She pulled me into a tight hug, her fingers digging into my shoulders. Despite how calm she seemed, I could see her shaking. I let her hold on as long as she wanted, and when she finally took a deep breath and pulled away, I kissed her cheek. “I only just met you, Felicity Farrington, but I love you, and I will remember you.”
“I guess that’s as much as I can ask,” she half-laughed. “Thank you, really and truly, for everything. You’ve made it all easier than it could have been.”
“I wish I could have done more.”
“You do what’s yours to do. The rest belongs to them.” She jerked her head at the men in the doorway. “I guess you’ll see me in a couple of days.”
“By the honeysuckle, so we’ll almost never see you at all,” I agreed, almost inaudibly. I kissed her again and walked out of the room, holding the book so tightly my knuckles popped.
The Gardener glanced at the braid that very obviously wasn’t Zara’s, then back at me. “Lorraine’s been crying,” he murmured. “She says Bliss attacked her.”
“It’s just hair.” I looked him square in the eyes. “She isn’t you or your sons. We don’t have to tolerate her hurting us.”
“I’ll speak with her.” He kissed my cheek and went to Zara, but Desmond held back with a puzzled, slightly worried frown.
“Is there something I’m missing?” he asked me quietly.
“I know you’ll miss her, but we’ll get her taken care of. She’ll be fine.”
“No. You don’t know. You should, you’ve seen enough—well. I do know. You don’t get to tell me she’ll be fine. Right now you don’t get to tell me anything.”
Avery was the Gardener’s firstborn, but in the ways that mattered Desmond was his heir.
And before long, we’d find out just how much his father’s son he was.
I looked back at Zara, but the Gardener was in the way. Ignoring Desmond’s hurt gaze, I walked away.
Returning my tray to the kitchen—and taking a spiteful glee in Lorraine’s sniffles and her mere inch and a half of ragged hair—I declined an offer from several of the girls to join them and went back to my room alone. After maybe half an hour, the walls came down. Zara was too injured for a final tryst, after all, and Desmond was there with them. I curled up on my bed with the play, read all the notes in the margins, and got to know Felicity Farrington a little.
Around three in the morning, the wall that blocked me from the hallway lifted. Only that wall—the ones to either side that looked through display cases and, if you squinted, into Marenka’s and Isra’s rooms, stayed in place. They’d been there for weeks, and it was a strange breed of lovely to not see dead bodies every time I opened my eyes. I closed the book on my finger, steeling myself to see the Gardener in the doorway, one hand at his belt and his eyes full of excitement.
But it was Desmond, his pale green eyes haunted and bruised in a way I hadn’t seen in months. He clutched the glass wall to keep himself standing, his knees buckling and swaying with every attempt to support his weight.
I closed the book properly, slid it onto the shelf, and sat up on the bed.
He took a few wobbly steps into the room and fell hard to his knees. He buried his face in his hands, then flinched violently, staring at his hands like they’d somehow become separate from the rest of him. A sickly sour chemical smell wafted around him, the same scent I noticed any time I went near the honeysuckles at the front door. His entire body shook as he doubled over, pressing his forehead against the cool metal floor.
Almost ten minutes passed before he said a word, and even then his voice was hoarse and broken. “He promised we would take care of her.”
“But he . . . he . . .”
“Put her out of pain, and prevented her from decay,” I said neutrally.
“. . . murdered her.”
Not entirely his father’s son then.
I pulled off my clothing and knelt down in front of him, unbuttoning his shirt. He gave me a sick look and batted my hands away. “I’m putting you in the shower—you reek.”
“Formaldehyde,” he muttered. This time he let me undress him, and stumbled along behind me as I pulled him across the room to sit in the shower. A twist of my wrist sent warm water pouring over him.
There was nothing sexual about what happened next. It was like bathing Sophia’s girls when they were half-asleep. When I told him to lean forward or lift his arm or close his eyes, he obeyed, but numbly, like it didn’t entirely make sense. My shampoo and body wash were both fruity as hell, but I washed him head to toe until the only remaining chemical smell was his clothing.
I draped him in towels and used one of his shoes to push the clothing out into the hallway, then returned to dry both of us off. I had to keep wiping his face—unseen in the shower, a constant stream of tears ran down his cheeks.
“He injected something to make her sleep,” he whispered. “I thought we were going to carry her out to the car, but he opened a room I’d never seen before.” A shudder wracked his body. “Once she fell asleep, he put her in this orange and yellow dress and laid her out on an embalming table, and then he . . . he hooked up . . .”
“Please don’t tell me,” I said quietly.
“No, I have to, because he’s going to do that to you someday, isn’t he? That’s how he, how he keeps you, by embalming you while you’re still alive.” Another shudder, a sob that fractured his voice, but he continued. “He stood there explaining all the steps to me. So I could do it on my own someday, he said. Love was more than just the pleasure, he said; we had to be willing to do the hard things too, he said. He said . . . he said . . .”
“Come on, you’re still shivering.”
He let me lead him to the bed and pull the covers up over him, and I sat beside him, atop the blanket, hands in my lap. “He said if I really loved you, I wouldn’t let any hand other than my own take care of you.”
“Des . . .”
“He showed me some of the others. I thought . . . I thought he just left them back on the streets! I didn’t realize . . .” He broke down completely, weeping with an intensity that damn near shook the bed. I rubbed circles on his back as he choked on the sobs, unable to give him more comfort than that because he still didn’t know the full truth. Zara had the bone infection, and he thought all broken people killed themselves or let themselves go so completely that they died. He didn’t know about attitudes and ages.
And at that moment, when he was so close to broken himself, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. I couldn’t use him broken. I needed him brave.
I didn’t think he ever would be.
“She picked out her case,” he managed a few minutes later. “He made me carry her there, showed me how to pose her, how to close the glass completely to pour the resin in. Before he closed the glass, he . . . he . . .”
“Kissed her goodbye?”
He gave a jerky nod, hiccupping with the force of his sobs. “He told her he loved her!”
“As he understands it, he does.”
“How can you even stand to be around me?”
“Sometimes I can’t,” I admitted. “I keep telling myself that you don’t know the whole of it, that you’re still ignorant of so much of what your father and brother do, and some days that’s the only way I can even look at you. But you . . .”
“Please tell me.”
“But you’re a coward,” I sighed. “You know that keeping us here is wrong. You know it’s against the law, you know he rapes us, and now you know he kills us. Some of these girls might even have families looking for them. You know this is wrong, but you don’t report it. You said you were going to learn how to be braver for me, but you haven’t. And I honestly don’t know if you can.”