Her parents nodded with eager smiles and discrete winks at one another when he offered to walk her to her suite. He knew she saw their looks as well, but she did not hesitate to accept his offer. She never did.
Outside, it was almost as bright as day. Moonlight danced across the rippling waves and gave a bluish glow to the beach. The warm sand poured over his sandals as he trudged along by her side.
"I love your summer retreat," she said, fondly, breaking the silence. "It's such a welcome relief from the pressures of court."
"Some pressures follow us, even here," he countered. He didn't mind really. He had been born to reign someday, and the pressures of royal life were normal to him.
She blushed. "Like my parents," she murmured. "You know, they want us to marry."
"I figured as much," he responded. Her parents had been so hopeful when they were invited to the royal ocean retreat. In their minds, wedding bells were already pealing and their daughter would soon be a princess.
"I'm never going to marry," she said. "I have too much to do. One of these days I am going to convince my parents that I am going to be a doctor."
"Maybe you can do both," he suggested.
She laughed. "In Lerata? Not a chance," she reminded him, lightly.
"Go be a doctor then," he said, fondly. "But if you ever change your mind..."
Her eyes danced with fun and suppressed laughter. "Are you proposing?" she queried. He could hear the laughter in her voice, trying to bubble to the surface.
"You are the best option in the royal court," he said, matter-of-factly. In truth, she had been his friend, almost from infancy, and was more of a sister than a love interest. But he could not deny that he loved her and wanted her to be happy. If he had to pick a bride, she was a logical choice.
Her laughter, no longer willing to be repressed, rang out merrily at his statement. "That's no reason to marry," she informed him. Her eyes twinkled. "You make it sound like we are the only two people stranded on a deserted island. 'I don't see anyone better. I might as well marry you.' What a notion!" Her face grew serious then; he was surprised at how serious. "I am not the right one for you, Edward," she said. "You will see. You just haven't met her yet."
They had reached her suite. Her individual set of rooms was on the end of the row, overlooking the beach. He held out his hand to her, helping her up the bank and onto her front porch.
"Goodnight, Cassie," he said. "Sleep well."
"Goodnight, Edward," she said. "See you in the morning."
He grinned. His yacht was arriving in the morning, and he had every intention of sailing with Cassie at dawn.
She waved to him and went inside. He, feeling boyish, cleared her front steps with one leap, and trotted casually back up the beach toward his own suites. Sand flicked with each step, and a disturbed crab scuttled out of his path. He slowed to a walk and then stopped, gazing over the moonlit ocean, hoping to see his yacht sailing into the inlet. But the horizon was clear. No matter -- it was not due to arrive until just before dawn.
Suddenly, as he stood there, a sense came over him that something was amiss. Smoke. He smelled smoke. And a crackling sound filled the air. He half turned to glance behind him, and the scene filled him with horror. Cassie's apartments were ablaze.
"Cassie," he gasped, his voice barely more than a whisper. In the next instant, fear lent wings to his feet -- fear for his best friend. He raced over the sand, quickly closing the distance between himself and her suite. "Cassie!" he shouted.
The entire suite was on fire. He had never known it could spread so quickly. Already flames enveloped every entrance and poured from every window.
With barely a hesitation, he rammed his way through the front door, feeling as though his skin were melting in the fervent heat. "Cassie!" he called, choking on the smoke. "CASSIE!!!"