She isn’t tired.
Well…that entirely depends on your definition of “tired,” doesn’t it? Does tired not also mean the crushing weight of being twenty-one years old and being forced into an arranged marriage with a man you barely know, while also training to become queen of a small European country because your grandmother—the current queen—feels that you can lead the country well enough that she can step down without concerns?
Okay, well, maybe that’s not the dictionary definition of the word tired. But it counts. It’s certainly better than most of the words she might otherwise think of. She’s tired. Of course she’s tired. But she’s not sleepy, in case anyone was wondering.
Which is how she finds her way to the palace library.
She never really frequented it when she first started visiting Genovia. There were a lot of classic novels, a lot of philosophers, and very little romance fiction. That never stopped Grandma from gliding through the bookshelves and handing her books of philosophy, history, and diplomacy. Occasionally, she’d toss in a classic novel to break things up, but for the most part, Mia’s past five years has been shaped by the most mind-numbingly dull reading she’s ever had.
And she went to Princeton.
She thinks Joe must have picked up on her distaste for this kind of reading because the fiction sections of the library have become more fleshed out, and her assigned reading has expanded to include more historical fiction. Not a lot, of course, but matters of diplomacy, military, and history have shifted from nonfiction into novels.
Unfortunately for Joe and for Mia, her taste in books has changed. Yeah, she still prefers not reading the boring books Grandma assigned her, but she has a much deeper appreciation for classics than she would ever be willing to admit.
So when she gets to the palace library, she doesn’t head to the section of romance novels that Joe (it was definitely Joe) had purchased. She stops, closes her eyes, and breathes in the scent of old pages, leather-bound volumes, and new books.
The library isn’t lit brightly. In the late hours of the night, when all lights should be off, only a few lamps are on.
It doesn’t matter, really. She’s not here to read.
The thing is, she just…she really wants to run away. That’s her MO. That’s what she does. She wants to run away, and she wants to run away more and more each and every day. As her wedding draws closer, Princess Amelia Mignonette Thermopolis Renaldi disappears and the flighty teenager that had once been Mia Thermopolis becomes more insistent.
The books ground her.
She pulls her hair back into a braid. Her favorite worn couch is currently unoccupied, but judging by the stack of books on the end table, it’s more that the person using the couch is just looking for yet another book.
She glances over her shoulder. Whoever it is must still be looking for their next book, so she takes a step closer and reads the names listed on the spines.
She startles and nearly knocks over the stack of books. “Shit,” she whispers and reaches out to catch them. Lewis’s The Great Divorce slides off the top and hits the floor.
Nicholas watches her with a gentle smile.
Mia bites the inside of her cheek and slowly straightens.
“Pardon me, Your Highness, I wasn’t aware that you were here.” He chuckles and pushes his glasses up his nose. “If I had known, I assure you, I would have dressed for the occasion.”
She locks her hands behind her back. When she stares into his face, however, she realizes for the first time just how tired he is. Sleep tugs at the edges of his eyes, and he blinks quickly in an attempt to chase the fatigue away. His blue eyes—those blue eyes that literally take your breath away, I mean, literally, they’re so blue, it has to defy genetics somehow—are not nearly as brilliant now. Maybe it’s the lack of light in the library. Maybe it’s his exhaustion. Either way, his eyes don’t pierce through her now.
He looks like a kid.
I wonder what that makes me look like, then.
He furrows his brow. “What?”
She nods to the book in his hand and gestures half-heartedly at it. “Purity of Heart. One of my best friends in college loved Kierkegaard. I, um, haven’t had the time to read him yet.”
Nicholas smiles. “Oh, yeah.” He scratches his eyebrow. “Uh, Kierkegaard’s my favorite, too. This is my —” he glances down at the book “—fourth? Fifth time reading this one? Something like that.”
“Wow, you must really love him.” She waves at his pajama pants. “And you also really must love ducks.”
“Don’t knock my ducky pajama pants. They’re comfy, and I love them. More comfy than what you’ve got on.”
“Excuse you, silk pajamas are literally the most comfortable thing on the face of this planet.”
He tilts his head and slips his free hand into his pocket. “Yeah, but I get pockets.”
She laughs softly and sinks onto the couch. “You can sit, you know.”
“I thought we weren’t friends,” he says, but he sits all the same. Purity of Heart remains in his hand.
“I feel like we’d be good friends if, you know, you weren’t trying to steal the throne from me.”
“My uncle,” he says without looking at her.
She tilts her head. “What?”
He looks up, and that sharp, breathtaking blue is back. “My uncle is trying to steal the throne from you. Trust me, I’m having a grand old time just reading and eating fruit and helping out the chefs. Honestly, if you just want me to work as Your Majesty’s personal chef, I would be completely okay with that.” He clears his throat and looks down.
Mia bites her lip and picks at the dirt beneath her fingernails. She twists in her seat, reaches down, and grabs The Great Divorce from the ground. But the silence between them is comfortable. Nicholas makes no effort to open his book. She simply runs her index finger over the cover of hers.
All told, she doesn’t know how long they sit like that—both of them with a book in their hand, making no effort to read it, just taking in the silence. Rain begins pattering against the windows. She left her watch upstairs.
“What brings you here so late at night?” His voice is thick with sleep. It wasn’t when she first ran into him.
She rests her head against her fist. “I could ask you the same thing.”
He smiles at her, squinting at the bookshelf in front of them. His finger taps against the cover of his book. “I had a nightmare,” he says simply.
She doesn’t know what to say to that.
Usually, when Lilly would have nightmares during their sleepovers, she would rub her back and assure her that it wasn’t real. And depending on how bad the nightmare was, they would watch Clueless or Legally Blonde until they forgot all about the nightmare. And when Lilly was fine to talk about the dream, it was usually something about a huge monster eating their faces or Josh proposing to her or Michael becoming a famous musician and forgetting them all.
Mia had the inkling that Nicholas’s nightmares weren’t the same at all.
He shrugs. “The library helps. Reading helps.” He nods at the stack of books that Mia definitely did not fix. “That’s why I read those authors.”
She nods slowly. “I watch movies when I have nightmares.”
“Not all the time, though. Right?”
She hums. “My comfort author is Jane Austen. And C.S. Lewis. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” he echoes quietly.
The rain stops pattering against the windows. She yawns. He cracks open his book, reads the title page, and closes it again.
She sighs, and they both pretend not to hear the hitch in her throat. “I’m scared, Nick.”
And, for the first time, she can’t hear his voice mocking her. He’s not lying. He’s not making fun of her. For the first time, she understands that he…she understands that he is ready to listen and to be there for her, and the pang in her chest is almost too much to bear.
In a week, that will be Andrew’s job. But right now it’s not. Right now, really, it’s anyone’s game.
“I just…” she hugs herself and closes her eyes, “I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
Nicholas nods. “Mia.”
He says her name differently than anyone else does. Differently than Lilly or Mom or Grandma or Joe. Different than Michael or Patrick. She’s never minded when anyone has called her by name, but there’s something special in how Nicholas says her name. Her name is safe in his mouth.
He takes a halting breath and gently tilts her chin up. “You won’t disappoint anybody.”
Her eyes widen. “Really?”
He pulls his hand back and rests his head against the couch, shifting so he can be more comfortable. “There’s something else that you’re not telling me.”
And if they were back to their normal antagonistic relationship, she would start rambling about how she knows that she’s an open book, it’s not like it’s a well-kept secret, but how dare he imply that she is and that she wears her heart on her sleeve.
Except no one else has really picked up on any of her concerns. Lilly and Grandma and Joe all know a thing going on, but they don’t know all of it. They think there’s just one thing concerning her, only one issue that bothers her.
Nicholas knows her, though. In a way that Lilly and Grandma and Joe do not. Lilly’s known her all her life, and she still doesn’t know that Mia is dealing with…a lot of shit that no sane human being can handle on their own. Nicholas knows that, and if she tells him, he’ll be honest with her. Only her.
She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m scared of marrying Andrew.” Her words barely reach her own ears.
Nicholas sits up a little. “Andrew? He’s a good man.”
She bites her fingernail, princess manners be damned. “I know, I know. It’s just that…well, it’s just that—”
“—you don’t want to marry a man you don’t love.” He finally sets aside his book.
She nods her head faintly. “Sometimes I just want to run away. Just up and leave, go back to America or something. Change my name, dye my hair, get some colored contacts, and live my life completely anonymously. Maybe I’d be a hippie.”
He chuckles softly. “Me, too.”
And don’t get her wrong, she definitely wants to address the fact that the unshakable and intimidatingly collected Nicholas whatever-his-noble-middle-name-is Devereaux wants to run away like she does, but the words spill out of her mouth faster than she can stop them. “I’m scared of so much, Nicholas. I’m scared of being a wife, of being a queen, of being a future mother. I don’t know how to do any of that. I’ve never learned how. And it’s not like I get the luxury of only doing one of those things at a time, I’m going to have to do all three at once in, like, a year, and I’m scared. I’m so scared for life after this.”
He reaches out and squeezes the tips of her fingers. “I know.”
She looks at him then, her eyes misty from tears. This was Nicholas Devereaux: a night owl, a bookworm, a secret dork who wore ducky pajama pants and a worn-out gray t-shirt to bed every night. A man who read Søren Kierkegaard multiple times because he wanted to learn something new with each reread, a man who read Russian novels because of the religious allegory, a man who went back to the Narnia series because there was something comforting in the royalty of the Pevensie siblings. A man who followed her lead when she tiredly spilled her heart out to him, who made jokes when she did but pulled back when she needed it.
Maybe her first impression of him was spot-on.
(Maybe it’s not-so-maybe.)
She pulls her feet up and shrinks against the fabric of the sofa. “What if I’m a terrible queen? Or a terrible wife or mother or—”
Nicholas sighs. “Don’t,” he says, shaking his head, “let your mind wander to the ‘what ifs.’ It doesn’t do anyone any good. You’re a brilliant woman, and you’re going to make a remarkable queen and mother and wife.”
She nods and tries to offer him a smile. A branch of the tree outside scrapes against the window. “Why do you want to run away?”
He stared past her shoulder. “I’m not the man I wanted to become.”
He’ll tell me when he’s ready, she thinks. I’m an open book, but he’s a book of secrets. To be trusted with those secrets is his greatest act of love.
And when she dozes off, she doesn’t see his sleepy smile. She doesn’t wake up when he picks her up and carries her back to her suite. She doesn’t notice as he gently places her on the bed, pulling back the covers and tucking her feet underneath the sheets. She doesn’t feel the soft kiss he places on her forehead. She doesn’t hear his almost inaudible, “I love you” as he steps away from her bed.
When she wakes up the next morning, she finds Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing on her nightstand. Tucked in the front is a note in Nicholas’s handwriting: I’ll be back in the library if you need me again.