Chapter Fifteen, continued
“Oh my God,” she breathed as she caught sight of the rose garden. “This is beautiful and massive. How many different kinds of roses are there?”
His cringe puzzled her. “I don’t know. I lost count. I think I lost count some time after Anna.”
Robert sighed and began to guide her along the various walkways, the scent of too many roses to count wafting around them.
“I hope what I tell you doesn’t reflect too badly on me,” he said, his voice surprisingly grim. “I’ve never showed another woman my garden.” He took a deep breath. “We call this the Garden of Girls. I’ve had countless companions over the past eight years. None of them have lasted, obviously. After each girl departed, I planted a rose plant in her honor. Or, sometimes, out of thankfulness for being rid of her.”
“So,” Elaina said slowly, “there’s a rose for every single girl who has been your companion. There are eight years worth of rose plants here. No wonder this garden is so massive. And, seriously, Robert, you have to stop cringing. I am well aware of your history. My friend Lily has kind of kept up with all the companions and garden parties over the years. I have a pretty good idea of how many roses might be here, and, trust me, I don’t think poorly of you. I have run across a couple of your former companions, and I don’t blame you or her for not staying.”
“It’s just that there are a lot of roses.”
“Don’t forget, we’re not planning on there being any more.”
Hope flared in his eyes. “So you think you’ll actually want to marry me?”
“It’s crossed my mind more often lately,” she assured him.
His shoulders relaxed a little. “I’m surprisingly happy to hear that.” He frowned and cast her a sideways glance. “Though I suspect it also has something to do with the library job.”
Elaina sighed. “I can’t lie and say no, but your mother has made it quite clear I will have certain responsibilities as your lifelong companion. I’m not sure a library job is really in the cards for me whether or not I stay, but I think your family library more than makes up for that.”
“I can safely assure you we have more books than roses,” he said, smiling for the first time.
Robert guided her along some of the paths, letting her pause and smell some blossoms here and there. Some of them were pungent, but many of them had a beautiful, delicate scent she wished she could bottle up as a perfume. Not that she wore perfume, but if she ever did, some of those roses would be lovely. She tried asking once or twice who some of the roses had been planted for, but he would only vaguely reply it was written in a journal somewhere.
Finally, they came to a stone bench resting underneath an arch heavy with roses. She was glad they weren’t of the pungent variety, and grateful for the chance to rest her feet. The Garden of Girls was indeed massive.
“Well?” he asked anxiously.
“Well what?” she asked, turning perplexed eyes on her.
“What do you think?” he asked, gesturing around them.
“I think the roses are lovely. It’s kind of a weird way of commemorating your companions, but I suppose there isn’t really anything normal about you or your mother. I’m actually kind of impressed you’ve kept at it for eight years.”
He grimaced and glanced around. “It’s kept me busy. And I actually kind of like gardening. I promised myself I would start an herb and vegetable garden once I married.”
She smiled at the suggestive look on his face as he said the last part, but didn’t give him any more than that. She was fairly sure she’d like to marry him one day, but Rose was really weighing her down.
“You mentioned something else you wanted to tell me?” she said instead. “About your father?”
His eyes darkened and he looked away. His shoulders hunched and a haunted look filled his features. She’d never seen him look so bleak and wondered if he was really processing his grief as he said he had been. Maybe the maroon had been a little premature. Though painting it back to brown really had no appeal to her.
“My father had a mistress,” Robert said softly. “My mother never knew, but I knew the woman very well. Colette was beautiful and kind. She loved my father and adored me. She was everything my mother wasn’t.” He sighed heavily. “My parents had an arranged marriage to merge wealth. Neither wanted to marry the other, but the choice wasn’t theirs. When I was ten, my father met and fell in love with Colette. She loved him and tolerated his choice of staying with my mother. But, she broke one day.
“I was seventeen. As I usually did, I dropped by my father’s office after school. She was in there with him, crying and holding a gun. She was pleading with my father to leave his wife, but he could only helplessly tell her he couldn’t. Colette, the one woman who had ever loved me like a son, threatened to kill herself. I don’t know how it happened, but my father tried to stop her and ended up dying. It was horrifying, Elaina. My father died instantly and Colette became hysterical.
“I had to do something. I had to protect Colette. Somehow, I managed to pry her from my father and convince her to run. Once she left the office, I called the police. They ruled his death a suicide, but it felt wrong to my mother. She got it into her head that someone was after us, so locked us both here in Roderick Hall. I’ve been stuck here since and haven’t seen Colette again.”
“Couldn’t you tell your mother her husband wasn’t murdered?” Elaina asked.
Robert’s response was quiet, almost whispered. “If I tell her, she will hunt Colette down and nothing will stop her.”
Elaina stiffened. “Oh. I had no idea your mother was so attached to her husband.”
“She wasn’t,” Robert said bitterly. “She held him at arms’ length. But she’s very territorial.”
“So you’ve given up your freedom in order to ensure Colette’s,” Elaina said softly.
Without looking at her, Robert nodded. “Colette was like a mother to me. For whatever reason, Dad refused to divorce my mother, but she loved me like I was her own son. She adored me, doted on me. I could never repay her by setting my mother on her.”
“But the terms of your father’s will will give you your freedom.”
“Yes. Without having to endanger Colette.”
Elaina cocked her head to the side. “Why didn’t you consider proposing to any of your other companions?”
He shrugged. “I was seventeen when my first companion entered the Hall. It was kind of fun, at first. And then it became routine. And then it just started slipping my mind. None of them interested me that much, anyways, and all of them fell victim to my mother.” He glanced over at her. “Except you.”
She gave him a wry smile. “I know the terms of your father’s will. We have an agreement. Our relationship is a little different.”
“So it is.” He looked away, leaning forward and clasping his hands between his knees. “I suppose marriage just never interested me before. I’m not sure if it’s because I finally feel old enough to marry or if I’m just tired of being stuck here, but I am ready to get married, to dedicate my life to someone.”
“I suppose I should feel lucky,” she remarked.
He shook his head. “I won’t say how you should feel. I mean, I did dangle your dream job in front of you.”
It was her turn to shrug. “I had no where else to go, nothing else to do. If anything, being here would give me time to think away from everyone I knew.”
Robert opened his mouth and then quickly shut it. With a shuttered gaze, he turned to her. “I suppose you must miss your friends and family.”
“Well…yes,” she admitted,” though my friends were right that I don’t mind being away from everyone. I love them to death and I do miss them, but I also find I’m happy being here with you.” She cocked her head to the side. “Your mother, too. She isn’t…friendly, but I’ve seen sadness lurking in her eyes.”
“You’re being diplomatic.”
Elaina sighed. “No, I’m not. I hear mothers-in-law are notorious for being difficult. Your mother raised you. She’s loved you since before you were born.” She held up a hand as he opened his mouth. “She locked you up here for your safety.”
“Or so she says,” he cut in quickly.
“Regardless, you are her son. She has likely always imagined the kind of girl you would marry. She has…certain ideals about how her daughter-in-law should comport herself. Robert, your mother isn’t easy to like or get along with, but I think she just has a hard shell that’s difficult to crack.”
“Well, if she has a hard shell, not even I, the beloved son, can break it.”
Elaina reached out a hand and placed it over his knee. “Your mother is a complicated lady, but I think I owe it to all of us to find a way to make this bearable for everyone. Even Nigel, who sometimes looks like he’s being pulled in different directions.”
“Yeah,” Robert said with a humorless smile. “Nigel’s my best friend, but I know some of his loyalties lie with my mother.”
She gently squeezed his knee. “We’ll find a way to make things the way they should be.”
“I’m not even sure what that is anymore.”
“But we’ll do it together,” she insisted.
Robert placed a hand on hers and smiled at her. “See? I knew you were the right girl.”
Catch up on the story here.