A wyndian Princess Part 2




The Ceremony

Nina minutely examined her reflection in the gilded mirror within the tent raised in the square in front of the castle. The flowing silk crepe of antique white was appropriately lovely, and the veil of handspun lace had served its time and tradition of age and sophisticated beauty. The gems within her blonde hair glistened with the adequate view of romance and poetry just as the pale pink, yellow, and white blossoms whispered of innocence and purity.

Nina looked a lovely and entrancing bride.

The only item Nina lacked was an emotion of pleasant nervousness or bated expectation. Nina didnít dread the prospect of walking down the aisle to her betrothed; she missed her girlhood fantasy of an expected emotion.

Nina sighed and turned away from the mirror, making her way to the tent opening to look out. Shamus stood quite still near the minister looking only at something he held within his hands. He didnít move; he didnít fidget with his custom-tailored tuxedo; he didnít look toward the tent. There was something almostÖ awe-like in his expression. Disbelief even.

Nina reluctantly smiled. She liked Shamus McNeil, and she counted that a definite blessing. It would make married life easier. Perhaps even similar to her own parentsí accumulated fondness. If she couldnít have her romantic dream, at least she could count on his friendship.

Nina released the flap of the tentís entrance and stepped back with another sigh, smoothing her gown to wait for her father.

*

Shamus stared in silent wonder at the rings he held.

As a young man barely able to understand what Ďrelationshipí meant, he had told himself he wouldnít take this road. Arranged marriages had caused too much heartache and misery for his brothers, his sisters, and even his parents. The marriages had only one goal, get more land/power/money in order to protect the family. True, his close family hadnít pursued power and wealth as their further distant relatives, but it had still been a goal.

Now he had agreed to an arranged marriage in order toÖ get more? Shamus almost cringed. He hadnít ever wanted that to be a condition of a marriage.

Shamus tightened his hand around the rings, clenching his jaw to keep from walking away. The king had said their marriage would be for Ninaís future, for the future of her people, but the thought didnít settle his conscience. He still felt as if he took advantage of the situation. Like a McNeil would. Like McNeils had.

The wedding processional began, and Shamus slowly opened his hand again. Two rings. One small and lovely resting upon the other so large and simple. Shamus released a slow breath. He wouldnít take advantage, but he wouldnít turn from his responsibility either. He had agreed to the marriage, and he would stand firm in that decision. He would do his best by her and her people. He wouldnít take advantage, but he would be honorable in his duty.

Shamus lifted his gaze, and his breath caught in his throat at the vision that approached; wings slightly fluttered as the breeze tickled the wisps of dress, veil, and flower petal. Shamus swallowed hard. Sammy boy, what in the worldÖ

The vision of white halted beside him, veiled eyes meeting his gaze. Shamus gave a slight smile, vaguely hearing the ceremony begin with histories and duties and honors listed. All he could see were the slight hint of eyes and mouth. All he could hear were the soft words spoken and repeated. Then the rings given, the hands clasped, and the veil lifted by her father.

Shamus released a slow breath, almost shaking his head in disbelief of the face behind: Princess Nina of Wyndia. WifeÖ Shamus tightened his hold on her hands and leaned forward to place a hesitant kiss on each cheek. When he straightened, the crowd roared.

Then Nina smiled and Shamus didnít hear the crowd for the roar in his own heart.

*

Nina sent Shamus a peek from under her lashes. He stared out the window of their carriage as it took them back to McNeil for another reception. Silence had been her only companion on the way, and he hadnít even glanced toward her. Nina slightly frowned as she moved her gaze to the scenery outside. He hadnít seemed agitated or upset before or after the ceremony. A little distracted, but understandably so. After all, he had just married a complete stranger. Thinking back to the previous day and the dinner and the planning of the ceremony that would follow, Nina still didnít recall anything said by her or him that hinted at any hard feelings. Of course, Shamus didnít look to be upset. Only distant.

Nina released a sigh and felt his glance. She turned her head to intercept it. "Is there something wrong?" she asked gently.

Shamus gave her a reassuring smile. "Iím sorry, Princess. Iím thinking about things. Didnít mean to worry you."

"Can I help?"

"No." Shamusí ears pinked. "I-I mean, donít worry about it. Itís fine."

"Are you certain?" she pressed.

"IÖ" Shamus cleared his throat, glancing occasionally away.

"Shamus?"

Shamus released a quick breath, looking again to her face as his expression relaxed into a smile. "Can we wait Ďtil we get home?"

"Of course," Nina assured. "I donít want to make you uncomfortable."

Shamus reached out to cover her hand as it rested in her lap. "Iím doing that myself, Princess."

He gave her hand a squeeze before pulling away with a clearing of his throat and a reddening of his ears. He looked away.

Nina smiled slightly. "You do realize itís all right to hold my hand, Mayor McNeil?"

Shamusí lips twitched as he stared down at his hands. He lightly rubbed them together. "I know." He glanced up at her. "I just want to give you a chance to get used to me a bit beforeÖ" He self-consciously rubbed at the back of his neck. "Or maybe itís the other way around?"

Ninaís smile widened. "I guess life as a princess has made me a little too forward."

Shamus met her gaze. "I didnít mean that, Princessó"

Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners as she said, "Please, Shamus. Call me Nina."

Shamusí mouth clicked shut, and he looked back down at his hands.

Ninaís smile faded to concern. "It isnít disrespectful to call me that, Shamus."

He cleared his throat. "Iíll tryÖ Nina."

Her smile returned. "That sounds much better, and Shamus." She reached out to take hold of his hand. He looked up. "Be yourself. Iíve met many unique people in my adventures with Ryu and the others. Very little will shock."

Shamusí expression relaxed. "You donít know me much yet, so I wonít hold you to that, Pró Nina." He finished the statement with a boyish smile.

Nina laughed and gave his large hand a squeeze before releasing it. "Iíll tell stories of Rei and Ryu to prove it. I seriously doubt yours will rival them."

"Maybe," Shamus said vaguely.

Ninaís eyes twinkled. "Very well. I accept your challenge. Each evening weíll exchange stories. If I shock you, you have to tell an extra story. Vice versa, of course. Does that sound fair?"

Shamusí smile was slight, but his expression showed a twinkle. "Not really."

"Oh? Why, pray tell," she asked, eyebrow arched.

"Because Iím a farmer and youíre a princess."

Nina crossed her arms. "That is no excuse."

One of his lips twitched. "Because you traveled the world with a dragon?" he attempted again.

Nina softly chuckled. "Good try, Shamus, but I know too much about childrenís active imaginations."

Shamus pointed toward himself, eyes wide. "You think I would dream up a dragon and an evil goddess and an entire city of machines?"

Nina nodded, still smiling.

"Me?" Shamus pressed.

Nina laughed. "Oh Shamus, donít try to pull the wool over these eyes. I can see the vision youíve set into motion for McNeil. That vision took imagination; a desire to dream for greater things." She shook her head, and her lips danced with laughter. "There is no way you can convince me you havenít the ability. I wonít believe it."

Shamusí hand lowered. "Thanks for that, Princess."

Nina raised a finger. "Ah, ah, ah. Nina."

His face softened into a smile. "Nina."

"Much better." She punctuated the statement with a soft giggle, which was interrupted by the jostle of the carriage as it came to a stop. "Oh. Are we here?"

Shamus opened the door and stepped out. "Yep. Home sweet home." He faced the door of the carriage and bent to fold down the step. Then he presented his hand. "Mind your step," he warned as she slipped her hand into his.

Nina gathered the folds of her dark rose traveling gown, worn upon her motherís insistence, and stepped down. Once she had set both feet firmly on the ground, Shamus released her hand. Nina nearly took it back again, so as to help himÖ acclimate to married life; instead, she smoothed her dress and took in a deep breath of the late afternoon air. It tasted wonderfully fresh, and it brought back memories of her adventures with Ryu, Rei, and the others.

Nina focused her attention on Shamus, who examined the road at his feet with hands behind his back. "Do you have time to walk before the reception?"

Shamus briefly looked to her before pulling something from his pocket. Ninaís eyes widened. A time-piece? She had never seen a time-piece that small before, but she kept herself from embarrassing him by asking about it.

"Not really," he told her. He tucked the time-piece away and met her eyes with a slight smile. "But we could be late. I mean, we are the couple of the hour."

Nina returned his smile. "We are, arenít we?"

Shamus presented his arm and then led her into the mansionís renewed gardens. Nina breathed deep of the scents and fragrances it held, closing her eyes to completely experience the soft sounds within. She adjusted her hands around his arm, a smile tickling her lips. The garden was refreshingly calm and silent. The past month had consisted of days and weeks of fittings, flowers, dresses, questions, and demands upon her person that had nearly cost her any remains of sanity. It felt nice to be away from the voices and the people and the measuring gazes.

Nina sighed again. "This is nice," she said softly. "No people. No attention." She absently nodded. "Yes. This is very nice."

A hand covered hers, hesitant, just as in Wyndia. Nina liked the simple touch. It almost seemed to encompass friendship and comfort. Security. Yet another reason she liked Shamus. He was a rock. Well, he gave her the impression of one anyway.

"Yeah," he admitted in a low voice. "I usually wander around here after a bad day. Helps keep things in perspective. ĎCourse, I wander around here after a good day, too. Makes things look better."

Nina gently smiled, opening her eyes to send him a glance. He stared ahead, so she examined his profile. It was a nice profile. Healthy. Rugged. Innately smilingÖ almost. A very nice profile.

"Princess?"

Shamusí tone sounded so preoccupied and hesitant that Nina decided against correcting him the title. "Yes?"

Shamus cleared his throat, and his hand slightly tightened on hers. "Iím going to give you your own room."

Nina arched an eyebrow. "Oh?"

Shamus nodded, and he glanced toward her to immediately look away again. "Like I said before. I want to give you a chance to settle in."

Nina continued to scrutinize his profile. "I appreciate the thought, Shamus, but weíre marró"

"Yes, I know," Shamus said as he met her gaze. "I know weíre married. I know that itís okay to share a room. I know it is, butÖ" He pressed his lips together and looked away again. "You donít know me fromÖ from Loki, Princess," Shamus continued softly. "Just because weíre married doesnít mean you know me any better. I canítÖ" He met her gaze and gave a slight shake of his head. "I canít take liberties just because youíre my wife." He shook his head again. "I wonít."

Nina had an inkling this had bothered him awhile. She gave him a reassuring smile. "All right. Iíll have my own room."

His green eyes darkened. "YouÖ Youíre not angry?"

Nina gently laughed. "Why would I be angry, silly?" She pulled him forward with a slight tug on his arm, and her hands nestled deeper within the crook. "It will be as ifÖ no, it wonít be like that at all. Oh well." Nina laughed again. "It seems father has put the cart before the horse and now the horse wishes to woo the already hitched cart."

Shamusí ears burned as he stared ahead.

"Oh Iím sorry," Nina said guiltily. "I donít mean to tease you. Really I donít. IÖ" Ninaís lips twitched. "Iíve never been wooed before. It sounds as if it might be fun."

Shamus cleared his throat. "I donít know anything about wooing, Prinó I mean, Nina. I justÖ I just donít wantÖ" He released a quick breath. "We only met a couple days ago. You should know me better before sharing anything."

Nina smiled at the ground. "Thank you, Shamus."

He looked down at her. "For what?"

Nina halted and met his gaze. "For being yourself." She removed her hand from his arm to touch his chest with a single finger. "For being true to your heart."

Shamus flushed while giving her a sheepish smile. "Oh."

Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners as she gathered up his hands. "I believe we will be great friends, Shamus, and thatís a blessing I hadnít expected in my husband."

His smile faded, and he squeezed her hands. "You deserve more than that, Princess."

"Love?" Nina queried.

Shamus nodded.

Nina released his hands to again wrap her arms around his. They stepped out into the greenery. "Yes, wellÖ Love seldom comes into arranged marriages. Fondness is the best we Wyndian princesses expect. Like my mother for my father." She gave a delicate shrug. "What is love anyway? A fleeting emotion. A whisper."

Shamus watched her profile in silence.

After a moment, Nina lifted her gaze to give him a reassuring smile. "A budding friendship will be enough, and certainly longer lasting."

Shamus examined the expression in her eyes a moment before looking away. "Iíll try to be a good friend, Nina."

Her expression softened. "I know you will, and Iíll try the same."

Nina looked away, and the smile drooped a touch. Nina didnít realize the change, but her escort did.

Shamus McNeil

Shamus cleared his throat as he stood outside Ninaís door. He held a simple yellow flower in his hand and was at his witís end to think of an appropriate statement to give with it. Sammy boy, you might as well give up. You arenít a poet. Shamus gave a slight shrug and reached out to knock on the door.

"One moment," came a muffled reply.

He cleared his throat again, adjusting his hold on the flower as he shifted weight from one foot to the other. I canít believe Iím doing thisó

The door opened to reveal his bride. She had dressed in black leggings, a multi-colored band of ribbons in her short-cut hair, and a dark blue top that settled around her slim hips. Her eyes twinkled with her smile, and Shamusí breath and words died.

"Good morning," she greeted. Her eyes focused on the flower and widened as she looked up. "For me?"

Shamus mutely nodded, sending her an uncertain smile as he presented it to her.

"Oh how lovely. Thank you." Nina took the offered flower, touching it briefly to her nose. She closed her eyes as she breathed in the aroma. Then she refocused on Shamus. "It smells divine."

Shamus swallowed hard, jarring loose the attraction and the fear so that he could speak. "If you like, I can have perfumes made from it."

Ninaís eyes widened as her lips parted with surprise. "Could you?"

Shamus nodded, and then he smiled. "We could call it ĎPrincess Ninaí."

Nina laughed her unique melody with a slight flutter of wingtip. "Please donít. Call it something romantic and lovely."

In for a penny, in for a poundÖ "I thought I did," he offered, in what he hoped to be an innocent tone.

Ninaís mouth opened as she looked up at him with a blink. Then her face brightened with another smile. "Why, Mayor McNeil. You flirt."

Shamusí ears reddened, the only necessary confession, but he didnít look away from her eyes. "No I donít," he denied with a shake of his head. At least not very well. He almost grimaced.

Nina wrapped an arm around his and led him toward the stairs. "Sure you do." Nina touched her nose again with the flower.

Shamus watched her profile.

Nina lowered the flower to stare down at it. "I remembered the last time a charming gentleman gave me a flower."

Shamus looked away, and this time he did grimace. Ryu? Rei? How can I compete with them?

Nina sighed with a shake of her head as she looked over at Shamus. "Thank you for the flower, Shamus," she said softly.

Shamus released a silent breath before gazing down at her. It didnít go the way I wanted, butÖ "My pleasure, Nina."

She looked away, absently adjusting the placement of her hand within his arm. "What do we have planned this morning?"

Shamus racked his brain for something that would bring a smileó His expression brightened, but he kept his tone matter-of-fact. "I need to check on the mares who are nearly ready to foal, make sure theyíre doing alright and things like that. I could use your help with the wee ones. They have a knack for getting in the way."

Nina looked over at him with a slight smile. He intercepted it with his best attempt at innocence. I canít believe Iím doing thisÖ

"Or you can wait here," he offered, "and then we can go together to visit the different farms and ranches, so you can say hello."

She nodded. "That would be lovely. Might I do both?"

Shamus smiled. "Sure can."

"Could we take breakfast with us?"

Shamus grabbed at the idea with a near snap of his fingers. A picnic! Instead, he simply nodded and said, "I could go tell Cook right now. Did you want to meet him?" He didnít give her a chance to answer before he enfolded her hand with his and led her toward the kitchen off to the left of the dining hall. "He used to cook for Neil and decided to stay on with me once Neil left. Iím glad he did. Heís a great cook."

"Yes, he is."

Shamus pulled her into the kitchen, forcing himself to continue to hold her hand once they had come to a stop. "Ed, did you want to meet my wife?" Did I just say that? "Nina," Shamus said as he looked from cook to new bride, "this is Ed."

Ed stood about 6 feet tall with the usual white Ďcookí uniform. He was a hefty individual, but only because he loved food.

Nina smiled. "Hello, Ed. Itís nice to meet you."

Ed turned from the stove to doff his white cookís cap. "Princess. What can I do for you?"

Nina met Shamusí smiling eyes, who then changed his gaze to Ed. "Could you make a quick brunch picnic? Weíre going to the pasture to check the foals."

"Sure thing. Will you be coming back for lunch?"

"No. Weíll be traveling around the different ranches and farms. Probably stop in and have lunch with Rei."

"Dinner?"

"Maybe." Shamus smiled wider. "Sorry, Ed. Iím playing things by ear today."

Ed returned his smile. "Itís okay, Shamus. Iíll make some dishes that are good cold, just in case."

"Thanks. And the picnic?"

"Give me by the time your carriage is out front."

Ninaís hand tightened on his. "Actually," Shamus said without looking, "we kind of wanted to walk. Weíll be outside in the garden walking around. Just let us know when itís done. Iíll come and get the basket."

"Iíll have one of the boys bring it out front."

"Thanks, Ed."

Shamus drew Nina back out into the main hall, then they made their way toward the front entrance to exit the double-doors and descend the stairs. At a thought, Shamusí smile wavered. He looked to Nina. She quietly studied the ground at her feet.

Shamus cleared his throat. "Prinó I meanÖ Nina?" She looked up to meet his gaze. "I guess I should have asked about all that stuff. The walking and the picnic?"

Nina shook her head. "Itís all right. In fact, it felt nice to not need to think. A month of planning the wedding ceremony certainly dulled that shine."

Shamus smiled again. WhewÖ "Yeah. I guess it would. Well, just tell me if I ever trod all over you. Iíve been a bachelor a while, you know."

"Yes. And Marianne says youíre an oaf."

Shamus grinned at her, something he hadnít done for years. "Remembered that, did you?" Nina giggled with a slight shake of her head. Okay. This is good. Sheís laughing. Keep at it, Sammy boy. Keep at it.

"Iím glad she came to the reception," Nina continued. "It was great fun to meet her, though I donít believe any of those horrid bad habits she confessed of you."

Shamus swallowed hard. "Bad habits? Like what?" When did Marianne get her alone?

Nina shook her head. "I refuse to give them the attention." Nina glanced toward him, and Shamus could swear he saw a mischievous twinkle.

"And you want to see if I actually do them," Shamus accused with a smile and laugh.

Nina giggled. "Guilty as accused."

"Well this isnít fair," Shamus protested. "Iím painted less than charming, sabotaged by my own sister, and youíre just as perfect and lovely as when I met you." Hey, not bad.

Nina laughed. "Please, please. No pedestal, Shamus. No pedestal."

"Oops. Sorry." Shamus grinned down at her. "Need some help getting down from there?"

Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners with her smile as she met his gaze. "Iíll manage. Thank you."

"Mayor McNeil?"

Shamus looked over his shoulder toward the house. "Oh. Lunch." Shamus released her hand and headed back. "Be right back."

"That was quick," Nina said. "I hardly had time to enjoy the garden."

Uh-oh. Possible problem. Shamus halted and turned. Nina peered toward the far left of the garden. Gazebo. Right. Shamus bit his lip and looked back to their brunch. Then he rubbed at the back of his neck and shook his head. Fruit tree. Gazebo. He nodded and moved back toward Nina. She looked to his hands for the basket and then met his smiling gaze with an expression of puzzlement.

He motioned to the left. "I forgot to show you the gazebo yesterday."

The picnic was instantly forgotten.

Nina smiled and pointed to the left of the garden as she fell into step beside him. "Is that what I see over there in the corner?"

"Thereís a really nice plum tree beside it, too. You could have some for breakfast, if you like plums." Hopefully she likes plums.

"I donít believe Iíve ever tried a plum."

Shamus blinked and moved his focus to an examination of her profile. She looked eagerly ahead toward the gazebo and the plum tree beside. "Youíve never had a plum? HowÖ Youíre a princess. How can you never have had a plum?"

Nina met his gaze, her face still bright with expectation. "I donít know. Where do they most often grow?"

"Weíve just recently planted a grove near Cedar Woods, and I know the soil and climate is perfect for them."

"I donít remember seeing them in Wyndia," she observed. "Perhaps itís too dry?"

Shamusí brows lowered in a frown of concentration as he looked away. "Hm. Letís see. Youíre on the other side of Mt. Myrneg. Maybe the soilís too sandy? I should scope it out and see if we could plant some groves or vines. That would be greatÖ Although maybe the idea of ranches would be better? I should talk to the king about it. Seems to me I saw some prime spots."

Shamus heard a slight laugh and a flutter. His ears pinked as he looked down at his brideís smiling face. He sheepishly smiled.

"I never knew such intense concentration could be so adorable," she confessed.

Shamusí face flamed, and he looked away with a clearing of his throat. Adorable? Thatís goodÖ right?

"And Marianne insists your distractions to be a bad habit," Nina continued. "I donít believe her."

Thatís definitely goodÖ unless sheís teasing. Shamus nearly threw his hands up in frustration. He was beginning to understand why he had never married.

"Oh my goodness," Nina breathed. A flutter accompanied the whisper. "This is lovely."

The gazebo was fashioned of polished stones he had transported from Mt. Myrneg. It had taken nearly a year to have them smoothed and polished for the columns and the steps and the floor. The roof of the gazebo was white-washed cedar, now more green than white due to the ivy that had spiraled up the columns.

Shamus smiled as he followed Nina up the steps to the center of the gazebo. He had always wondered why he took the time with it. Now he knew.

Nina slowly lowered herself onto one of the carved cedar benches. "Shay, this is spectacular," she breathed.

Shamusí smile vanished as he watched Ninaís expression, but she continued to view the gazebo with wide-eyed wonder. Shamus turned away, resting one fist on his hip while the other hand rubbed at his neck. ShayÖ And his mind wouldnít think further.

"Is that the plum tree?"

Shamus gave a slight flinch as he looked sharply to his right. Nina stood beside him while pointing to a deep-purple foliaged tree just outside the gazebo. "Yes."

Nina smiled and turned to hurry down the steps of the gazebo and around to the side. Shamus watched her with a smile as he moved to lean against one of the columns. He crossed his arms, viewing each expression as she reached for a plum, plucked it free, and then examined it with sight, scent, and touch before cautiously raising the deep purple fruit to her rose lips. She hesitantly bit into the juicy meat, wrinkling her nose at the initial tartness of the skin. Then her tastebuds experienced the mild sweet of the meat within and her eyes widened. Shamus shook his head with a growing smile as he adjusted his crossed arms.

"Mmm. This is delicious. So juicy, too." Nina met Shamusí smiling gaze with a serious expression. "Could I pick some for our picnic?"

"Go ahead."

Nina smiled and then lifted the lower portion of her blue top to act as a carrier for those lucky plums chosen to grace their picnic. Whenever she reached for a plum, a hint of midriff would be seen. Shamus cleared his throat and kept his gaze carefully away; sometimes he even had to close his eyes to keep from glancing. Finally, he gave another clearing of his throat and straightened from the column to turn away.

"Ooo. These must be divine with whipped cream," Nina reasoned.

Shamus made his way down the steps and to her side. "They make a great spread on cakes or sweet breads, too."

Nina nodded, wide-eyed. "I imagine so." She retrieved another plum for her stash before falling into step beside Shamus as he moved again toward the house. She bit into the plum with an "Mmm," and actually slurped some of the juice.

Shamus chuckled while glancing over at her. "Iíll make sure you get plum spread with your breakfast every morning."

Nina giggled as she sent him a sidelong glance. "Thank you."

They made their way to the porch where Shamus took up the basket, and then they struck out down the main jog from the mansion grounds, Nina still holding her treasure trove of plums. Shamus settled into an easy pace beside her, enjoying the sight and sound of her nibbling on each one. She didnít look anything like a princess walking along with her shirt full of plums, her fingers sticky from the juice, and spitting pits a good distance off to the side. If anything, she looked at home and at ease. At total and complete peace with where she was and who she was with. Shamus couldnít help but feel his feelings for her grow.

Nina licked some plum juice from her fingers and looked over at Shamus with wide eyes of interest. "Did you want one?" And she immediately retrieved one from her trove.

Shamus took the presented plum with a slight smile before tossing it up into the air and catching it in his mouth. Then he ate the meat away and spat the pit a good 10 feet down the path.

Nina giggled. "Rei would be jealous."

"Nah." Shamus accepted another offered plum and did the same as before. "Whatís so special about having a big mouth?"

Ninaís smile blossomed to a laugh, and Shamus knew he hadnít ever heard a sweeter sound. He released a slight breath as he studied the ground at their feet, hands tucked safely away from their temptation. Yep, Sammy boy. Youíve done yourself in good this time. A country yokel married and in love with a princess. Shamus shook his head.

"You mean you only want two?"

Shamus looked toward Nina with a "huh?"

She held out a plum. "I offered another and you shook her head." Nina smiled. "Iím afraid if you donít accept this one youíre liable to miss a further opportunity."

Shamus returned her smile as he enfolded her hand in his and gently pushed it back toward her. "I can always pick more."

Ninaís eyes widened with a question. "Are you certain?" Then her eyes crinkled at the corners and she giggled as she looked to her depleted stash. "Iím afraid Iíve made a glutton of myself."

Shamus released her hand and chuckled. "I didnít notice, princess," he said gently.

Nina lifted her eyes to meet his gaze. "Shay, do stop calling me Ďprincessí," she said with a laugh. "It sounds ridiculous. Youíre my husband. You shouldnít address me by my title."

Shamus flushed and looked away, not sure how to confess that he hadnít. "Sorry."

"You donít need to be sorry," she soothed. To his surprise and pleasure, she took hold of his hand. "Itíll take time, I guess. Iíll try to be more patient."

Shamus cleared his throat. Sammy boy, you know you like calling her that. You better Ďfess up or youíll never get to. He cleared his throat again. "Nina, IÖ uhÖ"

Nina examined his profile. "Whatís the matter?"

He glanced toward her and immediately away. "N-Nothing. I justÖ I like calling youÖ that."

"Princess?" she asked, surprised. "But why?"

Shamus gave a slight shrug. "I just do."

"Oh." Nina changed her focus from his face to her stash of plums. "Now I feel a little ridiculous for making such a fuss."

Shamus halted, his hand tightening a little on hers as he faced her. Hundreds of words crashed together in his brain, but he couldnít grab a complete sentence. Finally, he released a quick breath and said, "Iím sorry. I guess I shouldnít have said anything."

Nina raised her eyes. "Of course you should. How else are we supposed to become friends unless we talk to each other about things."

Shamus continued to look into her bright blue eyes, feeling his stomach flip and his throat tighten at what sheíd said and what it would mean if he confessed. Shamus swallowed hard, including the words he wanted to say, and released her hand to start walking again toward the pasture. Nina hesitated before hurrying to walk beside him.

"Do you need to talk about something?"

Shamus gripped his hands behind his back. Words and thoughts wouldnít come.

"What did I say?" Nina asked, and her tone actually sounded concerned. "Shamus?"

Shamus halted and faced her. "Call me Shay," he said quickly. "I like it."

Nina blinked and Shamus flushed. He looked away with a clearing of his throat. IdiotÖ

"Is that--"

"No," Shamus said, shaking his head. Let her finish her sentence! He rubbed at the back of his neck without meeting her gaze, tightening his hold on the picnic basket. "Sorry."

"Itís all right. I can be a little short myself when Iím troubled."

Does she have to be so understanding all the time? Shamus released a deep breath as he looked over at her. She blinked up at him with slightly wide eyes. He could see the concern. Shamus reluctantly smiled. "Donít mind me, Nina. Iím an oaf."

Ninaís mouth dropped open with a slight gasp. "Shamus McNeil," she whispered, and she shielded her mouth with her free hand in mock horror. "You said a bad word."

Shamus laughed, and then he wiped the smile from his face to play along. He glanced furtively over his shoulder before refocusing on her twinkling eyes. "Donít tell Marianne," he whispered, leaning slightly forward.

Nina slowly shook her head, and her slight flutter of wing confessed her withheld laughter.

Shamusí serious expression melted to a smile as he guided her forward again with a soft touch to her back. "Really, Nina. Iím sorry. Iím trying to figure out whatís okay and whatís not, and I guess itís making me a little crazy."

Nina nodded as she sent him a reassuring expression. "I completely understand, and if thereís any way I can helpÖ"

Shamusí lips twitched upward. Tell me exactly when I can sayó"Thanks. Iíll remember that."

Nina reached out for his hand and slipped hers into it, giving it a slight squeeze. "Just promise that wonít be the furthest step you take. Remembering I offered and actually asking are two different things."

Shamusí smile widened. "I can tell youíve had this conversation before."

Nina flushed. "Yes, wellÖ" She cleared her throat with a delicate melody of sound. "Iím not overly proud of it, but yes."

Shamus watched her. "What happened?" he asked carefully.

Nina adjusted her hold on the stash of plums within her shirt as well as on his hand. "Iím afraid I acted a bit of an orc with one of my friends while not taking my own advice."

Shamus raised an eyebrow. "What?"

Nina sighed as she looked to Shamus. Her eyes slightly glimmered. "While paying a friend a visit, I decided that she shouldnít be alone anymore; that she must have secretly been miserable in her tower by herself. So once I arrived home, I wrote her a letter telling her that I believed it would be a good idea for her to begin dating. Without waiting for her to reply, IÖ" Nina looked away. "I askedÖ one of my other friends to help her learn how to date. Sheís not very socially adept." Nina sighed. "I justÖ I donít know why I did it. I donít know why I didnít only offer my help instead of forcing it upon her."

Shamusí throat tightened. Nina looked sincerely miserable. What am I supposed to say? Shamus cleared his throat as he gave her hand a squeeze. "NinaÖ Iím sure she knew you only wanted to help," he offered gently.

Nina sniffed, still staring at her plums. "Now theyíre more than likely together and happy," she whispered.

"Who?"

"Ryu and Momo."

Shamus blinked. Well when in the world did that happen? "Oh."

Nina sighed. "I didnít even know until our wedding. I thought he was onlyÖ Then Ryu sent the noteÖ" She sighed again. "Ryu likely didnít want me to be hurt."

Shamus watched her expressions. "You werenít just friends, were you?"

Nina looked up. "We were, Shamus," she assured. "I still donít know whether or not I wanted something more. My feelings for him were always unique and confusing. Even now Iím happy for him, though I know he and Momo are exploring a closer relationship than what I ever had with him. I onlyÖ" She looked away again with a deep breath.

"You want what theyíve got," Shamus said in a low voice.

Nina lowered her head. "Yes. Yes, I suppose I do."

Shamus gazed down at her with a slight smile. And now I remember why Iím making like an idiot. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Thatís alright, princess." Just give me a little bit.

Welcoming Hope

Nina faintly smiled as she watched Shamus speak tender phrases to the black mare very much ready to foal. He stroked her nose and gave her forelock a tug, all the while reassuring her the wait for the foal would soon be over. He had done much the same for nearly half a dozen bulging mares.

Nina moved her gaze to the band on her finger. She twirled it absently, thinking again of their conversation en route to the meadow. She hadnít intended to confess her feelings for Ryu. Neither had she meant to tell him of her plot with Momo. But it felt wonderful to share. To step out from under the guilt and receive assurance. He hadnít seemed to become disheartened when she confessed that love was still something she wanted.

Nina sighed and raised her eyes. Shamus fed a carrot to a pretty golden yearling. He caught her gaze and lifted a hand to give a slight wave, which Nina returned. Shamus had suggested inviting Momo and Ryu for dinner, so Nina could apologize and repair those damaged bridges. Though Nina knew it was something she needed to do, she couldnít face them together. Not yet.

Thankfully, Shamus hadnít pressed. Once the suggestion had been made, he had guided the subject to safer things such as plum trees and perfumes. Nina smiled. Yes. She liked Shamus McNeil, and it would be easy to grow fond of him. I have but to release my past to the past and move to my future. Nina watched as Shamus jogged toward her. It wonít be a horrible future.

Shamus lowered himself onto his side in front of her with an exhalation of breath and a smile as he absently plucked the lush grass. He smiled his usual easy and charming smile. "A couple of the girls are really close; any day now Iím thinking."

"How exciting."

Shamus nodded, expression bright. "Weíll be able to have your father come and pick which ones he wants. We can throw a big dinner party, too."

Nina sent him a soft smile. "I hope you donít think Iím that anxious to see them again."

Shamus met her eyes with a serious expression. "No. I just figured it would make your papa feel better if he saw you and I were getting along okay."

Nina adjusted her position to lay on her stomach across from him. "Iím sure father isnít concerned in the least, but thank you for thought of my family."

Shamusí ears pinked as he examined the grass blade in his fingers. "My pleasure."

Nina examined his handsome features with interest and a soft smile, crossing her ankles as they hung suspended above her. "Shamus?"

He only glanced toward her. "Yeah?"

"Why did you want to be mayor of McNeil?"

Shamus cleared his throat and took up another blade of grass. As Nina had noticed before, he didnít look the least bit comfortable talking about himself.

"I really want to know," Nina pressed gently. "Itís such an amazing responsibility, and youíve handled it so well."

He cleared his throat again as he glanced up and then away, ears completely red. Again he looked resistant to answer. Nina couldnít understand why.

"I uh..." Shamus released a deep breath and tossed a blade of grass away, immediately picking another. "These are good people," he said quietly. "I wanted them to have a better life than what theyíd had."

Nina carefully watched his expression. "At 20? Werenít you still learning from your father?"

Shamus shook his head. "The McNeilís put us on our own early," he confessed with a quick glance her direction. "Iíd basically been responsible for fatherís ranch since I was 12."

Nina blinked, eyes wide. "But thatís so young!"

Shamus gave a one-shoulder shrug. "It taught me a lot of things."

"But... Did you have the chance to be a child?"

"Sure. After chores and before bed." He shrugged again, another glance sent her way. "I didnít mind all that much."

Nina watched his handsome face. "With such responsibilities, how did you remain so... so... kindhearted?"

Shamus smiled as he met her eyes. "Responsibilities donít make a person mean. Thatís a choice."

Nina agreed, softly smiling. "Yes, I suppose youíre right." She held his gaze until he again looked away. "So you wanted to be mayor to be completely independent?" she reasoned as she examined his profile. "To prove something to your family even?"

Shamus looked to her with a blink of surprise. "Prove something?"

Nina cupped her jaw with a hand as her other teased the grass with her fingers. "I believe you wanted to prove McNeil could be successful without using fear. I believe you wanted to make a point to the McNeil clan."

Shamus moved his eyes away from her face without a word.

Nina smiled. "Iím proud of you, Shamus McNeil." She reached out and clasped his hand, lightly stroking it with her thumb. "It takes a lot of courage to stand up to a tradition, and not many people want to be bothered with it." She gave his hand a little squeeze. "Good for you."

Shamus softly smiled, face flushed as he glanced toward her. "I wouldíve done it sooner if I knew Iíd have got you for a wife."

Nina laughed, eyes crinkling at the corners. "Why, Shamus McNeil. You do go on."

Shamus continued to smile at her. Nina felt a touch of surprise when she realized she liked his attention, and not in the common sense of the word. She could actually feel the Ďlikeí moving forward to care and fondness. It instilled in her an emotion of relief, although she supposed there shouldnít have been any doubt of a growing friendship. After all, hadnít they already shown a surprising Ďclickí? Much as she and Ryu when they had first met.

Nina noticed Shamusí smile had faded. When he moved his focus to their clasped hands, Nina gave them a gentle squeeze. "Shay? Whatís the matter?"

"Nothing," he said with a slight shrug. "I just..." He cleared his throat, ears pink. "Can I kiss your hand?"

Nina blinked, smile gone. She hadnít ever been asked that question. Men generally helped themselves. It made her feel special that he had asked. Nina intercepted his hesitant glance with a return of the smile. "Yes, Shay. Yes, you can."

He stared down at her hand a moment before gently and cautiously raising it to his lips for a feather-light touch. Then he simply lowered it again and caressed it with his thumb. Nina continued to smile at him. Yes. She liked Shamus McNeil, and it would be easy to care for him. And what a blessing that is: to actually care for my husband. She knew her parents would be relieved.

Shamus released a slow breath. "I guess we should head out."

Ninaís eyes crinkled at the corners at his more-than-reluctant tone. "I suppose so."

"Reiíll pop me one if I donít bring you over for a visit," he added, and he still sounded as if he tried to convince himself.

"More than likely."

Shamus released another breath.

Nina giggled, drawing his attention. "Shay, you silly, we donít have to go anywhere if you donít want to. Rei and the others will understand."

Shamus sheepishly smiled as he looked away, giving her hand a couple gentle squeezes. "I... I guess so. I just..." He cleared his throat.

"You just what?" she pressed, smiling.

He glanced toward her. "Iím having a lot of fun."

Ninaís smile widened as her eyes twinkled. "So then why do you want to run away, Mayor McNeil?" she teased.

Shamus chuckled. "Because Iím having a lot of fun." He brought his other hand over to gently stroke the skin of her hand. "I feel like... I donít know. Like Iím shirking my duties or something. Playing hookie."

Nina gave a little shiver, smiling when Shamus looked over at her. "You are, silly. Itís called a wedding holiday."

He looked away again, a boyish smile warming his expression. Ninaís smile faded as she changed her focus to his hand with an arched eyebrow and an inward examination.

"Yeah. I guess," he admitted.

Nina pulled her focus from his hand as it continued to stroke her skin. She smiled again. "Shay, whoís to say we wonít continue to have fun as we walk around?"

"Oh I know that," he said. "I only... well, I kinda wanted to just... um..."

Nina giggled, lowering her hand from her chin to reach out and cup his jaw. He met her gaze with an expression of muted surprise. "You only want what, Shay?" she encouraged gently.

"I kinda wanted you to myself."

Nina blinked in surprise, and her smile vanished. Her cheeks actually flushed as she dropped her hand from his jaw and glanced away. "Oh."

Shamus pulled his hands from hers very quickly. "Sorry, Nina... I..."

Nina shook her head, eyes searching out his. He continued to look away. She reached out a hand when he sat up and moved to stand. "Shamus. Wait." He didnít stand, but he didnít look at her either. Nina moved to kneel, sitting back on her heels. "My reaction..." Nina sighed and took hold of his hand. "Iím sorry."

Shamusí hand just hung limp within her grip as he said, "Itís alright."

Nina felt a tear prick. "Shay?"

He released a slow breath before looking over at her, green eyes dark. "Yeah?"

"Shay, please donít be angry."

Shamus looked away. "Iím not," he said quietly.

The tears pushed harder. "I didnít mean to hurt you."

He nodded. "I know."

But Nina felt a hint of dread he wouldnít be the same as before. She moved her gaze to his hand that didnít really hold hers and felt a twinge of loss. Then she brought her other hand to hold his between them, gently rubbing it with her thumbs. When a tear actually dripped down, she gave a start.

Shamus released a breath as he moved his hand within hers to gently enfold them. "Donít cry, princess."

Nina sniffed and raised her misty gaze to meet his sad expression. She slightly smiled. "I really am sorry. Shamus."

"I know," he said softly, and he brought his other hand up to wipe the tears from her cheeks with a gentle touch. "Please donít cry anymore."

Only Nina couldnít stop crying. Shamusí touch so full of care; his expression so dark with regret. They made the tears flow faster. She hiccupped a tear with a vague feeling of surprise as she lowered her gaze from his.

"I..." Nina hiccupped again, more tears coming from a place she didnít understand.

Shamus drew her close with a whispered "Come here, princess," and enfolded her within a comforting embrace.

Nina closed her eyes and relaxed into the arms, surrounded also by confusion and a vague yet deep emotion of relief as she continued to softly cry. The only other time she had cried this way had been when Ryu had appeared after so many years believing him dead. Yet even this felt oddly different; as if she mourned and celebrated at the same time.

Shamus stroked her hair as he soothed with a softly uttered "Sh-sh-sh."

Nina tucked her hands close together, holding them between Shamusí chest and her own as his warmth and closeness comforted her. Soon the tears slowed and faded and she only listened to his breathing and his heartbeat with an odd feeling of inner searching.

Then Shamus pushed gently back and the search was lost.

He smiled at her, again bringing a hand up to brush the tear-trails away. "I guess Iím trying so hard not to scare you that I think Iíve scared you when I didnít. Sorry, princess."

Nina returned his smile. "You shocked me, Shamus McNeil," she confessed softly. "Now I owe you two stories of myself."

He gently touched her under the chin with one side of his finger. "Iíll take it."

Nina held Shamusí gaze for a silent moment of quiet expectation, still smiling as relief and that unexpected quiver of mild confusion wrestled with something else. The wrestling quieted when Shamus gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

"Come on," he urged. He stood and helped her do the same. "Letís dawdle over to Reiís. He spent all day cleaning the place. Heíll skin me alive if we donít stop by."

He scooped up the basket and then headed off toward the road leading to Cedar Woods. Ninaís hand remained content within his, and the wrestling quieted still more as confusion grew. Nina wasnít at all confused as to how she could care for him as a friend in such a short amount of time. Nina had always been blessed with that talent. The confusion went deeper than that, but she didnít quite know how to examine it to understand what it stemmed from. To Ninaís surprise, she experienced a Ďhiccupí of eager anticipation at the discovery. Perhaps itís a hope? Ninaís expression brightened as she gave Shamusí hand a squeeze.

He looked over at her with his usual easy smile. She returned it, stepping slightly closer as she changed her focus ahead. Hope was welcome.

A Surprising Decision

"Nina? Well doesnít this just beat all."

Shamus smiled as Nina released his hand accompanied by a flutter of wing as she hurried forward. She enveloped the Woren clansman in a tight embrace before pulling back and inquiring as to his health and life. Rei chuckled before cryptically answering and sending Shamus a greeting nod.

Shamus moved to stand beside Nina. "Hey there, Rei. Sorry weíre late."

"Late? Who knows about late?" Rei countered. "Youíre here and the place is still standing. Come on in. Take a load off."

Shamus motioned Nina ahead of him with a soft touch to her back, he liked how her wings tickled his hand and forearm, and then followed beside her.

"Ryu stopped in before," Rei informed the pair, "but he said you guys couldnít stay, having to go back to Wyndia and all. Sorry I couldnít come to the wedding. Wouldnít you know I was on my way out when we had a fire scare near the main road? Had to stay and babysit it."

Nina smiled over at her friend as she followed beside him up and around to the back entrance of the home. "Itís all right, Rei. It was only a small ceremony."

Rei opened the door and ushered them inside. Then he closed the door after Shamus and grinned at the pair, hands on hips as his feral eyes twinkled. "Nina married. Well doesnít this just beat all."

Nina giggled. "Rei, for heaven sake. Did you believe I would be a maid my entire life?"

Rei chuckled. "Not a bit. Just never thought youíd marry a McNeil. Theyíre a greedy lot."

Ninaís wings stiffened. "Rei, you orc," she scolded, "have some--"

Rei laughed and waved it away as he stepped past. "Tea?"

"Thanks, Rei," Shamus accepted. Nina turned and looked to continue the scold as Rei descended to the kitchen. Shamus enfolded her upper arm with a hand, drawing her attention. "Itís okay. Thatís kind of a running joke between us," he whispered.

"But Shamus--"

"Really, princess," he soothed, smiling. "Itís okay." He motioned to the stairs leading down. "Come on."

Nina reluctantly smiled, her wings relaxing as she turned and descended after Rei. Shamus stepped after her with a continued smile. Now that had to be a good sign. Of course, he didnít know from good and bad when it came to her, or ladies in general. That had been the only reason for the whole fiasco at their picnic. He hadnít ever seen her flush at something said by him, and then what with her smile disappearing so fast and her looking away from him, heíd thought the worst. Then heíd nearly caused the worst by backing off so fast.

Shamus guided Nina to a chair, holding it out for her with a smile and then carefully pushing it in as she sat. Then he sat beside her, vaguely aware of Reiís friendly banter to both. Sammy boy, you nearly broke her heart with that stunt, so quit being all-fired sure she wants nothing to do with you. Youíre trying to get her to fall in love, remember? Well she canít do that if you donít do a little more of the same.

And on an impulse, he covered her hands as they rested delicate and innocent on the table. He didnít look from where he smiled, nodded, and watched Rei moving about preparing tea. When he felt one of her hands slip out from under his and then rest on top, his smile widened slightly as he gave her hand a few soft strokes with his thumb. See? You can do this, Sammy boy. Of course, he knew that meant he had to keep talking about himself. Never something he particularly enjoyed.

Nina had completely floored him with her eerie insight into why McNeilís success held such importance for him. That fact and then the confession of pride... it had all led to the kiss on the hand and then the revealing statement of a truth that had scared him nearly to death. A McNeil never confessed something important or personally revealing without due protection. It had been yet another unwritten law within the McNeil code that Shamus didnít agree with.

Hence the reason he told her what he did.

Shamus felt one of Ninaís fingers begin to trace around his knuckles, so he looked over at her. She spoke intensely with Rei regarding some negative aspect of harvesting old-growth forest without replanting. Shamus watched her with a slight smile as the conversation continued, Rei adding a point that would cause Nina to add yet another. Her finger would occasionally pause as she brought up a poignant point to the discussion, and then her finger would continue its journey around each knuckle when Rei picked up the conversation.

Finally, the tea boiled and the conversation ended as Rei stood to prepare it.

"So," Rei began with his back to the couple, "whatíre your plans today?"

"Weíre just playing it by ear today, Rei. I wanted to give prĖ Nina a chance to settle in."

Rei absently nodded as he brought down the cups and honey. "Good idea. What then?"

Shamus looked to Nina with a serious expression. "That would be up to her," he said simply.

Rei nodded again, oblivious to the moment shared as he stacked the cups, honey, and teapot onto the tea tray.

Nina continued to look into his eyes. "I would love the chance to get to know McNeil a little better," she said softly. "Itís been fascinating so far."

Shamus swallowed slightly, not sure if it was safe to take ĎMcNeilí as him or his home.

"Well if anyone knows anything about McNeil, itís Sammy," Rei said absently. "Geez. Whereíre those cookies I got the other day?" He scratched his head. "Doesnít that beat all."

"I-Iíll tell you what you want to know," Shamus said, quiet. Nina smiled softly, and her blue eyes seemed to dance with it. Shamus swallowed again. Sammy boy, hang on to something...

Nina lifted a hand to his face, brushing some curls from his forehead. "I want to know everything."

Shamus swallowed so hard that he believed he lost his tongue.

"I donít know if Sammy knows everything," Rei confessed, still searching the cabinets for the fate of the cookies. "But heíll do his damnedest to find out... I know I put those cookies here somewhere."

Shamus couldnít look away from her blue eyes. "Itís n-not very interesting."

"Sammy, McNeil isnít that dull," Rei objected. "Weíre just a little small-Ė Ah-hah! I found them!" Rei straightened, cookies in hand, and began to divvy them up onto three plates.

"It is to me," Nina whispered. Nina examined his expression with slightly wide eyes. "I like what Iíve seen and heard so far, Shay."

Shamusí expression and entire person relaxed into the statement with a smile. "I really like it when you call me that, princess," he said soft enough that Rei couldnít hear.

Ninaís face brightened with her gentle smile as she reached out again to smooth some of his curls from his face.

Okay, Iíve got to be dreaming... Shamus took hold of her hand as she lowered it away from his hair. He looked down at her fingers a moment before sending Nina a silent question. She slightly nodded, her smile dancing on her lips and in her eyes. Shamusí lips tilted upward as he lightly kissed her hand. Then he heard Rei finish up the duty of preparing the tea tray and placed her hand tenderly back into her lap. Itís working? Shamus could hardly believe it.

Rei brought the tray over to set it on the table. Then he sat across from the couple. "Nina? You wanna do the honors?"

Nina smiled and nodded, giving Shamusí hand a couple of squeezes before releasing it and serving the tea. Shamus watched her with a slight smile. Delicate. Graceful. Beautiful. Funny. And oh-so-easy to love. Love. Who wouldíve thought? And with Nina, the girl who could have anything she wants.

"Hey, Sammy," Rei called as he stood to his feet. "Can I get your help? We need to haul in a couple armfuls of wood for the stove."

Shamusí smile wavered as he reluctantly stood. "Sure thing." He moved his gaze to Nina and lightly rested a hand on her shoulder. "Be right back, princess."

Nina softly smiled up at him. "Iíll have your tea ready when you get back."

Shamus gently touched her chin, his smile returning, and then followed after Rei up the stairs to the bedroom and then through the back door to the path behind.

Rei stopped him outside. "Man. Youíve got it bad."

Shamusí ears burned. He self-consciously smiled as he rubbed the back of his neck. "That obvious, huh?"

Rei smirked and crossed his arms. He motioned toward the house with a jerk of his head. "You told her yet?"

Shamus shook his head. "I wanted to give her a chance--"

"To get settled. Yeah. I heard you." Rei shrugged. "I guess thatís a good idea, since youíre already married and all." Rei motioned for Shamus to follow. "Come on. We better get some wood or sheíll know we were talking about her."

Shamus followed him down and around the building. "Rei, how do I know..." Shamus cleared his throat. "Do you think sheíll ever..."

Rei chuckled. "Do I think sheíll ever fall in love with a lummox like you? Sure. Why not? She usually tries to like everyone. Even Balio and Sunder. Of course, that was when she was only like 6 or 7." Rei laughed as he shook his head. "You should have her tell the story. Itís funny."

Shamus and Rei stopped at a stack of freshly chopped wood. "Rei, Iím serious," Shamus protested as Rei loaded his arms with wood. He adjusted his hold. "I donít want our marriage to be miserable for her. I want to make her happy. She deserves that. Any girl does." Rei stopped loading Shamusí arms. Shamus sighed and met the Worenís surprised expression. "Iím trying to... Iím doing my best to give her a reason to fall in love with me, Rei, because I know how much she wants that. Love, I mean. Do you know how... Can you help me?"

Rei crossed his arms. "Well doesnít this just beat all." Rei chuckled and shook his head. "Iím the wrong person to ask, Sammy. Sorry." He bent to load his own arms with wood. "She seems to like you, though. Donít worry about the rest of it. Just do what youíve been doing."

"But, Rei, I want her to love me. Thatís what she wants. She told me. She wants to love someone like Ryu-Ė I mean..."

Rei straightened, arms full. "Like Ryu and Momo?" Rei smirked. "Now thereís an odd pair, huh? Anyway, itís a little early to know what those two feel about each other. As for Nina, Iím telling you, Sammy, donít worry about it. Sheís a sweet enough girl. If she likes you, whoís to say she wonít love you a little later on? Keep at it."

Shamus released a deep breath. "Okay. Thanks, Rei."

"Sure thing. Now come on. The teaís getting cold, and Nina never was a very patient person."

Shamus raised an eyebrow. Nina? Not patient? Hm. Never wouldíve guessed. "Yeah. Okay. Iím coming."

Tea went too slow for Shamus. To his surprise, he kept pulling out his time-piece and checking the time. He didnít want to excuse himself too early, it wouldíve been rude, but he did want to get back home. And whyís that, Sammy boy? Hmm? His ears flushed each time he thought about it. But finally, the tea had grown lukewarm and Nina stood with a smile as she told Rei that they had dinner plans to prepare for before it grew much later.

Shamus raised an eyebrow but didnít deny it. Rei smirked as he stood, embracing her, nodding to Shamus, and then sending the couple on their way.

As Shamus and Nina walked the winding path from the cabin and then made their way through Cedar Woods to the main road leading around McNeil to his home, he noticed that her wings had begun a softly rhythmic pattern. It wasnít anything extreme, but it was continuous and very... relaxing? Shamus cleared his throat.

Nina took in a deep breath, releasing it slowly as she sent him a sidelong glance. She adjusted her hands behind her. "Shamus, I didnít mean McNeil. Earlier."

Shamusí mouth went dry. He sent her a glance as he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his simple trousers. He balled his hands into fists. "Earlier?" Donít get cold feet now, Sammy boy. "W-When you said you..." He cleared his throat. Just spit it out. "When you said you wanted to get to know McNeil better?"

Nina slightly nodded, her focus moving to the path ahead. "I meant you," she confessed softly. "I just didnít want to embarrass you in front of Rei."

Shamus swallowed. "Yeah. I know." He glanced her direction. "Thanks."

Nina stopped, her eyes still focused on the path at her feet as her wings continued their rhythmic pulse. Shamus stopped as well and faced her. A lump grew in his throat and stomach that would soon be the size of a mountain. Is this the time when I need to tell her how I feel? Or do I need to wait a little bit? Weíve only known each other for a couple daysĖ-

"Shamus, I know weíve only known each other for a couple days, but..." Ninaís cheeks flushed an attractive rose before she raised her gaze to meet his.

Shamusí breath caught in his throat as his thoughts scattered. Sammy boy, hold on to yourĖ-

"I genuinely care for you, Shay," she confessed softly, "and while I suppose itís silly to hope to fall in love, thatís what I want. I thought you should know, so that you could tell me if you would rather I not try."

Shamus would have searched around the ground at his feet for his heart, but all he could see was the beautiful expression in her blue eyes. "Y-Youíre... Youíre going to try and fall in love with me?" he whispered.

Nina gave a slight nod, and her wings paused the barest hint of a moment before continuing their relaxing and soothing pulse. "I made the decision today during tea." She intensely examined his expression, eyes slightly wide. "Is that all right? If it makes you uncomfor--"

"No!" Shamus responded quickly, vigorously shaking his head as his hands escaped from his pockets to stretch toward her. "No. Thatís fine. Really." Should I tell her? Or would that scare her too bad? Shamus nearly groaned aloud.

Nina smiled, her loveliness intensified with the action. "I havenít ever tried to fall in love before, Shamus, so I donít know quite how to do it. I hope youíll be patient with me."

Shamus nodded with a bit more enthusiasm than he wanted, and he actually grinned. "Of course, Nina."

Nina giggled. "You should see your expression," she said as she pointed.

Shamus felt his ears burn, but he didnít care. Sheís going to try and fall in love with me! It was definitely more than what heíd wanted to hope for. Before he could stop himself, he scooped her up in his arms to give her a warm embrace. He was so enthused that he lifted her clear off the ground, chuckling the entire time.

Nina squealed. "My goodness!"

Shamus held her close as he whispered, "Take as long as you need, princess. Iíll wait. You see, I already love you." He thought he heard a slight hiccup, so he gently lowered her to the ground, pulling back to meet her wide-eyed gaze.

"W-What?" she whispered.

Uh-oh. Shamus cleared his throat and released his hold on her arms, rubbing at the back of his neck as he lowered his gaze to the ground. Sammy boy, you just donít know when to keep it shut, do you?

Nina reached out to touch his arm, drawing his attention back. "What did you say?"

Shamusí ears reddened. "Well I... I said..." He cleared his throat again. Thereís nothing wrong with what you said, so say it again. "I said Iím already in love with you," he confessed between glances.

Nina pulled back her hand, leaning slightly back as she shielded her mouth with a soft gasp. After another moment of a somewhat uncomfortable silence, she lowered her hand. "B-But... But weíve known each other for only... But how?"

Shamus looked away as he tucked his hands back in his pockets. He kicked at a dirt clod. "Because I wanted to."

"I... I donít understand."

Shamus sent her a glance. Sure enough, her expression showed confusion. "Before I met you," he began carefully, "I made the decision to love you. I..." He cleared his throat and looked away. "I know it probably sounds hokey, but I wanted to love my wife."

"...You did?"

Shamus nodded, sending her yet another glance. Ninaís cheeks were rosy, and her eyes glimmered. He looked away. "Of course, loving you isnít all that hard, Nina," he said softly, ears burning. "Youíre pretty. And youíre sweet. And youíre... well, it just wasnít hard."

He heard a delicate sniff. "What a darling thing to say," she whispered.

Silence settled over them, and Shamus could feel her regarding him with that same intense gaze heíd seen her use before. He kicked at another dirt clod, not really sure if he should say something more or let things go the way they were. At least you were honest. Shamus nearly rolled his eyes.

He heard a soft footfall and looked to his left. He smiled somewhat sheepishly and gave Nina a slight shrug. "Sorry. Iím an oaf."

Nina smiled as she shook her head. "No, you arenít, Shamus. Iím glad you told me. I am."

He lowered his focus to his feet. "Couldnít I have said it better? Somehow? I kind of sprung it on you."

"Itís all right." Nina stepped closer and surprised him by wrapping her arms around him. She pressed her cheek against his chest. "Really. It is."

Shamus enfolded her within his arms, all the while careful of her delicate wings. He released a slow breath. "Okay," he whispered.

And Shamus couldnít get himself to believe theyíd just had that conversation. Do things like this happen to me? No. They donít. Is this legal? Yes. It is. Weíre already married... Tell me again the reason I married a princess? Oh yeah... her father wanted me to... protect her.

"Shay?"

Shamus smiled. "Yeah, princess?"

"What does it feel like?"

"Feel like? What?"

"Being in love."

Shamus pulled back with a blink of surprise. "Havenít you been in love before, princess?"

Nina picked at the front buttons of his vest. "I donít know. I love my friends, and I love my parents, and I love my horses, but..." She raised her eyes. "But what does it feel like to love someone who isnít just a friend? Is it the same, but different? Can you tell me?"

Shamus felt his heart and soul melt completely as he smiled. "This is a pretty deep discussion, princess, and whatís true for me might not be true for you."

Nina shook her head, eyes still slightly wide. "It doesnít matter. If I have something to compare, wonít that make it easier to know if Iím in love with you or not?"

"Well, that certainly makes sense," he agreed with a slight nod, "but sometimes being in love with someone is a choice. Like mine."

"You mean the emotion stems from the choice?" she asked, and her expression showed a captivating expression of intrigue.

Shamus nodded. "Basically. I decided to love you, and so I looked for a reason to do that." He winked at her. "Itís very easy with you." Hey. Itís easier to flirt when she knows how I feel. Hm.

Nina flushed, but she held his gaze. "Perhaps then, since Iíve decided to fall in love with you, itíll be easier?"

"Could be. Depends on how ornery I am," he said with a serious expression.

Nina giggled. "I donít believe you could be anything but charming," she said as she gently pushed at him.

Shamus smiled. This is fun. He motioned ahead. "Come on, princess. We better head back before Ed thinks I donít want to eat his cooking anymore."

"All right." She fell into step beside him, intensely scrutinizing the ground at her feet.

Shamus watched her profile. "You want me to tell you anyway?"

"Pardon?" she asked as she moved her wide eyed expression to his face.

"What it feels like to love you?" And it felt odd to say it.

Ninaís blush heightened, but her expression remained serious as she nodded. "Do you mind?"

Shamus smiled wide. "Of course I donít mind, Iím just not the most poetic person in the world."

This time she smiled. "You donít have to be poetic to tell meÖ to tell me why you love me, do you?"

Shamus shrugged and looked away. "No, I guess I donít, but it would be kind of nice if I could. Donít you think?"

"I suppose so. I havenít had anyone tell me they love me before. It sounded poetic just the way you said it. You know? With your tone of voice."

Shamusí ears burned as he smiled over at her. Her cheeks were nearly as rosy when she met his gaze. "Thanks, princess." He continued to look at her until she smiled and looked away with a self-conscious flutter of wing. Shamusí lips twitched upward. "I never get tired of looking at your face, for one," he said softly. Am I really doing this? "I like watching the expressions in your eyes and the way you smile. It makes me feel like I have about a million rippers in my stomach all flapping their wings at once."

Ninaís lips were caressed with a smile as she delicately clenched her hands behind her back.

Shamus cleared his throat and looked away. "UmÖ letís see. What else?" But Shamusí mind wouldnít cooperate. Finally, he shook his head, which drew Ninaís attention. "Iím sorry, princess," he said while sending her a glance. "I just canít concentrate. IÖ I guess Iím overwhelmed with the whole ĎIím going to try and fall in love with youí thing." Shamus smiled at her and pointed at the clouds. "I feel like Iím up there and down here with you at the same time. Itís kind ofÖ nice."

"Iím glad," she said in a relieved tone. "I thought perhaps you wouldnít appreciate it. It seemed that you were trying to be my friend, but I didnít know how much furtherÖ" Nina cleared her throat with a delicate melody and peeked up at him out of the corner of her eyes. "I mean, I know what you said when we came home from the ceremony, but I thoughtÖ I thought that perhaps you did it so my feelings wouldnít be hurt."

Shamus shook his head. "Nina, IÖ I told you the truth about not taking liberties."

"SoÖ" Nina fully met his gaze. "So if it were my choice to share a room, that would be all right?"

Shamusí mouth went dry, killing all possibility of speaking. He swallowed hard several times before risking it. "What?"

"If I didnít want to have a separate room anymore, you would respect that decision?" she asked, interest and curiosity mingling in her expression.

Speech vanished yet again, so Shamus only gave a slight nod.

"Oh. All right. Iíll keep that in mind." Nina smiled and slipped her hand into his to lead him gently forward. "Can we have plums and whipped cream for dessert this evening? Do you think Ed would mind?"

So Shamus was drawn into a conversation about dessert and the plum grove there in Cedar Woods and the possibility of letting her choose a horse as her very own the next day. Shamus somehow drew himself away from her previous subjects of shared rooms and trying to fall in love with him to do his best to answer with some inkling of intelligence. If he was still distracted, Nina didnít seem to notice. If she did notice, she didnít comment. She only smiled and laughed and giggled along with him as she held his hand and tried to fall in love with him.

Part 3