“You live with a family?” Valtteri asked as he walked Sofia back through the village. Few windows glowed with candlelight, and the beaten dirt paths weaving between trees were all empty.
Sofia took his arm, leaning against his side. “Yes. They were very kind to rent me the shed behind their house.” She laughed. “It’s not much, but it’s mine.”
They rounded a little wooden house, small but well cared for, and padded through underbrush to a copse of trees surrounding a small shack. A creek babbled just behind it, and through the branches overhead, stars twinkled between wisps of clouds. Sofia dug in her coat for her key, unlocking the little shed; curtains were drawn over the window beside the door.
“Do you want to come in?” Sofia asked, pushing open the door.
Valtteri stared at the threshold, then met her eyes, frowning.
Sofia flushed. “I don’t—this isn’t something I do all the time, you know—”
“No,” he said. “That’s not what I was thinking at all.”
“What were you thinking, then? It looked very serious.”
He laughed a little, though his stomach clenched with anxiety. “Sofia, I…” Letting out a long exhale, Valtteri reached for her arm; she stepped closer, her eyes wide with expectation.
“It’s a long story,” he said. “I’m not sure whether telling you now will be worse than keeping it a secret and then failing you.”
“Failing me?” she asked. She glanced at the house across the clearing before taking Valtteri’s arm to coax him inside. “Come, they always get up before dawn. But I’m sure whatever you’re hiding isn’t as bad as you think it is.”
He closed the door behind them, and Sofia lit a few candles, illuminating a clean bed; little else crowded the shack but a table and a few cooking implements.
Sofia poured him a drink from a half empty bottle of clear alcohol. She guided him to the bed, as her table only had one chair, and sat with her leg warming his side.
“What makes you think you would fail me, Valtteri?”
“Sofia, I just met you. I shouldn’t have said anything…”
“Are you sure you didn’t say something because you’d like to get it off your chest?”
“Well, that’s certainly part of it. But—”
She touched his hand, and some internal part of him froze at the contact. Her fingers grazed his skin soothingly.
“Valtteri, I don’t know what might be wrong, and you don’t have to tell me. You don’t even have to sleep with me. I invited you back because you seem lovely and kind. I don’t often meet men like that. I just wanted to spend some time with you. I thought perhaps you might be as lonely as I am.”
Sofia possessed a forwardness of speech he never encountered with women of noble blood. He flipped his hand over, and she entwined their fingers.
“My father is the prince,” Valtteri said quietly.
Sofia squeezed his palm. “Gods, Valtteri, doesn’t that mean I’m barely worthy of speaking to you? What were you doing, approaching me in a pub?”
Valtteri couldn’t help his laugh. Sofia grinned, tucking her calves beneath her thighs when she brought her legs onto the bed.
“I don’t get much opportunity to interact with women who are properly shy. It drew me in,” he said. “Little did I know you were just faking it.”
She giggled. “Well, usually I have to hold my own with drunk men. But I blush and stammer more often than not.”
“I haven’t gotten a hint of that, save maybe the blushing.”
“You don’t intimidate me,” she said simply.
Valtteri grinned. “That’s a relief.”
She scooted closer to him. “Valtteri, if your father is the prince…”
“I’m the heir, technically,” he said, setting his drink on the table.
“Then what are you doing out here, leading a legion of men in the Spine?”
“That’s the thing,” he said. “I…well, I’m not really the heir anymore. My father has made his intention to pass me over very clear.”
Valtteri felt himself turn bright red; he refused to meet her eyes. “Sofia, it’s…he doesn’t think I can continue the line.”
Eyes widened with shock, Sofia glanced at his lap—and Valtteri burst out laughing. She covered her mouth, blushing; eventually, though, she snickered alongside him.
“What was that?” he choked out. “It’s not like you’d be able to tell.”
“I don’t know,” she said, giggling. “I’m sorry!”
Sofia loosened him up, intentionally or unintentionally; he felt the most comfortable he had in years, save for the time he spent with his brother Casimir.
“Gods, I shouldn’t even be telling you this,” Valtteri said. “You just…you’re really lovely, Sofia.”
She beamed. “Oh, Valtteri. You don’t know a thing about me.”
“You’re running from your family, and your mother sounds awful. You swing back and forth between shy and forward so frequently I can’t help but find it endearing. You’re beautiful, and confident when the situation calls for it. Those are all things I know.”
She bit her lip. “You’re so sweet to assume my family was wrong.”
“It takes a lot of strength to run. Strength you worried they would take from you, I assume.”
She met his gaze, and she held it so earnestly, he found himself speaking freely.
“I was supposed to be married when I was seventeen. The woman was already widowed, and she was exactly what the stereotype of Southern Arm noblewomen is—manipulative, petty, and jealous. She was also much more interested in my brother Regan. When it was clear the betrothal would go forward, she approached me and demanded we sleep together, to see if she could stand to be in my bed. I knew she’d already slept with my brother, and when she got me into bed…” He grimaced, running his free hand through his hair.
Sofia brought her other hand to his back, rubbing between his shoulders soothingly.
“I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” he said. “I must be drunk.”
“Or perhaps I just have a trustworthy face.”
He snorted, and she laughed.
“You could hear this tale and spread it like everyone else, I suppose,” he said. “But if you did, it couldn’t hurt worse than any of the others.”
“I won’t hurt you,” she said. “I promise.”
Valtteri considered her for a second before he said, “I couldn’t perform, when she took me to bed. And then…she thought it was her grand opportunity to get Regan, of course, and started telling everyone I was impotent. My father—well, he believed her, not me.”
“Surely he didn’t take away your inheritance just because of that,” Sofia said. “The word of a woman with ulterior motives?”
“No, he took it away because every consecutive woman he threw at me reported the same issue. It was too much pressure,” Valtteri said, his voice growing hard. “It was like he expected me to impregnate a woman immediately—I couldn’t even have the time to get to know her, or decide if I liked her. I just had to prove to him that I could have a son. I couldn’t take the pressure, surrounded by all those rumors.”
“Oh, Valtteri,” Sofia said gently. “That’s awful.”
“I’ve been so ashamed, for so long,” he said. “I’m the laughingstock of the realm—and the Forest Realm, too, since Prince Weston’s taken to spreading the rumor. I can’t believe you haven’t heard of me.”
“Well, I don’t pay much attention to the gossip in the pub. Half of it is shite anyway.”
Valtteri sighed. “I haven’t been with a woman in three years. So if you want something from me—I’m afraid I’ll be a disappointment.”
He moved to stand, but Sofia tugged him back to the bed.
“Valtteri,” she said, her hand around his wrist. “Look at me.”
He met her eyes, his heart thumping.
“You said you didn’t like any of those women—or you didn’t have a chance to decide for yourself. Have you ever been with a woman you actually chose?”
“When I was younger. Fifteen and sixteen.”
“Well then—it doesn’t sound like you’re impotent to me. Because you’re not a virgin, right?”
He shook his head. “Sofia—”
“Do you like me, Valtteri?” she interrupted.
He furrowed his brow. “Yes.”
“Would your father ever approve of a relationship with someone like me?”
One corner of her mouth twitched, and she stood to slip out of her coat. Beneath it, the tight lacing of her dress emphasized her breasts in a nearly indecent manner. She bit her lip when she reached back to pull at the bow holding her corset in place.
“Sofia,” Valtteri said. His voice came out breathier than he intended.
The top of her dress loosened until it fell off completely, revealing her nearly sheer underclothes. Her golden skin flushed a deep red when she noticed the way he stared at her.
“I haven’t been with a man in two years,” Sofia said. “I never like them. But I think I like you.”
Valtteri’s tunic grew tight in the crotch, and he shifted on the bed. “I…like you too.”
“I’m sweating,” she admitted. “This may be the boldest thing I’ve ever done.”
Valtteri cracked a grin, holding a hand out to coax her towards him. She bit her lip once more and took in a breath when he guided her into straddling his lap.
“Oh,” she squeaked. “You’re—that’s not impotent.”
With a laugh, Valtteri grasped her chin between his fingers; he didn’t think he’d ever seen a woman so perfect. Sofia parted her lips, and he kissed her, feeling her eagerness to his toes.