“Good afternoon, cousin,” Meade said, smiling brightly.
Harlan was immediately frightened; his cousin never smiled unless he was up to something. Instead of returning the smile, he only scowled over his teacup and tersely asked, “What?”
Meade ignored him, smile only brightening still more, as he turned to Prince Stuart, a visiting royal from their western neighbors. “Highness, good afternoon. How does the day find you?”
“Quite well,” Prince Stuart replied, smiling affably back. For reasons that no one could determine, he had never been intimidated by Meade’s unpolished—uncouth—demeanor. “How are you?”
“Very well indeed, thank you,” Meade said with deliberate politeness that he never deigned to show even his own mother. He pulled a letter from his jacket and held it out. “This is for you, Highness.”
Harlan frowned, fear suddenly prickling along the back of his neck. “What is that?” he asked.
Meade smirked at him. “Revenge.”
“I see,” Harlan said, and sighed. “I thought I had been so clever, and what have you to complain about, cousin? You and your little librarian are positively unfashionable, you’re so in love. Why does that merit revenge?”
“I dislike sneaky, presumptuous bastards who seek to run my life,” Meade cheerfully.
Harlan rolled his eyes. “Even when the interference of said bastard results in you obtaining a love life?”
“It’s the principal of the matter,” Meade said. “Ta, darling.”
“Bugger off,” Harlan said, and poured himself more tea, resigned to whatever revenge Meade was exacting. Everyone might call him a reckless, uncouth, uncaring bastard, but he would never do anything that caused anyone real harm.
He did wonder why Meade had dragged Prince Stuart into it; after all, it was not as though he was aware that Harlan was in love with the reserved, quiet, flawlessly polite but completely untouchable…
Oh, bloody hell. How had Meade figured it out? Sighing, resigned to abject humiliation, he took another sip of tea then, set the delicate cup down a trifle harder than he might have otherwise and said, “Well, then, Highness? What is Meade writing to you about?”
Stuart did not immediately reply, a small frown on his face as he slowly read through the letter. His grasp on the language was still only good at best, and still a long way from true mastery. Meade, typically overestimating Stuart’s skill, would not have thought to write it in his native language.
Harlan took full advantage of the chance to admire Stuart without being caught at it. Stuart really was beautiful, pale and creamy and so fine-boned, one would never suspect the temper that could flare when he was pushed too far. A fine diplomat, and he would make a fine right hand to his crown prince brother someday. Harlan would miss it sorely when the fine green eyes no longer looked at him, confused and uncertain and in need of reassurance or explanation.
He would sorely miss it when Stuart no longer had need of him, because his need for Stuart would never fade. How the hell had Meade figured it out? It was not like he was as bloody obvious as Meade and his librarian, honestly. He had been appointed Stuart’s man because he could remain cool and composed under the most trying of circumstances.
“I am afraid his letter makes no sense,” Stuart finally said. “I think you must translate for me, my friend, because all I take from it is that I am stupid for not noticing that you are madly in love with me and I feel that cannot be right. Surely I would have noticed such a thing? So what am I misreading in this letter?”
Harlan scowled and snatched the letter away as Stuart held it out, quickly skimming the contents. When he finished, he threw it on the table in disgust. “You are not mistaken, Highness. That is precisely what the letter says. I am sorry my cousin is using you to make fun of me.”
“Oh,” Stuart said, looking—well, crushed. “It is only a peculiar sense of humor; much of that still eludes me. So explain to me why it is funny to say that you love me when you do not?”
“No—that’s not—” Harlan sighed and scrubbed at his face, and wondered where his notorious ‘cool and composed’ had suddenly gone. “It’s not a joke, not the way you think. I…well, I helped Meade to realize that his feelings for his librarian were mutual. But I did it by playing a harmless game with them. He is having his revenge for my shenanigans by telling you of my feelings, without bothering to ask my permission first. I apologize for his behavior, and the awkwardness it is causing you—”
“You love me?” Stuart cut in. “But—all my overtures—”
Harlan stared at him. “You were making overtures?” He shook his head, then repeated, “You were making overtures, Highness?”
“Clearly I was too subtle,” Stuart replied with a sigh. “Let me be more direct, then. I would greatly like it if we could progress past friendship, as highly as I value that friendship.”
Laughing, Harlan shoved back his chair and stood up, “I can do better than that, if we are attempting to be direct, Highness. I am bloody sick of having tea every afternoon during our free hours. My bedroom or yours?”
“Yours,” Stuart replied, and rose, taking the hand that Harlan held out. “It will take them longer to find us there. I love you, too.”
Harlan did not reply, save to take the kiss he had been wanting for a very long time.