeared to be struggling to keep a stern face, which touched his heart.

“I-I just wanted some time to myself,” Perry said with a sigh. “It’s quite tiring, having everyone think me an incompetent fool. I wanted to prove I was capable of doing such a simple task as retrieving your Yuletide gift all on my own.” He stared down at his fingers entwined with Jax’s. “But it turns out, I couldn’t even accomplish something as straightforward as that.”

Jax frowned. “Who has made you feel like an incompetent fool?”

Perry gave her a dry look. “Who hasn’t would be a much shorter list.”

“I hope I am on the shorter list.” She tenderly squeezed his hand. “Anyone who has done otherwise…well, I must say they aren’t a very good judge of character, then.”

“You’re too kind to me, Jax.” Perry shook his head with a sigh. “I’m inclined to think them right. Not only did I put myself in danger to appease my ego, but you as well.” He held her gaze. “I can’t believe you went searching for me.”

Jax scoffed. “Well, I couldn’t very well leave my future husband to the wolves, now could I?”

Her beautiful face became a bit blurry as tears came unbidden to his eyes.

“Mind you, I ruffled a few feathers with my heroic actions.” Jax dusted off the sleeve of her gown. “I’m sure to get quite the lecture from both George and Jaquobie tonight at dinner.”

Perry nodded, the lump in his throat preventing him from speaking his gratitude.

At his silence, Jax continued, appearing a bit nervous, “I mean, it only made sense for me to ride out and join in the search. I know the woods around the palace better than anyone. I’ve been exploring them for years and know how turned around one can get in a snowstorm. I, too, understand the need to seek solitude sometimes. Elusive as it may be for people in our positions.” She shook her head. “And then to find you sparring with a giant wolf with only a sliver of glass as your weapon. The Ducal Guard will be talking about that for years, dearest. Not many go head-to-head with a great white wolf and last more than a few minutes.” Jax trailed off, her expression dimming. “Thank the Virtues Mortimer and I arrived when we did. To think what might have happened if we didn’t…”

Perry straightened at her unspoken admission. “You would have missed me?”

Jax’s features pinched with annoyance. “Well, of course, I would have missed you!”

Perry laughed at her indignation, his reaction making her seem to grow all the more irritated.

“What is so funny about that?” She bristled. “Is it wrong for me to be afraid of losing you?”

Perry sobered. “No, my darling, it’s not wrong at all. I’m sorry for laughing.” His emotions still felt all over the place in the aftermath of the wolf attack. “I suppose…well, this might sound ridiculous, but it’s just hard for me to wrap my mind around the notion that someone could actually care whether I live or die.”

Jax’s expression crumpled. “Oh, Perry.”

Her unbridled sympathy brought a small smile to his lips. He had shared with her bits and pieces of his former life in Pettraud. How his beloved late mother was the only member of his family who ever made him feel like he was worth something. But he couldn’t bear to share with her just how awful his brothers and father had made him feel. How worthless. How pointless his existence was. He didn’t blame Jax for not truly understanding just how greatly her simple acts of kindness toward him had affected his sense of self-worth.

She cradled his chin in the palm of her delicate hand. “You matter to me, Lord Percival Pettraud. A very great deal.”

He took her hand and kissed it, unable to convey with words just how much she truly meant to him.

“So…” Jax said after a time. “You rode into Sephretta to collect my Yuletide gift?” Her voice was teasing and coy.

The smile she brought to his face was short-lived. “Indeed. Although, I’m afraid I’ve already ruined the surprise. And the gift.” He motioned to the broken glass mirror lying on the nearby end table.

Jax glanced at the mirror before patting Perry’s chest. “Nothing is ruined, my darling. You are alive and unscathed because of that trinket. For that reason, the mirror could not have been a better gift.” She reached across him, grabbing the broken handle piece. “Besides, I think I might use this in my study for weighing down my never-ending stack of paperwork.”

Perry chuckled at her ingenuity. “Now, there’s an idea.”

“Something beautiful to look at while I skim through my daily reports.” Jax sighed, leaning her head against Perry’s chest. “Just once I’d like to be able to read something for fun.”

Her wistful comment stirred hope within his chest. “You know, I might have just the thing.” He extracted himself from the sofa and the comforts of Jax’s body pressed against his and hurried into his bedchamber. His saddlebag sat on the floor by his bureau. Perry lifted the flap and grabbed the burlap-wrapped item still within.

“What’s this?” Jax sat up straight as he returned to her side.

Perry handed her the wrapping. “Just something to commemorate the first time you saved my life.”

Her head tilted with curiosity as she unraveled the twine and pulled back the burlap cloth, revealing the leather-bound book he’d written for her. She didn’t speak as she stroked the violet-dyed cover, her fingers circling the amethyst and emerald gemstones before opening to the first page.

A Feast Most Foul,” she whispered the book’s title, more to herself than to Perry.

He watched, nervously wringing his hands as she flipped from page to page, lingering on the illustrations he’d painted himself.

“Is this really written about me?

He was too anxious to do anything other than bob his head.

When she reached the end of the book, she closed the cover carefully and lifted her gaze, silent tears streaming freely down her cheeks. Before he could move to comfort her, she took his face in her hands and pulled him close, her soft, searching lips meeting his own.

“Perry.” Breathless, Jax glowed with happy radiance when they finally broke their passionate embrace. “This is truly the most beautiful gift I have ever received.”

 

  

“You look stunning, my dear,” Perry whispered into Jax’s ear as they waltzed across the floor.

Jax’s warm breath flitted over his cheek. “I could say the same. Every woman in the room is practically undressing you with their eyes.”

Heated pleasure ran the length of Perry’s body as he savored her closeness. It was the first time all evening they’d had a moment together and he was intent on cherishing every minute.

A joyous melody hummed from the strings of the minstrels’ instruments, capturing the mood of the gala perfectly. The Saphirian throne room had been decorated from top to bottom with Yuletide cheer. Garlands hung from every beam and pillar. Fir and pine trees had been cut down and brought inside, carefully decorated with candles and holly berries. Red and green silk streamers had been strung across the cavernous ceiling. Never had Perry seen such a festive sight.

“Duchess Jacqueline,” a familiar gravelly voice cut through the applause once the dance had finished.

Jax and Perry both turned to find a short, rotund man waddling toward them.

“Earl Graveire.” Jax dipped her chin in greeting.

Perry recognized the name from his studies. In an effort to fully prepare for the gala, upon his return from Sephretta, Perry had spent several more hours holed up in the castle’s library, researching as much as he could about Saphire and its noble houses. House Graveire oversaw a large estate on Saphire’s southeastern border.

The earl struggled to bow, given his size. When he managed to get himself upright, he wheezed, “I just wanted to say that my wife and I are very much enjoying the festivities and are honored that one of the villages under our care was selected for the Yuletide bounty.”

It clicked into place where Perry had heard his voice before. It had belonged to one of the passengers in the carriage he had come across yesterday during his fateful ride back from Sephretta.

Jax smiled demurely at the man’s grandiose flattery. “I am thankful to the Virtues for filling my nets so generously.”

Earl Graveire bobbed his head, his many chins quivering. “Indeed. Indeed. Now, is this the young lord from Pettraud?” His beady amber eyes turned to lance Perry with a shrewd stare.

Perry straightened his shoulders, not backing down. “Greetings, Earl Graveire. I hope the winter season has allowed you a nice respite from overseeing your legendary grain empire.” From his research, Perry had learned the Graveire estate sourced half the realm’s grain.

Earl Graveire’s chest swelled even greater. “Legendary? Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“Nonsense.” Perry summoned his most charming grin. “The tools and techniques you’ve implemented over the last decade have changed the trade for the better if you ask me.”

Graveire rocked back and forth on his heels, a surprisingly deft move for the obese man. “Why, thank you, my lord. I’m happy to hear my agricultural practices are appreciated.” Bidding the couple goodbye, he sauntered away with a bounce in his waddle.

“Why, Perry! You surprise me.” Jax giggled. “I didn’t think you were interested in Saphirian farming methods.”

Perry shrugged. “I’m merely interested in Saphire and its people. Especially one, in particular.” He winked at her.

“Well, your flattery will certainly go a long way.” Jax snorted in the most unladylike manner. “Earl Graveire holds a great deal of influence over the High Lords. I’m sure he’ll be singing your praises all night.”

“I’m happy to hear that.”

Jax tilted her head. “Why, may I ask?”

Perry was taken aback by the confusion lacing her question. “Well, I need to impress all the High Lords. I want them to approve of me. I wouldn’t want you to be forced to break the arrangement our fathers made.”

Jax went rigid beside him. “Excuse me?”

The fire in her eyes left his thoughts scrambling. “Well, I, uh—”

“Force me to do something? I am the Duchess of Saphire, Perry. No one forces me to do anything.” Jax folded her arms, shirking away from his arm. “Especially something I have no desire to do.”

Despite being pleased by her latter statement, Perry worked to backtrack his previous words. “Forgive me, Jax. I meant no offense. It’s just that it’s been stressed to me all week that I needed to impress these High Lords tonight in order for our relationship to continue. Jaquobie and the others—”

“Jaquobie?” Jax snapped, cutting him off for a second time. “What did Jaquobie tell you?”

Perry shrugged. “He told me that the High Lords could poison you against me if they thought I was unsuitable to be Saphire’s Prince Consort.”

“Curse that man!” Jax seethed, balling her fists at her side. “He had no right.”

Now, Perry was the one confused.

“As if the High Lords have any idea what it takes to be my Prince Consort.” Jax gazed out across the throne room, surveying the joyous activity swirling all around them. “I’m sorry you’ve been lured here under false pretenses, Perry. The High Lords are certainly free to give their opinion, but nothing could change the way I feel about you.” She reached for his hand, wrapping it in hers. “The Duchess of Saphire has made her decision who her Prince Consort shall be, and she is, if nothing else, a woman of her word.”

Her formal declaration brought him great joy mixed with a lingering sadness, as she reminded him that their relationship was, after all, forged from an agreement made between their fathers.

She pulled him closer, her palm cupping his cheek in a tender embrace. “I know a political pact brought us together, but I can’t help but wonder if the Virtues skillfully orchestrated this entire thing so that our paths might cross. I feel certain, my love, that we were destined to be together.”

The throne room faded away and there was only her standing before him, clad in her shimmering emerald gown. An ode to him and Pettraud, he now realized. Not caring about the inquisitive eyes analyzing their every move, Perry stepped forward, closing the small gap between them with a fierce and fervent kiss. “Whether it be destiny or the Virtues, I am glad I have found my way to you. I love you, Jax. You make me happier than I ever thought possible.”

She murmured her affections against his ear, her warm breath melting his insides. “And I love you.”

He pulled her out to the middle of the dance floor once more, eager to share his happiness with all the gathered guests.

As he and Jax danced, Perry spied Hendrie and Uma in the crowd. His valet raised his glass toward Perry in good cheer before setting the drink down and escorting Uma out to the dance floor.

“Saphire certainly puts my memories of Pettraudian Yuletide celebrations to shame,” Perry mused as he twirled Jax in his arms.

She smiled back at him, looking truly pleased. “I’m relieved to hear that. I so much wanted you to enjoy your first Yuletide away from home.”

Perry pulled her close, dipped her toward the floor, and lowered his voice. “With you, Jax, I am home.”


Happy Holidays to you and yours! If you've enjoyed getting to know Perry, Jax, and the Realm of Virtues, the Court of Mystery awaits. Or, subscribe to my newsletter to receive exclusive access to all my Realm of Virtues Stories for free.