“Why are you here?” I asked.
“Don’t pretend like you’re not happy to see me.” His cocky grin returned, lighting up his face. “I’m sure you’ve been miserable since I left.”
“Hardly,” I scoffed. “I’ve been planning my engagement party.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about that dreadful business.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “That’s why I’ve come to save you.”
“Save me?” I echoed.
“Yes, like a knight in shining armor.” Loki spread his arms wide and bowed low. “I’ll throw you over my shoulder and scale the wall with you like Rapunzel.”
“Rapunzel used her hair so a prince could climb into a tower, not escape it,” I told him.
“Forgive me. The Vittra don’t believe in nursery rhymes or fairy tales.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “And I don’t need to be rescued. I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
“Oh, come, now.” Loki shook his head. “Princess, you can’t believe that. You’re not supposed to be locked away in a horrible castle, engaged to a boring fool, forced to sneak out in the night for a chance to breathe.”
“I appreciate your concern, Loki, but I’m happy here.” Even as I said it, I wasn’t sure if that was true or not.
“I can promise you a life of adventure.” Loki grabbed a branch and swung over, so he landed on the bench with astonishing grace. “I’ll take you to exotic places. Show you the world. Treat you the way a Princess really ought to be treated.”
“That all sounds well and good.” I smiled up at him. I was flattered by his invitation, even if I didn’t trust it. “But … why?”
“Why?” Loki laughed. “Why not?”
“I can’t help but feel like you’re only trying to get me to shirk my responsibilities as a Trylle Princess so I can aid your cause,” I said honestly.
“You think the King put me up to this?” Loki laughed again. “The King loathes me. Despises me. Threatens to behead me on a daily basis. The Queen had to go against his wishes to get me. He wanted you all to execute me.”
“Now I really wanna go back to that,” I said with a smirk.
“Who said anything about going back? I’m asking you to run away from all of this, from all the Trylle and the Vittra, the silly royals and their silly rules.” He gestured widely around us.
“Is that why you looked upset when Sara suggested I come back with you?”
“That was dreadful,” he admitted. “For one horrible minute, I thought you would accept, and that would be the end of everything.”
I cocked my head at him. “The end of everything?”
“The King would never let you get away again,” Loki explained. “And you couldn’t survive there.”
“Why are you so certain I wouldn’t survive against the King?” I asked. “I’m strong and smart, and sometimes I’m even brave.”
“That’s exactly why. Because you’re good and brave and kind and beautiful.” He jumped down from the bench, landing right in front of me. “The King destroys anything that’s beautiful.”
“Then how have you survived for so long?” I meant to keep my tone teasing, but as soon as I asked it, his eyes flashed with pain, and he lowered them quickly.
“That story is too long for tonight, Princess, but I can assure you that my survival has come at a price.” He swallowed hard, then cleared his throat, and his smirk returned. “Wait. Did you just call me brave and beautiful?”
“Hardly.” I laughed and stepped away from him, all too aware of his presence next to me. He seemed to exude heat as well as charm. “So, what would happen if I took you up on this offer? Where would we go? What would we do?”
“I am so glad you asked.” His whole face lit up. “I have some money. Not a lot, mind you, but I’ve hidden some of my mother’s old jewelry. I could pawn it, and then we could go anywhere. Do anything your heart desired.”
“That doesn’t really sound like much of a plan.”
“The Virgin Islands,” Loki answered quickly and took another step toward me. “We wouldn’t need passports to get there, and there’s no trolls of any kind. We could spend all day in the ocean, and all night on the beach.” He paused, his smile painfully sincere. “Just the two of us.”
“I can’t.” I shook my head, and I hated how tempting the idea was. To run away from all the pressure and stress of the palace. “I can’t let the kingdom down. I have a duty here, to these people.”
“You have a duty to yourself to be happy!” Loki insisted.
“No, I don’t,” I said. “I have too much here. And let’s not forget that I have a fiancé.”
“Don’t marry him.” He scoffed at the idea. “Marry me instead.”
“Marry you?” I laughed. “You told me that I should only marry for love.”
“That I did.” In that rare moment of honesty, Loki looked almost stunningly handsome. He stepped toward me, moving so close we were nearly touching. “Wendy, marry me.”
“That’s…” I shook my head, astounded by his proposal. “That doesn’t even make sense, Loki. I barely know you, and you’re … you’re my enemy.”
“I know I haven’t known you that long, but I’ve felt … a connection from the moment I saw you, and I know you felt it too.”
I floundered, wanting to deny him, but unable to. “Loki, a connection isn’t enough to build a life on.”
“I don’t care where I come from or who your people are,” he said simply. “I can make you happy, and you make me happy. We could have a happily ever after.”
His eyes were on mine, and even in the dim light they glimmered gold. A slow wave started to wash over me as relaxation flowed through me. Just when I realized that Loki was trying to knock me out, the sensation stopped.
“What happened?” I asked, as the fog lifted from my mind. Loki stood inches in front of me, and I knew I should move away, but I didn’t.
“I’m not going to do that to you,” he said quietly. “What I told you before is still true. I want to know that when you’re with me, it’s because you want to be, not because you have to be.”