“I need your help, Kel.”
Kel blinked at Dom, who looked determined. “Dom?”
“Help in what?”
“I need to pretend to court you, Kel.”
Kel’s heart fluttered for a moment before she focused on the right word.
Dom bowed his head. “My father is sick; my parents would like to see me marrying or seriously courting someone before they die. They worry about me, being with the Own all the time. They think of my courting someone seriously as a rite of passage of sorts, otherwise they still see me like an overgrown boy playing soldier.”
“You are asking me to agree to a pretend courtship with you?” Kel groaned inside. This sounded like one of Neal’s absurd Gallan romance novels that he hid in the infirmary of New Hope that some of the refugees borrowed from time to time.
Dom nodded. “Please, Kel. You’re the only woman who’d understand.”
She sighed inwardly, ignoring the pang of her heart. The only woman who’d not assume that she could make him fall for her with this pretend arrangement, he means. She supposed he was right about that. She knew how much many of the court ladies and Riders gossiped about Dom’s good looks, good standing, and impeccable family connections, for all that he was not a first son.
“Kel, I want our children to play with each other and become good friends too.” She remembered Neal’s words. It was something she would have wanted too, but she had no time nor man to consider it with. (She would not count the daydreams she had sometimes of Dom for those were clearly futile. If he had liked her he would have just asked to court her instead of this pretending she was about to do for him as a favor.)
She supposes that it was time for her to try again at a relationship anyway, no matter the circumstances. Even if it would hurt her heart to pretend, she knew Dom wouldn’t let their acting go too far. Besides, it might help in her next real relationship when she had the time for one.
“All right. But I have some conditions.”
Dom nodded. “Of course, Kel.”
“One, we tell Neal the truth. I don’t want to lie to him about this, he’s my best friend and your cousin.”
“Two, if either of us wants to stop pretending because of circumstances the other person must respect it.”
“Like what circumstances?” Dom asked curiously.
“Like one of us finds someone we actually are interested in courting,” she said firmly. “Or our parents want us to meet someone. Things like that.”
After Dom had nodded somewhat jerkily, she continued. “I don’t want to lie to Lord Raoul and I don’t want to endanger your job. I would rather he knew about it.”
“That’s fine, Kel. He’d give me a hard talk anyway; I wouldn’t want to lie to him.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Hard talk?”
“Kel, you’re like a daughter to him, of course he’d worry if the dashing Sergeant who has broken many hearts swept you off your feet while under his command, no less.” He winked broadly at her.
“Many hearts, huh” she said dryly, ignoring the twinkle in his very blue eyes. “I’m sure Lord Raoul trusts me to keep my head even in such situations.” He had trusted her while she and Cleon were courting anyway; Dom should be no different.
“Still he will want to talk to me,” said Dom, “so I agree with you. Is there anyone you would not want to lie to?”
Kel shook her head. “It wouldn’t be an effective pretending if we told most anyone. Also, I don’t think we can avoid gossip, especially since that is your intention, but I want us to act professional when we are on duty.”
Dom nodded. “Of course, Kel. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. Anything else?”
She shook her head.
He exhaled in relief, grasping her hand firmly. “So is this a deal?”
They started off very discreetly, Kel thought, perhaps for her sake. At first none of their friends suspected that Dom’s requesting Kel’s help to work on paperwork or Kel’s seeking him out after Third Company’s sparring sessions were anything out of the ordinary, leading Kel to think that nothing really had changed between them.
But then a ball came and Dom asked her, only dancing with her through the night, causing much gossip in the King’s Own, the Queen’s Riders, and the court.
It wasn’t much of a surprise that Lord Raoul caught her the day after the ball after her dawn exercises. It must have been hard for him to wake up so early, especially with Buri in the Palace also, she said fondly.
“Kel, do you mind having breakfast in my chambers?”
It is after Squire Alan had scurried away that Raoul broaches the matter.
“Kel, Sergeant Domitan has informed me that you are pretending to court each other.”
“Yes, milord. It is a favor to Dom for his parents.”
“He has explained himself, but how do you feel about that?”
Kel shook her head. “It’s just a favor for a friend.”
“I wager it’s not a favor you’d do for just any friend,” Raoul said slowly.
She shrugged. “Dom’s been looking out for me since I was your squire and he’s been a really good friend to me throughout the years. I just wanted to help him since he was troubled.”
Raoul looked at her and sighed. “If you say so, Kel. Dom seems more mature for it and his work has improved, but of course I was worried. If you…” he turned red, “If you ever want to discuss this or anything again with me, just say so.”
“Of course, milord.” She wondered why Lord Raoul seemed so curious about the arrangement. It was, after all, just a protracted version of what Buri and he had tried at his Great Aunt’s party how many Midwinters ago at her suggestion.
She blinked. They had begun a spontaneous relationship that was a long time coming that night. Maybe that was what he was worried about.
She shook her head. Dom didn’t feel that way about her and she trusted her head to be calm enough not to entertain any farfetched fantasies about Dom starting to care about her with this pretend arrangement of theirs. They were both old enough not to confuse friendship with romance.
One perk of this pretend courtship was that Dom was always willing to escort her to the balls Kel was starting to hate. (Perhaps Lord Raoul was more of an influence on her than she thought.) There was no more need to gracefully and tactfully refuse well-meaning friends’ attempts at matchmaking. (There was however more teasing from her friends about Dom, and she didn’t need to pretend to feel some tenderness for him.) She didn’t dislike dancing, especially with Dom being such a good dancer, though she disliked the gossiping that would occur after she and Dom had entered the ballroom.
“Why is he with her? He could do so much better!”
“He doesn’t even flirt with other girls! She must have scared him into only flirting with her with all those muscles and her sword skills!”
Kel rolled her eyes. As if Dom would stop flirting just because he was scared of a spar with her. Dom was rather good about the whole thing, winking at her and making her laugh as they did things expected of those courting. He’s probably had lots of experience with that, she thought wryly.
It was heartwarming to have Dom not flirting with the ladies though. He was really a good actor, she reflected.
She would probably miss it terribly when he eventually broke it off, she thought, when he kissed her cheek after saying goodnight. Still, she was learning. Lalasa would be happy at the number of dresses she would have to ask from her.
“Your sergeant seems very attentive,” remarked Inness one night as they were walking through the palace after dinner. “He’s not what I expected, from what I’ve heard the barracks.”
Kel almost remarked that he wasn’t her sergeant but caught herself in time. “Is it bad?”
“No,” said her brother. “I’m just surprised.”
“That someone has shown interest in me?”
“I was aware of Cleon and you courting, you know” her brother said wryly. “But I feel that your courtship with Masbolle is more likely to be successful.”
Kel raised her eyebrow.
Inness, used to the Yamani ways, continued. “You both don’t mind when you’re separated by distance and duty but don’t forget you are still in a relationship. Very mature way of handling a relationship. I do hear things.”
“Perhaps it was because Cleon and I were children,” Kel said. “And with him, things were out of our control.”
“Indeed,” said Inness. “But that didn’t stop me from lecturing him when I found out that you were courting. You could have told me.”
“I don’t feel like I should lecture Masbolle yet,” said Inness. “Do warn me if I need to, so I can bring Anders along. He’s been wanting to talk to you too about your sergeant, but you can’t seem to find time to get to Mindelan.”
Kel kept her face still. She wondered what Anders would have to say about Dom. “I don’t think I’ll be able to visit Mindelan for a while yet.”
“Still, Kel, you do suit each other.”