It takes so little to set a life on a particular path. Or to change it.
Every tiny maneuver draws a life to one eventuality. Yet there are moments, moments where fates and futures hang heavy in anticipation for they may be pulled one direction or the opposite.
Tonight, from his post on edge of the room, Lord Melbourne had no notion such a moment was upon him. He watched the Queen glide around the room. She danced beautifully, no matter the partner. Her cousin Ernest was amiable, though, Melbourne supposed, it would be easy for any man not set on becoming the Queen’s husband to relax. Or rather, the opposite certainly seemed to be true.
A clockwork prince, he had called Prince Albert and the description seemed to fit. Whether he was adjusting his collar just so or correcting his stance, the man was constantly tidying himself. It was disconcerting, in a way, like he had been wound too tight and yet was regularly winding himself just a bit tighter.
If the Queen noticed, she gave no sign. Her laughter was bright and true on the dance floor with Ernest. It pleased Melbourne to see her enjoy herself so. He kept his eyes on her rather than dwell on the man across whose eyes, too, followed her every move.
This was the man her family had chosen for her. A humorless German. The Coburg’s interest in the Queen was unmistakable but as he’d told Emma, what was behind that interest? He squinted in discernment yet failed to draw out anything new from the stiff specimen.
When the song ended and Ernest made directly for his brother, the Queen made directly for him.
“Oh... dear Lord M!” She clasped his hands securely in her own. “Thank you for the flowers. They're as beautiful as ever.”
“The glasshouses of Brocket Hall are at your service, Ma'am,” he said, unable to stop the smile he reserved just for her from slipping onto his face.
She was especially enchanting this evening, made more so to him in no small part by the flowers she bore on her gown. Gardenias cultivated and grown specifically for her. By his estimation, they were the finest any greenhouse in the country could produce. Yet they paled in comparison to the exquisite creature who wore them.
The first strains of a tune sounded and his heart sped up with them. The music was beginning again. A waltz.
For an instant, Melbourne stole a glance at the two princes across the floor. He only just made out Albert handing his gloves to his brother, a steely look carved onto his face, before he was drawn back to the woman before him.
“Perhaps I could have the pleasure of…” he began. From the corner of his eye he saw Albert crossing the floor. His focus was unwavering, his approach one of a man fulfilling both his destiny and the desires of his family.
Just then, a strange feeling crept over Melbourne as though the path they were on was shaky and ready to carve itself anew under his very feet. In his mind’s eye, he saw two roads before them but did not know which to take. He knew he would need to step aside for the prince. He could see a future that could begin tonight, with Albert taking the Queen into his arms in an embrace permitted only by the dance. Could see the Queen softening to her rigid cousin.
But another possibility crept upon him too, one he could not banish completely from his mind no matter how he struggled. He daren’t let himself consider it, not with a German prince striding so determinedly towards them. Until...
A couple passed in front of Albert.
It was impossible, even in this small party, to tell whom it was. A ruffle of skirts and a sleek line of shoulder and they were gone, as if conjured by Fate itself, for it was enough to make Albert pause a moment.
Enough for the pavers to shift under him. For the cosmos to rearrange. For the Queen to look at him expectantly and squeeze his hands.
“Lord M?” she said, a touch of concern in her tone. He could not allow himself to think it was anticipation.
“Perhaps I may have the pleasure of this dance?” he said, his smile spreading more broadly.
At once, her eyes were alight. Without hesitation, she fitted her hand with his and they fell into step with one another.
It had been a long time since he’d had cause or desire to waltz. The movements came back to him slowly both from lack of use and from lack of concentration. It was difficult to recall the rather simple steps when one was so enraptured with one’s dance partner.
Unlike all of the other times they had danced, they were silent as they moved about the room. The flowers she had already thanked him for looked striking between them. The scent of the gardenia mingled with the scent of the woman who wore it was nothing short of divine.
The waltz was improperly close, some said, but he could not find room for fault. Not while caught in the Queen’s embrace. For he was. No matter what the decorum of dancing dictated, she held him, not the opposite. Her gaze was heavy on his own, her arm a welcome weight, her hand a perfect extension of him. Though several layers of heavy fabric separated his hand from the skin of her back the heat was scalding. But he only pressed her closer, seeking more, more, as they moved fluidly together.
So intent was he upon every turn, every dip of their bodies, he failed to see Albert stomp broodingly to his brother. The older man whispered quickly in German but Albert heard nothing as he replaced his gloves and turned his back to the couples. Perhaps he felt stung by Fate’s intervention. His glowering was remarked on by all but the pair too entranced with one another to notice.
At the conclusion of the waltz, there was a prolonged moment in which Melbourne had to remember to let go of the Queen. His arms had already grown accustomed to the shape, the weight, the feel of her.
Bowed low over her hand, he touched his lips to her fingers. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
“A pleasure, as always, Lord M.” She sounded as breathless as he felt. Perhaps it was the candles but he could not help thinking she seemed incandescent in that moment.
Returning to his place on the side, he gratefully accepted a glass of wine. He was careful to take only a small sip, no matter what his thirst and mind truly cried for. Emma made her way next to him once more and took a glass for herself. Sparing him only the briefest of looks, she left her presence and knowing smile as commentary. A flush spread over the back of his neck and he could not keep his lips from twitching in delight nor from taking another, fuller sip of wine.
The remainder of the evening passed without incident. Albert never moved from his corner, which seemed to grow darker with each passing dance. The prince’s eyes rarely left the Queen but when they did it was to flash in accusation at him. Melbourne chose to look away in these instances, to find someone to converse with, or, preferably, to catch the Queen’s eye and share one of their private looks.
When the Queen retired for the evening, she requested he escort her through the darkened palace. The flowers, which had all night been affixed to her gown, were now clutched firmly but carefully in her hand. Melbourne watched with pleasure the way her fingers caressed the velvet petals. He knew the shape and feel of those fingers too well. From their dance tonight, from endless greetings, from helping her out of countless carriages.
From Brocket Hall.
“Thank you again, Lord M, for joining us tonight,” she said smoothly.
“Pleasure, Ma’am. Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Quite, though I am not sure I can say the same for my cousin.”
“You refer to Prince Albert?” It was the first time she had mentioned Albert to him all night. He ignored the prickle of jealousy in his heart.
“Yes, the ‘clockwork prince,’ Emma called him. I quite agree,” she said, stroking the flowers thoughtfully.
The heat of pride crackled happily in his chest, banishing any envy there, and not at all dampened by Emma’s appropriation of his own observation. His eyebrows twitched in amusement.
“It is a very apt description,” she said, meeting his eyes with the fullness of her own, “...Lord M.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed, his pride instantly supplanted with embarrassment. “Ma’am, I hope you know I did not mean-”
The Queen cut him off with a throaty giggle. “Dear Lord M, I am not cross. You needn’t worry.”
Though he dipped his head boyishly anyway, he felt the corner of his lips turn up.
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
They bade one another good evening and the swish of her gown had long vanished before he finally turned to head home himself.
They still go to Windsor. Some things are inevitable. But not all. In every universe she still invites him to dinner and he still accepts with little reluctance. He could not deny her anything she asked of him in earnest. Not anymore. What man, what person, could?
The Windsor uniform was stiff and he was unaccustomed to it. The glitter in the Queen’s appreciative look when she saw him, however, was reason enough to endure it. Upon entering the room, she approached him at once.
“Oh dear, Lord M. I am so glad you were able to come.” She clasped his hands and he couldn’t help but return the gesture as he bowed his head in deference. He felt there was something appraising in the way she took him in, as though seeing him differently than she might’ve in other circumstances.
The creak of her cousin’s agitated fidgeting drew her attention. With an apologetic look at him, she squeezed his hands. “If you’ll excuse me…”
Melbourne watched the tense exchange between the Coburgs and the Queen. It was beyond his comprehension that Albert refused to thaw before her. She carried such passion with her, such warmth in her smile alone, it was a wonder the man remained so resolutely upright. Perhaps this is a difference between nobility and subjects, he thought, for he could never imagine remaining so implacable in the face of such loveliness.
Dinner was a stilted affair. More than once, Ernest did all he could to encourage conversation between his cousins. Though the Queen was pleasant enough, Albert was practically petulant in his refusal. Every reply he deigned to give was heavy with the superiority many disliked in his class and the Queen disliked in anyone, particularly when speaking to her. Seemingly unwilling to indulge her cousin, she turned instead to speak to him in that same natural way that had blossomed between them.
Each time the Queen drew him back into conversation, Emma cast him a look of appreciation even as others around the table looked at him quite the opposite. Their silent scorns rolled over him as time and again Albert acted dismissively.
It was awkward, the obvious choice to speak with him rather than her would-be intended, but Melbourne could hardly be bothered. Not when she smiled so sweetly, teased so kindly, and spoke so wisely. If Albert would not delight in her favor, he would gladly do so.
Seeing the irritation of their Queen and the way she sought comfort in her familiarity with him, one by one her ladies joined Emma in smiling gratefully. By the end of the meal Melbourne had pocketed a warm look from each of them. He had also ceased caring about the opinion of the Coburgs, the younger in particular.
Though he himself had no claim to the Queen, had given up any such claim that day at Brocket Hall, he would see her chosen husband treat her well. She ought to be loved, cherished, adored, and honored. Any man should feel humbled to receive her attentions, her affections. To be considered as a possible match should be the peak of any man’s life, a fact to which he could personally attest. And yet Albert bore it as burden, a nuisance.
The man did not deserve her. Was not worthy of her.
Others chose not to care, of course, and Melbourne could hardly blame them. They had staked much on this match and they would see it done if at all possible. They would bend Fate to their will or at least try their utmost. So it was that when he arrived the next day, he learned the Queen had gone riding with her cousins. He busied himself as he waited for her return and rose at the sound of hoofbeats, but found only Lord Alfred.
“Did you return with the Queen?”
“No, I came back with Prince Ernest,” the lord said, looking abashed. “We were… superfluous.”
But hardly had the word been uttered, and Melbourne’s heart begun to drop, then another pair of hoofbeats sounded outside. As Lord Alfred turned in surprise, Melbourne breathed deeply in unexpected relief.
Prince Albert appeared first, the same expression of frustration and disappointment painted on him as he’d worn the night of the dance. He paused only long enough to cast a glare Melbourne’s direction, then disappeared.
“Lord M, how wonderful.” The Queen strode quickly towards him, acknowledging Lord Alfred only briefly.
Composing himself, he took the Queen’s hand and greeted her properly. “Ma’am, I apologize if I’ve interrupted.”
“Not at all. Would you care to ride out?”
He frowned and cast a glance at the retreating form of the other lord. “Have you not had enough riding today, Ma’am? Is that not why you have returned?”
“Enough riding, no. Enough of particular company, yes,” she said, her head turning the direction to which her cousin had stormed off. Next to her, Dash wriggled in anticipation of another venture outdoors.
They rode not to the trees he knew she cared little for but to an open expanse lined with lush grass and flowers. After being shuttered away in Kensington most of her life, he liked to show her there were many places to feel free. To breathe.
They made use of one tree to tether their horses and enjoyed a long walk on foot. All his planned discussion and lessons were set aside in favor of her friendly company. He could tell she was turning something over in her mind but his anxious heart held him back from asking. She would tell him if she wished. Eventually, she does.
“What do you think of my cousin, Lord M?”
“Prince Albert, Ma’am? He is very... reserved,” he said carefully. “I have not had much opportunity to know him.”
“Neither have I, I fear.”
“You wish that you had?” The words rushed from him, fearful and yet anxious for her reply.
“I do not know,” she said, her hands clasped before her. “At times, I feel…. And yet he vexes me often. Always looking down at me as though I were a stupid child, seeking to educate me about my own country, caring only for his own interests and not at all for mine.”
Melbourne nodded politely, unsure how to respond without his own prejudice becoming known. If she were to deny the prince, it must not be because of his words.
“Albert is so taciturn. One moment he is lecturing me, scolding me, and then another he is someone else entirely. Someone passionate and adventurous.” She frowned, watching her boots as she avoided a cluster of wildflowers. “I cannot seem to reconcile the two.”
She looked to him for guidance, as she had often done before. Duty compelled him to speak though his heart would've preferred he do otherwise. Mustering only half a smile to his lips, he spoke honestly.
“Men often find it difficult to converse with the comeliest of women, Ma’am, and you are a beautiful woman and the Queen besides.”
Though he had continued their walk as he spoke, stepping over a fallen branch in their path, she paused. She seemed to be considering him rather than his words. When he looked closely, he thought he saw a gleam in her eyes that made his heart lift.
“Boys, I should think, have that problem,” she said with surety. “But not men.”
She held out her hand and he took it, helping her over the branch. It was not a difficult step but her grip was steadfast and did not relax when she was settled.
“Not all men,” she said, her eyes already on him when he raised his own.
“No, Ma’am,” he said and felt himself being pulled towards her. “Not all men.”
The magic woven in her gaze was broken by the startled yipping of a dog.
“Oh! Dash!” she said, breathless though they had been walking at a gentle pace. They hurried only a few paces to the side of them and found the dog panting in pain. A hunting trap lay next to him.
“No, no, no,” the Queen moaned. “Is he hurt? Dash…”
“His leg looks broken,” he said, bending down to examine the spaniel further. “Apologies, Ma’am, but we need something to wrap the leg in.”
The Queen looked at him, puzzlement turning to embarrassed understanding as he quickly unwound his necktie. “Of course, Lord M. Very wise.” She swallowed and looked away, as though the exposed skin of his neck was scandalous to behold.
She’s seen me in more or less of such a state before, he thought in chagrin. Yet still his skin flushed and was glad to receive the cool touch of the air.
Stroking the dog’s ears, the Queen sniffed a little. “Can he move?” she asked anxiously. “Should I wait with him here while you fetch assistance?”
“And leave you here alone, Ma’am?” he said as he finished binding the wound. “Never. We’ll go together.”
He scooped the dog easily into his arms and was promptly rewarded with a slobbery lick to his chin. In unison he and the Queen laughed, the sound laced with relief.
“I’ll take that as both permission and thank you,” he said, smiling, and saw the Queen’s eyes, wet though they were with tears, twinkle up at him.
The ride back to Windsor was careful and slow with his new passenger dozing on him. The Queen directed her horse as close as she dared. To keep an eye on Dash, he told himself. At the house, he ignored the curious glances of the staff and other guests and called for one of the grooms. They would best know how to care for the dog’s leg.
When the groom had finished, the Queen hovered over Dash worrying. Throughout the ordeal, Melbourne had remained at her side. He crouched next to her now and watched her slowly stroke her best and most beloved companion.
“We shall be departing soon, I expect,” she whispered eventually.
“Very good, Ma’am,” he said softly, giving the dog a last gentle pat before rising to leave.
“Lord M?” she said quickly, catching him before he’d left the room. “Thank you for your company and for your assistance with Dash.”
“My pleasure, Ma’am, of course. I know how dear he is to you.”
“Indeed,” she said and a familiar look crossed her face. It made his heart pause a beat. “He is.”
Caught between her and the door he seemed unable to move without her leave. She gave it readily by placing one hand on his arm and stretching up to kiss his cheek.
Dash left his thanks, why shouldn’t I? He could imagine her saying but she did not.
Only stepped back, leaving her hand on his arm, and asked, “You will ride back with us, won’t you?”
“Of- Of course, Ma’am,” he said, his voice nearly betraying him. She nodded, pleased, and turned back to the sleeping spaniel.
They do, in fact, depart very soon after, Dash nestled pleasantly on the Queen’s lap. He spied them through the carriage window and saw she was ruminating on something again. Too many possibilities assaulted his mind. He resolutely kept his thoughts occupied with matters of the House for the duration of the ride rather than on whatever was troubling her. He decidedly did not dwell on the feel of soft lips on his skin.
It was not long before he learned what plagued her mind. It was as he expected and yet he inquired all the same. Always he was devoted to her happiness, even at the cost of his own.
Therefore, at the conclusion of one of their usual meetings and unable to take the pensive furrowing of her brow any longer, he asked, “Is something the matter, Ma'am?
“Albert thinks I'm too friendly with you,” she said with a touch of frustration.
His chest tightened. “And what do you think?”
“I don't know. Albert always looks at me as if I have done something wrong. I... I would like him to smile at me.”
“Well, he does not smile very often,” he said in an attempt at humor.
“I know! That's why I want him to smile at me.”
He nodded, remembering well the times of youth when the rare smiles of your beloved were coveted beyond any other treasure. “Well, if that is your intention, Ma'am, I don't see how he could resist.” It was honestly said but pained him all the same.
“Do you really believe so?” The disbelief and innocence of the question struck him. She truly had no understanding of her own inner and outer beauty. Her majesty did not come from the crown atop her head alone. It would never be his place to convince her thusly. He had relinquished any such chance and now Albert seemed unfit for the task. The realization bowed his head a little sorrowfully.
“Only a fool would turn you away, Ma'am,” he said quietly and was sure she could not hear, already a few steps away as she was. He followed her dutifully.
The next day Melbourne greeted the princes at Parliament with all the gratuity he could muster. Neither looked pleased with the course their visit had run, though, as always, Ernest was better at disguising it.
Resolved as he was to do all within his power to ensure the Queen’s happiness, Melbourne offered Albert an opportunity. No matter his own feelings, he could not deny Albert was the man the Queen had chosen, or soon would. He himself had squandered any claim to her heart and he knew the regret of such a choice. If he could prevent this man from doing the same, he would.
Conciliatorily, he spoke of the Queen’s disinterest in the House. Albert seemed to click into awareness. “I thought she followed you in everything,” the prince said coldly.
“Oh, well, once perhaps,” Melbourne replied lightly. “Now that she has settled into being Queen, I find she ignores me more and more.”
But where once Albert’s eyes might’ve flashed hungrily at the words, they only narrowed. He had been denied time and again by his queenly cousin and by Fate itself. In some other life he might have accepted the olive branch from the Prime Minister as a reassurance of sorts. But in this life, he only turned his head in haughty indignation.
It was that which convinced Melbourne neither he nor the brothers believed his words as blatantly as he’d presented them. His compulsion to remark on his ministry soon ending, which he knew it must, and his intention to return to Brocket Hall vanished. He felt, suddenly, that the two men did not deserve nor require such a disclosure.
With the Coburgs departing that day, Melbourne resigned himself to his study, knowing the Queen would wish to see her cousins off. He knew all too well what that might entail and was not prepared to stomach it quite yet. It was with surprise and apprehension, then, that he received a summons to the Palace late in the afternoon. He found her awaiting him in a parlor.
“Is everything alright, Ma’am?” he asked.
“I expect that depends on whom you ask.”
She paced in front of the fire, gathering her words. She was elegantly dressed, far more than required for even an impromptu meeting with him. Her hair was sleek and unadorned. How he wished to see his flowers woven within the rich brown tresses.
“I have always known my own mind,” she started, “even when Mama and Sir John tried to take it from me. Yet now…”
Melbourne tilted his head inquiringly. He did not like to see her so discomfited.
“Everyone expects I will make an offer to Albert.” He had anticipated this and still the words landed like a blow to his lungs. Only years in politics and a propensity for thinking on his feet saved him.
“Yes, I believe they do,” he said softly. “But is that what you want?”
She huffed in a manner unbefitting a Queen. “No one is interested in what I want,” she said tersely. “Only what they want for me.”
“You will live with it and they will not,” he said, incensed on her behalf. “The decision is yours, Ma’am. No one else’s.”
“Therein I find my issue. For I fear the decision does not lie entirely with me.” She approached him slowly. The sleek line of her throat bobbed as she swallowed. “Lord M, there is a question I wish to ask you.”
The breath caught in his own throat before he had even registered her words. He must be calm, for her sake if not his own.
“Yes, Ma’am?” he choked in reply.
“But… I am afraid to know your answer.”
She stared entreatingly at him, as though he might save her the trouble of asking. If he could be sure what she meant to request, he would gladly be of service. The singular possibility that pulsed in his mind was shoved roughly away and he was left with no other reply to offer.
“Perhaps,” she said, drifting nearer, “...may I ask you another question first?”
A laugh burst from him, relieved as he was to have an answer to give. “Of course, Ma’am.”
Her eyes were steady on him as she said, “That day at Brocket Hall, you said you had no use for my heart. Do you feel that way still?”
His relief was gone at the mention of Brocket Hall. In its place was the rapid beating of his heart. Everything about that day flooded back to him. The gentleness of the breeze and the way it had caressed her hair. The tears in her eyes and how he’d longed to dry them. The inviting feel of her hand in his and the gladness in his heart that he’d had the courage to take it.
“Please, Lord M,” she said, sounding hushed. “We have always been truthful with one another, have we not?”
“We have,” he said, voice cracking though he tried to patch it.
“Then you must know- I must tell you- yesterday, I heard you.” Heat flooded his face even as he opened his mouth to deny it. She cut him off. “You really think yourself a fool?”
He shook his head, stepping away from her. “I think... it hardly matters.”
“And what if I say it does matter?” Her gaze pierced him so he could scarcely consider looking away.
“Lord M, I do like Albert. I cannot deny that. But I’m not sure I can give him my heart. I fear it still belongs with another.” She took his hand, as bold and brave as he always knew her to be, and enfolded it with hers. His heart was like a wild stallion in his chest, leaping towards her with every fervent beat.
It was impossible, he told himself. It must be. A litany of hindrances, from the stain such a decision would place on her monarchy to the uproar they would cause, assaulted his mind. They clamoured for attention, for him to speak them aloud.
And yet he could not. For no matter how compelling the reason, it was immediately displaced.
All he could truly fix in his mind were her cleverness and compassion, her fortitude and fearlessness, the beguiling heat of her hand on his. She had drawn him in in a way he could never have anticipated but he had gone willingly, happily, even when it meant forsaking his own desires.
Before, his pride and station had stayed him. Now they peeled away, thin as they had been the first time, and drifted further from him with every ragged breath. The room pressed in on him until all he could see, all he could sense, was the woman in front of him. She was all eyes and hope. How could he disappoint her again?
For so long he’d made no effort to conceal his devotion to her. But always he’d acted in the background, behind the veil of propriety and service. Now he felt a prompting in his heart, as though he were being given an opportunity that may never have existed. As though the heavens themselves had been rearranged simply to favor him in this moment. Emma’s words from what felt like an age ago whispered to him. Are you going to stare at her all night?
Time seemed to pause and wait for them, for him, until at last, he placed his other hand atop hers.
She released a stuttering exhale, and their heads bowed together.
“My dear Lord M, my question is,” she whispered in the sliver of space between them, “....would you do me the honor- no, I don’t think that is right.”
She raised her eyes to him, breath shallow, and both hands clutching his own, as though worried he might disappear. Never, he wanted to tell her. Instead he brought her hands to his chest. She began to speak once more but he stayed her.
“Ma’am, if I may be so bold, there is no hurry.” He searched her eyes a moment, ensuring she understood he did not mean to reject her. “You and I have always been of the mind that there was no cause for you to marry so soon. And an engagement such as this…” His fingers could not help kneading her own. “We will have much to adjust to. As will those around you. It will not be a popular decision, you understand?”
“I will have the rest of my reign to make popular decisions,” she said firmly, drawing in all of the power and dignity he had come to admire in her. “In this at least, I intend to serve my own interests.” She held his hands tighter as if to make her meaning known.
With a nod and feeling an insistent smile tugging at his lips, he said, “Then, firstly, I must resign as your Prime Minister.”
Her laugh was the sweetest sound to him. “This time I shall not object,” she said, eyes studying his features. “You will not mind?”
“I think I have never minded anything less,” he said with utter surety. Emboldened by her constant touch, he laid her hands flat to his chest. She stepped closer still.
“So, you will resign and we will take our time,” she recited steadily though he could feel her tremble slightly. “But for the duration, you will be my…”
“Companion?” he supplied.
“Yes.” Her eyes were wide with joy at the word. “You will stay with me as my companion?”
The words were like a lover’s breath against his lips, so close they stood to one another. When he opened his mouth to reply, he could taste the sweetness of them.
“Yes.” An answer had never come more easily to him. “Yes,” he said again, delighting in it.
With a breathless laugh, she threw her arms around him and he held her to him as though he always had done so. She giggled against him, her cheek pressed to his own. He could feel her radiant smile.
“And when we do come to it,” he whispered, emotion pouring out of him so crystalline he felt the prick of tears before he’d quite comprehended it, “...the honor shall always be mine.”
Warm breath brushed through his hair as she clasped him tightly. She was so slight, her toes did not touch the floor as he held her. He could find no reason, at all, to mind. Not when she was so warm and real against him, his arms fitting seamlessly around her and holding her with ease.
He was reminded starkly of the night they had shared a waltz. She had been pressed to him then too though in quite a different manner. He understood now he had been wrong that night. He’d thought there was an alternate road they might take, some other eventuality awaiting him, awaiting them both. No, no, there was no other path but this. How could there be?
There was only ever this.
Only this woman in his arms.
Only her surprising him with a quick kiss behind his ear, murmuring something against his skin.