As the evening came to a close, Philip bid thanks and good night to Maximilian and Claudia and stood awkwardly with Sophie at the door. They lingered, both reluctant to part ways once again.
“Lady Sophie,” he said. “The evening is so pleasant. Shall we stroll around the gardens?”
“Without a chaperone?” Sophie teased, then looked more carefully behind him. “Your courtier isn’t with you, is he?”
“I’ve dismissed him. He returned to England when I was supposed to.”
Sophie narrowed her eyes at this. It didn’t seem like King Ferdinand was one to let his only son stay in another country without a guardian, and she began to wonder if Philip was giving the full story.
“You’ve been on your own all this time?” she said slowly.
“Of course not. I’ve got my servants and staff. Shall we?”
Did she need a chaperone in her own house? Sophie did not think so. It was late, and the brisk night air sent breezes rippling through the gardens. The light of the full moon cast a silvery sheen over the paths. Though they stayed in view of the palace and its guards, Sophie had a feeling—similar to the night before—that everything was tinted with some sort of magic when they were together.
“May I show you my favorite spot before you go?” Sophie asked, forcing the question out before she changed her mind. It would involve going off unsupervised, but Maximilian and Claudia were already up in their chambers, and Sir Rodrigo was, mercifully, far from here. They could sneak around the servants. Worried she may never get the chance again, Sophie felt she couldn’t pass it up.
Philip glanced back at the palace, where the guards seemed disinterested in their movements. “You’re sure?”
Sophie nodded. “We’ll be quick.”
She grabbed hold of his hand, pulling him through the autumn flowers toward the west side of the palace, where tall hedges formed a miniature maze. They slipped through the leafy corridors, Sophie leading by heart, until they reached a little pool of fish and a bubbling fountain that sparkled in the light of the moon. No sound reached them except for the movement of the water.
“This is lovely,” Philip said, hushed. “I can tell why it’s your favorite.”
“My mother came here often to think and read. I like to save it for special occasions.”
“Is this a special occasion?”
Sophie hitched as she became distinctly aware of the privacy afforded by the hedges, of how closely the two of them were standing together, of the way her heart rate galloped at the question.
“It’s just a nice night,” she whispered.
Philip looked at her for what seemed like months, years, studying her face and meeting her eyes so boldly that it was hard to return the gaze. Then he looked away, concentrating hard on the fish in the fountain.
“What I’d started telling you last night,” he said. “Before Claudia fell ill. I wanted to tell you that you are the reason I did not go to England.” Philip let out a long breath. “There—I said it.”
Sophie could barely speak. “I was?”
He met her eyes at last, and it was as if a spark was lit between them. Sophie felt his gaze flooding her like warmth.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Are you glad I am still here?”
“Yes,” she breathed.
Philip exhaled. It seemed like he wanted to say something more, but instead he bit his lip and turned away.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, concerned.
He looked back at her and shook his head with a smile.
Time moved very slowly as Sophie watched him, framed by the hedges. They both looked up at the moon and the stars, sitting together quietly. She didn’t know what to say but also felt that she needn’t say anything at all.
“Your hair is so dark,” he said, almost as if he were talking to himself, but he was staring at her with an awed look in his eye. “It makes your skin look…”
“Snow-white?” she asked, teasing. “It’s what they used to call me as a child.”
“Snow White,” he murmured reverently.
Copyright © 2023 by Melissa de la Cruz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.