Breaking into a Royal Palace isn’t easy, and as a courtship strategy, Joe really wouldn’t recommend it.
Unfortunately, it was literally the only option he had left.
He’d promised Nicky that they hadn’t reached their end, that they would be together again. It was a promise that he intended to keep. For a very long time, he reminded himself, placing his hand over the item resting in his pocket.
But for that to happen, Joe had to somehow get back into a palace he was no longer welcome in.
The problem wasn’t just the guards—they were a nuisance, but they were human, and therefore fallible. The cameras, on the other hand—
Oh, what Joe would have given in that moment to have been born in a time before security cameras and electric fences. Those medieval princes didn’t know how good they had it, being able to simply jump over a wall, break into a tower and steal their love away with nothing but a soft word and a sharp sword.
The dragons might have posed a difficulty, but uh. Yeah, he was getting off topic.
Genoa’s Royal Palace, unfortunately, had some of the best security in the world—but most of it was focused on people getting inside. Once he was in, things would become far easier.
Especially since, in that area, Joe had a particular advantage. He had lived in that palace for eight years, and he had spent all of that time at the side of someone who liked to stick their nose into everything. Joe knew every corner, every cranny—and every secret passage.
It was the one thing – other than the obvious – that he had enjoyed about Genoa when he had been fostered in the palace as a kid. His palace in Mahdia used to have secret passageways, but over the centuries they had become so well known that they had turned into ordinary hallways with interesting doors. Genoa’s palace, however—that was another story entirely.
Yes, once Joe had made it through the doors, he would be able to navigate through the walls however he liked. It was just a matter of working out how to get inside in the first place.
He was about ready to just do it the old-fashioned way and charge the gates with a battering ram when he finally had the idea—because just outside the doors themselves was a teeming mass of people, all there to watch Prince Nicolò be ceremoniously given his title of Crown Prince of Genoa. It was one of those ridiculous ceremonies that stemmed from tradition, no longer needed yet followed nonetheless. But it was a gift Joe sorely needed, for while most of those people were politicians and royals, a good chunk of them were far more anonymous.
Joe was already wearing his best clothes, having already considered the possibility of blending in with the guests. (Not to mention that, uh, the occasion he was planning rather called for it.) It was easy enough to make his way through the crowd, single out a good target, and then tap her on the shoulder.
“Hello,” Joe said, giving her his brightest smile.
The reporter he’d chosen both because she was stood away from the others and because he looked friendly jumped about half a foot in the air, then turned with a nervous smile.
“Hi?” she asked. Then her gazed shifted over Joe’s face, and her eyes widened. “Oh my god, hi. You’re—”
“Someone who is not supposed to be here, yeah,” Joe said quickly. “Listen, I really need to get inside the palace, and there is no way I’m getting in there without help.”
The reporter blinked, then frowned. She wore large, square framed glasses which only heightened the effect of the expression. “Are you asking me to help you break into the palace?” she asked, her Ligurian accented in a way which suggested she had been raised speaking English. “The Royal Palace of Genoa?”
“Yes,” Joe said. “You catch on fast. Listen, I know that you need the story and your boss will probably skin you alive for this—”
“I’m hardly worried about my boss—I mean, well, yes, she will, but I’m more worried about the Genoese secret police,” she hissed.
Joe blinked. “Uh. The Genoese don’t have a secret police.”
“I’m just saying, if they did, we wouldn’t know about it.” The reporter considered him for a moment. “Are you trying to get in so that you can see Prince Nicolò? You’re dating, right? You know you’ve been labelled as the star-crossed lovers of the century.”
“Let’s just say, that if you lend me your press pass—I’ll give you the story of the century,” Joe said.
The reporter frowned, considering, clearly wondering if it was worth the chance of being arrested for helping someone break into the palace.
“I’ll dump the pass, or I’ll say I stole it,” Joe said. “Don’t worry. It won’t come back to you—I don’t even know your name.”
When she still looked unsure, Joe closed his eyes for a moment, and pressed his hand against his full pocket once more.
Leaving Mahdia and coming back to Genoa hadn’t been a rash decision, but it hadn’t been something he’d needed to think about, either. Joe’s world had been turned over and twisted inside out so many times that he could barely tell up from down, but through everything, there had always been one single truth that remained constant. One single thing that had never proven false.
Despite everything that had happened, he knew that he and Nicky deserved their happiness. He was here to fight for it, and he wouldn’t allow another door to remain slammed in his face.
“Please,” he whispered, opening his eyes and relaxing his hand. “You’re right, I need to see Nicolò. Please.”
And finally—finally, the reporter nodded, and handed him her pass.
Joe’s breath left him in a gush of air as he looped the lanyard over his head. “Thank you,” he said. “Here, give me your number. I’ll call you, I promise.”
“You’d better. Otherwise, I’m using the story of how Prince Yusuf of Mahdia stole my press pass to sneak in to see his boyfriend as my next piece.”
“Sure,” Joe said, taking the card she handed over. “Though, in that case, do you think I could borrow your glasses?”
The reporter pushed said glasses up a bit higher. “Uh, why?”
“Well, if it’s good enough for Clark Kent, it’s good enough for me,” Joe replied with a shrug. “If it helps, I can pay you?” He reached into his pocket, grabbed his wallet, and pulled out one of the purple Euro notes he had been using to pay for his hotel room. “Is this okay?”
“Um.” The woman stared, and then pulled off her glasses before plucking the note from Joe’s hand. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s, uh, more than fine. Good luck with your Prince.”
Joe sighed, and placed the glasses over his nose. “Thanks,” he said. “I think I’ll need it.”
As it turned out, Joe had been right. Getting in through the doors was the hard part. Thankfully, there were enough people with press passes that his wasn’t glanced at twice, and it seemed that the glasses did their job, for he wasn’t stopped.
The moment he was in, Joe pulled off the visually impairing glasses and made a beeline for the door just to the left side of the entrance hall. He ducked inside, and then headed for the old servants’ passage he knew was hidden behind a tapestry in the adjacent parlour.
He avoided a few people easily – they were all chatting and easy to hear coming – but as he made his way up to Nicolò’s rooms, he quite literally ran headlong into a difficulty on an unfortunately narrow staircase.
“Who the—wait. Joe?”
“Princess Maria,” Joe exclaimed, steadying her with hands on her shoulders as he covered his surprise with the brightest grin he could muster. “What an absolute pleasure it is to see you.”
Maria crossed her arms, looking down at him from her vantage point on the higher step. “You’re not meant to be here.”
“No,” Joe admitted. “Are you going to rat me out?”
If Joe were ever asked to rank the top most impressive single-raised-eyebrows in the world, Princess Maria of Genoa would most definitely take out the top spot. She had this way of staring that cut deep into the soul, that same shade of grey-blue which would normally make Joe go weak in the knees piercing through his skin and cutting through any lie.
Honestly, she was seven years younger than him, but she made him feel about three feet shorter. (Then again, that might have been the steps.)
“I shouldn’t have told my mother, when I saw you in the garden with Nicolò the other night,” she finally said. “That’s not normally who I am. But he had been acting off ever since the thing that happened between you two in Malta, and I didn’t want him to get hurt again.”
Joe drew in a small breath. “I won’t hurt him again,” he promised. “Not knowingly, anyway.”
She stared for a moment longer—then she nodded. “All right,” she said. “Nicolò has been a mess the past few days, even more so than usual. If you think you can stop him from moping around all the time, then you’ll be doing a national service.” Maria’s lips turned up into a grin that was nothing like her brother’s. “In my opinion, that means you should be allowed to go and do whatever you want.”
“Thanks,” Joe said, feeling a bit like he had been hit by a train. “I’ll just keep going then.” He gave her one last nod, and then considered his options in terms of getting past her on the stairs. It was rather tight, and uh. Well, she had already proven just how terrifying teenaged girls could be.
“Joe?” Maria said.
“You know, I saw him heading toward the garden. I think you’ll know where to find him.”
Joe smiled, thanked her, and then turned to head back down the stairs.
Reaching the gardens was a slightly more difficult matter than getting to Nicolò’s quarters would have been, as the lower levels of the palace were certainly busier. But Joe was nothing if not determined, and he made it all the way out to the terrace without being spotted.
Well. Without being spotted again, that is.
When Joe reached the familiar white balustrade, he had to pause for a moment at the sight. Nicky was wearing formal clothes—blue trousers, white jacket, gold sash. He looked amazing in them, but that—wasn’t what caught Joe’s gaze.
Because Nicky… he didn’t look right.
He had his elbows on the top of the balustrade, staring out to the other side of the palace, where it curved around the gardens. His face was blank in a way that Joe didn’t often see, and his usually sharp eyes had a distant kind of look to them which tore at every string in Joe’s heart.
“Well,” he said softly, feeling the need to at least try to put a smile back on that face before doing absolutely anything else. “As much as I’ve never liked this place, this is definitely a sight that I’ve always enjoyed.”
Nicky turned faster than Joe could blink, eyes widening and mouth falling open in shock.
“Yes, that’s—” Joe’s words cut off as he was struck by the full weight of Nicky’s body, arms wrapping around him and pulling him close. Joe clutched Nicky to him just as tightly and leaned down to press his face into Nicky’s hair, savouring the feeling of finally being close to him again.
It had only been a few weeks since Nicky’s official birthday party, but it felt far longer than that since they had been separated. Joe had stayed in Mahdia only long enough to commission a certain item and tell his parents that he was, on no uncertain terms, ever going to leave Nicolò ever again before turning tail and heading straight back over the Mediterranean.
He had decided to take the fact that there was a pilot waiting for him in the Royal Hangar as a sign that his parents had finally realised just how serious he was about this—though he’d be lying if he said he didn’t suspect his brother’s involvement. Muhammad, after all, had been with them. He’d seen what was said. He’d seen the way that Joe couldn’t take his eyes away from the love of his life, even if he had wanted to.
And standing there, finally holding Nicky in his arms once again… well, Joe could have written pages of poetry about that very moment, but he knew that he never could come close to accurately describing the sensation of pure comfort that washed over his skin, the innate sense of relief as pieces he hadn’t even been aware were out of alignment all fell into their right place.
“Joe,” Nicky said again, this time in a quiet whisper. “You came back.”
“Of course I did,” Joe replied. “I’ll always come back to you.”
Nicky smiled at that—Joe could feel the curve of his lips against the skin of his throat. “You did ruin my plan, though.”
“Oh, did I?” Joe asked.
“Yes.” Nicky looked up, and Joe’s smile warmed as he saw the happiness in Nicky’s eyes. “It was going to be very dramatic. Just before they crowned me, I was going to tell them that they could all go to hell, and then I was going to leave. I really wanted to slam the doors. I have a car waiting and everything.”
Joe couldn’t help but stare in wonder. “I am very sorry for ruining that,” he said, almost meaning it. “Had I known, I would have just waited outside.”
Nicky smothered a laugh in Joe’s shoulder before speaking again. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “I missed you.”
A weight lifted from Joe’s chest at that, giving him a feeling of lightness. “I missed you, too,” he replied. And he wondered—he wondered if that was his chance, if he should make his move. A spark ran through him, one that was not unlike what he’d felt that day in Malta, the day he’d had planned out for their first kiss. It wasn’t quite nervousness, because sometimes he felt like he knew Nicky better than he knew himself, and he already knew what Nicky’s answer would be. No, it wasn’t nervousness, at least, not entirely—but it was anticipation and expectation, all wrapped up in an electric feel of excitement.
That day in Malta had not gone as planned, but this would. Joe was ready, more ready than he’d ever been for anything in his entire life—but there was something else that he needed to ask first.
Something else that he needed to be sure of.
“Nicky?” he asked, stroking a soft hand up and down Nicky’s back. “Are you entirely sure about this? Giving up your crown like that—it will affect your whole kingdom.”
“The kingdom will be fine. Maria and I talked, she’s going to take my place. If she does change her mind in four years, well, the kingdom will have to deal with the consequences of what they did to us. I doubt she will, though. We both agree she’d be better suited to ruling than me, anyway.” Nicky snorted. “Especially since, if I had to give you up to be king, I think I’d be a really shitty one on purpose. Just out of spite.”
“You wouldn’t,” Joe said, smiling softly. “You’re too kind to do something like that.”
“Maybe. But you know what? The only thing that this family, this monarchy has given me that’s worth having was the chance to meet you.”
“Well,” Joe started, trying to ignore the way his cheeks were warming. “I’m pretty sure being a prince gave you more than that. You got the best education in the world, anything money can buy.”
“That’s fair,” Nicky allowed. “But I don’t need any of that. I’d leave it all behind and live on the street, if it meant that I got to be with you for the rest of my life.”
Joe swallowed. It wasn’t often that he found himself at a loss for words—
Wait, no, that wasn’t about to happen. He had come here to talk, and he wasn’t going to let Nicky steal his thunder.
Still. He felt a little choked as he finally found something to say. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you, as well,” he said. “Every moment apart from you only ever feels like a moment wasted. It’s like I’m still moving through time, but when you’re not by my side I’m moving through water.”
“It’s the same for me,” Nicky said. “Please don’t ever doubt that.”
“I won’t,” Joe promised. And despite the fact that it had been only such a short time since they had shared their first kiss, he knew they were both aware of the feelings that had been in place so very long, held back only through circumstances far out of their own control.
They’d been in love for years, and being together was the most natural thing in the world.
“Then you won’t mind me asking if you’re sure you’re all right with this, too?” Nicky asked. “I’m not the only one who’s running the very real risk of being kicked out of their home.”
“You know… I’ve always wondered about that word. Home.” Joe closed his eyes for a moment, before meeting Nicky’s gaze again and continuing. This was his chance. “All my life, I’ve wondered where I belonged. When I was little, it was always Mahdia of course, but then… then my parents swapped me for an island. And I know now that the situation was a lot bigger than just that but, at the time, it made me feel like I was exiled. But I never really felt like I belonged here in Genoa, either.” He paused, and reached up to touch his fingers to Nicky’s cheek—and his smile deepened when Nicky leaned into the touch. “Except for when I was with you. And when I went back to Mahdia, so much time had passed that the palace there didn’t really feel like home, either. Especially since you weren’t there. There are so many reasons I could give for feeling that way—for feeling that the world is dark without you, that you’re my warmth when I shiver in cold. But the only words I want to give are that I love you, Nicolò. And I don’t ever want to be without you again.”
Nicky’s eyes were wide, and he was staring up at Joe with a raw kind of vulnerability that he didn’t often show. And Joe was just about to reach into his pocket when—
“Joe,” Nicky breathed. “If you keep saying things like that… I think I’m going to have to ask you to marry me.”
“Uh,” Joe said, hand freezing half-way out of his pocket, suddenly feeling thrown. Honestly, there was only one person in the world who could send him careening off his tracks like this. “Wallahi, Nicky, you sure do always have the best timing.”
Nicky’s eyes widened. “I. Joe, I meant it as. Well, maybe not as a joke, I know that it hasn’t been long, but I—well, I love you too.” Nicky looked a little pained, but his eyes bore into Joe’s with the intensity of a burning sun. “I mean it, I really do. I love you more than anything, and I don’t ever want to be without you, either—”
“Then, my Nicolò—will you marry me?” As he asked the question, Joe finally pulled the dark blue box out of his pocket and fell to one knee, holding the ring out to Nicky with a gentle smile.
And Nicky just stared, his eyes going wide, even wider than before, and his lips parted slightly. Joe didn’t say anything—he just waited, knowing Nicky well enough to recognise that it wouldn’t take him long.
Then, sure enough—
“Oh, god,” Nicky said, covering his now bright red face with his hand. “Joe, you’re—Joe.”
“Nicky, hayati, you’ve got to give me an answer,” Joe said. He knew that his voice was aching with fondness, and he didn’t care in the slightest.
“An answer?” Nicky asked—and as his hand fell from his still blushing face, Joe could see that those grey-blue eyes were shining with unshed tears. “Technically, I asked you first.”
“I have a ring. And I’m dirtying these white trousers for you.”
“How noble of you.”
“Nicky,” Joe whined, shifting the ring to one hand so that he could tug at the hem of his love’s jacket. “I’m not staying down here forever, you know? It’s weird, looking up at you.”
Nicky laughed at that—and then he fell to the ground in a rather ungraceful manner, disregarding the ring entirely in favour of throwing his arms around Joe’s neck and pressing their lips together.
Joe couldn’t bring himself to mind—he merely held the ring box against Nicky’s back, and fell into the kiss with all the feeling he possessed. He could feel Nicky smiling against his lips, and soon, they were both grinning, their foreheads pressed close as they basked in being together.
“When we get married, I am going to wear lifts in my shoes,” Nicky whispered. “And you are going to stand at the bottom of the stairs. At all times.”
“I did just mean for the wedding but, if you want it to be always, I suppose that’s up to you.”
Joe would have tried to get in another word, but he was cut off as Nicky kissed him again. His eyes closed in pure bliss, and he didn’t think that any moment could ever be more perfect.
“That’s a yes, by the way,” Nicky said, his breath ghosting over Joe’s skin—
And Joe’s grin turned to a delighted laugh, pure happiness filling through his whole being.
They leaned apart only enough so that Joe could get the ring out of the box. It was relatively simple, more so than one might expect between two princes. In Joe’s opinion, everything about their lives had always been far too complex—but the love he felt for Nicky? That was the simplest truth in the world.
Joe watched as Nicky examined the plain band set with one single blue stone, holding it between two fingers and turning it in the light. There were two small shapes stamped on the inside – not an inscription, but something a little more… them – and Joe just waited for Nicky to spot them.
It didn’t take long.
“A spoon?” Nicky asked, staring at the unmistakable outline. “And… rectangles?”
“Chocolate,” Joe smiled. He took the ring from Nicky, gently held his left hand, and then slid the band onto the correct finger. “That was the first time we ran away together. And the day that you promised you’d look after me.”
“You remember that?”
“I’ve told you before,” Joe whispered, pressing his lips to the back of Nicky’s hand. “I find it very hard to forget anything about you. You live in my mind, in my heart, in my soul, and I’m never going to let you go.”
Nicky cupped Joe’s cheeks and kissed him again, and Joe felt like he was quickly learning. If romantic words got him kisses, he would recite poetry as often as he could.
“You know what?” Nicky said, not moving away a single inch. “I think I can live with being married to someone taller than me.”
“Good,” Joe replied. “Because chopping a few inches off my legs sounds painful, and there’s no other way that could go.”
“You’re such a romantic,” Nicky said—and to be honest, Joe wasn’t actually sure if he was being serious or sarcastic.
So he took the coward’s way out.
“As much as I hate to say it, we should move,” he whispered. “They’re going to be looking for you. Unless… you want to go and talk to them? You do have a ceremony to attend.”
“Actually…” Nicky’s lips pulled into a grin that had a few too many teeth, and he stroked his fingers over the ring. “I’ve always had this dream of running away.”
Joe felt his own grin return, unable to help the fierce delight that rose in his chest. “Where will we go?”
“So? When they see us in the newspapers, they’ll know what’s happened. There won’t be any need for them to wonder.”
“If it’s publicity you want,” Joe said, “I might have made a friend earlier who could help us out with that.”
“Perfect,” Nicky replied. “And as I said before… I already have a car.”
It was certainly easier than it should have been—Nicky really had thought everything through, somehow more so than Joe had despite how insane his plan had sounded. The car was waiting on the other side of the gardens, in a camera blind spot Nicky had created by breaking into the security room while Maria had distracted a guard. The driver was paid off – not that either of them really cared, given that their plan was to let the media catch wind of them – and soon they were on the road, curled together in the back seat.
There would be complications to deal with, Joe knew. Nicky’s mother and father wouldn’t just let this lie, and his own parents surely wouldn’t just let them go either. But he and Nicky had made their decision very, very clear, and if they were clever…
Well. From the reactions Joe had seen so far, they might be able to swing the media and the world over to their side. Then, their parents may no longer have a choice.
As for the hostility between their countries… well, Nicky had been right. Alliances forged by marriage were a tale as old as time.
But all of that? That was to worry about later. In that moment, all Joe cared about was the man in his arms, and the future that they were going to forge.
“Hey, Joe?” Nicky’s voice was as soft as the way he was playing with Joe’s fingers, doing nothing to break the tranquillity of their peace. “Can I ask you something?”
“Anything,” Joe replied.
“Did you work it out?” Nicky looked up, and held Joe’s gaze. “Where you belong?”
“Yes, I believe I did.” Joe smiled, and slid a hand along the line of Nicky’s jaw. “I belong where you are.”
And when their lips touched together in their gentlest kiss yet, sweetened by the taste of their freedom, Joe finally felt comfortable claiming that this—this would be his forever.