Taking a bullet or a knife, I can do.
But soothing a terrified, sobbing, otherwise competent woman is not something I’ve often—ever—accomplished successfully, nor have I ever found myself in many situations in which it was necessary.
I stroke her back, and gradually, they both cry themselves out.
Which is good, because seeing a chink in Peach’s armor is bloody terrifying.
“Papaya,” she says, her voice thick and wobbly, “you’re on kitchen duty for the next four weeks.”
“And if you get fired by the chef, you’ll be on maid duty. And if you get fired by the maids, you’ll be shoveling shit in the stables. And you don’t get to see Fred until your chores are done.”
I suck in a surprised breath.
Papaya gasps. “You can’t do that.”
“And if you don’t show up for kitchen duty, you won’t be going to Joey’s wedding next weekend.” She swipes at her eyes, which silences any objections I might have to keeping track of Papaya whilst Peach is away for a week. “You scared the ever-loving patootles out of me. I thought you were kidnapped. And instead, you’re here, spooking the daylights out of these poor guards who were trained on an invalid king who couldn’t even get out of his own bed to pee.”
Ah. I’m beginning to see from whom Papaya gets her creativity.
And it hasn’t escaped my notice that Peach is still leaning on me.
My knees are going quite numb from squatting, but I could crouch here for hours if that was what was required to make her feel better.
“You have two choices.” Her voice is growing steadier, more Peach-like. “You do your punishment, and we’ll find you a better outlet for all your creative energy, or we’re going to have one hell of a rough year.”
Papaya scowls. Her tears have also left her. “I don’t like those choices.”
“They’re what you’ve got.”
“I want to go home and live with my daddy.”
Peach’s entire body goes so rigid, I have to stop myself from grabbing Papaya and dangling her by the ankle for being such an ungrateful arse.
“He lost the privilege to keep you.” Peach’s voice wobbles again. “Meemaw and me and Viktor and Alexander and Samuel are what you’ve got.”
An emotion I cannot name blooms in my chest, swells into my throat, and renders me momentarily tongue-tied.
She’s just claimed us all as family.
“Get up. I want that armor shined and sparkling before it goes back where it belongs in the tower study, and don’t you dare give me any lip, or you’ll be shining and sparkling every single suit of armor in this whole entire castle if you so much as think at me wrong.”
I swallow hard, wishing my own voice were not so much more husky than I intend it to be. It seems emotions are going around. “I believe there are fifty more stored in the dungeons, my lady.”
My shirt is damp and cold where the tears from Peach’s cheek have soaked through, I’ve nearly watched a teenage girl outwit and terrify an entire team of guards who were quite ready to maim, if not outright kill her, and I’m playing parent for the first time in my life.
Being a team.
It’s disconcerting at best.
Irresistibly attractive at worst.
I’ve a kingdom to run. There’s no time to fall for my wife.
But I fear it might be too late.