He laughed outright at that, the sound matching the roars of the crowds still gathered on the other side of the door. “As would I! But don’t you worry, my Hollis. This visit is a short one, and they’ll be gone soon enough.” He came close, wrapping his hands around my waist. “And we can get back to more important things.”
I smiled. “You are the most important thing in my world. So, if you insist I eat a meal with that wretched lady, I will.”
He put a hand under my chin, tilting my face up to his. “I will spare you. This time,” he added in a tone that was close to serious. “But unfortunately, I have to be at dinner tonight with Quinten to talk through a few deals and trades . . . things that would bore you. So go ahead. Spend the night with your ladies.”
I took the hand that was beneath my chin and held it up so I could kiss it. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
There was a glittering look of satisfaction in his eyes, and it was difficult to concentrate under the weight of his stare.
“You’d best get back,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’ll make an excuse for you tonight.”
“Tell her I suffocated under a pile of Isolten dresses,” I joked, and left with the sound of his laughter ringing in my ears.
Outside, Delia Grace and Nora waited anxiously. “Come, ladies, I’m not feeling well,” I said in mock solemnity. “I think it’s best I retire for now.”
Delia Grace caught on right away, and she fell into step behind me as I walked cautiously through the crowd. In a corner, I finally caught sight of my parents. My mother was looking down her nose as people came up to her, presumably to congratulate her and Father on their great success. Wouldn’t it be something to tell everyone I’d been chosen by the king by being the opposite of everything they’d tried to turn me into?
Even with all that had happened, they hardly spoke to me, save to correct me or attempt to make a decision on my behalf. Their distance only made it that much easier to defy them.
I looked over my shoulder at Nora. “Why don’t you gather a few other ladies to come by my room? It will be nice to have some more people in that space.”
“Of course, my lady,” she replied gleefully.
“I’ll see if we can get ahold of a musician or two. Make an afternoon of it,” I thought aloud. This plan was sounding better by the minute. I caught Nora before she moved too far. “And get ahold of Scarlet Eastoffe if you can. In fact, if the entirety of the Eastoffe family would like to escape the presence of their former king, tell them they are welcome in my apartments.”
She nodded and broke off to build us a small party. At least this day could take a slight turn for the better; I’d been saved from an evening in the company of Valentina, and now I got to dance instead.
Nora opened the door for Yoana and Cecily as I helped Delia Grace put the last of the chairs against the wall.
The main space in the greeting area was now cleared for dancing and talking, and I’d called up one of the court musicians so we could have music. After the madness of moving and the tension of meeting Valentina, this was going to be a treat.
“Thank you for inviting us.” Cecily came and greeted us with a little curtsy.
“Oh, you’re quite welcome. You remember Delia Grace, of course,” I said, gesturing over to her. Delia Grace stood with her head high, knowing that finally she was in a position no one could deny was exalted.
“Yes.” Beside her, Yoana swallowed. “Very nice to see you.”
“Delia Grace, dear, won’t you show them to the refreshments?”
She nodded, not needing to speak to anyone she didn’t want to at the moment, and I felt sure she was enjoying the knowledge that if anyone so much as breathed at her wrong, I’d eject them from the room.
Another knock came, and Nora opened it again.
“Scarlet!” I called. “So glad you could make it.”
I was pleased to see her parents and Saul walk in behind her, but I was surprised to note that the Northcotts had joined her as well. And then, as if he was determined to be seen as an afterthought, Silas Eastoffe walked in the door. And there went my heart, skipping as if being trapped in my chest was just too far away for comfort.
I cleared my throat, turning to greet my guests.
Lord Eastoffe came over, bowing before me. “Thank you for letting us come along. It was more . . . unnerving than any of us thought it would be to see King Quinten again.”
I tilted my head in sympathy. “You may all hide here as long as you like. The apartment extends for days, and we have plenty of food—we’ll make a camp,” I joked. “Please make yourselves comfortable.”
Delia Grace was already moving to the music, and I joined her, doing a dance that we’d choreographed ourselves last year.
“That’s very pretty,” Nora commented as Delia Grace and I touched wrists and walked around one another.
“Thank you,” Delia Grace answered. “We spent weeks on it.”
“You should try your hand at choreographing the one for Crowning Day,” Nora added.
Delia Grace seemed almost stunned by the kind suggestion. “If Lady Hollis wishes it. Thank you.”
When the dance ended and a new song played, I watched as Nora started up a dance of her own. Honestly, if she and Delia Grace choreographed our dance, it would probably be one of the best I’d ever done.
More than once, I got distracted by a pair of blue eyes watching contentedly from a chair against the wall. I looked over at Silas, speaking as I swayed to the music.
“Do you dance, sir?”
He sat up a little straighter. “On occasion. But of everyone in the family, Etan is the best,” he said, nodding to his cousin across the room. I searched and found him frowning as he studied the tapestries, hands behind his back, looking as if he were very much here against his will.
“You must be joking.”
Silas chuckled. “Not at all.”
“Well, please don’t be offended if I don’t extend him an invitation.”
He made a face. “In his current mood, I don’t think he’d accept if you did.”
I sighed, believing that. “Would you?”
He swallowed and looked at the floor. “I would . . . though perhaps not today.” When his face came back up to me, I noted the hint of a blush on his cheeks, and I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to dance in front of such an intimate gathering.
“Lady Hollis, come and see,” Cecily called, and I went quietly across the room, which thankfully gave me time to clamp down the growing smile on my face. What was it about Silas Eastoffe that turned the air in the room into something sweeter? He made everything feel . . . easy. Words came out clearer, thoughts became less foggy. I hadn’t realized people could do that, could make everything sharper.
The room separated into relaxed conversations and fits of giggling, leaving me in a blissfully happy mood. And when I somehow ended up having little Saul as a dance partner, it seemed perfectly natural. I spun him around to much applause, and it was nice to see his tears from yesterday replaced with laughter. When the song ended, I bent down and kissed Saul on the cheek. “Thank you, sir. You’re a fine dancer.”
The violinist played on in the background as everyone spoke, and as we all sat and conversed, the new apartments felt like they could eventually be a comfortable place. There was a promise of it.