“I hate everything!”
“You’re cold, huh?”
Chuckles mingled with the clang of armor on stone as two guards’ voices echoed from the doorway to the garden. The footsteps clattered closer as the men bickered.
“Shut up, Duncan!”
“See, this is what gets you a bucket of water to the face every mornin’!” His footsteps stopped. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Andy, but all this wasn’t here before, right?”
The other guard continued forward. “Makes it a better place to take a break, doesn’t it?”
Alexandra rose to her feet, but I stopped her, chuckling as I picked myself up. Her eyebrows quirked, and she couldn’t help but smile as I approached the men.
“Slacking on the job, again?” I leaned on a hawthorn tree as they wandered toward me.
Andrew sighed, picking at the grass between the stones with the toe of his armored boot. “You’d be avoiding the rounds too, if you had that arse to deal with.”
Alexandra came up behind me, staring at the guards. “And you thought you could escape here?”
Duncan blushed, stepping forward and cutting off Andrew before he could reply. “Oh yeah! Damien, he hates gardens, says they’re dirty. Oh, and full of insects!”
Alexandra nodded, crossing her arms. “I see. And you’re avoiding your jobs because-”
Andrew scratched the back of his head. “Damien’s getting on our backs again, and we couldn’t take another minute of it.” He pointed to me. “And we thought we’d, uh, apologize, you know, for how we treated you.”
Duncan lit up. “Yeah, that’s it! We wanted to see if we could help you out! Bury the hatchet! But it looks like you don’t need us.”
I grinned. “As much as I appreciate the offer, I’m afraid the dirty work here is done.”
Andrew stepped forward, bending on one knee as he took my hand. “Aw, come on, hummingbird, you gotta help us out. We’ll do anything!”
Alexandra and I exchanged glances, and I smiled. “I thought hummingbirds were just rats with wings.”
Duncan waved his hands. “No, no! They’re fast little fellas, can’t catch ‘em if you try. Wings move so quick you can’t hardly see ‘em!”
Andrew nodded. “Yeah, that’s right! Tough little buggars too, I hear.”
I laughed. “Well, if you’re that keen on doing some work here, I’m sure there are plenty of weeds to pull.”
Both men nodded, stepping back as I led them to the workroom. I handed Duncan a shovel and an empty pine box, giving Andrew a broom. I showed them around the garden as Alexandra hovered alongside us, and I pointed out common weeds as I showed them how to dig them out at the roots.
“Don’t make too much of a mess, and take whatever you collect to the grinder for compost.”
They mock-saluted me, wandering off to work. I turned back to Alexandra, catching her staring at me with crossed arms and raised eyebrows.
“They’re supposed to be monitoring the palace grounds.”
I shrugged. “I’m sure the castle has more than enough metal men keeping watch. Besides, I don’t think they’d be much help the way they bicker.”
Her lips turned up, and she shook her head. “What am I going to do with you?”
I grinned, taking her hand. “Hey, you said I couldn’t work, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t fill in. Let them do it, if it’ll make them feel better. Can’t have guards with a guilty conscious walking around, can we?”
She placed her hand over her heart. “What a selfless little hummingbird you are!” Alexandra grinned as she pecked me on the cheek. “If it keeps you out of trouble, I’ll let it slide this time.”
I poked her in the ribs. “How gracious of you, your majesty!” I laughed when she rolled her eyes.
“Don’t you start with me! Or shall I go back to calling you Scrapper?”
I crossed my arms. “No fair! You have to have a nickname if I get stuck with two.”
She grinned, squeezing my hand. “I’m sure there will be more to come. But, if you insist, how about Lexi or Lexa? My name can be quite a mouthful.”
I chuckled, leading her away from the garden. “That’s more like it. Now, how about breakfast, Lexa? Oh, don’t look like that! They can’t do that much damage, can they? Plus, they’ll need a reward if they do a good job.”
She looked back at them as they dug through, tossing weeds in the box. “I’m sure they could use some positive reinforcement for a change. Alright, you win.”
I dragged her away, laughing as we crossed the threshold. “Zinnia one, Lexa zero!” I stuck my tongue out.
She let go of my hand, racing to the dining room as I hustled behind her, trailing in seconds after.
“We’ll call it even.”
“No fair! I’m not 100 percent yet!”
She tilted my chin up as I pouted, kissing my cheek. “We’ll have a rematch when you’re all better, deal?”
I wrapped my arms around her. “Deal, but I get the first pastry this time.”
She sat us both down at the table, handing me the platter. “What am I going to do with you?”