2018, December 2nd & 3rd
It started a week ago.
Zoey hailed from small town Rosa. Now as anyone from Rosa would tell you, the only thing more mundane than Rosa was its people. Quaint, little suburbs. One book store. One coffee shop. One everything really, guaranteeing that everyone would know everyone, which they did. Rosa was what the set of a suburban utopia would look like.
That's what she liked about the place though. Everything flowed like clockwork. Nothing ever changed. Bookish, nerdy Zoey liked her predictable life just fine.
How could she have known the simple act of opening the mailbox would so drastically change all that?
Everything was different after Zoey sat down to sort through the mail that day. The world seemed to be turned on its head, broken as though in the pieces that it came together during the time of creation and somehow even as it spun on, it seemed to spin differently.
Zoey Ranger, with her pretty face and messy curls hidden often behind a book, was raised like most young women in Terres Somnia, a mere ordinary commoner. Having always considered herself average in every way, she had been something more than shocked to find that after all, she was not.
That she was the granddaughter of an earl who lived abroad was not news to Zoey. However, save for the cheque that came in the mail every month, that connection was something of a distant one. As such, Zoey never felt the weight of it.
So, when the news of Duke Arden being her father reached Zoey via mail, it was fair to say the young woman had many questions.
Up until now Natalie, Zoey's mother, had always avoided the topic of her father. But not today. Today she would have to have the conversation that she had been running from for 23 years. Today Natalie would have to sit down with Zoey and tell her the whole of it.
As it turned out, Natalie was once involved with a duke. When word got out and the matter turned to scandal, Natalie was exiled from her family despite the abrupt ending of the relationship.
It was by then too late, however, as the dalliance had left Natalie with child. Natalie's father took pity on her and her circumstances, but as his pride would not allow his now pregnant daughter back into his house, a compromise was reached. Natalie was sent to live in small town, Rosa, where no one would know of her connection to the House of Ranger. In exchange, she was given a comfortable living allowance with which to raise her child.
Never in her wildest dreams, no matter how fiercely they fought, did Natalie Ranger think her father would cut her off. Thus, when Zoey, shocked and angry as she was, revealed that Duke George Arden had sent for her and promised a handsome sum if he could only meet with her, Natalie jumped at the opportunity.
Zoey, headstrong and fuming, jumped at the opportunity too. It meant being away from her mother, whom she was unlikely to want to see for a while, and telling off her father, whom she imagined with a big belly and pretentious moustache. Some time away sounded like exactly what she needed.
When Bart came for her a few days later, Zoey found herself at a loss for words as soon as her bags left the ground. The drive up to Caines happened in an old yellow mustang in mint condition, with Zoey asking little of her driver and him offering even less.
As the scenery turned from houses to huge buildings to empty stretches of road, she stared blankly out the window, trying desperately to sort through what was happening.
By the end of the 16-hour drive, she had concluded only two things. One was that they needed money and two, that this perfect stranger whom she had only known about for a day, who had already earned at least half of all the anger she could muster, was willing to give it to her. Suddenly all of the questions went away, but for two. Could she really give him what he wanted in exchange for said money? Was she ready to meet the father who abandoned her and her mother?
It was dark when they got to the huge, imposing mansion. Even in the dark, however, it was impossible to miss the armed men stationed at every corner as she was shown to a room. Bart told her to be up by five, after which her promptly shut the door on her. The room was as big as the entire upstairs combined of the two-story house that Zoey had lived in nearly all of her life.
Much like what little of the house she could make out rest, the furnishings were loud and arrogant and the way the room came together made Zoey feel, perhaps for the first time in her life, the depth of her loneliness. There were no friends to call, no mom to comfort her and no way to know that she even really existed in the world. Zoey threw herself onto the bed and stared at the ceiling until the darkest hour of the night, too numb to cry, wondering how she'd allowed herself to become so alone.
At exactly 5 AM the next day, a string of women streamed into the room, all talking over each other, practically carrying Zoey to the dressing table like a doll. That morning was an icy, cold day, which was bound to bring snow.
Zoey let the words pass right by her as the women talked. Every now and then they'd say something about The King's Fancy. Stylists and hairdressers and Zoey knew not what else had started bustling around her, pulling at her hair and sticking brushes in her face.
Zoey meant to tell them to stop, but no words came out of her mouth. Still feeling drained and exhausted from all the surprises of yesterday, Zoey eventually gave up and let her mind wander.
She did so miss being in a lecture hall, filled with perfect strangers, who wanted nothing from her but that she be quiet so that they might all attend to their lecture in peace. Yes, she missed her boring, predictable life. Already she felt so far from it. Like this was always her life and that had somehow been the dream, but that was absurd, of course.
She was only here to pick up a cheque, tell the duke off and hope never to see him again. As the denial she knew, deep down, she was in was starting to give way, Zoey stared at the mirror before her as she seemed to disappear entirely, bit by bit, right before her very eyes.
Don't think of it. She could barely believe herself to be sitting upright in this chair. Do not think about it. Do not wonder how he looks. Just stop thinking altogether. She knew it was him the moment he entered her room. The duke did not have a round belly. He was a tall man, not as tall as Bart, but still a giant of a man with a dignified air and a handsome face.
The years had been kind to him. He walked well. Zoey hated how he seemed to do everything well. She drew breath and braced herself as everyone in the room bowed. The duke, however, only glanced disinterestedly at the hired help, came to stand behind Zoey and held her gaze in the mirror a second longer than she could bear and then marched off to await his party in the car.
Zoey exhaled and so did everyone else. Her mind, wherever it had been, was suddenly back in that room and focused again.
"My lady should not be alarmed by His Grace," said the woman sticking pins into Zoey's hair. "Been that way since the day I got here."
Zoey tried to turn, but the woman steered her forward again.
"Almost done, My Lady," she said patiently.
"Yes, we'll make sure you are a vision for the prince," hummed one of the other women, as she painted Zoey's nails.
"Excuse me?" Zoey asked, confused.
The hairstylist gave the manicurist a look and she promptly quieted down. Now Zoey was really curious. Where exactly were they going? She had not been given any information at all.
The King's Fancy was perhaps the most important day on the calendar in Caines. This brunch had become the event of the year.
On this day, business deals were made and rumours that would turn into scandals were spread. But this year, The King's Fancy was more than that. On this day, King Henry and his cousin, Duke George Arden had to meet. This was no mere meal this year. This year, The King's Fancy would change the very nation.
"Come on then," said a restrained, subdued Bart.
Zoey looked to the right of her and there he was, even more dashing than yesterday when he had come to pick her up. Bart, her brand-new half-brother, all 6'6" of him standing tall in his tux. He was arguably the tallest person Zoey had ever known, not that she knew any young men, so to speak. Those brilliant, subdued dark blue eyes put you at ease and on alert all at once.
His athletic build combined with his stature could not but overwhelm and though she knew he was only 19, he hardly looked it. Hardly sounded it as he took call after call on the drive to Caines.
All she had to worry about at his age was getting into her hometown university, The University of Rosa. She could hardly believe that this man, somewhat standoffish but ultimately perfectly put together, was the son of a father she knew next to nothing about. Her thoughts turned to her hometown, Rosa and her mother whom she had left behind. Her mother, who despite herself, cared for Zoey immensely. Present circumstances notwithstanding, Zoey thought how her mother's presence just then might have been comforting.
Bart gave her a half smile that seemed to make his stern eyes soften, but for a moment, as she took the hand he offered her.