No matter where Erna went, she could not escape the whispers of gossip.
They followed behind her like the wake of a ship.
Even here, at the hospital, Erna heard people chatting amongst themselves.
First it was the nurses in their little gaggles at the end of the corridor.
Then it felt like people were standing around outside the door, peering in like school children.
“Is she really the one?” Women said behind their hands, giving her sidelong glances.
“I know, is the prince blind?” Nurses said, pretending to be talking to their clipboards.
People could not believe that she was Erna Hardy, the one who beat the fair Princess Gladys for the Prince’s heart.
They would comment on how shabby she looked, with her plain cotton dresses and tacky make-up.
“Isn’t she a noble lady, from a noble family? Why does she look like that? That can’t be Erna Hardy.”
Worse still was that Baroness Baden heard these rumours from the doctors and nurses that tended her.
When ever they would come to check on her or her medications, they would talk over her thinking she was asleep.
“Its all my fault,” she said softly.
“I shouldn’t have let you go.
I ruined your future to protect the house and now I will have to go and face your Grandfather and Annette.” As the Baroness blamed herself, tears filled up her tired blue eyes and just as she was recovering from one ailment, another threatens to take hold of the old woman.
Erna could see it already, making the Baroness seem ever more tired.
Her wrinkles deepened before Erna’s eyes.
“Don’t say that Grandma, the prince and I have nothing to do with one another.” Erna said. She wished she could say something to convince the Baroness that none of this was her fault, to put her mind at ease.
Most were already convinced Erna was a fallen lady, but at least this one small point she can try and clear for her Grandmother.
“You’re really going to tell me that all this buzz is over nothing?” the Baroness said.
“Grandma, please, you know full well that people will make up what ever stories they wish, from things they nothing about.” Erna said.
“Even so,” the Baroness looked at Erna with sad eyes.
“How can you marry him and tarnish your reputation like this?”
“We’re not getting married, so everything will be fine and people will see that.” Erna gave a cheerful smile.
“Just hang in there.
You’ll be out of the hospital tomorrow and then we can move back to Buford.
We can live happily there together.
Everything here will just become a bad memory.”
“Erna, my little Erna, I can’t be by your side forever.
I will be with your Grandfather soon.” The tears in her eyes deepened.
“Don’t say that,” Erna said and took up the old woman’s hand.
It felt thin and papery, and she could feel the veins.
“Erna, please, its the sad reality of getting old.
You should hold yourself back for my sake, you need to go out there and start your own family.
The kind of family that will love and protect you.
Not like your father.”
“What do you expect me to do, when you threaten to ruin your marriage because of me? If I could, I would throw everything that threatens to make you sad into the fires of hell.” The Baroness turned away from Erna and shouted at the door.
“Including all these foul, ill tempered and mean mouthed rumour mongers.” She turned back to Erna with a soft, even tone.
“That terrible prince and your father, Walter Hardy and myself if you ruin your chances because of me.”
Erna stood up abruptly, when there came a hard knock on the door.
Bjorn barged his way into the room after knocking on it, not waiting for a response.
The surprise on the Directors face melted away quickly and was replaced by a quick display of emotional range.
He was immediately angry that someone would have the audacity to barge into his office, to shock when he realized who it was that now stood before him, to confusion as he tried to comprehend the situation and finally something that could only be described as constipation, as he tried to recall the proper etiquette.
Bjorn didn’t give him chance.
“What room is the Baroness Baden in?”
Bjorn was not demanding, or anything other than polite and firm.
A far contrast to the dramatic manner in which he flowed into the room.
He maintained an air of elegance about the entire scene.
“Erm, Baroness Baden?” The Director stammered.
He knew the name, of course he did, she was in one of the regal suites near the back, for discretions sake, but right then, as his brain tried to catch up to the situation, he struggled with the papers on his desk as he looked for the room number.
“Uh, yes, she’s in room 15.”
“Great, lets go.” Bjorn said, turning to leave.
He paused as he noticed something on the directors desk.
“Do you mind if I borrow it?” He said and delicately took the small red rose from a vase that was sat on the corner of the desk.
In terms of roses, a darker shade of red conveys more negative meaning.
Is he drunk? The director thought, as he led the way.
It wasn’t an unreasonable insight, given the princes usual behaviour and it was quite late in the afternoon.
The director led the prince at a fast pace along the halls.
Doctors and nurses lining the halls, talking over patient files and charts, immediately stopped what they were doing and stood aside for the prince.
The director could hear the rumours already, questions murmured at the back of the break room.
What was the director doing with the prince?
The director became enthusiastic about the royal visit and he met the eyes of the on lookers with a smug smile.
When they got to the Baroness room, the director opened the door for the prince, who breezed past him and closed the door behind him, without so much as a second glance to the man.
The director turned away and felt the heat rise to his cheeks as he heard a couple nurses down the hall giggling.
He had his target for his rising anger.
“Prince…” Erna said. She involuntarily stepped away and blinked rapidly, as if doing so would blink away the scene in front of her.
He should not be here and had no reason to be here, so why was he here?
The Baroness realized who had come into the room and made to sit up properly.
Bjorn did his best to dissuade her from moving and bowed.
“Baroness, please don’t exert yourself on my account.
I am late in coming to see you, so I must apologise, I am sorry.” Bjorn said. His voice was a soft note that did not dare disturb the quiet serene of the hospital room.
Mrs Greve, who was sat in the corner near the door finally let out a breath.
Erna closed the rest of the distance between her and Bjorn, more to check he was really there.
Why was he here, was he really only here to see the Baroness? The timing was very convenient if that was the case.
A lump of sadness rose up to her throat.
She hoped he had not come to trample her heart in front of her Grandmother.
This was unacceptable.
He should not be here and tarnish what could become her last memories of her Grandmother.
Even though she appreciated him and his aid, this was unacceptable.
“I am also sorry to you, Miss Hardy.” Bjorn said. He looked down at Erna and she could see regret in his eyes.
Was it genuine? The apology was unexpected.
Go. She wanted to say to him, but she swallowed the thought.
“I’m sorry.” He said again, reading the concern on Erna’s face.
“Yes, its late, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.” Bjorn gave the most charming smile he could.
Erna didn’t understand.
She looked up at the prince and saw in his smile, but his eyes were calm.
They were deep and calm as they considered her.
She shrunk back and sagged her shoulders as she tried to understand the prince.
It was then that the prince brought his hand out in front of her and revealed he had been holding a rose.
He held it out to her.
Bjorn tried a softer smile when he noticed Erna was frowning at the rose, as if in doubt.
He came down onto one need and looked the woman directly in the eyes.
They were sad, concerned and definitely cautious.
Bjorn’s voice was distant to Erna, as her mind raced.
Would he be getting married soon?
Bjorn asked himself the question for the hundreth time, looking down at the small silver coin flipping between his fingers.
Would it be appropriate to decide such a matter in this way?
He didn’t have anything to gain from the marriage.
She was from a humble family, with more than its humble share of complications.
The royal family and society in general, would never be accepting of that little problem.
It could mean it would be difficult to play the part of the Grand Duchess.
It wasn’t such a big deal.
She might not benefit, but at least she wont cause any more harm.
Like Gladys, maybe she was still holding a thorn for him, behind her sweet, innocent smile.
But this weak woman’s thorns aren’t strong enough to hurt him.
All Bjorn wanted was for Erna to live like a flower corsage she made with her own hands.
He considered the stake.
It would be the easy option, to forfeit the bet and take the stake.
Then he would be free of this tangle made for him, but that would only lead to his father breathing down his neck.
Bjorn flipped the coin and watch it sail through the air, tumbling end over end.
“Head I do, TailI don’t.” He muttered under his breath.
“Erna Hardy, will you marry me.” Bjorn held out the flower to Erna.
Erna closed her eyes and squeezed them tightly, as if trying to erase the bizarre reality unfolding before her.
When she opened them again, Bjorn was still there in front of her, kneeling on one knee.
Is he really proposing me, the prince?
The fact that this was right in front of her did not make the play of it any more real.
Her perception of reality seemed to slip away and the room span.
She found herself looking over at her Grandmother, who seemed moved to emotion.
The room span again as she looked back at the prince.
How can you do this? Erna thought. You don’t love me, a woman of nothing.
Erna could feel the mood in her mind settle on resentment, she resented Bjorn for coming unbidden to the hospital.
She resented that smile he wore as he looked up at her, waiting for an answer.
Erna wanted to get away from this, to run as far as she could and forget about the mess unfolding before her.
She reached out with a trembling hand.
She would push the rose away and deny him, but as her fingertips touched the delicate petals, she hesitated.
I’m sorry ~ he had said.
The apology was so brazen, but she was still glad for it.
She doubted he really meant it, but she was still grateful that he came, late as it was.
At the moment, when she wanted to hate him the most, she found herself clutching the rose of marriage proposal.
The room span again.
Bjorn was quick to catch her and Baroness Baden immediately called out for a doctor.
The doctor came through the door in the very same second.
There were several doctors and nurses grouped up in the hallway.
Within a heartbeat, the rumour that Prince Bjorn had proposed to the Lady Erna Hardy had spread across the city.
Overdramatised stories of impulsive acts of devotion and love and a fainting happy Lady filled up the many cigar lounges, gin bars, smoke rooms and libraries.
Lechen’s love story abruptly ended, with a rather tragic end with the villain winning.
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