The Betrothed

Page 53

“I will.”

“And Scarlet . . . she’s not herself at all. I don’t know if you were told, but she was in the room. She saw everything and was thrown outside. We’re not sure why.”

His mask slipped a little, and he looked genuinely pained for her sake. “Has she told you about it?”

“No. She’s hardly said anything. I hope she comes back to us, because I love her so much. But you might have to brace yourself for her to stay this way. I haven’t known what to do for her, and I don’t think Lady Eastoffe does, either. I think the best we can hope for is that time will erase her pain.”

He nodded. “And how—” He stopped quickly and cleared his throat. “How are you?”

I was sure I failed at hiding my shock that he would care. Or, if not care, ask.

“The only person I felt comfortable sharing my true heart with is gone. All of my family and most of his have left with him. . . . It’s too much to feel at once, so I’m taking it in pieces. And I think that’s all I could tell you about it.”

I didn’t trust Etan with the fact that I covered my face with my pillow at night so no one could hear me cry. I couldn’t tell him how much guilt I carried for living when so many didn’t. Though I didn’t consider Isoltens my enemies anymore—well, maybe just their king—I also didn’t consider Etan anything close to a friend.

“I am sorry,” he said.

And I wished so badly that I could have believed him.

“They’re in here,” I answered, showing him into the parlor where Lady Eastoffe and Scarlet waited.

Lady Eastoffe’s face perked up, and she stood to greet her nephew. “Oh, Etan, you darling boy. Thank you so much for coming. I’ll feel much better on the road now.”

Scarlet looked up at him, but then let her eyes fall away.

Etan turned to meet my gaze, and I gave him a shrug that said, “See what I mean?”

“I am always prepared to serve you, Aunt Whitley. We can leave as soon as you’re ready,” he offered.

“Let’s spare no time,” she replied. “The sooner we’re back in Isolte, the better.”

And my crushed heart found new ways to break.

Etan helped Scarlet down the front steps. Her silence seemed to frighten Etan, who kept looking back to me for assurance. I didn’t know what else to say; she was who she was for now.

The three of us were a study in how grief changed people. Lady Eastoffe moved on with impressive perseverance, Scarlet folded in on herself, and I . . . well, I was taking each day as it came, afraid to make any plans that took me any farther down the road than that.

I waited outside the door of the carriage, and she gave me one last embrace.

“Goodbye, Hollis,” she eked out. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too. When you’re feeling up to it, write me.”

“Should I send letters here or to the castle?”

I shook my head. “I have no idea.”

She sighed. “Let me know when you do.”

Etan offered her a hand, and she took it as she climbed up into the coach that would take her away from me.

“You don’t look convinced,” Etan noted quietly.

“I’m not. I wish they would stay.”

“It’s better for them to be with their family.”

“I am their family; I’m an Eastoffe.”

He smiled. “It would take a little more than that.”

I wanted to contradict him, but Lady Eastoffe came down the front steps, the pair of gloves on her hands passed down from my mother’s belongings. I was not going to ruin our last moments with an argument. Etan walked away, mounting his horse, presumably preferring to be on the lookout instead of cooped up in the coach.

“I checked our rooms,” she assured me, “but there wasn’t much we brought in the first place. We should have everything.”

I couldn’t help but smile at her thoroughness. “There is one thing,” I said, turning to face her. I may have disagreed with everything he was as a person, but Etan had been right about how Jameson viewed me. Maybe he was right about this, too.

I started to slip her ring off my finger.

“Oh, Hollis, no! No, I insist.”

“It belongs in your family. Scarlet should have it,” I urged.

“No, thank you,” she muttered from the coach.

Lady Eastoffe dropped her voice. “I don’t think she wants to have anything to do with our legacy anymore. Can you blame her?” I shook my head. “You said you were an Eastoffe,” she reminded me. “This is your ring.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, then, wear it for a while, and if you still think it should be mine, you can come deliver it to me in Isolte. Deal?”

I smiled at the thought of seeing her again. “Deal.”

“When do you leave for the castle?” she asked.

“In a few hours. I’m hoping to arrive early evening, when everyone will be at dinner. The less attention I can draw to myself, the better.” I couldn’t begin to imagine the reception I was in for at Keresken.

“I want you to know . . . if, for some reason, the king sees you and your feelings are rekindled, there’s no shame in that. I thought, as Silas’s mother, you would trust it if those words came from me.”

I sighed. “I appreciate the thought, but I’ve known for a long time that I don’t want to be near a crown ever again. And . . . Jameson . . . I don’t know if he ever really loved me. Or if I ever really loved him. My goal is to reinforce how well-suited Delia Grace is for the throne, and then . . . honestly, I don’t have much of a plan after that.”

“You will adjust.”

“How will I know?” I whispered. “If something happens to you, how will I know?”

“I’ve already told the Northcotts to send word. But you needn’t worry. I’m an old woman. King Quinten might have been threatened by my sons, but it’s unlikely he cares about me one way or the other. And Etan will keep us safe on the road.”

I looked over at him skeptically. “If you insist.”

We stood there for a moment. There was nothing left but goodbyes, and I wasn’t ready for them.

She bent down and kissed both of my cheeks. “I love you, Hollis. I miss you already.”

I nodded, stepping back. “I love you, too.”

I so badly didn’t want to cry in front of them. I couldn’t bear to be the cause of any more pain.

“I will write you as soon as I’m able,” she promised.

I nodded again, knowing I couldn’t trust my voice anymore. She ran her hand down my cheek one last time and climbed into the coach.

Etan, looking rather impressive upon his horse, came over to me. “I will keep them safe, you know. Whatever your opinions of me or my king or Isolte, you have to believe I would give my life for my family.”

I nodded. “So would I. But my family gave their lives for me instead.” I inhaled deeply. “I’m sorry. It’s still painful.”

“It will be. For a long time. But it gets easier.”

I must have looked rather pathetic indeed for the likes of Etan to show me some level of mercy.

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