Chapter Twenty-Three, continued
Rose sat at her desk, idly tapping the sheet of parchment lying before her with the tip of her pen. She’d returned home with stacks of parchment that had been collecting, waiting, for eight years. Letters upon letters had lain gathering dust, and now it was her job to make sure they found their homes. For the past day, Nigel had been helping her mail them all out.
But this one was different. It wasn’t a letter, but a note addressed to her. Well, to the Gate Keeper. Which, at the moment, was her since Robert and Elaina were not yet wed.
At that thought, she glanced over at the little table by her window. Binders in lovely pastels were neatly stacked. She hoped Elaina didn’t find them too outdated, but it had been many years since she’d, reluctantly, planned her own wedding. Robert was simply too dense with these matters to be of any help, but Elaina had a refined taste she quite liked. After all, the girl hadn’t done away with all of the gowns when she’d left them to their own devices.
Rose mentally shook herself. Robert had yet to propose. There was still time, though the clock was ticking. People were getting anxious, and it would be even worse when the letters reached their recipients.
Her eyes turned back to the parchment in front of her. It was just a brief note, a couple of lines, but it made her chest run cold.
There was only a decade of slumber left for the princess, but, with the way time moved differently over there, it could be anywhere from a few days to a few decades. Technically, it wasn’t the Gate Keeper’s problem, but it could result in people leaving the other world in droves. It could lead to war. It could lead to…
She didn’t want to think about it. It was bad enough knowing that, if it got bad, the Gate Keeper would feel the effects, might have to seal the portal again.
The worst of it was that she was Elaina’s cousin. Well. A distant cousin. But, still, blood called to blood. Even though Elaina had proven to be the best candidate as wife to the Gate Keeper, she was also a very dangerous choice.
She’d known who Elaina was from the moment she saw her, heard her parent’s names. She remembered the mermaid and her prince with fondness. She’d convinced Harrison to help them; she couldn’t bear the thought of another couple being torn from each other. Of all the people who had crossed the portal permanently, they were the only ones she’d ever really kept appraised of.
Elaina, the princess who shouldn’t have been born, was the granddaughter of the slumbering princess’s cousin. Whether the princess had any magic wasn’t known, whether she could sing to the blood of her kin was even less known.
It was the unknown that scared her.
The phone rang, making Rose jump. Her pen rolled to the floor and her cup of tea spilled over the parchment. She glared at it and swallowed an oath, and picked up the phone. It could only be Elaina.
“Hello, Elaina. How are your parents?”
“Rose, Bradley Hunter is amassing the former companions to storm the Hall!”
Rose blinked and pressed two fingers to her temple. “Elaina, slow down. Are you talking about Mary-Grace’s son?”
She heard Elaina take a deep breath on the other end before letting it out with a whoosh. “Yes. Brad Hunter. My ex-boyfriend. He hates losing. I knew he wasn’t going to be happy when I broke up with him, but I didn’t think he’d do this.”
Rose frowned. “Yes. I know the Hunter boy well. And you say he’s gathering the former companions? But whatever for? They all signed NDAs and didn’t last here for a reason. I don’t see why they would follow him and his crazy ideas.”
“My friends, Lily and Camille, were there when he announced his idea. Brad is quite…theatrical and charismatic. He somehow talked them into storming the Hall with the idea that they could just as well have been Robert’s wife as me and that you must have gone easier on me than them. So, now they’re angry. And they’ve gathered women who were only ever hopeful companions, women who are angry they’ll never get their turn.”
“This is absurd,” Rose muttered, digging her fingers into her temple a little more. “You say your friends are Lily and Camille?”
Rose pressed her lips into a thin line. So that was what the woman who had coming by to scream at them been talking about.
“Thank you, Elaina. I’ll inform security.”
She heard Elaina sigh, almost as though she were sagging in on herself. “Thank you, Rose.” She hesitated. “Is Robert okay?”
Rose huffed out a laugh. “Gone not even twenty-four hours and already missing him?”
“We’ve been inseparable for six months. Literally. It’s actually strange to be away from him.” Her voice quieted. “It’s like I’m missing a limb or something.”
“Don’t worry, Elaina. Robert is fine. He’s keeping busy with Nigel. Pulling weeds, mostly. But he did say he’s planning on repainting his study.”
Elaina groaned. “No, no, no, no. We just painted!”
“I believe he asked Nigel to rummage up some paint samples,” Rose said mildly.
“Rose, I thought you liked me now.”
“I believe this is something you should take up with my son, Elaina. Now,” she said, her brisk tone returning, “I have security to talk to. Thank you for passing along the message.”
“Thank you, Rose. I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”
Rose hung up the phone, a thoughtful expression pulling at her face. She knew Bradley Hunter well, knew he wasn’t likely to give up without a fight. He was going to be a problem.
Her mother had already told her three times there was enough sugar in her tea, but Elaina couldn’t stop herself from nervously adding more. She’d called Rose, let her know. There wasn’t anything else she could do.
“Elaina, sweetheart, why don’t you go for a walk?” Poppy asked. “Stretch you legs. Check out the library.”
“You’re mother’s right,” James piped up from where he was going at a pile of dough with gusto. “You can do the kneading for me if you need to expend some energy.”
“I’m just nervous,” Elaina said. “Brad is…well, you met him. He wasn’t happy when I broke up with him. I know Roderick Hall is safe, but, there are a lot of women who might be swarming the Hall any time now.”
A pounding on the door interrupted them, making Elaina miss her cup and spill sugar all over the table. They looked at each other, startled at the noise, but no one moved until the pounding started up again and they could hear Lily and Camille yelling for them.
Marie, who’d somehow made herself almost invisible, ghosted to the door before anyone else could move. She checked out the peephole before nodding once to herself and letting Lily and Camille tumble into the house.
Elaina’s chair toppled over in her rush to stand and meet her friends. Lily was as white as a lily and grabbed at Elaina’s shoulders as soon as they were within reach of each other. Camille, tall and willowy, stood swaying like a willow tree, her hands twisting and turning until her fingers were as white as Lily’s face.
“What’s the matter?” Elaina cried out, startled and scared.
“We forgot to tell you,” Lily said breathlessly. “Brad has a gun!”
Elaina didn’t think there was any more blood left to drain from her face when Camille said, “And they’ve started for the Hall!”
Elaina’s head swiveled to Marie, who was furiously and quietly speaking to someone. Her own hands were digging into Lily’s arms, but neither woman noticed as they tensely waited for Marie to confirm or deny what was going on.
“We stay put,” Marie announced. “This is the safest place for you.”
Elaina sagged and would have fallen if not for her friends and parents rushing around her. “Then they really are marching on the Hall,” she said faintly, leaning heavily on her father.
“Rose and Robert are safe in the Hall,” Marie said. “This is the safest place for you.”
“No, it’s not,” Camille said forcefully. “Brad is Elaina’s ex-boyfriend. He knows where she lives. If he doesn’t find her at the Hall, he’s going to come here for her.”
“He will not breach security,” Marie said, calm and steadfast.
“I have to go,” Elaina whispered. “I can’t leave them.”
“Elaina, they will be safe,” Marie said.
“No,”Elaina said forcefully. “You don’t know Brad. I have to go, Marie. Otherwise who knows what kind of chaos and destruction he’ll bring to find me.”
“The Hall is secure,” Marie insisted, eyes flat.
Elaina drew in a deep breath, pulling away from her father after giving his hand a quick reassuring squeeze. She was going to be the mistress of Roderick Hall, the wife of the Gate Keeper, and, ridiculously, the queen of that crazy garden of girls sooner rather than later. It was time she started acting like it.
“Marie, we leave for the Hall now. I will be safe as long as you protect me.”
Marie’s nostrils flared and her eyes flashed with fury, but she pressed her lips into a thin line and gave a curt nod. “I’ll prepare the car,” she said, turning neatly on her heel.
“Are you sure?” Poppy asked, rushing towards her daughter and folding her into a quick hug. “You just came home. I don’t want to lose you.”
“I’ll be fine, Mom. Marie is one of the best. She’ll protect me. Besides, Brad won’t hurt me. He wants me back by his side, remember?” A brief, bitter smile twisted her lips. “I am, after all, the love of his life.”
Poppy swept back a lock of Elaina’s hair, a sad smile on her face. “Be careful, Elaina.”
“I will,” Elaina promised as her parents folded her into a hug.
“We’re going with you,” Camille announced, visibly more composed now than when she’d first arrived. Beside her, Lily nodded. “Security might not let us through into the Hall, but at least we can offer a larger buffer alongside Marie.”
Elaina smiled. “Thanks, you two. Come on. Marie’s waiting.”