“Starving,” Willa answered.
“I could eat,” Nick said. And he and Willa needed to if they were going to have enough strength to deal with whatever came next.
Melinna nodded. “I’ll have a meal together shortly, then you can both rest. Tomorrow’s challenge will be draining. Willa, come help me in the kitchen.”
“Right behind you.” Willa shot Nick a look that plainly said she was sorry for leaving him alone with her father. He waved her off.
Then Jarrel stepped into Nick’s line of sight, his jaw set firmly but his eyes filled with unease. “You and I need to talk.”
Nick nodded. “Agreed.”
But if the man thought he was going to persuade Nick to leave Willa alone, it wasn’t going to happen. Nick knew without hesitation that the answer to Shay’s question was yes. He was going to marry Willa.
And there wasn’t a man or fae alive who could change Nick’s mind.
Willa followed her mother into the kitchen, but her mother ignored the cold storage and went straight to the table. Maybe her mother didn’t plan on feeding them after all. Melinna sat in one of the carved chairs and put her hand over her mouth as if the whole thing had suddenly become too much.
A moment later, a young woman Willa didn’t recognize came in. “Can I get you or your guest something, my lady?”
Melinna looked up. “No, thank you, Vellana.” Melinna paused. “But you can run down to the market. We have guests for dinner. Enough food for five.”
“Better make it six,” Willa said as she sat. “We’re really hungry.”
“Very well.” Melinna nodded at the serving girl. “Six.”
“Yes, my lady.” The girl took a basket off a wall hook and left.
Willa’s brows shot up. “You have servants?”
Melinna frowned. “Another gift from Kyanna, but it’s safe to talk with her gone. I don’t know if Kyanna makes the girl report in on us but we never talk about sensitive things in front of her just in case.”
“Do you think Kyanna knows anything about Shay’s gifts?”
“No.” Melinna sighed. “We took great pains to make sure Shay knew exactly how to fail the testing.” She scrubbed at her face with her hands. “This is such a mess.”
Willa crossed her arms, a little put off by her mother’s declaration. “You think I should have done something differently? Like actually joined Kyanna?”
“No.” Melinna shook her head. “What you did was…brave. Maybe a little foolish, but terribly brave. We’re the mess. Your father and I.” She stared out one of the windows. It overlooked the sprawling kingdom and offered a glorious view of the mountains beyond.
“We spoiled Kyanna. And Zane, but Kyanna…after you left, we did whatever she wanted. Whatever we had to to keep her happy.”
“We were scared we’d lose another child. And we didn’t realize how short-sighted and greedy we were being. We had too much ambition ourselves in those days.”
Her mother was saying the right things, but Willa still had questions. “But you put Kyanna into training.”
“Yes, but she had no notion of returning the kingdom the old ways at that age. And it was her decision to stay. She was the opposite of you when it came to the training. She loved it. Thrived on it. The attention, the privilege, the idea of serving the kingdom, the whole thing. It changed her. Turned her into something…” Melinna closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath. When she opened them, they shone with the hard light of truth. “We’re well aware of what she’s become. Which is why we’re doing what we can to protect Shay from the same path.”
“Like helping her fail the testing.”
Melinna nodded. “Exactly like that.”
Something inside Willa cracked, the hard seal she’d put in place to keep herself from feeling the loss of her parents maybe. She reached out and took her mother’s hand. “I’m not sorry for the reasons that I ran, but I’m sorry for the hurt it caused you.”
Melinna sniffed and nodded and clutched Willa’s hand like a lifeline. “And I’m sorry we didn’t listen to you. Didn’t protect you. I’m sorry we didn’t understand what you were going through and that you felt your only choice was to run. I really am.”
“Thank you for saying that.” Willa pulled her hand back.
Melinna looked at her curiously. “How is your life now?”
“It’s good.” She thought about Nick. “Really good.”
“I’m happy about that.” Her mother sighed. “I love you, Willa. I always have. I always will. And I realize we’ve only begun to reconnect, but I must be honest with you. Your father and I don’t approve of your relationship with Nick.”
The words hit Willa like a slap. She’d thought her parents had moved beyond that old prejudice, but apparently they hadn’t. “It doesn’t matter what you approve of or don’t, I’m not giving him up. Accept it or you’ll lose me again.”
Her mother frowned. “I thought you disagreed with Kyanna’s stance on the old ways.”
“I do. What are we talking about?”
Melinna let out a long, exasperated breath. “You cannot keep that man for your…slave, sexual or otherwise. He has the same rights that you and I do. He deserves to be free.”