Alexandra was starting to lose track of them all. Her cheeks ached from smiling, and her head swam from the reek of perfume and cologne. She circled the ballroom in the arms of a Russian prince, wishing she could be elsewhere.
The choice of dance partner didn’t suit her either.
Prince Ivan Feodorovich was too tall and physically imposing. He’d taken her in hand as if she was a prize to be claimed, and though he was perfectly polite, his cool skin unnerved her.
He reminded her a little of her former husband with the hawkish glint in those eyes and the sheer overwhelming masculinity that oozed off him. Though his smile was warmer, she nonetheless felt hunted.
She couldn’t breathe.
Her stays… pressing tighter. Constricting all the breath from her lungs.
“Are you well?” he demanded in his thick accent, his hand tightening on her waist. “You seem breathless. Do you wish for fresh air?”
Not with you.
But it was the perfect opportunity. Alexandra made her excuses and discreetly slipped from the ballroom, her skin crawling. She made her way toward her private apartments in a flurry of silk, barely aware of the Coldrush guard and servant who followed her.
Once inside her drawing room, Alexandra pressed her back to the door, closing her eyes and breathing slowly. It was ridiculous. The man had barely touched her, barely even looked at her, yet she’d felt the prickle of nerves alight within her like a sudden sickness.
It was because he was attractive.
And worse, a blue blood.
She was the queen of England. No man could control her ever again.
But no matter how often she told herself that, it didn’t still the jump of nerves.
How was she going to do this? How was she going to let another man into her bed, when she could barely even stand to be touched?
The only man she felt comfortable around was Sir Gideon, and even then she’d had… a moment. And she’d been kissed once by the Duke of Goethe, before her husband had him murdered. It had been nice, though to be perfectly honest, she’d fallen for Manderlay’s quiet charms and his gift of poetry, rather than being swayed physically. And the kiss had been so perfunctory, it hadn’t threatened her.
But she trusted Sir Gideon. He felt nonthreatening, and indeed, she’d wanted him to kiss her, once upon a time.
She still wanted him to kiss her, though she doubted he’d ever chance such an encounter again after she’d fled from him that last time.
Indeed, he was possibly the only man of her acquaintance whom she could even consider… lying with.
An idea occurred.
It was ludicrous. Preposterous.
But what if it worked?
Alexandra froze. What if all she needed was frequent exposure with someone she trusted? What if she could defeat this… this fear within her?
“Don’t you even think about it,” she whispered in the stillness of her rooms.
And yet, the thought of Sir Gideon kissing her again was almost its own type of lure.
And you are the queen.
Ava winced as the frequency transmitter squealed. Gemma must have been standing too close to the orchestra.
She swiftly turned the dial for Gemma’s communication device down, and scanned through the other Rogues’ frequencies. All was well.
The door behind her opened.
“I’m sorry, this room is taken.” Ava glanced behind her, then abruptly straightened and dipped a curtsy. “Your Majesty. My apologies. I had no idea it was you. Forgive me.”
She’d taken over one of the queen’s antechambers for the night, with Malloryn’s blessing.
The queen smiled. “Forgiven, Miss McLaren. Whatever are you doing out of bed?”
Ava relaxed. “Oh, I volunteered. Someone has to keep them all in line,” she joked, gesturing to the transmitter. And it wasn’t as if she was going to be getting much sleep, what with the incessant ache in her hips.
“I trust you are well?” The queen’s face softened as she glanced down, though her eyes bore the stain of sadness.
Ava should have been in confinement. No amount of ruffles in the world could conceal the bulk of her midriff, where Kincaid’s baby kicked morning and night. But Herbert was the only other person who knew how to work the switchboard, and he was currently enjoying a weekend in Bath with his wife.
“Tolerably well, Your Majesty.”
“Malloryn’s not working you too hard?”
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