Alicia was really an Alex. As in a boy. He was there to keep an eye on his seventeen-year-old sister and make sure she wasn’t chosen since she’d only wanted to enjoy the party. I’d picked him on a whim that day and he’d tried to see how far he could go with his disguise. Didn’t fool me. I thought he’d make a nice friend, but Mother saw right through it and told me friendship didn’t have a place in the Hall. I planted the __ for him. Security still sometimes sneaks letters in to me. It’s nice having a pen pal that isn’t a girl.
Robert’s hand tightened around the curtain as he stared out at the front lawn. Women of all ages were pouring in, more than security could keep up with. He recognized almost all of them, but their passionate faces and screams were foreign to him. There were no pretty dresses, no well-heeled girls sipping tea, no picking a new companion. Instead, they looked oddly like a mob.
“What’s going on, Nigel?” he asked softly. “And what’s Brad doing with them?”
“Elaina called Rose a little while ago and Rose just finished speaking with me and security,” Nigel said softly. “Bradley Hunter is determined to not lose Elaina without a fight.”
Robert visibly startled. “But she broke up with him months ago.”
“It appears someone might want to give Mr. Hunter the message,” Nigel said mildly. “He’s managed to whip former companions and women who were never chosen to be a companion up to storm the Hall. But don’t worry. Security will handle it.”
Robert’s heart sank as he watched a neverending flood of women march closer to the front doors. He could see the black-suited members of the security swarm out into a solid line, but there were just so many women.
“How can there be so many women in town?” he whispered, his wide eyes taking them all in. He shook his head. “I suppose Brad wasn’t happy to learn Elaina had jumped from him to me.”
“That appears to be the case.”
Robert pressed his lips into a tight, thin line. “Make sure they don’t break security.”
Nigel nodded as Robert took one last peek out the window. Then he abruptly turned and left, headed for his study. He felt like his heart was in his throat, but the security team had yet to let them down. It wouldn’t be pretty out there, but he hoped no one would be hurt.
Ensconced in his maroon study, he looked around at the walls. Now that he knew the truth, casting his father and Colette in a new light, he was ready for a different color. Oh, Elaina would hate him, but surely she’d like a pretty sky blue better than the maroon. He shuddered. What had he been thinking when he’d picked maroon?
He shook his head and reached for his phone. He’d memorized the number for Poppy and James Linden within hours of Elaina’s departure. His mother had talked him out of calling her last night, but now he needed to know she was okay.
“Hello?” a soft, melodic voice rang out after the second ring.
“Yes. Who is this?”
Robert cleared his throat. “This is Robert.” He paused. “Robert Roderick. Could I speak with Elaina?”
There was a pause on the other end and his heart lurched. Had being home changed Elaina’s mind?
“Robert, is everything okay at the Hall?” Mrs. Linden asked softly, though her voice was too measured for him to not start to worry.
“Nothing security can’t handle,” he said, attempting to sound cheerful. “Is Elaina around?”
“Elaina is on her way back to the Hall.”
His heart dropped. “No! You have to get her to go back. Brad and a bunch of women are marching onto the grounds. She can’t be here. She shouldn’t be here. She knows Brad. He won’t let her go without a fight.”
He could hear Mrs. Linden hesitate before she said softly, “I’m afraid it’s too late, Robert. She left too long ago. She must be nearly there by now.”
“I’d better go,” he said, his body tensing.
“That would probably be best. Good luck. And, please, if you see my daughter, keep her safe.”
“I will,” he said, surprising even himself with his passion.
Robert hurriedly hung up the phone. With his face set in the most serious expression it’d held since his father had died, he switched off the lights in his study and went to the door. He would have to find Nigel and have him keep an eye out for Elaina. His mother had assumed she would be safe with just Marie to watch out for her now that they were practically engaged, but the danger had found him and his mother. And Elaina was on her way straight into it.
A shudder went through him. What would happen to the two linked worlds if something did happen to him? He had no heir.
Robert threw the door open, ready to fling himself down the hall and start shouting for his faithful butler.
But Bradley Hunter was standing there, a smile and a gun pointed in his direction.
Elaina had no breath to gasp with, so she reached out to latch onto her two friends. They were nearing the Hall, and had gotten as close as they could. It looked like almost every woman in town had flocked to the Hall, all of them yelling and screaming and surging against the line of security guards.
Marie studied Lily and Camille with steely eyes before turning off the car. “Security will let Elaina through, but the two of you will not be permitted past.”
“But we can help get her through this mob, right?” Lily asked, her hands tight around Elaina’s.
Marie gave a single, curt nod. Then she exited the car and quickly opened Lily’s door to let the other three women out. She pointed towards the mob. “Find what gaps you can. Try not to get in anyone’s way. The more you can snake your way through, the better. Don’t bring attention to yourselves.” She eyed Elaina. “Especially you.”
Elaina nodded, still clutching at her friends. “We’ll be careful, Marie.”
“Don’t keep too close to me. We don’t want you to draw anyone’s attention.”
With a final, curt nod, Marie left them, bellowing at the crowd to move away. She was swallowed up a moment later, though her voice still carried.
“I don’t get it,” Elaina whispered. “So many women. All of Robert’s former companions left for a good reason. Why would they be upset? I get the prospective companions. But the former companions…?”
Lily shrugged. “Brad was good, Elaina. He made it sound like Rose was just playing a game with them. It made them angry.”
“But Robert’s told me about some of them. One of them was even a young man in disguise. One left to go back to her husband.”
Camille nodded to the crowd. “With luck, they’re not here. Shall we?”
Elaina nodded, her eyes rising to the windows of the Hall. It still stood like a silent sentinel, imposing and commanding despite the women trying to fight their way past security.
As one, the three of them snaked through the crowd. It was slow going with frequent direction changes, but they pushed their way forward as quickly as they could. Elaina kept her eyes lowered and Lily and Camille kept close to her sides, trying to keep her from view as much as possible. They murmured unheard apologies left and right so Elaina’s voice wouldn’t be heard.
Finally, the crowd disgorged them in front of the line of security. Elaina could see the strain on their faces, as well as some relief as they caught sight of her. They knew their duty, though, and quickly snapped their attention back to the women trying to batter against them. They wouldn’t draw any attention to Elaina and put her in harm’s way.
“We’ll be here,” Lily whispered as she and Camille pushed her forward.
Security parted briefly to let her pass, and she didn’t spare a look back to see what happened to her friends. Robert and Rose were foremost in her mind now. She’d glanced around, kept her ears open, as they’d made their way through, but she’d neither seen nor heard Brad. That worried her. Where was he?
She rushed into the Hall. Silence engulfed her as the door quietly swung shut. She could still hear a dim buzz of commotion from outside, otherwise it was like being in a mausoleum. The silence was almost deafening, and pregnant with foreboding. Or maybe that was just her and her own fears creeping up the back of her neck.
Elaina silently stole forward, thankful she wore the slippers Rose had given her instead of the heels. If Brad had somehow slipped inside, she didn’t want him knowing she was here.
Hardly daring to breathe into the suffocating stillness (or maybe that was her rapidly beating heart strangling her breath in her throat), she silently rushed down halls and up staircases.
Nothing. No one. The Hall was sparsely staffed as it was, but she didn’t see any signs of anyone at all. The kitchen was silent and still, the laundry room stalled, the dining room not even set for breakfast.
Elaina swallowed hard, quietly making her way from one end of each floor to the other. On the second, around the corner from the back stairs, she found Nigel knocked out, but breathing. Her hands went cold. Nigel would have fought tooth and nail to protect Rose and Robert. Where were they?
She rushed to the library. It had been something of her and Robert’s place. Surely, if he was missing her as much as she was missing him, he’d wander in there to be closer to her. But it was empty, dust motes swirling in the morning light, dancing without an audience or the quiet flipping of pages to provide the music.
Her heart was in her throat as she reached Rose’s favorite sitting room, just a few doors down from the library. She called it her buttercup room because it was awash in pale yellows that caught the morning light just right. Elaina hadn’t frequented the room since Robert would tell her it was his mother’s special place where she silently contemplated the world every morning. She didn’t know if that was true, but, whenever Rose was in there, the door was always firmly closed.
It was morning. Rose had her routine. She had a great deal of faith and trust in her security team. But she didn’t know Brad the way Elaina knew him.
The breath was stolen from her lungs as bloodless, trembling fingers grasped the knob and turned.