I, er, sort of forgot about Elaina’s friends Lily and Camille. But they’re back now, trying to be the protective friends they are. Gosh, this thing really needs a rewrite!
I took pity on Claudia. I’d seen her at party after party. She wasn’t the prettiest or the most graceful. She was nothing like the kind of woman I figured my mother wanted me to marry, but I felt sorry for her, so I picked her. She was eager, but we had nothing in common, and my mother ate her alive. I planted the ____ in her memory. (Don’t worry, a later companion told me she’d married a nice guy)
Spring had faded to summer and summer was starting to give way to autumn. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t have caused any alarm to Lily and Camille, but, this year, it did. It meant Elaina had been in Roderick Hall that whole time. Because of how things operated, there was no way they could communicate with her. The Hall had been a silent bastion, overseeing the town without giving up any secrets for almost a decade.
Lily traced the rim of her coffee mug, her feet shuffling and crossing back and forth under the table she and Camille were seated at. Camille wasn’t any less restless, her long fingers drumming softly on the table top, her herbal tea untouched.
They had spent the past months checking up on and in with Elaina’s parents, but they hadn’t heard anything, either. It was hard not to worry, especially since Elaina had lasted in Roderick Hall longer than anyone else.
Which was why they were even in the crowded coffee house to begin with.
Camille had heard the rumors first. Brad was collecting the former companions, as many of them as he could, and having them all meet at the coffee house his family owned and managed. Mary-Grace wouldn’t hear of her son gathering all those girls to try to find a way to win back Elaina, or repair his injured pride, because she didn’t and never had liked Elaina. So, he’d waited all this time until his parents were safely off on a length overseas trip.
“It’s getting so crowded in here,” Lily murmured. They were in a far corner, close enough to hear, but far enough to be overlooked. “I’m glad we got here early.”
“We’re not former companions,” Camille said, the voice of reason. “There’s no way we could have gotten in here otherwise if we hadn’t.”
Lily nodded. “I’m nervous. Why do you think he’s calling all of them together? It’s not like he can ferret any information out of them. The non-disclosure agreements ensure they stay mum.”
Camille shrugged one shoulder. “Who knows? Maybe he wants to turn them into his army so he can storm Roderick Hall.”
Lily snorted. ‘Yeah, like security will let them.”
“Well, we’re about to find out,” Camille murmured as the bell above the door rang out to herald the arrival of Brad Hunter.
The murmur that had been filling the coffee shop suddenly hushed as Brad strode in and nodded and smiled to the women. Then he climbed up on top of the counter and spread his arms out.
“Welcome, ladies, and thank you for coming.”
“Why, though?” one woman called out. “I don’t know what we could possibly tell you. We all signed NDAs, so we can’t tell you anything.”
Brad gave them his winning smile and Lily didn’t miss Camille’s eye roll.
“Ladies, thank you for coming,” he repeated, keeping his stride and his thousand watt smile. “I asked you all here not to seek out information, but to make a very simple request of all of you.
“As some of you may know, Elaina is currently Robert Roderick’s companion. She has been with him since the spring.”
Murmurs and voices rose and fell, but always rose. It was easy to lose track of how long each companion lasted, but hearing that it had been over two seasons, it was causing a stir. Most of them had been lucky to last a handful of weeks.
Lily’s hands tightened around her mug. The mood had shifted from curiosity to something she didn’t want to think about. It was suddenly tense and suspicious, though there was also a good streak of hurt and jealousy mixed in, and a strong streak of bewilderment. She was glad all the women who had never been picked hadn’t been invited. That would have invited a whole other layer of hurt to Brad’s words.
“What does he want?” Camille hissed as Brad let the murmurs grow.
“Nothing good,” Lily said, her knuckles growing white and the color draining from her cheeks. “Nothing that can possibly be good for Elaina.”
“We need to get to her,” Camille whispered.
“We can’t,” Lily cut back. “Security refuses to deliver messages.”
“We’ll have to try again!”
“Shh,” Lily said, her eyes cutting back to Brad.
“Ladies,” Brad said. “I’m sure that comes as much to a surprise to you as it has to me.” He paused. For dramatic effect, Lily thought bitterly. “Many of you may or may not have known Elaina was my girlfriend for two years.” He took on a sad mask, his arms hanging limp by his sides and Lily had to fight the urge to not snort. “I had hoped to make her my wife one day, but she got it in her head that Robert Roderick would be a better catch.” He sighed heavily. “I begged her to not go, but she wouldn’t heed me. And now she’s been with that wretched man for nearly half a year, and I fear her heart is forever lost to me.”
His voice had taken on such a tinge of melancholy that Lily seriously considered throwing her mug at him. Camille, though, was shooting warning looks at her, silently urging her to loosen her hands from around her mug.
Brad seemed to rally. He turned his bright smile back on the pack of women now under his thrall. Lily wanted to scream at them to not be so taken with the man, that all he was doing was spouting lies, that Elaina had broken up with him and this was his revenge. But his next words stopped her cold and dread ran down her spine.
“Ladies, I’ve asked you here today to help me win the love of my life back. She has been held hostage in Roderick Hall long enough. Since all of you are familiar with the Hall and the grounds, I am begging you to help me be reunited with my one true love. Help me storm the Hall and bring Elaina back into my waiting arms.”
Lily couldn’t watch; she turned her head away to not see the rush of women towards the liar, their eyes alight and their tongues offering promises.
“I can’t look,” Lily whispered.
“Don’t,” Camille said, her own eyes unable to look away. “It’s not pretty. It’s not good. It’s really not good for Elaina. Or Robert.”
“Do you think he’s right, though, that Elaina is a hostage?”
“Lily! You know as well as I do, as well as all these women know, that there are no hostages. Every girl is free to go.”
Lily closed her eyes and her hands balled into fists. “We need to go. We need to warn her parents and the Hall.”
“I’ll talk to her parents, see what they can do. You go to the Hall. Just try to be nice this time.”
Lily’s eyes flew open, resolve hard in them. “I’ll do whatever I can.”