The Betrothed

Page 44

I smiled. She had said this about dozens of things. The dress, my hair, the dinner, the music . . . All she wanted to do was build a new life for all of us.

“I think that will look quite lovely.”

The tailor nodded in agreement and took his goods to begin his work. He said his shop could produce a gown in five days, so that would keep us right on schedule. As the tailor left, a maid walked in and whispered in Lady Eastoffe’s ear.

“Absolutely. Show her in at once.”

My heart leaped up into my chest. My mother was here, I just knew it. She was going to give me her blessing and let me wear a family heirloom and everything was going to be all right.

But my mother did not walk through the door. It was an older lady who looked to be a servant. She came over and curtsied before me.

“My Lady Hollis. I’m sure after so many years away, you won’t remember me, but I work in your home, in Varinger Hall.”

I studied the woman’s face, but she was right, I didn’t recognize her. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember you. Is everything well with my parents? Is something wrong with the manor?”

“They are in good health, miss. They do seem quite sad. I think they regret sending you away, but that’s not my place to say. But yesterday, you got a letter. I felt after everything you’d been through, it might do you good to have some comforting words, so I planned to come today. Just before I left, a second letter arrived, so I brought it, too.”

She held out the neat little letters, and I recognized Delia Grace’s handwriting immediately. The other was a mystery.

“Thank you very much . . . I’m sorry, what was your name?”

“Hester, my lady.”

“Hester, I’m indebted to you.”

“It’s no trouble. It’s the simple kindnesses in life, isn’t it?”

I smiled. “Yes, it is. Do you need an escort home? Or a horse?”

Lady Eastoffe turned to summon someone to help, but Hester lifted her hand. “Oh, no. It’s such a pretty day for a walk. But I best be on my way. Many happy wishes for your wedding, my lady.”

She moved slowly, and I wondered how long it had taken her to get here on foot.

“We’ll give you some privacy,” Scarlet offered, pulling her mother from the room. I smiled at her in gratitude and started with perhaps the more frightening update, the one from Delia Grace.

Dear Hollis,

I didn’t miss that she didn’t bother calling me Lady.

You were right. The night you left, His Majesty was in need of a companion, and when I went to him mourning the departure of my closest friend, we related in a way we never had before. This morning I was gifted with a new gown. I think, at last, I am where I always wanted to be.

There is other news. A section of the South Wing caught fire the other day, and it was fortunate it didn’t spread. No one is confessing to setting it, and though the rooms in question were supposedly empty at the time, my guess is it belonged to one of the Isoltens. They’re all kept in that same area. There was a rumor that Jameson started it himself, which is a vicious lie. Keresken Castle is his home.

While His Majesty was out of sorts immediately after you left, he seems to be almost himself again these past few days. He’s yelling less, and I talked him into throwing a tournament for the solstice, and the planning has lifted his spirits. I don’t have the talent for making him laugh as you did, but he smiles for me sometimes. I’m the only person who can manage to get him to do that, so I’d say my place is relatively secure. My guess is, if he does care for me, he will be very cautious before offering his hand again. Honestly, there’s a part of me that thinks he’s waiting for you. Though I’m not sure why, after how you left.

This reminds me, there is a rumor circulating that you are a witch. With the way the king was acting, someone said you must have cast a spell on him to drive him to such madness. Don’t worry, I quashed that one. Well, I tried. Then there was one about you being pregnant, which, with your carefree spirit, was much easier for people to believe. There’s only so much one can do to quell rumors at court, as you well know.

Speaking of rumors, there is one that has been of particular interest to me. Someone told me that you didn’t just leave the palace, but you left with the Eastoffe boy. The oldest one, the one who made the sword. They said that you were to be married to him any day now, and that you had been plotting to leave the castle with him for some time.

Naturally, Jameson needs me so much right now that I cannot possibly leave to come and investigate this myself, but if there is any truth to this, I am most anxious to know of it. I think, if this is true, it would do for Jameson what the eve of your engagement did for me: allow him to settle into the inevitable. I think he will be much happier himself once he knows your heart belongs to another.

For what it’s worth, I am sorry things didn’t work out. Just because I’d hoped for Jameson for myself doesn’t mean I wished ruin upon you. Perhaps you won’t believe that—I know I wasn’t the best friend I could have been in recent weeks. But it is true. I’m sorry.

I must be off. I find myself in the center of so much attention these days, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone.

Hope you are well, old friend. Send my best to your family.

Delia Grace

I shook my head and folded up the letter. She might have been sorry, but she didn’t say a word about wishing I was back, about missing me. I still missed her.

“But I bet she does,” I whispered to myself. Delia Grace had a hard enough time mentioning her feelings out loud, so it was no surprise she’d be hesitant to put them in writing. But I knew her as no one else did. My guess was court life was a little lonely these days, even with all of Jameson’s attention. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn she missed me so much, it hurt to write it down.

Someday, I would mend all this.

I picked up the other letter, studying the delicate handwriting, and, flipping it over, I found the Isolten royal seal pressed into the wax.

“Valentina!” I whispered hopefully.

Dear Hollis,

I am both surprised and not surprised by your news. I think, if I had reconsidered before supporting the current rider at the tournament, I would have been much more satisfied with another.

I squinted at the words. Tournament? Pausing, I flipped the letter over and studied the seal again. If I looked closely, I could see where some wax had been melted away and the note resealed before being sent to me.

She warned she might write in code, so my guess was that she was speaking of King Quinten. Yes, I, too, would have gone with a different knight.

I wish so dearly that I could see you again. I could use another game of dice.

. . . talk to me? Be comforted by someone?

I have been working so hard on my garden, but I’m afraid the very rare flower that I planted has wilted. It’s been difficult to stay bright without it.

I paused over that one, thinking it could only have one meaning and hating it.

She’d lost the baby.

I had to sit for a moment and swallow my tears. She’d been so nervous before, and then so happy once she was positive her baby was on the way. That was three now. . . . I couldn’t imagine her suffering.

I do love that I have your letters to look forward to, so once you’re married and settled, do take some time to write me all the details of your special day. I want to feel as if I were in Coroa again, standing beside you, eating honey cakes.

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