A Wyndian Princess Part 3
Did you just...?
Nina stared at the ceiling of her room. She should have gone down to breakfast nearly 30 minutes before, but she couldn't pull herself out of bed. She kept thinking over the few days with her new husband, and the things said, the expressions seen, the touches shared... and that last confession of love which had so surprised her. If he can make the decision and fall in love, can't I do the same? She had already told herself it would be easy to grow fond of him. What step is required? Just a decision to love?
Nina released a sigh as she pulled the covers up about her. Something kept her back from the decision, and she thought she knew what it was: Ryu. A release waited in his hands. She needed to have him tell her... something. Nina frowned. Do I? Do I really? She had married. Ryu had passed by every opportunity to confess a feeling. Instead, he had sent her a note letting her know that he was going to spend more time with Momo. That was my release, she told herself. She sighed.
tap-tap-tap "Nina? Are you feeling okay?"
Nina sighed again. Am I?
Nina sat up and adjusted the blankets around her. Then she straightened her pale pink satin pajamas and said, "Come in, Shamus."
Hesitation and silence. Then the doorknob turned and the door slowly opened. Shamus glanced toward the bed with flushed ears and cheeks before closing the door and stepping toward her. He sat in the chair beside, busy with an examination of his hands.
"You alright?" he asked softly, and he punctuated the question with a concerned glance to her face.
"Thinking," she said vaguely, softly, examining her fingers and the blankets, and her own heart.
"Can I help?"
Nina sighed again, moving her gaze to his face. He met it. "I'm not sure, Shamus."
"You need to be alone? You need to talk?"
Nina leaned back in the pillows as she refocused her attention on her hands as they picked at the blanket. "I don't understand why my feelings for you stop at fondness," she admitted, and she could hear the frustration. Nina looked over at him again. "There’s no passion, Shay, and I don't understand why."
Shamus lowered his gaze with a clearing of his throat. "Nina, um... I haven't done anything like that. That's why there's no..."
"But shouldn't I feel the desire before that?"
Shamus cleared his throat again. "Not necessarily," he said. "You've led a sheltered life... mostly."
Nina looked away, recalling that she hadn't felt a desire with Ryu either. She looked back to Shamus, who watched her expression. "Could you--"
"Nina," Shamus interrupted as he stood, "I told you I won't do that."
"But Shamus, I know I feel something when you caress my hand or my face," she pressed. "Could you kiss me?"
Shamus swallowed hard and backed away a step. "I... I better go." He turned and made his way to the door.
"Shamus," Nina protested. "Wait." She scrambled from the bed to hurry after him, catching his hand before he passed through to the hall. "It's just a kiss."
He clenched his jaw briefly before looking down at her. "Nina, there's no such thing. Not with me where you're concerned. I don't want to put you in a spot like that."
Nina shook her head. "I don't understand."
Shamus smiled and reached up to touch her cheek. Again Nina felt the tingle of a hint of something waiting. "I know," he said. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and then motioned back into her room. "Get dressed, princess. We're going to get you a horse."
His expression wouldn't let her argue further. Instead, she smiled. "All right. I'm sorry."
"It's alright. I get why you're frustrated. Been there myself. I'll try to think of something to help. Okay?"
Nina gave a nod, still smiling. "I appreciate it."
He touched her nose. "Sure. I'll meet you downstairs."
Nina nodded again, reluctantly releasing his hand. He smiled down at her a moment more before exiting her room and closing the door after him. Nina released a slow breath and turned to her room. It had been there. The tingle. The hint of expectation. A bated breath. What is it? Love? She needed to keep after it.
Shamus rubbed at his scalp and neck as he made his way downstairs. Just a kiss? He shook his head. He knew that she tried her hardest to 'fall in love', and sharing a kiss would have been a natural choice to help it along. But you know better than anyone what would happen. Don't you? And the fact they were married and she tried to love him and he was already in love would have chosen the direction.
Shamus cleared his throat, ears burning. Sammy boy, I hope you chose right. She's floundering and you know it. What're you going to do to help? He scrubbed at his scalp again, releasing a slow breath as he lowered himself onto the final step. 'There’s no passion, Shay...' Shamus rubbed his hands together to try and forget just how much passion there was. But to her, passion wouldn't necessarily mean love. He knew it. Shamus gave a shake of his head. Oh boy....
Nina hesitated at the top of the stairs when she saw him sitting on the bottom step. Surprisingly, a tear pricked at her eyes and she found herself biting her lip. I want to love him. Really. I do. He deserves as much happiness as I do, and it's cruel to keep him on the outside. Though she tried to usher him in by telling stories of her childhood and her adventures. Shamus enjoyed the stories, she could tell, and they almost seemed to brighten the expression in his eyes.
The stories told of him and by him had helped increase the fondness, and there had always been an initial attraction. He was handsome. So why can’t I...? Frustration rose, but Nina fought it back as she stepped down the stairs to sit beside him. She reached out and covered his clasped hands with her left one.
Shamus moved one of his hands to cover it, giving her a smile as he looked over at her. "I've been thinking myself, princess."
"Oh?" She liked the fact that he genuinely attempted to help. How many others would have refused her offer of a kiss?
He nodded, and his smile softened. "You know what? That's the problem. We're thinking too much."
"But I said I would at least try to love you," Nina reminded.
Shamus nodded again. "I know you did, so don't worry about it past that. You've decided to do that. Great. If you push at it, you're just going to keep feeling frustrated when it hides from you. You know?"
Nina's eyes widened. "My goodness. You might be right. So... So then what should I do?"
Shamus' smile grew to a boyish twinkle. "Just have fun. Relax. Be yourself. I'll do the same thing."
"And that will make a difference?"
Shamus nodded. "Yep."
Nina looked ahead with a serious expression. Forget about it. Be myself. Just have fun. She smiled, and it felt as if a huge weight were lifted from her shoulders. She moved her smiling eyes back to Shamus' face. He continued to watch her, and his boyish smile had softened to something much different. Nina liked it when he looked at her that way. No one else ever had. She felt a flutter within, and her breath caught with hope. Then she set it carefully aside and relaxed into the flutter, enjoying its timid presence.
"I feel better already," she confessed.
"I can tell," he said softly.
Nina she lowered her gaze to their clasped hands. "No one has ever looked at me as you do, Shay. I like it."
He caressed under her chin with a single finger, raising her eyes from their intense scrutiny. "Thanks for saying that, princess. It feels nice."
Nina's lips danced in a smile and the flutter changed.
Shamus gave her hand a brief squeeze. "Come on, princess. Let's grab you some breakfast - Ed made plum muffins for you - and get you a horse."
She nodded, her smile brightening as they stood and made their way to the kitchen. "May we ride some? It feels as if I haven't ridden in ages."
"I'd feel better if we gave them a chance to get used to you. They're a bit high-strung; not that I don't think you could handle them."
They turned into the dining room and headed for the kitchen. "I don't mind waiting, but only if you promise to take me out in the carriage."
He held the kitchen door for her with one hand, smiling down at her as the other led her past. "My pleasure, princess. Do you mind if we go to an old fishing hole of mine?"
Shamus released the door and let it swing shut behind them as he stood beside her. Nina looked up into his smiling face with wide eyes. "Will you teach me how to fish? I've always wanted to learn. Please, Shay. Teach me how to fish."
Shamus chuckled. "Only because you said 'please, Shay'."
Nina giggled and then focused her attention on Ed the same as Shamus.
"Hey Ed, can we get a bunch of those muffins to take with us? We're going to my old fishing hole after getting her highness a horse."
"Sure thing. I just finished a fresh batch of cider. You want that, too?"
"That would be great. Just set it out on the porch. I'll stop by and get it on our way back from the stables."
"You got it. Princess," Ed greeted with a nod.
"Ed." She smiled and found herself giving Shamus' hand a gentle squeeze as she stepped a little closer.
"Well we're off, Ed. make something special for dinner."
Then Shamus guided Nina from the kitchen, through the dining room to the main hall, and then toward the back of the house. They took the door on the right.
At the sound of the horses, eagerness and anticipation brightened her smile and tightened her grasp on Shamus' hand. "I so adore horses. It's like flying when I ride."
"Yeah, I guess it is," he said thoughtfully.
When Shamus led her to the corralled mares, Nina released a long slow breath. "Oh Shay... They're lovely."
Shamus helped her step up onto the first rail of the fence and then stood close beside her, a hand on her back to steady her. Black, chestnut, roan, dapple gray, pale white, and golden yellow they were lovely and spirited visions of grace in nature.
"How will I possibly choose?" she whispered.
"Good question. Hm. Let's see." He looked over at her, and she met his gaze. "Can you whistle?"
Nina nodded. "Yes. Should I?"
One side of Shamus' lips lifted. "Sure. See what happens."
"All right." Nina moved her attention back to the horses and whistled long and loud.
"Hey. That was a good one."
Nina glanced toward him, giggling. "Rei taught me."
Shamus motioned to the corral with a brief tilt of his head. "Look, princess. Someone's coming to say 'hi'."
Nina's eyes widened as she looked. A white mare with a mane and tail of bluish-gray trotted over. "Shay, she's beautiful. What's her name?"
Lady slowed to an elegant walk and gave a delicate shake of her head. Once she reached the fence, she extended her soft velvet nose toward Nina with a cordial whinny.
"Hello, Lady. It's so nice to meet you," Nina whispered. She stroked the nose and bit her lower lip. "Shay, I couldn't have this one... Could I?"
Shamus gently rubbed Nina's back. "You sure can, princess. If Lady's the one you want."
Nina wordlessly nodded, accepting Lady's greeting nuzzle with a teary smile.
"Okay then. Lady's yours."
Lady nodded her head with yet another polite whinny before giving Nina's hand a farewell nuzzle and then stepping away.
Nina watched the mare with teary eyes. "No one has ever..." She turned her head to meet Shamus' gaze. He softly smiled. "I don't know how to thank you, Shay."
He took hold of her hand and helped her down, then he held the other. "Are you kidding? The look on your face is enough."
She sniffed and smiled. "You are so sweet."
Shamus chuckled. "Just to you. Now come on. Let's go get our basket."
Shamus released one hand while tenderly holding the other. Nina wiped away a tear. "Did you know that she would be the one to come?"
"Nope. It could've been Tabby, the sorrel over there. Or Agnes, the black with the white fetlock. I was kind of expecting Winter, the dapple. She's usually more sociable than Lady." Shamus grinned over at Nina. "Lady's a bit of a snob. She'll only come to me and never the stable hands. I'm kind of glad she came to you."
Nina wordlessly nodded as she looked away.
Shamus gave her hand a couple squeezes. "Hey," he said gently, "what's the matter?"
Nina shook her head, wiping away another tear. "Nothing. Really. I only haven't ever been given a horse as lovely as Lady before. Not without some expectation or trade, bread or trade rights or the like..." Nina looked to her right and met Shamus' slightly wide eyes filled with concern and care. "It touches me more than you know, Shay. Thank you. So much."
Shamus' expression relaxed into a smile. "Nina, everything I have is yours, not just Lady. The house. The carriages. The stock. Everything."
Nina blinked and halted. "Truly?"
Shamus' smile widened slightly. "Of course, princess. You're my wife, which means you have equal say in what goes on around here. That's why I want you to be involved." He examined her expression. "Sorry. I guess I forgot to tell you that."
Nina stared up at him, dumbfounded. She had reasoned that she would be minutely involved with the populace of McNeil, as per her duties as hostess, but she had never thought to include the business aspect of McNeil in that circle of involvement. That he trusted her to that extent touched her even deeper than his gallantry and patience up to that point.
Nina lifted a hand to lightly touch the skin of his left cheek with her fingertips. "Thank you, Shamus. Thank you so very much."
Shamus swallowed hard, and his lips quivered in a brief smile. "My pleasure," he whispered.
Nina gently smiled as she lowered her hand from his face... but she could still feel the warmth of his cheek on her fingers. Nina's smile faded somewhat as she lowered her eyes to an examination of her hand. Shamus took the opportunity to again lead her forward. Nina touched each fingertip with her thumb, yet they all felt the same. Then why…?
"Hey there, Shamus. I put the muffins and cider in the carriage," Ed said as they made their way through the main hall. "Hope you have fun. Catch me a big one. I'll cook it up nice."
"Sure thing, Ed. Thanks."
Nina drew her attention away from her fingers with a bit of effort and looked over at Shamus. He intercepted her gaze with a smile, and the confusion was instantly forgotten.
"Did you want to go straight to the fishing hole?"
Nina smiled. "Could we? It's been ages since I watched Ryu fish. He became quite good."
"I'm not so bad myself," Shamus offered easily. "Maybe I'll have him come over for a day of it?" He moved his gaze ahead of them before seeing Nina's reaction. Her smile disappeared. "Of course, I won't really have time once the mares start to foal. And the harvest is going to start soon, too. I'll have to wait I guess." Shamus snapped. "I need to have Momo come out and fix the clock in my office. Seems to me it's making weird noises."
Shamus helped Nina up into the carriage and stepped up to sit beside her. Then he took up the reins and urged the horse forward. Nina stared at her hands as she mulled over the possibility. If Shamus invited Momo for an actual necessity, wouldn't that make my apology more believable? Nina wrinkled her nose.
Nina felt a nudge. She looked over at Shamus with a question.
He smiled at her. "What're you thinking about that's got you wrinkling your nose like a rabbit? It's cute."
Nina flushed. "I was thinking of Momo and the possibility of giving her an apology."
Shamus' expression grew serious. "You want that I should invite her? Or both of them?"
Nina looked away, moving her focus to her hands. "Both. Yes. I believe that would be good."
"Okay. I'll send a messenger tomorrow. Can I be honest in the note? Or leave it simple."
Nina met his eyes. "Whatever you feel is best."
He briefly nodded as he clucked at the horse. Then he sent her a glance accompanied by a smile. "How about I let you read the note before I send it?"
Nina's expression softened from seriousness to a smile. "I would like that. Thank you."
"My pleasure, princess."
He changed his focus back to the horse, but Nina continued to watch his profile. The smiling lips. The constant shadow of beard. Auburn curls tickled by the breeze and forever teasing his forehead and ears. Bright, expressive green eyes. And his hearty laugh that always brought a smile to her face.
Nina tilted her head, still examining his face and her reaction to it. There wasn't one. No sigh. No flutter. Nina frowned and looked away, crossing her arms with an exasperated breath. For heaven sake! Am I a woman or a stone?
"Nina," Shamus queried with a chuckle, "what's got you so tweaked?"
"You've a nice face, and I don't feel a single flutter while looking at it." She faced Shamus with hands outstretched, eyes wide. "Am I stone that I don’t feel anything when looking at a handsome face?"
Shamus’ ears flushed, and he blinked as he glanced over at her. "You think I'm handsome?"
Nina lowered her hands, eyes registering surprise. "Of course."
His ears reddened as he looked away with a slight smile. "That's good."
"I'm sorry. I should have said something before." And why didn't you? Nina pressed her lips together as she quickly thought of what-- "I believe I like your laugh the best," she told him. "It always brings a smile to my face..." Nina took up another scrutiny of his profile. "Then again, I like your eyes, too. They're such a pretty shade of green. And they actually do brighten when you smile. I never noticed that with anyone else."
Nina smiled and reached up to brush some curls from his now red ears. "And I really do believe you have the most attractive auburn curls. They're so soft, and the color is a perfect compliment to your face and eyes."
Shamus cleared his throat as he adjusted his hold on the reins.
Nina's eyes crinkled at the corners as she gently touched his ear. "The most adorable tendency to blush," she giggled, and the flutter happened then. Nina blinked with an audible gasp.
Shamus pulled up on the reins and looked at her, concern evident. "What's the matter? Did you get stung?"
Nina slowly shook her head as she held his gaze. They had darkened to the deepest emerald... "No," she whispered. "I-I'm fine."
She nodded, watching his expression with an odd feeling as his eyes lightened to their normal green.
Shamus smiled. "Whew. Don't do that to me, princess."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay." He clucked the horse back into a walk. "So what gave you a fright, besides my red ears from all the attention."
Nina giggled while vaguely noticing a growing warmth within. "I do apologize for that."
"The attention? Don't." He sent her a glance. "I like how you do it."
Nina's eyes crinkled at the corners, and she found herself smoothing more of his curls from his ear using her fingers. There was a surprising tightening in her chest, so she lowered her hand to clasp it with the other as she looked straight ahead.
Shamus glanced her way again. "Nina? What gave you the fright?" he pressed gently.
"I..." Nina tucked some blonde hair behind an ear as she intercepted a glance. She reluctantly smiled, albeit a little timidly. "After all that fuss I made at not feeling anything when looking at you, I got a fright when it came." She laughed at herself. "I'm a silly thing, aren't I?"
Shamus’ hold on the reins bobbled before he sent her a glance. "...Really?"
The warmth grew, and her smile softened. "And when I touched your cheek, and smoothed your hair... It's small, but it's there."
Shamus cleared his throat as he adjusted his hold and his position on the seat. "Just have fun, Nina," he reminded softly. He glanced her way again, momentarily meeting her eyes. He smiled. "There's no rush. I'm not going anywhere."
Again Nina felt the relief at the reminder, and the release of any pressure. She wrapped her arm around his and nodded. "Just have fun," she repeated.
He balanced the reins in his left hand as he reached over with his right to caress hers. "I should try to list your lovelies like you did for me," he said gently. "Only, I'm an--"
"Shamus, please don't say that word," Nina objected with a serious look at him.
Shamus cleared his throat and pulled his hand away. "Sorry."
"I've never found you to be anything but gallant and kind-hearted." She moved her focus to her hand and his arm and began to absently smooth and fuss with the cuff of his long-sleeved shirt. "You do so try to understand me, even when I don't understand myself. How is that anything but a gentleman?"
Shamus smiled at her. "It's easy to be a gentleman with you, princess. You always give me the chance. That's one of the things I love about you."
Nina brushed a non-existent stray lock of hair behind her ear at a slight twitter within. "I've met many different types of people, Shay. Most 'common' men and women hold as much honor as those people having wealth and position. I suppose I decided to give all the same courtesy."
"Yep. Ed. Rei. Me. You treat us all the same. Even though you're a princess in all sense of the word."
Nina smiled. "Please. The flattery will surely go to my head."
He chuckled as he turned the carriage down a somewhat bumpy and deserted-looking road. "I don't mind," he said softly.
And Nina liked hearing him say nice things like that.
Very few minutes later, Shamus pulled the carriage to a stop and leapt down after tying off the reins. He raised his arms toward her and carefully lifted her down with a gentle tone of "There you go," when he set her on her feet. Then he took hold of her hand and led her to the west and a nearly concealed path, fishing pole and basket in hand.
Greenery and perfection rose on each side, fragrant and soothing as only nature could be. "Shay," Nina breathed, "this is heavenly."
They followed the path to the end and then stepped past the brush to the rim of a pond and the slowly flowing creek that fed it.
"Oh my," Nina whispered, afraid to speak much louder lest she disturb the peaceful surroundings. She looked to Shamus, who softly smiled. "Shay, it's... it's gorgeous."
Shamus nodded. "I know. That's why I love it here." He met her gaze and gave her hand a squeeze. "Come on. Let's see if we can catch a fish before opening our basket."
The boyish eagerness on his face grabbed Nina's heart and drew a smile. "All right."
He set down the basket, took up the pole that rested across it, and then drew her forward. "Let's see. Where was my spot... Here it is." He led her to a lush bit of grass near the bank. Then he released her hand and started readying the pole. "We won't use any bait right at first. I just want to give you a chance to get used to the pole and the handling of it. Okay?"
"All right." Nina stepped closer as she watched his handling of the pole and the line. "I haven't ever even held a pole," she confessed. "Is it difficult?"
"Not very," he said, and he sent her a wink. "There's nothing to it, Nina. Promise." Shamus gestured her forward. "Come on. Stand over here."
Nina moved to stand beside him and took the offered pole. "How do I...?"
"Like this. One hand here… The other here… Oop." Shamus gently adjusted her hold. "Not so tight. There you go." He smiled and lowered his arms to his side. "Now keep your wrists loose as you draw the pole back and then whip it forward in the same motion. That will release the line. Give it a try."
Nina stared down at the pole with wide eyes. She looked up at him again and offered forward the pole. "Could you show me?"
Shamus nodded, still smiling. "Sure. Here." He took the pole, adjusted his hold, and then cast the line. "See? Just fluid follow-through." He met her gaze. "You want to try?"
Nina bit her lower lip as she stared across the pond. Shamus reeled in the line. She looked back over at him and caught his gaze. His expression looked a bit serious and concerned. "No, I don't think I will."
"Come on, Nina," he urged gently. "Just once. I'll help you."
Nina stared at the pole again, biting her lower lip as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She sent Shamus a glance, and he offered forward his hand. She released a deep breath and nodded.
"Good girl. Alright. Stand right here." Nina took Shamus' hand and moved to stand close beside him. He adjusted her position so that her back was to him. "Now take the pole. Easy grip… That's right." Shamus' arms surrounded her, careful of her wings, and his hands gently covered her hold on the pole. "Keep your wrists loose and just go with what I do. Okay?"
Nina nodded as her eyes stared at their hands on the pole. His breath on her neck feathering her hair... His warmth so close behind... His soft baritone voice... Nina blinked away a tear.
"Okay. Now I'm going to pull the pole back like you saw before. Here we go." He drew the pole back, Nina's upper body moving with his as he did... "And then we continue around in the same flow and let it fly." The line cast out with a somewhat musical buzz. "There now. That wasn't so hard. Now you draw it back in slowly. There you go. Support the pole with one hand and stabilize it against you as you reel in the line. Let me see..." He moved his head from side to side of her to check the position as the base of the pole rested against her. "Good girl. And in comes the line."
Nina stared down at the pole with tears in her eyes and a tightness in her chest, and she felt a shiver when Shamus removed his hands from hers to step away. Nina didn't move.
"You want to try it by yourself, or one more time together?"
The tightening and warmth within heightened, but she shook her head with a whispered "I'll try."
"Good girl. Easy hold, loose wrists... That's right. Pull back and around-- Wow! Look at it go!" Shamus stepped up beside her as he pointed out after the line. "You got quite a distance on that one." He looked back over at her, eyes brightly smiling. "Okay. Reel it in nice and slow. Then we'll try it with bait. I'll help you with that one in case you get a bite."
She wordlessly nodded as she drew in the line, stabilizing the pole as he'd instructed while questioning herself with what the tightness meant...
Shamus knelt and drew out a small knife to start digging at the grass at their feet. "This place always has the best worms-- And here's one right here." He looked up at her with a playful smile. "Give me the line."
Nina did, and then she watched with a distant expression and a growing warmth as he secured the worm onto the hook all the while chatting about his first not-so-pleasant experience doing the same as a child.
Shamus stood and offered her the line, noticing her smile with a slight raised eyebrow while not making comment. "Okay. Reel it in a little," he said as he moved in to stand behind her. "I'll stand here, but you have to do the cast."
"All right." Nina drew the pole back and whipped it forward, the line singing out along the pond to make a delightful 'ploosh' into the water.
"Beautiful," Shamus said with a smile in his voice. "Okay, now slowly draw it in... There you go." His arms surrounded her again, hovering near her hands. "Stop and let it sink a little... good. Okay, just tease the fish with it now. Just like that. Good girl."
Nina noticed a tremble in her hands and a collection of tears and an odd sensation... and blinked and swallowed it away as she tried to... concentrate... on the.... fish.
"Oop oop. I think I see a big one coming to investigate..." Shamus gently covered her hands with his. "Get ready. That first bite is a whopper."
Nina closed her eyes, releasing a slow breath before opening them again. She had never before felt such comfort and... eagerness?
"Did you feel the tug?" Shamus asked in a low tone.
"Yes," Nina whispered, for she had. Like a string tied directly around her heart, something gently pulled and drew her closer...
"One more and then he'll run with it," Shamus warned. "Get ready."
"I am." And it was the oddest feeling...
Tug, pull, and "screeeee" as the fish bolted with the bait and hook firmly submerged within it's mouth.
"Oop! There he goes. Hold on, princess!" Shamus warned with a chuckle and a smile. "Let him have it for a bit and then draw him in. Let him get the fight out of his system and calm down a bit…" The line continued to be drawn out until Shamus slowed its progress and began to draw it in, his hands coaxing hers into the reeling of the line. "Slow and steady. Pull back on the pole a bit. There you go. Come on big fella."
Shamus gently coached and guided Nina to the actions that drew the fish closer to the shore. Then he reached around to take up the line, carefully leaning against her as he drew the fish in and continued to help her support and hold the pole.
"Wow. That's a beaut," he said, smiling. "Here. Turn around here away from the shore, so he doesn't flop back in. Easy. Easy. Don't slip. Okay. Lower the pole a little. There. Hold it steady while I get the hook."
Shamus moved around from behind her, slowly releasing his hold on the pole once he had gauged her own. Then he knelt and began working at the fish's mouth as it flopped on the ground. Nina watched him, her face relaxing into a tender smile as she kept a firm grip on the pole and tension on the line, easing up or pulling it taut when he asked.
"You did great, Nina," Shamus praised as he intensely worked on the freeing of the hook. "Ease up a bit. There. That's good... gotcha!" He lifted the hook with a smile before looking to Nina. "Could you get the muffins and juice out of the basket? That way we can put this monster in there and not get all smelly."
"All right," she said softly. Nina set the pole down and went over to the basket, setting aside the muffins and juice in a daze at a realization she wasn't sure she wanted to hold too tight. She was almost afraid it would leave.
Nina brought the basket back over and knelt beside him as she set it close. "He's beautiful."
"Yep, and all slimy, too," Shamus chuckled. "Oop, oop, in you go." The fish squirmed its way straight into the basket. "There. Now we have dinner." He met her gaze with a continual boyish smile. "You want to see about getting another one?"
Nina nodded. "Could we?"
"Sure." He stood and helped her to her feet. "You need my help?"
She held his gaze with a serious expression. "Please?"
Shamus smiled. "Sure. I like how your wings tickle my arms and face."
Nina giggled and followed him back over to the shore, feeling very much the adolescent enjoying the attentions of her beau.
Shamus leaned against the carriage as he watched her. Nina. A Wyndian Princess dangling her feet in the cool water of a fishing hole. Fishing, joking, and telling stories of adventure over crumbly muffins and chugs of juice straight from the jug. Each day he knew her he found a different part to her intensity. A different depth to her. A new reason to love her: his wife.
Nina leaned back onto her elbows and kicked at the surface of the water, sending the spray up and over her. She giggled and Shamus sighed. Then he double-checked the security of the fish-holding basket – they’d reeled in three of the huge fish – and made his way back over to her, barefoot as he was.
She welcomed him with a bright smile. "I would love to sleep out here," she confessed as Shamus sat down beside her. "It’s so lovely, and the ground is so soft, and the air smells so wonderful…" Nina moved her gaze out to the pond and the surrounding brush. "Yes. I want to sleep out here."
Shamus leaned back on his elbows the same as her, their elbows almost touching. "I’ve done that once or twice."
Nina took in a deep breath, eyes closed as she released it slowly. Then she laid back completely, resting her hands behind her head as she continued to peacefully smile. Shamus watched her, fully believing he couldn’t love her any more.
"It’s a thrill of adventure to sleep surrounded by so much beauty," she said.
Shamus’ expression softened. "I can’t argue with that," he agreed quietly, fully enjoying the beauty of her face and her smile and the brightness of her eyes.
"It scared me as a child, but I knew Ryu would keep me safe. Then I had Momo, and Garr, and Rei… I never knew a safer time." She opened her eyes and turned her head to meet his gaze, smiling. "Until now." Nina reached out and gently held his forearm, caressing it with her thumb and her very touch. "Thank you, Shay. You’ve given me a second home. Another place to feel safe."
Shamus couldn’t look away, mesmerized as he was by the blue and the light and the sparkle within her eyes. He smiled. "My pleasure, princess," he said softly.
"I know, and that touches me the deepest of all."
Nina held his gaze a moment more before rolling onto her side and propping herself up onto her elbow. The action made her close enough for Shamus to feel her breath against his face and her knee touching his leg. Sammy boy, hold on to—
Nina leaned forward and touched his lips with hers, brief and soft. Shamus closed his eyes at the warm caress and brought his left hand around to gently hold her arm as he hesitantly touched her lips again. Nina accepted his kiss and gently returned it. Shamus’ mind spluttered, conscious thought lost as his lips whispered against hers. Again she received and returned the gentle touch, almost seeming to smile against it.
Shamus forced himself to pull his lips from hers and sat fully upright. Nina followed his movements, sitting up and edging closer as she again touched his lips with hers, accentuating the touch by a feather-light caress of her fingers across his cheek. Protests vanished again, and Shamus vaguely recognized a feeling of horror as he returned her kiss and followed it with another.
One more lingering touch of her lips to his and then she lifted hers away, arms surrounding him as she snuggled against his chest with a sigh. Shamus stared down at the crown of her head with wide-eyes, arms encircling her of the their own volition as thoughts finally began to sluggishly flow. Sammy boy, did you just…? Did Nina…? Kissing? Nina?
"Hmm?" Her tone suggested a smile.
Shamus cleared his throat, finding it difficult to think when she held him so close and the memory of her soft lips still so fresh… "Did you just…? Did we…?"
Nina’s wings began a soft rhythmic pulse as they had the night before, barely tickling the air. Nina’s arms adjusted their hold. "Yes." The rhythmic pulse continued, almost hypnotically calming.
Thoughts scattered and Shamus swallowed hard, desperately trying to figure what it meant and if he should ask and if he could kiss her again.
Shamus shrugged into his pale yellow shirt as he made his way to the door of his room. "Just a second." He fumbled with the first button and then stopped to open the door. He blinked, ears instantly flushing. "G-Good morning, Nina." He cleared his throat and looked down at the front of his shirt to try and hurry his progress with his buttons. It never worked that way.
"Good morning, Shamus." She stepped close and gently urged his hands out of the way. "Here. Let me help."
Shamus cleared his throat again, swallowing the rippers and flutters and bunches of other things at her presence outside his bedroom dressed in different shades of blue and looking very lovely… "Th-thank you."
He still couldn’t get himself to believe the kisses had happened, or the carriage ride home with her planning their next excursion to the fishing hole at the end of the week with tent and sleeping bags, or the laughter and held hands over the dinner of the fish they had caught together while sharing still more stories of the other. Then the quiet walk up stairs, the hesitation outside her room, and then the kiss on the cheek followed by a whispered "Good night, Shay" before she had disappeared behind the door. Shamus couldn’t… No, he didn’t want to think about what it could mean, for fear of getting his hopes up too high.
"There you go." She smoothed the front of his shirt with gentle strokes before looking up with a troubled smile. "Can we write that letter to Momo and Ryu now?"
Nina passed by him into his room before he could stop her, heading straight for his writing desk. Shamus swallowed hard and rubbed at the back of his neck. He looked at the door, propped it wide, and then stepped toward her. Nina almost seemed to clutch the back of the chair as she stood behind it.
Shamus stood beside her and rested a comforting hand on her shoulder, drawing her attention. "Are you okay, princess?"
She sent him a tremulous smile. "I’ll be all right."
Shamus didn’t like seeing Nina troubled by something; it made her look frightened and small… His hand lowered from her shoulder to take her hand and give it a gentle squeeze. Then he released it and moved to sit in the chair, Nina still behind him. "So, what did you want me to say in the letter?"
Nina stepped closer to the chair as Shamus gathered pencil and paper. Then she rested a hand on each of his shoulders and released a deep sigh. Her breath tickled his neck and pinked his ears, but he liked it and the soft pressure of her hands.
"I’m not certain," she sighed. "I want to apologize, but the apology they deserve shouldn’t be drafted in a letter. I want to invite them to visit, but I want them to know that I am sincerely sorry for my choice and decision so that they will come." Nina sighed again, and her hands momentarily increased their slight pressure. "Shay, I… I don’t know what to do."
He heard the tension of tears in her voice and reached up to enfold a hand in his, drawing her around to stand beside him. Sure enough, her blue eyes glistened like gems of sorrow. It hurt to see her like that.
Shamus took a gentle hold of her other hand as he stood. "Princess, why don’t you write the letter? I think it’ll help you feel better." He smiled and gave her hands a succession of squeezes before stepping away from the chair and offering it to her.
Nina hesitantly sat. "B-But… What should I say? How should I address them? What would be--"
"Nina…" Shamus went down on one knee beside her. She slowly met his gaze. His smile softened even further as he rested one hand on the desk and one on the back of her chair. "Princess, it’s alright. Just write what you feel. They’re your friends. They know you." He caressed her cheek. "You’ll do okay."
Nina smiled, and the glisten changed to a glitter as she leaned forward to embrace him. Shamus felt a bit of surprise, but he settled into the embrace and the warmth within with a smile as he enfolded her into his arms.
"Stay here as I write it, Shay," she whispered. "Please?"
He pressed his lips to the softness of her hair. "Sure."
Nina sniffed and pulled back, wiping the tears from her cheeks. When Shamus made a move to stand, Nina stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Her eyes searched out his. "Shamus, I need to talk to you about yesterday at the fishing hole. Please don’t let me forget."
"Sure, princess," he agreed, ears burning, hope tumbling and rising at the same time, and mouth suddenly very dry.
She smiled and the room brightened. "Thank you." Nina changed her focus back to the letter. "All right."
She slowly lifted the pen and dated the letter, this time allowing Shamus to stand. He rested a hand gently on her shoulder.
"‘Dear Momo (and Ryu if present),’" Nina dictated as she wrote. "‘I sincerely hope this letter finds you well, as I have missed your company and the adventures of laughter and heroic rescue we once shared.’" Nina sighed and lowered the pen to look over her shoulder to Shamus. "Shay… Shay, it doesn’t sound…" Her lips tilted downward as she refocused on the letter.
"Keep going, Nina. Just work up to it," he urged gently.
Nina took up the pen again while softly biting her lower lip. "I… I don’t know what to say."
"Then write that down." He crossed his arms, resting them along the back of the chair to bring his face beside hers. "It’s okay, princess," he whispered. "You’re doing good. Keep going."
Nina sighed. "‘Momo, I missed your presence at my wedding so few days past and hoped you and Ryu would come for a visit. Shamus has mentioned a misbehaving clock in his office and a desire to go fishing, but I sincerely wished to see your faces and talk.’" Nina’s voice broke. "‘Please come.’ Signed ‘Your friend, Nina.’" She lowered the pen with a sniff and hugged herself as she stared at the paper.
Shamus rested his chin on his arm as he reread it. "It’ll do good, princess. Just wait. They’ll come."
"I hope so," she whispered. Nina tilted her head to the side and touched his. "I hope so."
Shamus smiled as he gave her head a gentle nudge with his. "Come on. Let’s give it to the messenger and go have some breakfast. Then we can go walk around in the garden and you can talk to me about the fishing hole." Shamus had no idea how he sounded so unconcerned.
He straightened and gave her shoulders a couple fond rubs as she took up the letter and folded it, sealing it into an envelop which she labeled ‘Momo at Repsol’s Tower, Eastern Wyndia. Ryu, guest of same.’ Then she stood and stared down at it a moment before looking to Shamus. He smiled and reached out a hand. Nina looked again to the letter before placing it deliberately into his hand.
Shamus offered his other. "Come on, Nina," he coaxed. "Don’t worry."
Nina slipped her hand into his and followed beside him out of the room and downstairs. "I just feel as if I didn’t say enough."
"You can say it when they get here," he reminded. He caught the attention of a passing young man on his way outside. "Richard, can you take this to Sydney and have him deliver it as soon as possible?"
"Sure thing, boss." The young man took the letter, nodded to Nina with a smile and a greeting of "Princess," before stepping again toward the outside.
"Syd’s the best messenger I’ve got. He’ll get it there in no time. Knows every shortcut." Shamus tucked her hand around his arm and led her to the dining hall.
He halted and looked down at her, still smiling. "Sure."
She met his gaze with a soft expression. "Can we talk first?"
"Sure. I haven’t given Rufus his morning run yet. You mind?"
Nina shook her head. "Is he in back?"
Shamus nodded and then moved toward the back of the front hall. "I usually throw a stick around and wrestle with him first thing. I slept in this morning. Just couldn’t get up." Shamus felt his ears go red, mostly because he’d spent most of the morning reliving their kisses the previous afternoon.
"Neither could I. Same as yesterday."
Shamus remembered all-too-well what had preoccupied her then. A lack of passion and the request of a kiss. And didn’t she get one? But what a kiss! It had been a perfect ending to a perfect scene.
Shamus opened the door for her and ushered her past to the dogrun beyond. Rufus barked a greeting and bounded toward them, tongue lolling out of his mouth as his tail wagged a furious and ecstatic welcome.
"Hey, Rufus. Did you miss me?" Shamus asked. He released Nina’s hand to kneel and scrub the dog behind his ears. "Good morning, big fella. Hope you don’t mind me spending so much time with princess. Been helping her get settled in."
Rufus grumbled and groaned, but only because Shamus had found the spot behind his ears. Nina giggled and knelt beside them. "I believe as long as you keep scratching that spot, Rufus won’t care a bit."
"Yeah, you like that dontcha. Right there." Shamus laughed and then pushed Rufus back. "Where’s your toy, Ruf? Huh? Go get your stick! Go on!"
Rufus turned and bounded back to the boundary of his dogrun, sniffing and searching for the requested item. Shamus gave a shake of his head as he moved to sit on the grass. He watched Nina do the same. "So…" But his smile wouldn’t fade, even with all the negative possibilities that tried to steal his blissful ignorance.
Nina wrapped her arm around her legs as she drew them close. "I’m glad you took me fishing," she began carefully. "I had great fun."
Shamus changed his focus to Rufus, who still searched for his toy. "So did I."
"I also discovered many things about myself and my thoughts and feelings for you."
Shamus leaned back on his hands, stretching his legs out in front of him. He still smiled. He couldn’t stop. Sammy boy, I do believe you’ve lost your mind. "I’m glad I could help," he said softly.
"And you did," she told him as she faced him. He met her gaze, a brilliant blue. "You continue being steady and warm, and trustworthy… allowing me to feel safe and secure and welcome… You never ridicule me, or force your attentions on me, or disrespect me… Shay…" Nina’s serious expression softened to the most wonderful smile he’d seen. "Shamus McNeil, you let me see who you are and give me every reason and opportunity to not only be your friend, but to grow even more fond. You’ve even confessed your own feelings, which encourages me to try for something deeper. An emotion I’ve dreamed of experiencing since childhood."
Nina looked away, still smiling as she watched Rufus amuse himself by chasing a goblin around the yard. "When you took me fishing, little did I know you would actually draw my heart to yours." She met his gaze, which now looked a little dazed. "That was why I kissed you. The day had been so perfect and lovely. You were so boyishly charming. I felt so much like I dreamed I would when falling in love… I had to kiss you. To seal the feeling inside. To answer the expression in your eyes. To prove… To prove so many things to myself."
Shamus stared at her with an expression of amazement. "Nina…" He sat up. "Princess, do you…?"
Nina’s smile widened as she nodded. "I feel it, Shay. Like a flood of warmth and an eagerness to please and comfort and share… I could hardly sleep last night for wanting to talk to you about it."
Shamus stared at her, but Rufus bounded over and into him before he could respond or react. In fact, Rufus was so exuberant about finding his toy, that he knocked Shamus over.
"Rufus!" Shamus complained, laughing as the dog licked and slobbered all over his face. "Rufus, you big lummox, I was having a deep conversation with my wife. Get off!" Shamus tossed away the dog’s toy and Rufus charged after it, barking the entire way.
Nina moved to lay on her stomach beside Shamus, propped up on her crossed arms as she smiled down into his face.
Shamus put his hands behind his head. "I could stay like this for a long time."
Nina shook her head. "I will need your help with a few things."
He adjusted his hands behind his head. "Sure. Like what."
"Such as moving my things into your room."
Shamus sat up. "What?"
Nina giggled. "Shamus, be careful. You’re going to hurt yourself."
He faced her completely. "Nina, think about this a second--"
"I have. All night and most of this morning. This is the other subject I needed to talk to you about." Nina moved to a kneeling position, sitting back on her heels. "I understand that sharing a bedroom is a large step, especially in trust, but I want to keep moving forward. Sharing our bedroom is the next logical step."
Shamus swallowed hard. Is this happening? "Of course, if you want, I just…"
Nina nodded, smiling. "I know, and I appreciate that, but--"
Rufus interrupted with a nudge and a lick, fussing and grumbling and yipping for the toy until Shamus tossed it far away. Then he refocused slightly wide eyes on Nina.
She continued to smile. "There will still be the two beds, and I hadn’t planned on moving anything around – it’s still your room – but I wanted to at least take that step forward." Her smile slowly faded to seriousness. "Shay, I don’t want to make anything difficult for you. If you’d rather not, I do understand."
Shamus lowered his gaze to the grass as he rubbed at the back of his neck. "It’s not that, Nina… well, not really. I mean…" He met her gaze. "Sure you can move your stuff, princess. I just…" He cleared his throat and looked away again. Yeah. How do I say that?
Nina reached out and covered his hand with hers. "I know, Shay. Really. I do. That was the one hesitation I had all night."
Shamus’ ears burned. "I don’t want to hurt you, Nina, and I’m afraid… I mean…" He released a deep breath and clasped her hand. "Are you sure?"
Nina gave his hand a squeeze. "Shay, I know what might happen, and I thank you for being so concerned, but I had already… accepted that intimate moment as a future. I don’t dread it, so neither should you."
"I don’t," Shamus said softly, "that’s why I wanted to wait." He glanced at her, meeting her reassuring smile. "I’ll try my best, princess. Really I will."
Nina’s eyes sparkled as she cupped his jaw with her other hand. "You aren’t super human, Shamus McNeil, and I don’t expect you to be. I am more than fond, so don’t fight your own feelings. Please?"
Shamus wordlessly nodded. Help…
She caressed his skin with her thumb and then leaned forward to place two soft kisses on his lips. Nina raised her head and smiled. "I am so much more than fond," she whispered.
Shamus returned her smile, not seeing the sun for the brightness in her eyes, and tenderly brushed some wisps of blonde hair from her face. "I love you, princess."
Rufus bounded between them, breaking the tender moment while licking faces and whipping arms and bodies with his tail. Nina and Shamus giggled and laughed respectively, exchanging fond glances while giving Rufus the attention he wanted. Sammy boy, you just got the world handed to you. You know that? He helped Nina to her feet and touched her under the chin. She smiled. Yep.
Shamus couldn’t help but notice Nina picking at her food that evening at dinner. Her expression was thoughtful, too. Of course, dinner time had been the first moment they hadn’t been busy with something else keeping their mind from the important change happening that evening.
There had been rough-housing with Rufus, picking up breakfast of fresh fruit and buttered bread from Ed on the way to the stables to visit Lady, and then the task of moving and organizing Nina’s things within his room. That task had been punctuated with lunch and a visit from Bunyan to wish the newlyweds blessings as well as talk business regarding the grove. Shamus had made doubly sure that Bunyan and Nina both knew and understood she was involved in any decision made regarding McNeil.
Bunyan gone, lunch over, and Nina shifted from one room to the other found them relaxing, reading, and playing the piano in the drawing room. Shamus read certain interesting articles to Nina – feeling very much the husband – and she asked difficult and insightful questions regarding the article read. Then they would exchange smiles and go back to their previous activity.
Then dinner had been served and silence had settled.
Shamus set down his fork and napkin as he read the time on the wall clock. It was an hour before bed. "Nina."
She looked up. "Yes?"
He stood and offered her his hand. "Come on. Let’s go up and get used to the idea."
Nina smiled and set her fork and napkin aside as well. "All right."
She took his hand and stood, stepping along beside him as they left the dining room and moved for the stairs. She ascended ahead of him. Okay Sammy boy, you’re both in an awkward spot. Take it easy and slow. They crested the stairs, and Nina’s step hesitated.
Shamus brought a hand up to her back. "Nina, we don’t have to do this," he said softly.
"Oh. No, Shamus," Nina assured as she faced him. "I didn’t hesitate about that. I can’t remember where I put my pajamas."
Shamus laughed. Nina giggled, and the action caused a nearly audible tear and break in the tension. He enfolded her hand in his. "Well let’s go on a search. Are they the pretty pink ones you had on yesterday?"
"That’s one pair. I also have a pale yellow one, a cornflower blue one, and a pin-striped one of burgundy and ivory." Nina examined his profile. "Did you want me to wear the pink?"
Shamus cleared his throat, ears and cheeks red. She’s asking me what she should wear to bed…? "Whatever you want." That she’s coming to bed is fine! He cleared his throat again.
"Isn’t your favorite color blue?" she prompted.
Shamus sent her a sheepish smile. "Yes."
"Then I’ll wear that one…" She giggled. "If I can remember where I put them."
Shamus chuckled and opened the door for her, ushering her in and releasing her hand. "Like I said, I’ll help."
"And see my under things? I don’t think so, Mayor McNeil."
Shamus laughed. "Okay, okay. I’ll change in the bathroom while you look for your p.j.s. How’s that?"
"A much better idea." Nina headed toward the dresser set to the right of her bed, the right-most one. She opened one of the drawers just as Shamus reached the door of the bathroom. "Oh. Wait." She turned to face Shamus.
He faced her. "Yeah?"
Nina’s cheeks flushed an entrancing shade of rose as she kept her expression serious. "Do you wear…" She cleared her throat. "I can’t believe I’m asking, but I guess I want to know what to expect."
"Oh. Right." Shamus cleared his throat and picked at a suddenly very intriguing splinter in the side of the bathroom door. "I usually wear pajama pants." He cleared his throat again. "Don’t like wearing a shirt. Cuts me off at the neck."
Shamus changed his focus to her. She picked at a nail and bit at her lower lip. "Nina, did you need me to wear a shirt? I’m sure I can find a T-shirt that’ll work."
Nina tucked some hair behind her ear. "I hate for you to…" She peeked over at him. "I mean… This is still your room, shouldn’t you…?"
Shamus smiled. "It’s okay. I’ll just put on a shirt the first couple nights. I don’t mind. Remember, we’re still getting used to the idea."
"Will you take it off during the night if it hurts you?"
Shamus nodded. "I will. Okay?"
Nina softly smiled. "All right. Thank you, Shay. I so appreciate it."
"My pleasure, princess." He entered the bathroom and closed the door.
Shamus gripped the doorknob with a release of breath as he pressed his other hand against the door. Is this happening? He heard Nina’s absent chatter to herself about the possible location of previously misplaced pajamas and reluctantly smiled, shaking his head at the absurdity of the situation while enjoying the absurdity and tension in a sick, twisted way. Sammy boy, you’ve lost it. Might as well sell the deed and bankrupt the town, because too much of a good thing can’t be healthy. But Shamus felt more alive now than he had a month before.
He was independent.
He was in love.
He was married.
Shamus rubbed at his scalp of curls with another shake of his head as he went about changing into his pajamas, finding a loose-fitting T-shirt to wear as the other half, and then finishing certain other duties one had to do before venturing to bed. Then he turned for the door and halted, staring at the doorknob and wondering if he would look and sound ridiculous if he knocked and asked his wife if he could come in… Shamus rubbed at the back of his neck, fist on hip. Hm. This is a puzzle.
Finally, Shamus shrugged, closed his eyes, and leaned out the slightly opened door. "Nina? You decent?"
He heard the pad of bare feet and cautiously opened one eye and then the other. Nina stood in front of him with a somewhat childish smile, eyes brightly shining and set off by the shimmering blue of her pajamas. Shamus straightened and opened the door the remaining way, feeling the coming of his silly smile and hearing his just-as-silly chuckle as he passed her. Nina closed the door behind her, and Shamus rolled his eyes as he threw his hands up into the air. Sammy boy, just relax!
Shamus released a slow breath and shook his head as he moved over to his bed, the left one, and pulled back the covers. Once down, he sent a glance to Nina’s and rubbed the back of his neck. He shrugged and went around to do the same for her, turning down the covers and plumping her pillows with a crooked smile and another shake of his head. Then he went back to his bed and slipped inside, adjusting the covers around him before reaching to the bedside table and taking up the book he tried to read each night. You’ve got to be kidding. Your first night in your bedroom with your wife and you’re going to read? Shamus cleared his throat and deliberately opened the book to the marked page.
He heard the clunk and click of the bathroom door opening, the light being extinguished, and then her soft pat-pat-pat-pat of her bare feet making their way to her bed. Shamus kept his eyes on the book and then frowned. You’re not really going to do this, are you? He released a breath, closed the book, and then set it aside. He met Nina’s smiling gaze with an easy one of his own as she climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to her waist.
"You found your pajamas," Shamus innocently offered.
Shamus’ lips twitched with his withheld laugh. He looked away and adjusted the covers around him.
Nina released a deep sigh. "Now what?"
"Don’t really know. Never been married before." He looked over at her in time to get a pillow in the face. He laughed and caught the offending plushness before it tumbled to the floor. "Nice shot."
Her eyes twinkled as she crossed her arms. "Thank you."
"You want it back?"
She arched an eyebrow. "Please."
Shamus tossed it over at her, but only so that she could catch it. "There you go. I figure I’ll wait on the pillow fight until day three or four. Since you’re new here and all."
Nina giggled as she plumped up her pillow again. Then she stuffed it behind her and pressed herself back into them. She twiddled her thumbs, still smiling as she looked around the room at the pictures of family, McNeil, and his father’s ranch. Shamus watched her face as she examined each picture in turn. Now what? And he wished he had the answer to the question.
Nina’s examination traveled to him and stopped. She snuggled deeper into the pillows as she scooted under the blankets a little more. "Rei used to tell ghost stories when we weren’t tired," she said simply.
Shamus lifted his hands and arms with a shrug. "Sorry. Don’t know any."
Nina’s eyes widened. "Oh that’s all right. I never did like them. I just wanted to tell you something about my adventures."
"Oh." Shamus turned onto his side and rested his temple onto his fist. "Me and my brothers used to swap adventure stories. Of course, we had to make them better each time around because we’d already heard them a million times over."
Nina’s eyes crinkled at the corners with her smile. "Yes. I often complained to Rei that he retold the same stories with embellishments instead of creating new ones. Garr was always the better source for stories." Nina’s expression saddened, and she changed her focus to the ceiling. "I miss him."
Shamus watched her in silence before carefully asking "What was he like?"
"Garr?" Nina scrutinized the ceiling as if recalling an image from her colorful history. "Garr was the embodiment of… honor and purpose. He was steadfast. Loyal to his beliefs, almost to a fault." Nina lowered her gaze to her hands that clenched and unclenched the blankets. "But he was such a good friend. I don’t know what we would have done without him." She sniffed and released a sigh.
"I’m sorry you lost him, Nina," Shamus offered.
Nina nodded and looked over at him. "So am I, but I never regret the time and adventures we shared. I learned so much from him."
Shamus offered her a comforting smile, which she returned. Then he sat up, stretching toward the large lamp between their beds. "We better turn out the light, I guess. Get used to the sounds of each other's breathing and stuff."
Dark. Silence. Soft breathing… bed sheets moving… satin on sheets… hair on pillow… soft breathing…
Shamus smiled wider. "You lost your pajamas."
Nina giggled and Shamus laughed, ducking when he heard the sound of pillow leaving bed. It thwapped him in the face just the same.
She giggled again, softer this time, and he heard the sound of her adjusting her position in bed. "Thank you."
Shamus turned onto his side, staring into the darkness at the general area of her bed. "Want it back?" Though he didn’t know if he wanted to give it back. It smelled like her.
"That’s all right. I have plenty."
Shamus pulled one of his pillows out and set it on the floor, shoving it over to her side of the room. "In case you change your mind." He tucked her pillow under his head and closed his eyes.
He heard her take up his pillow and adjust it within her own bedding. Then hair on pillow as she faced him. "Shay, did you ever have such a friend?"
Shamus nodded. "Bunyan."
"Really? I like Bunyan." And Shamus could tell from her tone that Nina’s face relaxed to a smile again. "He’s a little gruff, but I think that’s why I like him. He has a kind heart. A good heart." Pause. "What did he help you with?" Seriousness and curiosity had replaced the smile.
"Life." Shamus smiled. "Pretty much everything about it. I was the second youngest of 13--"
"My goodness," Nina breathed.
"Yeah. 10 boys and 3 girls, so I kind of got the brunt of a bunch of bad stuff. Made me a bit of a brat."
Nina gasped. "You? Really?"
Shamus chuckled and turned over onto his back. "Yep. Sweet, innocent little Shamus McNeil." He sent her a look, but all he could make out was her silhouette. "I mouthed off at Bunyan one time, I don’t remember why, and he whooped me good. I needed it too, so don’t think ‘oh you poor boy’ or anything."
Nina giggled. "I’ve heard the same tale from Ryu and Rei both about Bunyan."
Shamus grinned. "Yeah. I bet you did." He looked away. "He took me under his wing, so to speak. Taught me stuff I needed to know, things I didn’t think I did, and stuff I never would have thought to ask. I think I was eight… or ten. Can’t remember. Been a long time." Shamus looked back over at Nina. She watched his reactions with a soft smile, covers snuggled close about her. She looked too adorable for words. "He’s the one that made me see how much I really did like ranching. I just never thought I would because all my brothers were in line ahead of me."
"Why bother if you weren’t going to get the ranch?"
Shamus nodded with a slight smile. "Exactly. But Bunyan helped me see that didn’t matter. If I cared about the ranch, if I wanted a future for myself and for my family, then I needed to pull my head out of my ass—- Sorry. I needed to quit feeling sorry for myself and get to work. I don’t know how he got me to see it, but he did. I worked my butt off that summer, impressed the dickens out of my dad, and then found that he kept giving me more and more responsibilities because of it. Ticked my brothers off, but what could they do? They were going to be married off one by one because they hadn’t taken the time to get involved."
"You must have been very surprised at how much fun you had taking care of the ranch. Learning so many new things. Understanding what your father talked about with the other hands. Having an important opinion to offer." He heard a sound of moving bedclothes and supposed that she hugged her blankets closer. "Your little heart was likely about to burst with it."
Contentment lightened his face as he put his hands behind his head. "Yeah. You’ve got it right there."
"I’m glad you had Bunyan, Shay. I like the Shamus McNeil I’ve come to know."
Shamus smiled and heard her yawn. "Thanks, princess. I kind of like him, too." He adjusted his hands behind his head. "Did you ever give your folks problems?"
Nina giggled. "Of course. You don’t believe they wanted me to go with Ryu and have all those adventures do you?"
Shamus chuckled. "No, I guess they wouldn’t." He faced her silhouette. "So how did you get out of the castle?"
"I didn’t intend to leave the castle," Nina confessed. "I had only gone down to the dungeon to let Ryu out, he’d been confused with some unsavory characters as their accomplice, you see. Well, they tricked me into letting them out instead, and then proceeded to kidnap me. Ryu broke out of his jail cell and rescued me, even at the danger of his own life. When they left, he and I escaped out of the dungeon by way of the catacomb of tombs beneath the castle. Then, when we stopped at a house just outside Wyndia castle to rest, these same fiends grabbed me and him and took us to the Arena. We were able to escape though, due to the fact that the man set to watch us had a drinking problem."
Shamus chuckled. "Boy. You have had adventure, haven’t you?"
Nina giggled after another telltale yawn. "Yes, and these adventures taught me so much about people. I would never have learned that within the walls of Wyndia castle."
"No, I suppose you wouldn’t." Shamus stretched, releasing his own yawn, and faced Nina’s silhouette again. "Good thing, too. I don’t think I would’ve liked you nearly as much." He gently smiled. "Actually, maybe I would. You’re really cute, you know."
Nina giggled again. "Thank you, sir."
Shamus released a deep breath and changed his focus to the ceiling. He yawned again. "Man. All this relaxing’s made me sleepy. Maybe we better cut the chatter and try to sleep?"
Shamus heard her turn over onto her side before she whispered "I guess so." It sounded like she said it through a yawn.
Shamus smiled. "Good night, princess," he said softly.
"Good night." Snuggle into covers. "And, Shay?"
He looked over at her silhouette. "For what, princess?"
Shamus breathed deep. "Sure."
Nina hugged the pillow to her with a soft smile as she lay on her side. Shamus still slept; curls tousled, shirt removed some time during the night, covers kicked cattywunkus down around his legs and waist. Occasionally during his early morning sleep he mumbled some indiscernible phrases and scrubbed at his scalp.
Each mumble and squirm and smack of his lips endeared him to her a little more. Of course, their conversation the previous evening had soothed her heart even more toward the rightness of the decision she made. The timing had been right, and he had done more than his best to help with the transition.
Nina's eyes crinkled at the corners with her attraction and fondness that so smoothly and easily blossomed to that long-time romantic dream. She felt an eagerness now to discover even more about the man she married; his favorite foods, favorite song, sweets, poems, books... and so many other things. A pleasant adventure into the unknown to draw it closer to herself.
Shamus mumbled again; this time he stretched long and smacked his lips with a grimace. Then he scrubbed at his scalp, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and kicked the covers off completely before sitting up with a slight grunt and dangling his legs over the side of the bed. He gripped the mattress a moment before pushing himself to his feet, a hand again going to his tousled curls to give his scalp another rub.
Nina watched with a continual soft smile, thoroughly enjoying the intimate view of his morning persona.
Shamus padded toward the bathroom. He scratched at his jaw and budding beard, and then at his trim stomach and abdomen. When he looked toward her, he gave a sleepy smile and yawned "Good morning, princess."
Nina rolled over in bed to her other side as she watched his progress to the bathroom. "Good morning, Shay. Sleep well?"
"Oh yeah. I dreamt I married a beautiful princess," he said thru another yawn. "Isn't that a stitch? A farmer/rancher/mayor with a princess."
Shamus gave his head a shake and stepped the rest of the way into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
Nina giggled and pushed back the covers to slide out of bed. He isn't a morning person, I guess. That was fine. Rei hadn't ever been one either. Rei even had a tendency to sleepwalk. Then there had been Momo, who had usually forgotten to sleep because of being engrossed in some mind-boggling question that took most of the night to solve. A couple of times she had napped while they journeyed, Garr carrying her without complaint.
Nina padded to the bathroom door just as it suddenly opened. Nina focused on Shamus' wide-eyed gaze of surprise and his partially shaved chin with a wider smile than before. "Yes?"
Shamus raised a finger to point. "Nina."
Nina softly laughed. "Good morning again, husband."
Shamus' ears burned, and he cleared his throat as he lowered his finger with a sheepish smile. "I'm not the brightest candle in the morning. Sorry."
"It's all right, Shay. I understand all about mornings."
She stood across from him, softly smiling up into his still sleepy expression half covered in shaving cream. Then she surprised both herself and him by relieving him of the shaver and pushing him gently back into the bathroom until he sat on the toilet.
"Hey. I need that to shave," he protested feebly.
"No," she countered with mock seriousness. "I need it to shave. Now hold still."
Shamus regarded her with mock suspicion. "Have you shaved a man before?" He lifted a hand to hold her wrist, keeping her hand from his face. "Just curious."
Nina smiled. "No. You're my first. Do you mind?"
Shamus expression relaxed into his genuine smile. "No." He released her wrist. "Just go slow and don't press too hard."
Nina's smile faded to serious concentration. "Will it hurt badly if I accidentally cut you?"
"Nah. It'll just sting a little. Don't worry about it."
Shamus' eyes twinkled as she began to shave the other side of his face with steady strokes and equal pressure. Nina occasionally met his gaze to smile.
"Your hair is poking up," Shamus commented softly, and then he reached up to stroke and pat it down.
Nina's lips twitched. "Pillows do strange things to one's appearance, don't they?" She tenderly wiped a bit of shaving cream from his ear before again shaving stroke by steady stroke.
Shamus tilted his head as directed, smiling fondly. "Yep. They make a wife look even better."
Nina's eyes brightened, but she didn't hesitate her stroke or meet his gaze. "Thank you," she said softly. "I had already noticed the same of my husband."
Shamus' smile widened. "I like it when you call me that."
"Shay, be careful," Nina gently scolded. "I don't want to cut you."
"I don't mind."
She met his gaze. "I do. Now hold still."
He grinned. "Okay."
Nina giggled and shook her head before continuing the shave; gentle stroke, wipe on towel, gentle stroke, meet gaze and smile as wipe on towel, gentle stroke, stroke, stroke. "All done."
She wiped the remaining patches of shaving cream from sections of his neck, ears, and nose. Shamus' lips held a silly smile the entire time.
"Do you put anything on your face after shaving? Your chin looks a little red," Nina observed, concerned.
Shamus waved it aside as he stood. "It burns a little, but that goes away fast enough."
Nina urged him back down. "Hold it, mister," she said firmly. "Let me see what I have for that." She stepped to the counter to the right of the sink and searched certain small bottles of lotions and astringents. "This one, I think." Nina retrieved a small bottle and stepped back as she removed the lid. She measured a small amount onto her palm and then took it up with her fingers. She met his curious gaze with a reassuring smile. "This might be a little cold, but only at first. It may sting, too."
Nina gently applied it to his chin and cheeks, spreading it evenly and light with soft motions of her fingers. She liked the feeling of her fingers on his skin, and couldn't help but smile as she kept on. Too soon, the lotion was applied to her liking and she lowered her hand from his face.
"There. Does that feel better?"
Shamus nodded with a soft "It does."
"Good." Nina secured the cap onto the bottle. "It's a moisturizer. You may use it as often as you need it." Nina turned the bottle to read the name. "Oh. I haven't used this in a while. I'm glad it worked for you." She smiled and raised her eyes to meet his.
Shamus reached out and took the bottle from her, ears and cheeks flushed as he read the label. "Thanks, princess."
A strong flutter rose within, widening Nina's smile. "Now I suppose I should leave you alone, so you can do whatever else you need to do." She rubbed at his upper arm, drawing his attention. "Thank you for letting me do that."
"Shave me?" he asked in surprise.
Nina nodded, eyes twinkling. "A little thing for you, but to me... Another treasured first."
Shamus' expression softened as he chuckled. "Same here, princess." He stood and gently enfolded her hand in his to give it a squeeze. "I'll be out in a bit."
Nina gave his hand a returned squeeze and then stepped from the bathroom, the door closing after her as she made her way to her dresser to choose an outfit for that day. A knock sounded at their bedroom entry, so Nina gathered her robe and slipped into it on the way to the door. A young man she recognized as Richard stood on the other side with a note.
"Princess," he greeted. "Syd had this for you. Just came in this morning."
Nina took the note with a whispered "Thank you," and then turned to stare down at it in silence. She bit her lower lip and opened the note very slowly, dreading what it could say.
"'Nina, thank you for your letter. Ryu and myself should arrive there some time in the next couple of days. Momo.'"
Nina's eyes filled and overflowed with tears, and her smile quivered. "Thank you, Momo," she whispered.
Nina heard the door of the bathroom open and looked up. She showed the letter as Shamus approached. "They... They're coming."
Shamus softly smiled down at her as he took hold of her hand, not saying a word while being just as comforting as if he had.
Nina stepped forward and embraced him. "They're coming," she whispered.
Shamus held her close and rested a cheek on the crown of her head. He released a slight breath. "I told you so," he teased.
Nina sighed and pulled back. "Shay, thank you so much. I hadn’t intended to tell you, but I’m so glad I did."
Shamus brushed a few wisps of hair from her cheeks. "My pleasure, princess." Then he held her gaze, ears burning, and asked "Can I kiss your cheek?"
Nina’s heart melted completely, and her expression softened as she raised her hands to cup his face. "Shamus, you don’t need to ask. Your kindness deserves a lot more than a simple kiss."
"A kiss is a moment, princess," Shamus whispered. "I’d rather have your trust than a wee thing like a kiss."
Nina’s eyes glimmered as her throat tightened. "Oh Shay…" she pressed her lips lightly against his, then again, and a third time before pulling slowly back. "How can I not trust you," she said in a choked voice.
His eyes twinkled with mischief, and the boyish smirk made him look even younger. "I’m a prankster."
Nina laughed. "Yes. I don’t doubt it, what with 10 brothers." She caressed his cheeks. "I’ll keep my eye on you."
He grinned. "Okay."
Nina giggled. "Shamus McNeil, you flirt."
Shamus’ ears pinked a darker shade as he took her hands from his cheeks and held them in his. "I better get dressed. You want the bedroom or bathroom?"
Nina’s smile faded to seriousness, and then she absently bit her lower lip. "When would it be all right to dress in front each other?"
Shamus’ entire face reddened, even down his neck. He cleared his throat. "Um… well…" He noticed he still stood shirtless and crossed his arms across his chest.
Nina nodded. "I know. It’s an uncomfortable question." She lowered her gaze to her pajamas and fiddled with the bottom hem. "I suppose…" She looked up again. "I suppose it would be best to wait until we’re more comfortable sleeping in such close quarters?"
Shamus nodded, some of the red receding. "I-I’d rather not be in… well, that’s kind of an awkward… I mean…" Shamus released a quick breath and lifted his arms in a gesture of frustration.
"Just say it, Shay," Nina encouraged.
Shamus cleared his throat and rubbed at his neck, eyes carefully averted. "Nope. Too humiliating. I’ll pass."
Nina smiled fondly. "I understand that." She motioned to the bathroom. "I’ll change there."
"Okay." He shyly smiled, finally meeting her gaze. "Thanks for the shave. Can you do it tomorrow?"
Nina rubbed his arm. "I’d love to." Then she gave it a slight squeeze and moved toward her dresser, where she pulled out a rose blouse, black leggings, and certain other necessities. "Did you have anything specifically planned today?"
"I should go around and check up on how everyone’s doing." Shamus pulled his own trousers and shirt from his dresser. "I was hoping you could come and meet everyone."
"I would like that," and Nina constantly felt amazed at how his request for such in-depth involvement touched her so deeply.
"We could take horses instead of a carriage. That way you and Lady could finally get to play."
Nina’s eyes twinkled as she turned to look over at him. He still gathered socks, etc. "That would be wonderful, Shay. Thank you."
"Sure." He cleared his throat and turned from the dresser, clothes held behind his back. "Bunyan will probably want to take us around the grove."
"Oh I would love a chance to see it."
Shamus’ smile was easy and welcoming. "I thought you might. Some of the trees are still blooming. It’s really pretty."
Nina adjusted her hold on the clothes. She so wanted to continue talking… Seriousness overpowered her smile. "Shamus, could we try it. Please?"
His expression darkened with concern. "Try what?"
"Changing here." His cheeks flushed as his gaze lowered. Nina hurried on. "Couldn’t we just turn our backs to each other? I don’t want to stop talking."
Shamus rubbed at his neck and scalp. "I know, princess, but…" He sent her a glance and then sighed deep. "Call me a softie. Okay."
Nina’s face brightened, and they both turned around. "What did Bunyan decide about those trees near the creek?" She sat on the bed and began changing out of her blue pajamas.
"That’s one of the things we were going to look at. We don’t think the bank will give way, but it might be a good idea to transplant them some place else anyway."
Nina stood and slipped out of her bottoms, hearing Shamus do much the same. She smiled slightly, feeling much the risk-taker. "They’re fairly young, aren’t they?"
"Yeah, so their roots haven’t expanded 100% yet. Bunyan figures it’s best to move them now. I think I agree with him. What do you think?"
Nina’s hands paused as the warmth at the statement settled deeper. "I think it’s a wise idea," she said softly. "Just to be safe, and to give them a better chance against root rot."
"Do you think some grass should be seeded there? To give the bank more stability?" Nina offered.
Shamus paused, then the sound of his dressing continued. "Good idea."
Nina smiled at the pleasure felt with his comment. She stood and tucked her blouse into her leggings, though they were more like knit slacks than leggings.
"Did you want to have lunch with Rei after?"
Nina heard a clomp of boot from his side of the room. "That would be fun." She sat back onto the bed and pulled on each lightweight black sock. "Could we go fishing with him? He cooks a wonderful trout."
"Sure. I kind of wanted to talk to him about the cabin on Mt. Glaus anyway. That would give me a good chance to do that." Second clomp.
Nina eased her feet into her slippers as she absently bit her lip.
Shamus cleared his throat. "You decent?"
Nina giggled. "I was about to ask you the same thing."
She cautiously looked over her right shoulder. Shamus did the same, but over his left. Their gazes met.
"I guess that wasn’t so bad," Shamus admitted.
Nina smiled and stood, as did Shamus, and they headed to the door of their room. Shamus ushered her past once he opened it for her, his fingers lightly making contact with her wings. Nina gave a shiver, which Shamus didn’t notice, and noted her inner change of emotion with a near clearing of the throat.
"What did you have in mind for the cabin?" she asked.
The two headed downstairs.
"That’s what I was going to talk to Rei about. I hate having it just sit up there."
"What was it before?"
"A hunter’s cabin. I think."
"Are there any mines up there?" Nina paused at the foot of the stairs until Shamus stood beside her. Then she made her way to the dining hall.
"I’m not sure. I haven’t heard of any. Maybe I should have Momo check for metals and minerals?"
Nina nodded. "That would be a wonderful addition to McNeil’s trade list, don’t you think?"
Shamus looked over at her with an adoring smile. "It would. So far we only have foodstuffs going out. And horses."
Nina’s expression brightened. "Oh I hope Momo finds something. I would love for us to be able to export metal items like nails, hinges, or tools."
Shamus sent her a smile. "I guess I should see if Rei or Bunyan know of any blacksmiths and metal workers."
He opened the door for her, ushering Nina into the dining hall with yet another soft touch to her wings. Nina’s cheeks flushed.
"Seems to me somebody mentioned a friend of a cousin or something," Shamus continued.
Nina wordlessly nodded. When did I become sensitive to touch on my wings? She remembered many a time when her friends would accidentally touch them. Ryu once touched them on purpose, it had been the first time he had seen her with wings, but there had been no feelings like this. Is that another step past the fondness? Is this… Is this the passion?
Nina blinked, and her eyes focused on Shamus’ concerned expression. He held her seat out for her. Nina flushed darker and sat. "I’m sorry."
"That’s okay." Shamus sat in his seat and watched her as she spread her napkin across her lap.
Nina smoothed the cloth napkin with a deliberate action before looking up to meet his gaze. She smiled. "I’m fine, Shay."
He returned her smile and then pushed the bell toward her. "Go for the gusto, princess."
Nina’s eyes twinkled.
Shamus stood over her sleeping form and quietly watched, hands in pockets to keep from touching her face. Their previous day together had been a collection of fun and adventure. Laughter. Touches. Smiles. Shared ideas. Glimpses into a deeper part of each other.
Shamus released a slow and deep breath as he lowered himself onto her bed, pulling his hands from his pockets. Nina wrinkled her nose and stretched, pressing the backs of her hands against her cheeks. Then she lifted them up over her head and yawned.
Nina rolled onto her side, hands cupping her cheek as she opened her eyes to catch Shamus’ gaze. She smiled. "Good morning," she mumbled sleepily.
Shamus leaned over her, resting his hand against the bed on the other side of her slim form. "Good morning, princess."
"What are you doing up so early?" she asked thru a delicate yawn.
"Just sitting here."
Her eyes crinkled at the corners. "I see that."
Nina watched him watch her while adjusting her cheek in her hands. "Yesterday was fun. Do you think we could do the same today?"
"Sorry, Nina. Today will be an inside day. Paperwork."
"That’s all right. I haven’t spent much time in the library, or at the piano. Maybe this is my chance?"
"Sure." Shamus watched her bright eyes and expression with a soft smile. Nina did much the same. Then she adjusted her position onto her back, her left hip pressing against him as she reached up to cup his jaw and lightly stroke his cheek.
"You want that shave now?" she asked quietly.
Shamus’ ears burned at a clear picture in his mind of something different… He cleared his throat and straightened as he took her hand in his. "You can sleep, Nina. I’ll do it."
"I know, but I want to," she told him, and her hand lightly increased pressure on his.
And he wanted her to. "Okay."
Nina smiled and sat up, slipping her legs out from under the covers and over the bed before Shamus had a chance to stand. Her pale yellow pajamas glistened in the early morning sunlight from the windows and made her eyes sparkle and her skin look… like a doll?
She stood to her feet and smiled at him. "Have you thought about growing a short beard?"
Shamus blinked. "A beard? No. Why?"
Nina touched his chin just beneath his lip. "Right there. I think it would look wonderful." She took hold of both his hands to pull him to his feet. "You don’t have to," she told him as she led him to the bathroom. "You’re handsome as you are."
Shamus flushed and smiled.
Nina sat him down on the toilet and then set to work preparing the shaving cream. "Do you think Momo and Ryu might come today?"
"Could be. That’s one of the reasons I want to do paperwork today, that and I’m falling behind. It’s more likely they’ll come tomorrow, though."
Nina mixed the water and powder until it was a soft foam. Then she faced him, brush in hand. "Chin and cheeks?"
Shamus nodded. "Want some help?"
Nina smiled. "Maybe."
She stepped closer and began gently applying the cream. "Did you want me to go thru the books in the library? Or did you want to do that yourself?"
Shamus, whose mouth was completely covered in shaving cream, was only able to look at her serious expression with twinkling eyes.
"I could separate them into piles for you to go through later," she offered.
Shamus slightly nodded.
Nina set the brush and cup aside and took up the towel, which she draped over the sink, and the razor. "I planned on contacting father and having him send me my books from the castle," she commented as she began the shave.
Shamus noticed she didn’t call it ‘home’.
"If there are any subjects you’re particularly interested in, I’m sure he would be more than willing to send them along."
Wyndian history, so that I can be a good king—
Nina moved a little closer, actually stepping between his legs. She bit her lower lip in concentration when she began shaving near his jaw and neck. Her fingers were light against his scalp, and the warmth of her yellow-clad legs could be felt through his pajamas. Shamus swallowed very slowly as his hands gripped his knees.
"Shay, this part makes me nervous," she confessed. She performed a slow stroke up his neck.
"You’re doing fine," he assured as she cleaned the blade.
Nina smiled softly and stroked again. "You nervous?"
"No." At least, not about you shaving…
Stroke. "Then why are you playing with the hem of my pajama top?" Swipe clean.
Shamus looked in horror at his hands. Sure enough, he rubbed the soft material between his thumb and index finger of each hand. He flushed and lowered his hands to his knees.
Stroke, stroke. "You didn’t have to stop, Shay," she told him softly. "I only wanted to make sure I wasn’t the reason for it."
But you are. Shamus smiled between strokes. "I guess I like soft things."
Nina leaned in to give him a soft kiss on the forehead. "There you are."
Stroke. Swipe clean. "Speaking of soft things, I think I need to give you a haircut. Not too much, because I adore your curls, but enough to keep them out of your eyes." Stroke, stroke.
"Oh. Okay." Shamus believed he would get drunk from the constant close contact.
Nina finished the shave, applied the lotion, and then regarded him with a purely ‘Nina’ smile after washing her hands while drying them with a towel. Then she set the towel aside and began searching the drawers of the inset vanity.
"What are you looking for?" he asked as he stood and moved behind her.
"Ah. Here it is." Nina turned and pushed gently on his chest to direct him back to the toilet. "I’m going to comb your hair," she said, matter-of-fact.
Shamus sat. "Oh."
Nina dipped her fingers into the water basin before running them lightly through his hair. Then she doused the comb and gently began to comb out the curls. "Your hair is so thick and soft," she giggled. "I’m jealous!"
Shamus swallowed hard and gripped his knees. He hadn’t ever had anyone else comb his hair. It was… It felt… Shamus smiled, tilting his head different directions as instructed. Sammy boy, Marianne would be shocked speechless if she saw this. And Shamus very nearly laughed aloud at the visualized expression on his elder sister’s face.
Nina set down the comb and loosed the curls from the dampness into their natural curl using her fingers, rubbing her nails lightly against his scalp. It tingled, but it felt better than great.
"There," she said with a wide smile, giving his scalp a few more light scratches. "It encourages growth." Nina wiped her hands on the unused portion of the towel, still smiling at Shamus, and then picked up the comb and offered it to him. "Could you?"
Shamus slowly took it, looking up from the comb to meet Nina’s gaze. His mouth had gone very dry. "You want me to…"
"Comb my hair, silly," she said. The statement was adorned with a giggle as she turned her back to him and sat on the floor between his legs, hugging her knees to her chest.
Shamus swallowed hard. Oh boy… "Okay."
He ran the comb through her hair cautious and hesitant. When the comb caught on a sleep tangle, he stopped. Curls had a wicked tendency to tangle, so he’d had a lot of experience with persuading them out, but…
"It’s just a snarl," Nina assured.
"I know, but… uh…"
"Just take out the comb and work at it from the bottom, combing little sections at a time. The comb will work it out."
Shamus cleared his throat and did as he was told, finding out very quickly that Nina’s hair was so fine and soft that the tangles practically loosed themselves.
"I find it hard to believe you don’t fight with snarls," Nina said, smiling. "Those wonderful curls? Why, they likely have a mind of their own. Why do you think I used a little water and that particular comb?"
Shamus cleared his throat again. "Yeah… um… well, combing your own hair is different. I can tug at my mop, but I don’t want to hurt you."
"You won’t, Shay, but thanks for the thought."
Shamus finished working on the snarl and resumed running the comb gently thru her hair, amazed at how much he enjoyed the simple act. Soon he also began lightly stroking her hair with a soft touch of his fingers; sometimes alternately, sometimes immediately following. Nina didn’t comment, and her wings had taken up the familiar slow and rhythmic tickle of the air.
"Your hair is really soft," Shamus commented absently. Sammy boy, just be quiet.
"Thank you," Nina responded, and it was almost a whisper.
Comb, stroke, stroke, comb, comb. Shamus was at a loss to describe what happened inside. The… closeness. The companionship. Shamus’ chest tightened, and he felt a hint of burning at his eyes. He hadn’t ever shared something like this with someone.
Shamus lowered his hands and the comb from her head, clenching his jaw as he gripped the comb. "There you go," he whispered.
Nina stood. "Ohhh, that felt wonderful. Thank you." She ran her fingers lightly over her scalp while giving him an almost coy smile. "Can you do that tonight, too?"
Shamus stood, but he was certain he left his heart on the floor behind the toilet. "Sure." Then he stepped almost too quickly toward the escape of the close quarters.
He strode to his dresser and blindly began pawing through a random drawer. He could still feel her hair and her closeness… Oh boy.
pad-pad-pad-pad… touch on arm. "Did you want to take a bath?"
Shamus paled and then flushed as he continued to search his dresser for something. "What?"
"I’m going to soak in the tub. Did you want to take a bath first?"
Shamus fought back the ‘no, I’ll take it with you’ and gripped a pair of wool socks. "I’ll take it this evening before dinner."
"All right." Her hand didn’t lower from his arm. "Shamus?" Nina asked softly, "are you… are you all right?"
Shamus stared at the socks in his hand, wondering how much to tell her, how much to show her, and how much to lead. "I’m fine, princess," he said in a careful tone, "it’s just… well…" He sighed and faced her. "It’s tough to give you… space." He could feel his face flush red and looked away from her blue eyes. Definitely his favorite color.
"You don’t need to," she pressed gently. "Shay, that was the one thing I didn’t want you to do. Remember?"
"That’s a pretty big door to open," he whispered. "I don’t want to scare you."
"I know, but what scares me is that I might cause you even more misery by not realizing you’re struggling." Nina gently urged him to face her. "Are you struggling?"
Shamus kept his gaze on the collar of her yellow pajamas, and the line of her throat, and the delicate hint of collar bone… He swallowed hard and gave a slight nod. "Sometimes," he reluctantly admitted.
Nina sighed deep and took hold of his hands. "Shay, why didn’t you tell me last night?"
Shamus’ ears reddened. You know exactly why, don’t you, Sammy boy? "It’s okay, Nina. We’re still…" Shamus finally met her gaze. "You just need a little… time."
"For what? To know that I care? To know that I trust you? To know that I like the feeling within when you touch me? I’ve come to know that already, Shay."
Oh boy… Shamus cleared his throat. "Nina… Princess, being together" ears burned "as a man and woman is a lot different than just" cheeks flush "kissing or caressing a hand or arm."
Nina nodded, eyes slightly wide. "I know, Shamus. Mother told me before the wedding. She wanted me to be ready."
Shamus lowered his gaze. "Oh." Here you were trying to protect her…
"Shay." Nina placed a hand gently under his jaw, raising his gaze to hers. "Shay, if you don’t believe I’m ready, I trust that. Until I am, what can I do to help you?"
Shamus stared down at her, millions of questions and requests making it impossible to talk. Just being close to her was difficult for him, but he didn’t want to tell her that. He liked being near her. He liked the feeling of being in love, totally and completely lost. It was tough to resist how she smiled and laughed and twinkled, but he did it because he wanted to. He did it because… because he loved her.
Shamus smiled as he drew her hand from his jaw. He gave it a gentle squeeze. "I don’t know, princess."
"Should I stop--"
"No," Shamus interrupted. He gave her hand another squeeze. "Nina, if you like doing those things, why should you stop?"
"Because they make it harder for you to wait." Nina shook her head, tears threatening. "Why should only you resist?"
"Because I love you," Shamus said simply. "Because I’ll do what it takes to give you what you want. You deserve that, Nina."
Nina blinked the tears from her eyes. "But… But I want to help make it easier."
"I know, but it’s okay. Really."
Nina’s lower lip trembled, making Shamus’ throat tighten. Her gaze lowered and she pulled her hand from his. "How can hurting you be ‘okay’?"
Shamus released a slow breath. "Nina, come here a second." He motioned her toward an oak chest at the foot of his bed with a hand to her back. She sat down, Shamus sitting beside her. "You aren’t hurting me, Nina. I like the shaves, and the combing hair, and the way you look at me when I ask to kiss you. I like the way your wings tickle my skin when you want me to help you fish, even though I know you could do it yourself. That’s enough to get me through the waiting."
She looked over at him. "Are you certain there’s nothing I can do?"
Shamus enfolded her hands in his. "Just keep trying to love me, princess," he whispered.
Nina’s blue eyes darkened as she slightly nodded. "I am… I will… Maybe I do and I don’t yet know?" She held his gaze and then whispered, "Shay, will you kiss me?"
Shamus smiled feebly as he swallowed the eagerness. "I don’t think that would be a good idea here, princess. Maybe when we go play with Rufus?"
Nina watched his face and expression with tear-filled eyes. Then she smiled and enfolded his face in her hands. "Shamus, please don’t change who you are. I want to love this man."
Shamus nodded, his breath caught in his throat. "Okay, princess."
The day of Ryu and Momo's expected/hopeful arrival found Shamus and Nina finishing up the duty of organizing the library. Bunyan stopped by the latter half of the project to offer some suggestions for the grove's fruit as well as to drop off unwanted books found in his storage basement. Shortly after Bunyan left, accepting an invitation for dinner the following week, Shamus and Nina both heard Rufus excitedly barking.
They exchanged eager expressions before hurrying to the front door and descending the porch steps. Sure enough, Rufus had taken to the task of welcoming an old friend and a new one. Momo regarded the massive black dog with technical interest, her rabbit-like ears of white and light purple doing their familiar delicate wave as she adjusted her spectacles on her petite nose. Ryu accepted the dog's attentions with a broad smile, scratching behind his ears as vigorously as Rufus would have wanted.
Nina noticed a change in the older woman's style of dress. Momo no longer wore the familiar engineer's uniform that had served her for their adventures years previous. Neither did she wear her mortar-board hat. Instead, she wore a pant/vest/shirt suit that looked similar in style while affording a better 'view' of Momo's natural and feminine lines. Nina hadn't expected such a complete change in the engineer in the month since Ryu had begun spending more time at Repsol’s Tower.
Nina smiled. "Hello, Momo. Ryu. I'm so glad you came."
Ryu and Momo both looked toward the approaching pair.
Ryu straightened from Rufus and offered Nina a genuine smile as he stepped forward to give her a hug. "Hi, Nina. Hey, Shamus. Nice to see you again." And Ryu made the statement even more believable by his offered hand.
Nina stepped over to Momo while Ryu and Shamus exchanged conversation about McNeil and Rei and the grove. "Momo," she greeted softly.
Momo adjusted the spectacles on her nose. "Nina." Her expression looked a bit uncertain.
"Thank you for coming," Nina continued, and then she stepped forward to embrace her. "I've missed you."
The engineer returned the embrace after a moment's hesitation.
Nina sighed and pulled back, smiling as she held Momo out at arm's length. "Momo, this is Shamus." She looked over at Shamus with a smile and motioned from one to the other. "Shay, this is Momo."
Shamus chuckled. "I know, Nina. She's come out before. I told you, didn't I?"
"Did you? I don't remember. Hmm." She looked back to Momo with a laugh. "Oh well. It doesn't matter. Come in and have some lemonade before lunch. You must be thirsty."
"Nina, why don't you show Momo the gardens," Shamus suggested. He motioned to Ryu. "We can get the lemonade and bring it out."
Nina sent him an appreciative smile. "That's a wonderful idea." She looked to Momo. "Do you mind?"
Momo adjusted her spectacles as she looked around. "I would be interested to see what improvements have been made since the former McNeil left office. Ryu and Rei told many stories of a conundrum of paths. Do you remember?"
Nina nodded, sending Shamus another smile before leading Momo to the right. "I do remember." Nina clasped her hands behind her back as she alternately looked to the grass at her feet and to Momo to gauge her expression. "You look wonderful, Momo. I like the new look. It's very feminine."
Momo self-consciously smoothed the front of her vest and pants. "Thank you." Her ears twitched.
Nina released a silent breath as she scolded herself for beating around the bush. Almost literally. She stopped. "Momo."
Momo faced her. "Yes?"
Nina raised her eyes to meet Momo's gaze. "Momo, I'm sorry."
Momo let out a quick breath as her ears did their usual wave. "Why didn't you ask, Nina?"
"I don't know."
"It would have been a courtesy to voice your concerns before acting on them."
"I know," Nina acknowledged with a slight nod.
"I didn't appreciate it. It hurt my feelings that you believed me either too infantile to handle the decision or too unaware of the difficulty to set a resolve into action."
Nina nodded again. "You're right."
Momo sighed, and this time she crossed her arms and looked away. Her ears waved and twitched at nearly the same instant. "Thank you."
Nina blinked. "Thank you? For what?"
"For caring enough to do what you did. I've learned quite a number of things of myself." Momo faced her with a raised finger. "Though I still don't appreciate the under-handed method used..." The finger lowered. "Ryu has been an invaluable source of help and information. I would never have thought to ask him."
Nina couldn't tell from the statement or from Momo's expression and attitude if they had moved past the initial 'experimental dating' stage. "How... How are things progressing?"
Momo seemed to flush... maybe. "Steadily. We talk. We socialize when appropriate. He brings flowers, and I act appropriately flattered and flustered. He compliments me, and I stammer an acceptance. I cook dinner and he doesn't make faces if it tastes less than perfect. I believe Ryu has even less idea of what ‘dating’ encompasses than I do."
Nina smiled and then giggled. "Oh Momo. You're priceless."
Momo returned her smile, though hers was more slight. "Nina, thank you for the letter. I wasn't certain of any regret on your part until I received it. Surprisingly, it helped dissuade the anger. I've come to realize I don't like being angry."
Nina shook her head, seriousness darkening her eyes. "Neither do I. I'll try not to do anything like that again."
There was the sound of a bark and approaching laughter, and the girls turned. Ryu and Shamus attempted to approach with full lemonade glasses without getting tripped by Rufus or his dragon-strength tail.
Lunch comprised of adventure stories, explanations of inventions, concepts of new ones, and an innocent enjoyment of each other’s company. Nina enjoyed the time together as well as the opportunity to view Momo and Ryu’s interaction. There wasn’t much difference between the present interaction and Nina’s memories of past interactions as friends.
After lunch, Momo took a moment to examine and immediately fix Shamus’ weird-sounding clock in his office. It turned out to be a worn gear, easily replaceable. Once the repair had been made, Nina and Shamus both tried to get Ryu and Momo to stay the week. Apparently, the pair had made plans to stop in with the fairies to help with some issues.
Nina and Shamus escorted them to the main gate with arm clasps and embraces and promises of visiting the Tower, as well as a request for Momo to return to perform mineral samples of Mt. Glaus. Then the pair moved off with Ryu being heard to ask Momo a question about one of the new concepts she’d mentioned over lunch. An intriguing pair, but Nina felt they had a chance to be a pair just the same.
Shamus and Nina had made no plans for the afternoon and evening, hoping that Momo and Ryu could have been persuaded to stay. So they both rifled through the books donated by Bunyan and took those of interest to the garden gazebo.
Nina opted for the bench while Shamus settled himself on the floor of the gazebo. He supported his back against the bench while draping his left arm across Nina's crossed legs, gently caressing her upper foot and ankle with his thumb and fingers. His right hand held his book on Wyndian history. Nina balanced her book Horse Breeding & Training for the Modern Rancher in her left hand while alternately twirling, scratching, and stroking Shamus' head of curls with the other.
They looked more than content.
Nina lowered her book, her right hand pausing its tease of a particular curl to drift to his shoulder as she leaned closer. She looked to the chapter he read. "What?"
Shamus pointed to a particular paragraph dated several generations previous. "Here's another Wyndian Princess named Nina who battled an evil goddess; 'Tyr' it says. It looks like this Princess Nina joined a young man named Ryu just like you did. And you know what? He was a dragon, too."
"I think I remember my governess telling me that story. That adventure happened back when the Wyndians could fly. Some could even change into large birds."
Shamus looked over his shoulder at her. "Really? Wow. It sounds like something that would only happen in a story, but it's true." He focused back on the book. "It's like the destiny of the Wyndians is to always protect us. Like they're... guardians or something."
Nina's eyes crinkled at the corners with her smile as she wrapped her arms around his upper shoulders - careful not to hit him with the book in her hand - and pressed her cheek against his. "That does sound wonderful. I will have that statement added to our history texts. Our children and our children's children should have the opportunity to remember and be proud of their history."
Shamus lowered his book. "Nina... How many..." He cleared his throat. "How many kids do you want, anyway? I was... I was kind of hoping for a big family like what I had."
"And how many would be a 'big family'?" she asked in mock seriousness.
"Oh I don't know." He cleared his throat again. "Seven...? Maybe?"
"Seven children or five children and then us?" Nina teased, while not sounding as if she teased.
"Seven kids... if you don't mind...?"
Nina softly smiled and then pressed her lips against his cheek. "Why not eight? Even numbers sound so much... lovelier," she whispered.
"No complaints here," he assured as he stroked her ankle.
She kissed his cheek again, the lotion had made it even softer than before, and then caressed it with her nose. "I don't think I've heard you complain about anything, Shamus McNeil. I'm beginning to wonder if you're real."
Shamus chuckled. "Well, to be honest..."
Nina giggled. "I knew it. It was a plot. You're a figment of my imagination." She straightened and tousled his curls. "Take that."
Shamus laughed, and hunkered down. "Mercy! Mercy! It wasn't my idea!"
"Oh really? And who's idea was it, pray tell?" she pressed, giggling and tousling and leaning after him.
"The little voices in my head! They told me to do it," Shamus laughed.
Nina pushed his head away with an "Oh you!" and a bright giggle.
Shamus looked over at her before moving to lean his arm and side against the bench, smiling up into her face. "Nina... I'm glad you think I'm too good to be true," he confessed. "I know you are."
Nina adjusted her position on the bench to her stomach, her face scant inches from his. "And I believe that is a perfect cue for a kiss," she whispered.
Shamus caressed her cheek, brushing hair from her forehead and cheeks. "Princess, your face is cue for a kiss."
Nina felt the tingle and the warmth from head to toe, and it hurried a tear from the corner of her eye. Shamus gently brushed it away before gently pressing his lips against hers... and this kiss felt different than the others shared. There was no pause or hesitation. They continued the touch and the kiss as if it were the only way for a deeper part of themselves to talk, to whisper, to confess something that Nina hadn't confessed before.
Nina pulled back in surprise.
Shamus blinked, cheeks and ears flushing as his eyes darkened with concern and a little embarrassment. "Nina?"
Nina could only watch his expression and scrutinize her own inner response to it and the kiss before.
Shamus cleared his throat, still examining her face and eyes. "Did I... Was I out of line?"
Nina mutely and absently shook her head, still questioning herself... She leaned in and timidly touched his lips again, welcoming the warmth and the emotion and intensity that she couldn't name. Shamus accepted the kiss almost hesitantly at first. That caution and concern brightened the intensity and coaxed the emotion even deeper. Nina found herself crying against his lips and within the kiss that served as such a deeper touch than what it had first been.
Shamus pulled back. "Nina? What's wrong?"
Nina shook her head as she opened her eyes and gave him a teary smile. "Nothing, Shay. Nothing at all. Everything is wonderful," she whispered.
"Then why're you crying?" he pressed, doing his best to wipe the continual flow of tears from her cheeks.
"Because it's beautiful and romantic and a multitude of other things I never thought to have."
Shamus met her gaze. "Huh?"
Nina's eyes crinkled, which encouraged more tears. "I love you, Shamus McNeil."
Shamus blinked several times, eyes wide, before words made it through the haze of shock. "What?" he whispered.
Nina slid from the bench to kneel beside him, holding his face in her hands and his gaze with hers. "I love you."
"Y-You... Y-You..." The haze of shock and wonder captured the words back again.
Nina slightly nodded.
Shamus stared at her slack-jawed. Then he slipped her hands from his face, adjusting them into one of his to smooth the hair from her face with a gentle touch from the other. "You love me?" he whispered.
Nina nodded again, tears escaping her eyes to trace silent exclamations of truth along her face. "I love you, Shay. I've loved you since that first day at the fishing hole. Since before? I don't know," she whispered in a choked voice.
"I don't care about where or when, princess," he whispered as he pressed his cheek gently against hers. "I don't care about where or when."
The love she felt burned with a brightness, warmth, and intensity much stronger than what she had ever felt for friends and family. Nina wrapped her arms around her husband… her love… her security… and cried.
The early rays of the morning danced across the room, illuminating a quiet couple still sleeping. Covers had been kicked back against the footboard during the warmth of the night, just as a couple pillows had tumbled to the floor.
A slight form with delicate wings and dressed in shiny pink rested content and safe against a more massive frame dressed only in flannel pants. An arm had draped itself across a bare torso as a feminine cheek rested against a deeply breathing chest. A clearly masculine arm had gently encircled the slight form, holding it protectively against anything that might have threatened.
All combined in a peaceful picture of content intimacy as friends and lovers both.
The morning light receded, allowing the pair the time to sleep and dream and wake when their love would beckon.