Queen of the Garden of Girls

A story inspired by Beauty and the Beast, it’s about one young woman’s desire for her dream job, one young man’s need to get out from under his mother’s control, and one woman’s secret. This is the first draft.

Note: Excuse the formatting and grammatical issues of this first draft. Previously, I was posting links to each new part, but, now that it’s at almost 50 parts, the list was looking too long so I decided to post the whole thing instead of keeping the list of parts. Formatting and checking for punctuation and spelling mistakes is time consuming and will take, well, time. Thanks for understanding, and I hope you enjoy!

Update for Queen of the Garden of Girls and What Comes Next

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Epilogue

Chapter One

Linda was beautiful. Beautiful and elegant and sophisticated. Nineteen to my seventeen, she was every guy’s dream. Poetry fell from her lush red lips. Her blue eyes twinkled with naughty secrets. Her hips swayed like a hypnotist’s pendulum. She charmed me and filled my nights with dreams that would make my mother run her off the estate. But Linda was fragile. She broke easily. I planted the American Beauty in her honor.

“We need to break up.”

Elaina Linden cringed as the words escaped her lips, but she needed to get her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend to stop rambling on about the dress his mother expected her to wear to some fundraising gala.

Bradley Hunter paused mid-sentence and blinked at her with the green eyes she’d fallen for over two years before. She met his gaze head-on, braced for the worst. Where his mother was demanding, her son was often unyielding. She didn’t expect him to take the breakup well.

A slow smile spread across his face and her heart sank at the twinkle of condescension in his eyes. He thought she was joking, playing a mean trick on him. He would, of course, make sure she paid for it. Just one of the many things she’d tired of over the past two years.

Bradley shook a playful finger at her. “You had me worried for a moment there, Lainy. But of course you must be joking. After all, I’m the heir of the second most powerful family in town.” He leaned forward to poke her nose. “And you’re the lucky little lady I picked.”

Elaine bristled and straightened her spine. She slid a few inches away from him on the bench, drawing a frown from him. A firm hand to his chest, though, stopped him from following.

“I’m not joking, Bradley,” she said firmly. “I’ve had enough of you and your family and your silly demands. No, I will not wear whatever dress it is your mother demands I wear. No, I will not hang on to your arm at the stupid gala like a simpering girl who can’t believe her good fortune. Yes, I most definitely am breaking up with you.”

The playful twinkles vanished from his eyes as they became hard, unrelenting emeralds. She lifted her chin slightly, prepared for his temper. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“I could have had any girl I wanted,” he said, his voice low.

“Then you can easily find another.”

He didn’t hear her, his voice easily washing over hers. “You should be grateful. You, from a simple middle-class family, who could only dream of the riches someone like me has to offer you. Don’t deny it, Elaina. You loved the trips, the jewelry, the fine dresses, the running elbows with the world’s elite.” A hard glint entered his eyes. “The cushy job you should still be working hard to attain.”

Elaina had been ready for this, all of it. She just couldn’t believe it has taken her two years to wake up. Yes, she’d enjoyed running in the wealthy circles and being pampered by the heir to the Hunter Publishing Company. As a recent English graduate, she’d covered an editor position in the company. It has been a stroke of luck that she’d run into Bradley on her first day. She wasn’t sure what she should call her catching his eye. A sad misfortune?

It has slowly begun to eat at her. The demands from him and his mother veiled as sweet corrections so she wouldn’t make a gaffe at an event and shame the Hunter family. She’d worked tirelessly to perfect and prove herself. But now she was exhausted and further from perfection every day.

Elaina stood, her dark eyes hard, and tossed a crisp white paper at him.

“I expected nothing less from you Bradley.” She pointed at the paper on the concrete. “My resignation. I’ve already cleared the office and family and friends should be finished clearing my things from your house. After all, there wasn’t much.”

She turned on her heel to match from the courtyard, intent on getting out of the office building with all due haste.

“You’ll regret this,” were the last words she heard before the door slammed shut.

She knew she wouldn’t. She’d talked it over with her parents. The looks of relief in their faces had said it all. She was making a good choice. The only good one she’d made in two years. If course, it made her unemployed and once more living under her patents’ roof. But it was still better than the alternative.

Curious eyes followed her as she collected her boxes from the empty office. All morning they had watched her pack, shred, and throw away. Concerned acquaintances who thought themselves friends had tried to talk to her, but she’d ignored them all. Now they watched in silence as she walked away.

Voices rose like buzzing bees behind her. The gossip was starting before she’d even made it to the elevator. She pressed her lips into a thin line.

Unfortunately, she knew what was going to happen next. Bradley would paint her as an evil he’d had to break away from. Lowly writers would simper their way into his life, offering comfort and twisted words about Evil Elaina. He’d move on to another girl, but she didn’t waste brain cells feeling sorry for her replacement. They would figure it out soon enough.

At least she wasn’t the shut-in’s companion.

There was a time when Elaina would have done anything to live in the center of the city, away from the quite suburb she’d grown up in. Her life has been quiet and dull, though she had been comfortable. At least, until she went away to college in a major city and newfound friends had shown her everything she had missed out on during her childhood. When she moved home, living downtown had been a no-brainer.

Which was why she was surprised when no pangs of sorrow hit her as she drove away from the cold glass office building that soared into the sky, falling just short of the building that housed Rodrick Enterprises. Instead, relief washed over her and the tension melted from her body with every second. Her face relaxed into a smile as the buildings spaced out and became cozy homes and trees and bushes began to outnumber the pedestrians.

Home.

Her childhood home was neat and quaint with climbing vines, a peaked roof, and a cobblestone driveway that still threatened to rattle her teeth from her head. Her mother, an avid gardener, had transformed the front lawn into a flowering oasis full of color.

Just as she pulled her car to the side of the driveway, the blue front door sprang open and her two best friends rushed to greet her.

Diminutive and almost pixie -like with short blond hair and big blue eyes, Lily didn’t let her short legs stop her and reached Elaina first. Concern was painted across her delicate features and she closely studied her friend as she grabbed Elaina’s hands.

“Did it go okay?” Lily asked, anxiety lacing her voice.

Lily was the one who had spent the past two years pointing out everything that was wrong with Bradley, and continually warned it wasn’t fated to go well. But Elaina, lover of books and the unrealistic, had only brushed her off, her head so fogged up with happily ever afters that she refused to listen to her lifelong friend, the girl who knew her better than she did.

“Well, she’s still in one piece,” Camille pointed out As she reached them, her hands casually tucked into her pants pockets.

Tall and willowy, the one-time model towered over the other two. She and Elaina had met three years before when Elaina had started working for the magazine. Back then, she’d been almost painfully thin with long red curls and luminous green eyes. Now she sported gentle curves, a brunette bob, and her natural hazel eyes. But she still walked with a sashay Lily constantly tormented her about.

Camille tilted her head slightly, her quick eyes latching onto Elaina’s tired face. She tsked and shook her head. “Poor darling, you used up all your bravery facing him.”

Lily’s face darkened into a scowl as Camille herded them to the front door, her hand still gripping Elaina’s. “You know, this is all your fault. If you hadn’t struck up a friendship with Elaina Bradley might never have noticed her.”

“Stop,” Elaina said before the old argument could be revived. Her voice was tired and instantly shut up her friends. “It over and I’m out of a job. And my own home, for that matter.” As she passed over her parents’ threshold, she muttered, “Should have held out for that library job.”

As soon as the front door closed behind the three women, Elaina’s mother rushed over from the kitchen. Petite, Poppy Linden was shorter than her daughter, but her air of authority easily made up for her lack of height. She reached up to cup Elaina’s cheek, dark eyes meeting matching dark eyes.

Elaina offered her mother a small, tired smile as the older woman studied her daughter’s face. “I’m sorry, Mom.”

Surprise flashed in her mother’s eyes before she turned and led the way into the living room, home to the most comfortable and well-worn furniture Elaina knew. It has been her father’s, and every piece was older than his relationship with his wife.

“Sorry about what?” her mother asked in her brisk voice as she gathered a tray of pastries from atop a high table.

Elaina, Lily, and Camille settled themselves on the couch of faded green velvet as Mrs. Linden placed the tray on the coffee table beside glasses of ice cold lemonade. Lily had yet to release her hand and, even though it was starting to sweat in her friend’s grasp, it was too familiar and comforting for Elaina to want to pull away. Instead, her fingers curled tighter around Lily’s, who squeezed back while her eyes debated the cranberry scone and the chocolate over brownie.
Camille muttered a few words before leaning forward and placing both on a small plate. She thrust it at Lily, rolling her eyes at the young woman who could eat anything and everything and still never reach an even hundred pounds.

Lily stuck out her tongue, but it didn’t stop her from taking a massive bite of the brownie. Elaina smiled and relaxed, finding she had missed these exchanges the most during her ill-fated relationship.

Across the low table, Mrs. Linden’s eyes studied the three of them, her hands resting peacefully in her lap. Elaina sorely wished for the same composure, envying her mother’s hard earned quiet authority.

“I should have listened to all of you about Bradley.”

“Nonsense, dear,” her mother said dismissively. “You are young. Young people are allowed to make mistakes. Otherwise, how will you ever learn? Tell me, though, do you still think working for a magazine is your dream?”

Her mother’s words cut her to her core. Growing up, Elaina couldn’t get enough of books. She carried them everywhere, and the library’s head librarian had offered her volunteer positions throughout her high school years. Both she and Mrs. Linden had been disappointed when Elaina had taken the magazine job.

Mrs. Linden saw her daughter’s flinch. “As I said, young people are allowed their mistakes.” Her eyes cut briefly to Camille, who shifted slightly next to Elaina. “As long as you learn from them.”

“Yeah, well, that hasn’t stopped the entire local population of unmarried women,” Lily said around a chunk of scone.

“Yes, well,” Mrs. Linden said briskly, “people must also hold onto hope.”

Chapter Two

Jessica was everything Linda hadn’t been. She was quiet and thoughtful, philosophical almost. We had deep conversations that lasted far into the night. She wasn’t a great beauty, but a great conversationalist. I could really open up to her. I thought she might stay because she was so introverted, but I missed the fact that she was hopelessly attached to her twin sister. The distance was too great. I planted the Best Friend rose in her honor, wishing I could have been her best friend.

A week after moving back into her childhood bedroom, Elaina still wasn’t settled. Even though she was surrounded by the comforts of home – her stuffed animals, her books, the lavender curtains around her windows, the soft white sheets with their tiny purple and blue flowers – it still felt wrong. She was twenty-five, a college graduate, and had once lived in the lap of luxury.

The fairy tale still wound through her head, just as it had two years before. At twenty-two, she was recently graduated and moved back to the city she had grown up in. She had been disappointed the library didn’t have any current openings, so had opened up her job search. The entry-level writing position with the Hunter Publishing Group had appealed to her.

Her fingers froze on the keyboard of her laptop, the screen displaying job openings making the memories flood back. She remembered applying to the job, not expecting anything. After all, she’d trained to be a librarian, not a writer. But an English degree was an English degree and maybe that journalism course she’d had to take would finally come in handy.

She’d met Camille on her first day. A mousy brunette, she had tried to quickly scamper past the stunning model, her arms full of papers her supervisor had wanted her to copy. Camille later told her she’d only followed Elaina because she was bored waiting for the photographer and was curious about the slim girl rushing past with her dark hair hanging over her face. Most people who saw her wanted her autograph.

The copy room had felt a little small to Elaina, but Camille had been nice, and had a good deal more brains than she expected of a model. Surprisingly, the model was well-read and they had been gushing over the classics when Bradley Hunter had poked his head in, a frown clearly questioning the excited chatter.

Elaina hadn’t minded Camille’s friendship, and Lily had warmly welcomed her. But she had minded Bradley’s sudden interest in her. She’d later found out he had been curious about why a model as lovely as Camille wanted to befriend someone as plain as Elaina. That had been over a year after she’d given in and said yes to a date. It had also planted the first seed of doubt in her mind about their relationship.

“I couldn’t imagine ever wearing something like that.”

Lily’s voice popped the bubble around Elaina. Startled, and curious about what Lily was exclaiming about, she looked up from where she perched on her bed, her laptop precariously balanced on her knees.

Lily and Camille were leaning against the far wall, magazines scattered around them, though Lily held the local paper. Camille was flipping through an old fashion magazine, showing Lily some of the shots she’d done over the five years she’d spent modeling.

Camille smiled. “It wasn’t as bad as it looks. Actually, the hem was about two inches longer.”

“That still doesn’t cover much.”

“No, but that’s why they had me stand like that.”

Elaina smiled. She had no idea which pose they were talking about, but Camille had worn so many daring outfits that it didn’t really matter.

Lily shook her head as Camille turned the page, her wide blue eyes turning back to the local paper. She tilted her head up slightly, her nose looking perfectly pert and the sunlight beaming into the room playing with her hair to make her look like a fairy.

“Oh, look,” Lily said, spreading the paper on the gray carpet. She pointed to a square of text in one corner. “I guess the shut-in’s companion left. Rose Roderick has issued another ad.”

The shut-in, as they liked to call him, was Rose Roderick’s poor son Robert. Well, he wasn’t poor. He was heir to the largest fortune in the area. But, after his father had been killed eight years before, the now twenty-five year old had lived the last eight years locked up in Roderick Hall. His mother had been sporadically putting out ads for a female companion for her son since he was seventeen, but none of them ever seemed to stick for more than a couple of months.

Camille leaned over to read the ad for herself. “I wonder why they never last long.”

Lily shrugged. “Maybe he’s hideous. Wealthy, but not easy on the eyes.”

“Or maybe he has bad breath or is bad in bed. I mean, who could say no to living that kind of life? The Roderick family is the wealthiest one around. Sure, you have to live cooped up in that mansion, but, come on, it probably has every amenity imaginable.”

“I wouldn’t do it,” Elaina said softly, just the thought of living in luxury again making her stomach churn.

Her friends looked up, understanding in their eyes.

“The wealthy lifestyle isn’t for everyone,” Elaina said, pushing back a lock of brown hair. “There are so many rules and guidelines and your’re expected to behave a certain way.” She waved a hand at the paper. “Sure, it could be different because he’s been confined for so long, but he was raised wealthy.”

“Have you been to one of the garden parties?” Camille asked. “I’ve always been to busy to attend. Not that I haven’t daydreamed about being picked myself.”

“I have,” Lily said, “but Elaina has always refused to go with me, and then she was dating Bradley.”

“What’s it like?”

“Rose Roderick hosts an afternoon garden party in the gardens behind Roderick Hall. All unattached women over eighteen are allowed to attend, and everyone wears fancy gowns. She never shows her face, so it’s essentially run by a butler. There’s tea and pastries, kind of like a tea party, but no seats. Women mill around and drift in groups. Robert always chooses groups of girls to enter the Hall and all but one comes back out.”

“So, if he picks you, you just stay.”

Lily nodded. “I’ve heard they give the chosen companion everything she could possibly want, but she has no more freedom than Robert does.”

“I’d go bonkers,” Elaina said matter-of-factly. “I’d miss both of you and my parents terribly. Perhaps that’s why every companion has left. Only Robert is built for a life in seclusion.”

Camille eyed her, making Elaina sweat a little with worry. “I don’t know, Elaina. You’re a homebody. I think you could probably get along just fine with just a couple of people to keep you company.”

Elaina scowled and loudly shut her computer. “Don’t get any ideas, Camille. I have no plans of jumping to another rich guy, much less the wealthiest guy in the city.”

“But, come on, Elaina, a garden party would be wonderful,” Lily said, her eyes beseeching. “You haven’t left this house since you left Bradley, and you yourself said there are no jobs for you in the area at the moment. Even if Robert doesn’t pick you, at least you’ll have an afternoon’s diversion.”

Elaina firmly shook her head. “I don’t think so, Lily. A garden party does not sound like it’s up my alley.”

Camille arched a brow. “I think it’ll be fun. What do you say? The three of us. We can get dressed up together and attend together and, if Robert wants to pick one of us, we’ll say no. It might be fun just to attend a party. And I’m still new in town, even though I officially moved here three years ago, so I wouldn’t mind meeting other girls.”

Lily nodded enthusiastically. “I think that would be fun. I wouldn’t mind an opportunity to dress up. Besides, Robert is getting older and, one day, he’s going to find his forever companion. These garden parties aren’t going to be a given anymore at some point.”

“Oh, no,” Elaina said as her friends turned to her. “I don’t think so. You two go.”

Lily turned to look at Camille and Elaina’s eyes narrowed at the wink she saw pass between them. She took a deep breath. She would have to be strong.

A mischievous gleam in her eyes, Lily smiled and said, “You can bring a book.”

Two days later, Elaina found herself wrapped in an ice blue evening down, her feet jammed into four inch high heels, her hair slicked back into a low chignon, and her favorite paperback pressed possessively to her chest. She stumbled along behind her friends as they and dozens of other women made their way up the long driveway of Roderick Hall. Her constant mutters and the uneven clicks of her heels assured Camille and Lily she was right behind them, so neither complained about her lagging behind.

“Stop, Elaina.”

Lily’s amused tone had her looking up sharply a step before she would have walked right into Camille, who grinned down at her.

“This is all a joke and you’re letting me go home, right?”

Her friends laughed.

“Not a chance,” Lily said. She turned slightly and gestured to the closed wrought iron gates . “We have to wait for the gates to open.”

Elaina gaped at her. “We’re early? You mean I have to stand and balance in these torture devices?”

“No,” Lily said. “We’re on time; we just have to wait for the butler to decide to open the gates. It’s never on time. Sometimes it’s early and sometimes it’s late, but it’s never on time. We are supposed to be on time.”

“Fantastic,” Elaina muttered.

Around her, women, young and old, were drifting like flotsam. The swish of skirts and click of heels swirled with quiet charter that did nothing to hide the general anxiety and excitement. They were clearly trying to form groups while being neither rude nor diplomatic. Every girl was out for herself, but her admittance to the hall depended on being with the right group of girls.
Elaina couldn’t help but think it was all ridiculous, a massive charade for the chance to live the wealthy lifestyle. Or an opportunity to dress up. She couldn’t quite figure out which. In the end, she didn’t care. Her favorite book was tightly clasped to her chest, and her friends either didn’t care or didn’t notice that said book was ensuring the other girls gave the trio a wide birth.

“There,” Lily whispered, her head turned to the gates as the click of what sounded like tap shoes rang out.

As one, the girls turned silent. Silk and satin rustled slightly as bodies shifted to face the gates. Faces were streaked with eagerness, excitement, and irrational hope.

It was in that moment the Elaina realized she and Camille were the only ones in town who hadn’t been to a garden party. Only Camille was craning  her neck to see around the girls in front of her. Everyone else was standing still and full of expectation. It was a ritual that had been repeated for eight years, more than once a year.

With a grating sound, the gates were pulled apart. At some sign unknown to Elaina, the women began to flow forwards. Each girl walked quietly and demurely, polite and placid. Elaina had no choice but to follow, awed at the lack of jostling and preening.

Talk shrubs and elegant trees quickly came into view, about as quickly as her heels left the flagstones beyond the gates and stepped onto springy green grass. Floral scents wafted through the late afternoon and quick head turns informed her square gardens of flowers were set in three neat rows along the rectangular garden. Tables draped in white linens overflowed with sparkling glasses and towers of dainty pastries.

Apparently, passage into the grass meant the party was in full swing. High pitched chatter and low throaty laughs suddenly filled the air. Women drifted across the garden and over to the tables for refreshments, but always in tight clearly formed groups.

Elaina followed Lily and Camille to claim some tea cakes and then over to a bench beneath a flowering tree. Her friends draped themselves on the bench while Elaina perched on the end, surreptitiously sliding her feet from the heels, and prepared to open her book.

“Welcome,” a voice rang out, startling Elaina as her book tumbled to the grass. “Mrs. Roderick is pleased that you have graced her and her son with your presence. Please enjoy the refreshments.”

“That’s it?” Camille asked, a hint of disbelief in her voice.

“Well,” Lily answered, “I hear his welcome was very long winded. Eight years ago. I guess everyone knows the drill by now.”

“Good for them,” Elaina said briskly, firmly opening her book on her lap. “I, for one, am looking forward to some quality reading time. Tap me when you’re ready to leave.”

Chapter Three

Olivia was beautiful and poised. Almost like a China doll. She was five years older than me and college educated. She was a wealth of knowledge I drank up. Unfortunately, she proved to be about as delicate as she looked. Fortunately, she helped convince my mother a college education would greatly benefit me if I was to inherit my father’s empire. The Blue Moon rose was planted in her honor.

There was a reason why the house staff called it the Brown Room. It was always in hushed whispers or low mutters to each other.

“The Brown Room needs a scrub.”

“The young master is in the Brown Room and would like a ham sandwich. “

“Do the light bulbs in the Brown Room need changing?”

Officially, it was Robert Roderick’s study. But only his mother called it that. Robert called it his hiding place.

On the outside, out in the hall, it was nondescript. White, like every other door along the hall, with a brass doorknob that gleamed in the indiscriminate glow of the wall sconces. It was near the middle, but just off to the side. A hulking portrait of Robert, his mother, and his late father commanded the exact middle.

Inside, brown and brass had complete control. Brown desk. Brown chairs and broken in couch. Brown bookcases. Brass lamps with brown shades. Books covered in cut drown paper bags like they belonged to school children borrowing unwanted textbooks from the school district. Brown carpet with an odd brass colored design that disappeared under the expansive mahogany desk. And brown curtains.

Robert wasn’t colorblind. Brown was just a step up from the black and gray that has dominated for the first five years after his father’s death. He figured a change every five years would make both him and his mother happy. He was idly considering a cherry brown in two years. Red felt like too big of a leap.

It was in this brown room, Robert’s hideaway from his nervous mother, that the butler found his master. At first, the room appeared empty, with just the dim desk lamp lighting a small circle on the shiny surface.

But the butler knew better. It was a game he and Robert had been playing for eight years. At first, it started because Robert was embarrassed about having to choose a female companion and wanted to do anything but. Over the years, it had become a let’s-see-how-long-it-takes-Nigel-to-sniff-me-out game. Both master and butler had to admit that it infused the sad situation with some necessary levity. Nigel only wondered how the game would go when his young master finally worked his way to white.

Nigel peered into all the usual places: the corners of the couch, under the chairs, under the desk, behind the curtains, and in the corner behind the floor lamp before he spotted a grinning Robert squeezed between the wall and a bookcase. He grinned back, though he worried the tall young man was perhaps too thin.

Robert twisted himself a bit to wrench himself out of his corner. Stretching a bit, as hiding for over an hour in a cramped space will cramp one’s muscles, Robert eyed the family’s long-time butler, who eyed him back with carefully blank eyes.

Batting a lock of too long brown hair from his face, Robert frowned and cast his eyes to the open window. East facing, it allowed nearly zero afternoon light in.

“I suppose it’s time, huh?” Robert asked.

“Just like a bandaid, sir.”

“It still hurts, you know,” Robert said casually as he forced himself to cross the room to the window.

Silently, Nigel ghosted his way to Robert’s side, a necessity so he would know which groups of girls to fetch. Already, the downstairs receiving room was set with cases of fresh roses and delicate cakes with pink icing. It was a bright room in stark contrast to the Brown Room. Nigel knew Robert hated it with a passion, but Rose Rodrick wouldn’t hear of changing it in the slightest.

With an internal sigh, Robert scanned the garden full of women dressed in their best gowns. Many were familiar, but there was still a crop of fresh faces. They were mostly young and eager. He quickly passed over them. At twenty-five, he had no desire to hang about with an eighteen-year-old.

As always, they were laughing, eating, drinking, and milling in groups. As the Hall cast the garden into deeper shadows, lights lit up, turning it into a fairy garden.

One bright light, completely unlike the tiny twinkling fairy lights indigenous to the garden, under a tall, arching tree, caught his attention. He could see it outlining a human form, presumably with its back to the two ladies on the bench with it. There was a flicker of movement and a bobbing of the light, but she was too far away for Robert to get a good look.

Robert silently held out a hand. Nigel knew the drill. He forked over the binoculars and snapped to full attention.

Robert focused on the girl in the bench. She was in a blue gown, her dark hair pulled back into a sleek bun. He couldn’t exactly tell what she was doing, but it looked suspiciously like page flipping. Had a girl brought a book to the garden party?

He had to meet her.

Slowly, he raised a hand, his index finger pointed. Nigel took careful note of where it went.

“There,” Robert said, “on the bench under the tree.”

Nigel nodded. “I will bring them.”

“No,” Robert said quickly, making the butler pause. “Just her. The one in the blue dress.”

Nigel hesitated. His master had never requested one girl before. Surely he would add single girls to his list. A change from requesting groups? He wouldn’t put it past Robert.

“That’s it, Nigel,” Robert said as he put the binoculars away and headed for the couch. “Please bring her here.”

Surprised, but dutiful, Nigel gave a slight bow and headed for the garden, wondering if, perhaps, this girl was the one who would stay by Robert’s side. He hoped so. After eight years of girls leaving him, he deserved some happiness.

Back in the study, Robert flicked on all the lights, illuminating the room in all of its brown and brass glory, before sinking into the couch. He was curious, yes, about the girl, but something vague, something fighting description, had hit him the moment he laid eyes on her.

She could be the one.

A thought he’d never had about any of the twittering girls that had graced the estate in eight years.

A ripple of excitement flashed through the gathered girls as soon as the French doors opened and the butler emerged. Eyes of blue, brown, black, green, and hazel followed his every cool move. They brightened in hope as he approached before darkening in jealousy and thoughts of “what’s wrong about me?”

Whispers floated around the early evening air heavily scented with the aroma of invisible roses. Gowns rustled as girls moved to follow the seemingly oblivious butler who was, in fact, paying close attention to each and every one of them. Five years before, a young woman had screamed with rage when he walked past her and had thrown a silver dish at his head. The back of his head still stung every time he had to wade through this ungrateful sea of females.

Elaina paid no attention; she was thoroughly engrossed in the adventures of a daring lady and the small, ragtag group she called friends. Her own friends didn’t have the same thing to entertain them. Instead, their eyes became saucers as the butler approached them.

And then walked past them to stand before Elaina.

The oblivious Elaina currently turning a page with her breath held and heart pounding. This was the exciting turning point, the moment she had been waiting for. Her eyes were riveted on the words swimming across the pages as her eyes rapidly scanned, drinking in every word, every detail.

Nigel, for his part, was suddenly at a loss when the young lady before him didn’t seem to notice is presence. Robert would pick the strangest girl in the crowd. Around them, the blond and the brunette on the bench were whispering to each other and the rest of the girls were silently gathered, jealousy and confusion warring across perfectly made up faces.

He cleared his throat.

Elaina jumped and threw her book.

Nigel had the good fortune to somehow see that a mile away and jumped back two feet.

A girl giggled.

Lily slapped her forehead and sighed.

Camille hastily reached out to prevent Elaina from falling on the grass beside her book.

Hands clasped to her rapidly beating heart, this time due to fright rather than an exciting scene in a book, Elaina stared up at the distinguished middle-aged man standing primly before her. As she caught her breath and gathered her wits, she stared at the surprisingly bald man dressed traditionally as a butler, complete with coattails and white gloves.

“Who are you?” Elaina asked.

Nigel raised a single eyebrow, but otherwise made no other move. Around them, girls twittered in shock and outrage. Whispers became mutters and mutters became loud indignation. He paid them no mind, but quickly saw the confusion and embarrassment in the eyes of his master’s chosen girl. He held out a hand to quiet them.

“I am Nigel, Miss,” he said solemnly, seriously, with a gravity only a well-trained butler could have. “I am pleased to say Master Robert would very much like to meet you.”

Elaina glanced back at her friends.

“Just you,” Nigel quickly said.

“But that’s not how it’s done,” Lily burst out, drawing nods from dozens of other girls.

Nigel lifted his gaze to study all of them. The jealousy and confusion were stark on their faces. Robert had never before chosen a single girl. Those who had adhered to the unspoken rules and had hovered in groups should have been invited into the hall. And what was special about the girl who was reading a book? Clearly, she had no interest in being there, so why had she been singled out?

“I cannot say why Master Robert has decided to choose as he has,” Nigel said placidly. “I only follow his orders.” He turned his gaze back to Elaina and held out a hand. “If you please, Miss, I’ve been instructed to bring you to him.”

Irritation flashed in Elaina’s eyes. Again she would be ordered about to please a rich boy? Slowly, she stood, Camille’s hands falling from her arms. Being short, the top of her head came up to the base of his throat, but that didn’t stop her.

“And if I refuse?” she dared.

Nigel was unflappable. “That has never been done.”

“Look, I don’t know how these things are done. I’ve never been here before. But I didn’t come willingly today. I don’t care to meet Robert. I have no interest in being his companion. The last thing I need is to be sacked with another spoiled brat.”

A young woman with blond curls down to her waist and flashing blue eyes pushed her way forward, her white silk gown swishing angrily as she strode towards Elaina. She poked a trembling finger, but didn’t dare touch her rival.

“How dare you?” the blond raged. “Many of us are here year after year, hoping and praying for the chance that’s just been offered to you. Robert has been locked up against his will. The least you can do is provide him with some company. Have some respect.”

Elaina laughed. “Do you come here hoping to be picked so you know what it’s like to live in luxury, to be surrounded with servants and nothing but the best? I didn’t, because I’ve already lived that life. It’s not an experience I want to repeat.” She swept a hand towards her friends. “But my friends decided I needed some time out of the house, so they talked me into coming. Believe me, I had no intention on being picked.” She turned back to Nigel. “Please tell your master I’m flattered, but I must decline.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t done,” Nigel said calmly. He held his hand out again. “Please come with me so you may meet Master Robert and decline his offer in person.”

“It’s the least you can do,” Lily whispered.

“I don’t see why I should. I’m not here because I want to be. So why should I accommodate him?”

“Elaina, don’t let your bitterness towards Bradley affect you,” Camille urged. “Robert might be a perfectly nice guy.”

“You know, if it weren’t for you two, I wouldn’t be in this position.”

“We know,” Lily said quickly. “As soon as you come out, we’ll make it up to you.”

Elaina eyed them shrewdly. “Promise?”

Her friends nodded, sincerity brimming in their eyes.

Elaina sighed and turned back to Nigel. She inclined her head to him before stooping to pick up her book. Straightening, she ignored his hand and turned to the massive hall standing before her.

“Lead the way,” she said quietly.

Robert stood watching from his study. He saw Elaina’s fright, the gathering of girls, and the long minutes of words being exchanged. He tapped his foot impatiently, wondering what was going on down there. It had never taken a girl so long to run into the hall and throw herself at him.

It was then that he knew he’d chosen correctly for the first time in eight years. This girl, the one with the book, the one arguing with Nigel, was the one.

He watched with interest as the girl declined Nigel’s hand and instead walked beside him. As she neared, he wished there was more lighting in the garden. He only knew she was short and dark haired. Not that looks mattered to him, not after eight years of too many girls. But he was a guy, and he was curious.

The girl and Nigel passed from view as they entered the hall. Usually, they would take a sharp right followed by another sharp right straight into the receiving room. No tour of the hall, no opportunity to glimpse the opulence and majesty of the imposing prison. Just a long hall lined with doors.

This girl, though, would get to enter the entrance hall and head up the wide staircase. She would come face to face with three people staring, unsmiling, at her before Nigel swung open the door to his study. She would see the entrance fountain, the majestic vases brimming with fresh cut flowers, the portraits and landscapes painted by masters, and displays of interesting wood figures his father used to collect.

Robert paced nervously as he waited. He clasped his hands behind his back and shook his long hair from his face, flexing his shoulders as he did so. This could be it. She could be the one, the key to his freedom. He needed to be careful.

The lights were lit and glinting off the brass. The tiny pink cakes had been relocated. The curtains had been drawn.

He heard footsteps and Nigel’s low voice. Robert took his place in the middle of the room, trying hard to swallow his heart back into place.

The door silently swung open, admitted a young woman, and promptly closed.

Seconds ticked by as they stared at each other. Two eyes stared with interest. Two stared back warily.

He knew what she saw. A slim guy with long hair, wide eyes, a slightly too big nose, and hopefully a well-chiseled jaw. He wasn’t remarkable. His mother was a beautiful delicate rose, but his father had been plain and hard working.

Robert was also painfully aware of what he saw, and was afraid it didn’t bode well for him. Her arms were tightly clasped to her chest, her book sandwiched between. Her fingertips were white and her elbows stiff. Shorter by a foot, she stood still with her head tilted up at a slight angle. Her nose was dainty, but her lips were pressed tightly together and the skin around her eyes were tight.

“If you don’t mind,” she said softly, but clearly, “my feet hurt and I hope it wouldn’t be improper for me to sit.”

Her words jolted him into action. He felt like a spring as he moved forward quickly, taking her elbow and ushering her to the couch. But he didn’t miss the flashes of fear, indignation, and surprise on her face.

Robert gave her a few moments to settle herself as he poured tea for both of them and perched at the other end of the couch.

“I want to be clear,” she said. “I only agreed to come up here so I could politely declined your invitation to be your companion.”

Robert’s hand faltered and he almost missed the dainty saucer as he put his cup down. Decline? No girl had ever declined him.

He lifted his eyes to meet hers. He saw she held her chin up and had her hands tightly folded in top of her book.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

Chapter Four

Elizabeth. So mature. Well, she was ten years older than me. I could tell she didn’t really like me. But she did love the finer things in life. She held out as long as she could, the longest at seven months, but even she cracked. She loved stilettos, so I planted the Stiletto rose for her.

“May I ask why?” Robert’s voice was surprisingly melodic, a beautiful tenor with a dark silky thread. Turning him down was going to be harder than Elaina thought.

“I don’t have anything against the wealthy, but after spending the past two years dating the son of the second wealthiest family and being forced to meet their mold, I’m through. The life of luxury has no appeal to me, not even temporarily, and…why are you looking at me like that?”

Involuntarily, Elaina pressed her book closer to her chest. The sudden look of disgust and loathing in his face surely couldn’t bore well. She hoped the door was neither too far behind her nor locked.

“You mean to tell me you survived two years as Brad’s girlfriend?” Robert shook his head. ” Was it your idea or his? “

She blinked at him before outrage prickled her skin with heat. “You think I’m a gold digger?”

He surprised her by laughing out loud. It was a surprisingly deep laugh, done with his head thrown back. Eyes somewhat dazed as he came out of it, he shook his head.

“From how you speak of him, no.”

Her arms tightened around the book. “I’m sorry, but I really have no interest in being your next companion.”

” Then please just indulge me for an hour. It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to a young lady who doesn’t wish to find on fine China and wear custom dresses from Paris every day. “

She hesitated only a moment before nodding. “I suppose there couldn’t be any harm in that.” She gave him a rueful smile. ” I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with a rich guy who just wants to talk. “

Robert grimaced as he handed her a tea cup. “Considering you spent two years with Brad, I’m not surprised.”

” So, you knew him? “

“Before I was locked up here, we were classmates. How family is still relatively new to the upper crust, and it shows. He always thought that if one wasn’t flaunting one’s wealth and status, one wasn’t really from money.”

” That about sums it up, ” Elaina said drily. “He and his mother were extremely particular. I hate to admit I was charmed by him, and flattered because very few guys have ever shown an interest in me, so I tried hard to fit in and be agreeable. Luckily, my friends and family stepped in.” She cocked her head at him. ” I take it you weren’t best of friends? “

He laughed again. “Not even close. He was always jealous of me because he’s from the second wealthiest family and he could never touch me.”

She eyes him for a moment, before letting her guard down and placing her book flat on her lap.

“I don’t know how to ask this without sounding weird since we’ve just discussed your ex-boyfriend, so weird it’ll have to be. What’s your name?”

“Elaina. Elaina-“

She cut off when Robert held up his hand and shook his head.

“No last names. I’ll never use it, and I don’t want to find out a sister, cousin, or aunt is a former companion.”

She inclined her head. “Fair enough. I am Elaina. Not Elaine or Lainey.”

” Understood. “

“So, what would you like to talk about?” she asked.

Robert took a moment to slowly stir some sugar into his tea. From the way his forehead creased, she was content to stay quiet and let him mull his words over. It was oddly refreshing to be in the company of a thoughtful and transparent man.

“I had hoped you could help me,” he said at last.

She jerked in surprise, nearly sloshing her tea all over her book. “Me? How could I help you?”

“The short story is that marriage will free me from this prison. ” He quickly held up a hand as a look, something like consternation and indignation, on her face stopped him. “Let me just finish, please.”

” I’m not quite ready to settle down, ” she said warily, “but I’ll listen. I agreed to an hour.”

He nodded to her, his face serious. “Thank you. See, when my father died, my mother was afraid someone was after us. After all,my first-year grandparents found this city and we are the wealthiest. It wasn’t a hard conclusion to come to. Sadly, she was wrong about his death, but I don’t have the heart to tell her he died trying to prevent his mistress from committing suicide.

“My mother doesn’t know about the mistress, which is why she thought someone was out for the family. So, she turned me into a shut in. I could have freed myself by telling her about the mistress, but the lady was always kind to me, nicer than my own mother. I used to fantasize about my father divorcing my mother and marrying his mistress. I didn’t want to bring my mother’s wrath on that kind lady.

“Over the years, it’s just gotten easier to go along. This way I can protect Elise, the mistress, and retain control of my father’s business. My mother doesn’t know it, but a stipulation in my father’s will that was purposefully hidden from her states that I shall wholly inherit everything once I’m married.

“My mother’s idea of finding a companion and future wife for me fit in perfectly. Unfortunately, my mother is not too unlike Brad’s mother and hasn’t made it easy for me to find someone. “

Robert looked up at her. “It’s become something of a game with me trying to see what will and won’t push her buttons and how long the poor young lady lasts before collpasing. I’m not saying it isn’t twisted, but, after eight years, I am getting tired. I’m tired of this constant parade of girls who only see dollar signs.

” So, when I saw you with a book, I knew you were different. ” He shrugged, offering her a rueful smile. “I hoped you were a similarly searching soul, wanting something more. I suppose I was wrong.”

Elaina settled the tea cup on her book and stated into its brown depths. Idly, she wondered what was up with all the brown.

“After talking with you,” he continued , apparently unaware of where her mind lay, “I think you would be perfect, what with your, ah, recent experiences.”

She smiled at his attempt at tact and looked up at him, brown crowding in at the edges of her field of vision.

Robert was shaking his head. “I’m just sorry being my companion doesn’t appeal to you. If it makes any difference, though, I could offer you whatever your dream is.”

It was tempting. So tempting.

He gestured at her book. “An unlimited library, any book you desire. Your own bookstore, or the chance to work in a library.”

She involuntarily jumped at that, and his eyes lit up.

“If you help me free myself from my mother, I promise you a position at the library.”

He was looking at her, studying her with such hope. It was impossible for her to hide what she thought of that. It would be a dream come true. A dream for a dream. She would just have to marry the guy and put up with his mother.

She studied him back. He had such childish hope on his face. He was so open and transparent. She was charmed by how upfront and blunt he was. It was different, refreshing. He was so unlike Bradley.

Her heart pounded as it realized what her brain was thinking. Could she do it? Could she well her soul for her dream? Or would it just be helping out someone who could become a truly wonderful friend?

To be sure, she wasn’t even in list with him, but she believed the best kind of love flourished from friendship.

“I will not sell myself,” she said. ” if I agree, we do this properly. We get to know each other. We become friends. If we do happen to fall in love and decide to spend the rest of our lives together, then we may marry. Otherwise, I demand the same opportunity as every other girl to simply walk out of this place. “

Robert’s smile couldn’t have been wider and brighter. He eagerly reached for her hand and pumped it enthusiastically.

“Thank you, Elaina. Thank you so much. I sincerely hope neither of us regrets this.”

With a faint smile, she gingerly extracted her hand. “Me, too. By the way, what’s with all the brown?”

Chapter Five

Jane was much older than me. You could say I was going through a phase. Older women were simply much more appealing. My mother wasn’t happy, and that only further encouraged me. Jane was two decades other, quite matronly. She doted on me as though I were a favorite nephew. We passed many evenings with wonderful conversation. Sadly, she had word that her long estranged husband, who suffered from fugue, had turned up and wanted her back. I never heard from her again. I planted the Peace Rose in her honor. And I still hope to hear of her one day.

When Elaina failed to exit Roderick Hall, Lily and Camille went straight to the Linden’s house. They didn’t expect their friend to magically show up, but her parents needed to know.

It was dark before the house phone began to ring. Poppy and James Linden jumped at the sound and turned to look at each other. It rarely rang, so they often forget it was even there.

“Could it be Elaina?” Poppy asked as James went to answer it.

” Well, it wouldn’t be us, ” Lily said, though her poor attempt at humor fell flat.

James wandered back into the room, the phone pressed to the side of his face, his face creased in a frown as he listened.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked, tension evident in his quiet voice. ” And you’re there because you want to be? Of course I’m concerned. ” He sighed and ran a hand through his too long auburn hair, nodding as he did so. “I’ll pass it on. Elaina, good luck.”

” Well? ” Poppy demanded as her husband ended the call. “What did she say?”

James very gently put the phone down on the coffee table, his eyes avoiding everyone else’s. ” Elaina is Robert Roderick’s newest companion.”

“Elaina?” Lily screeched. “Are you sure?”

Camille frowned. “You’re sure you heard right? She just got out of a relationship with a rich guy. Why would she jump at being the companion of the richest guy in the area?”

Lily nodded, glancing at her friend. “And she didn’t go to become his companion. She said she was going to turn down his offer.”

While they were talking, James sat down beside his wife and took her hand. “I know. Elaina knew. She said they talked and came to an agreement.”

“An agreement that means she has to stay with him?” Lily asked.

“It is hard to believe,” Camille said. “Maybe he coerced her. It’s not unreasonable, considering the twisted family she was involved with for two years.”

James shook his head. “It was her choice. He gave her the choice. All she said is they reached an agreement and, for now, she will be staying with him. She couldn’t say anything more.”

“The non-disclosure agreement,” Lily said, nodding. “I’ve run into some of the former companions and they just said they had to sign NDAs before they could start their tenure as companion.”

Poppy squeezed her husband’s hand and studied his face. “She’ll be okay.”

He nodded, glancing up at her. His face was solemn, but it was clear he trusted his daughter. Other than the two years she had naively spent with Bradley Hunter, Elaina had always been level headed and always took her time making decisions.

A sudden banging at the door made them jump.

“Who could that be?” Poppy asked as James went to answer the door.

“A jealous girl?” Lily ventured, shrugging. “No one was happy when only Elaina was chosen. You should have seen the murderous looks!”

Loud, and rapid, footsteps thudded towards them. James could be heard demanding the person turn around and leave his home. His voice was angry, and Poppy had a sinking feeling that she knew who had just invaded their home.

Bradley’s angry face appeared, James standing behind the slightly taller man, threatening to call the police. But Bradley was focused on Lily and Camille, who had clasped hands in solidarity as they now coolly met Bradley’s furious gaze.

“How could you let her become Robert’s companion? Don’t deny it. She wouldn’t have gone to that party if you two hadn’t coerced her.”

Lily lifted a brow. “Coerced? I think you have that backwards. We invited her. You spent two years coercing her. She’s through with you.”

Bradley laughed. “Don’t be so sure, Lily. Elaina will be mine. She was always meant to be.”

“Why?” Camille asked softly. “Why do you want her so much?”

“That’s none of your business,” he said coldly. “What you need to do now is get her out of Roderick Hall.”

It was Lily’s turn to laugh. She leaned back in her seat and primly crossed her legs at the knee, shooting a bemused look at him. “I don’t think so, Brad. I think Elaina is happy. She wouldn’t have agreed to stay if she wasn’t. The best part is, it puts her out of your clutches.”

“Oh, don’t worry. If you two fail, I have no problem going to Roderick Hall and demanding she leave with me.”

“One,” Lily said, holding up  finger, “we’re not helping you. Two, the Roderick security team won’t let you through.”

Camille eyed him. “I don’t know why you’re so intent on getting her back. Elaina won’t take you back. She just broke up with you. I wouldn’t be surprised if she files a restraining order as soon as she returns.”

Lily grinned. “Back down, Brad. Camille’s got you there.”

Instead of responding, he glared at them before whirling on his heel and storming past James, who followed to ensure he left.

“I don’t understand why he wants Elaina back,” Poppy said, her hand shaking as she reached for her mug of coffee.

“Let me make you some tea,” Camille quickly said. “You’re jittery enough. I don’t think you need any more caffeine.”

Poppy smiled up at her gratefully, pulling back her hand. “Thank you, Camille. I have some green tea in the cabinet next to the sink.”

Camille nodded and headed for the kitchen as James returned and sat down.

“Brad is a spoiled brat,” Lily said, answering Poppy’s question. “He’s always gotten what he’s wanted. No one has ever said no to him. At least, not until Elaina did when she broke up with him. I’m sure he wants her back because it wasn’t him who dumped her.”

“He wants her back just to dump her?” James asked.

Lily shrugged. “I don’t know for sure. Either that or she was the only one he and his mom could really manipulate. If it weren’t for me and Camille, you would probably be picking out wedding dresses with her.”

James and Poppy traded looks.

“Then we’ll be glad Elaina is with Robert,” Poppy said softly.

Lily nodded. “Camille and I will keep our ears perked. Who knows what Brad will say? If he plans anything, we’ll just have to find a way to let Elaina know.”

Chapter Six

Abigail was another older woman. This time, there wasn’t such a huge age difference. She was only ten years older. She was a teacher who had just been laid off, very sweet and very obviously a Kindergarten teacher. Sometimes she treated me like a child, and now I understand why she was single. But she was nice and a lot of fun. Painting was her thing, so we spent a lot of time with paints and easels. I can’t say any of my works were masterpieces, but she was good for the soul, always encouraging. I was sad when she left, but her soul was too fragile for my mother’s will. Perhaps as a bit of irony, I planted the Touch of Class rose for her. I later heard she returned to a Kindergarten classroom.

Elaina was surprised to see Robert lounging against the wall across from the room she had been given. The morning sun poured into the hallway from her open door as her windows faced east and offered a sweeping view of the private gardens.

“Are you well-rested?” Robert asked as Elaina pulled a light sweater over the simple blue dress she had found in the wardrobe. He gestured at her clothes. “Don’t worry if they don’t fit right. We’ll have a tailor in later today to start on some clothes for you.”

Elaina nodded. Retrieving her own was out of the question. The dress fit well enough, but was slightly too big in a few areas. It wasn’t the kind of dress she wanted to meet Robert’s imposing mother in, but, apparently it was tradition.

Robert pushed himself away from the wall and gallantly offered his arm. “Let me show you to the dining room.”

She nodded and slipped her arm through his, hoping it wasn’t far. She hadn’t eaten anything at the garden party, and her stomach had been too nervous for her to eat anything after agreeing to be Robert’s companion. After signing the paperwork, Robert had shown her to her room and she’d said good night, wanting some peace to contemplate her new situation.

“I’ll be meeting your mother today?” she asked.

He nodded, a bit stiffly, she thought. Was Robert wary of his own mother, too? This didn’t bode well.

“At some point, yes. My mother makes it her habit to never be consistent. I’m afraid you’ll have to anticipate her popping up at any time. Though there is an unspoken rule that she never disturbs the companion during the night.”

Elaina gave a strangled, nervous laugh. “I can’t imagine how terrifying that might be.”

“She used to check on me in the middle of the night when I was a child. Even though she’s my mother, it still scared me silly to see her looming over me in the dark.”

Elaina smiled faintly. “What do I need to know about her?”

“Her mission is to make my companion’s life miserable. She’s ordered me to find a companion so I could find a wife. The catch is, she must also approve of the woman, so she makes her life difficult to test her. My mother will never be consistent. What was fine one day will not longer be tolerated the next. She won’t abuse you, but she’ll make you question yourself.”

“I think that’s a form of abuse, too,” Elaina said dryly.

Robert shrugged. “It’s all a game to her.”

“Well, after spending two years dealing with Bradley’s mother, I think I might be able to handle her.”

He gently placed his free hand over hers as they descended a staircase. “I don’t know how long she’ll keep it up. No companion has lasted longer than eight months.”

“I’ll do my best, Robert, but I can’t make any promises. Of course, I want to see you free of your mother’s control, and help you acquire your inheritance, but I must also take care of myself.”

He nodded. “Of course, I understand. I wouldn’t ask you to suffer. But, if anyone has the potential to withstand my mother, I think it’s you. I never knew Mary-Grace well, but I remember she was extremely domineering and manipulative.”

“You’re not wrong.”

“Then I think you’ll be fine.”

“I wish I had as much confidence as you do.”

He smiled at her. “I know my mother. I’ve watched her for eight years. She’ll do everything in her power to break you, but, if  you could stand two years with her social rival, I think you’ll be fine.”

“Again,” she said as he ushered her into a surprisingly normal dining room, ” I wish I had as much confidence as you do. ” She gestured at the simple square table with the plain white tablecloth. ” I wasn’t expecting anything so…normal. “

Robert laughed as he held out a chair to her, the one facing the door they had entered from. “My mother’s idea. The women usually expect the grand dining room with the mile long table, extravagant foods, and servers at five foot intervals. This is her way of bringing them down a notch.”

Elaina raised a brow as he say across from her. “If you ask me, that sounds smart. After all, we’re here to keep you company, not bask in the throes of luxury.”

He paused as he unfolded the simple paper napkin. “You and my mother might have more in common than we think.” He gave her a wry smile. ” I don’t know if that bodes well for you, me, or her. “

“All three of us, if you’re lucky.”

” Yes, you’re right, ” he agreed as a willowy middle-aged woman entered, drawing Elaina’s attention.

She was dressed simply in an olive green blouse and a white pencil skirt. Sensible black flats softened her quick steps. Her graying dark hair was slicked back into a tight knot at the base of her neck. In her hands were a basket brimming with pastries and soft breads and a large platter bearing fruits, parfait glasses of yogurt and granola, and hard boiled eggs.

Without thinking, Elaina was on her feet and unloading the platter from the woman’s hands, saying, “Here, let me help you.”

Surprised, the woman easily have it up and watched with hawk eyes as Elaina carefully placed the heavy silver tray in the middle of the table, ensuring the glasses neither fell over nor blinked together.

“I’m surprised,” Robert said dryly. ” Usually you go for the glass serving dish. “

The woman sniffed as she took a seat. “Esther broke it yesterday.” She turned to face Elaina as the young woman resumed her seat with a carefully blank expression .

Elaina had never seen Rose Roderick before, but, as soon as she had taken a look at the woman’s face, she knew. Robert had gotten his sky blue eyes from his mother. And she looked enough like the woman in the portrait near Robert’s study.

She hadn’t been sure if Rose serving them herself was a test, but she wasn’t one who enjoyed being served. Going to a restaurant made her squirm uncomfortably. Besides, Robert had mentioned his mother wanting to take the women down a notch. Surely she couldn’t find fault with Elaina helping her.

“So, you are the new companion,” Rose said, her voice crisp, as she looked Elaina over.

Solemnly, Elaina nodded. “I’m Elaina, and I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Roderick.”

The woman waved a hand, revealing rings set with sparkling gems, and turned away from her. “No need to be so formal. You may call me Rose. Only the servants call me Mrs. Roderick.”

“Duly noted,” Elaina murmured as she smoothed her napkin across her lap.

” well then, ” Rose said briskly, “eat up, you two. I imagine it will be a busy day of you two getting to know each other.” She turned back to Elaina. ” You’re free to wander the property. Should you go too far, security will step in and escort you back to the Hall. “

Elaina nodded. “I understand. Thank you.”

Rose eyes her, looking her up and down. Her eyes were quick and her lips pressed into a thin line. “Well, I’m glad there’s still one family in town that still teaches manners.” She rose and smoothed down her skirt. ” I will see you later. “

Almost as quickly as she appeared, Rose was gone and the door was swinging closed.

Robert smiled at her as he went to grab a pastry. “Congratulations. You survived meeting my mother. And you must have made an impression on her. She usually lingers, just to make my companion nervous.”

Elaina smiled faintly, dipping a silver spoon into the parfait glass she had claimed. “You said she’s unpredictable.”

” I did, ” he acknowledged, “but this is the first time she’s only stayed for a few minutes. The first time in eight years.”

Elaina shrugged. “Maybe she’s keeping things interesting for herself.”

Robert offered her a faint smile as they finished their breakfast. Unlike the evening before, he was quite taciturn, seemingly lost in his thoughts. Elaina couldn’t help but wonder if Robert himself was going to be as hard a bit to crack as his mother.

Library job, she told herself. Library job.

She glanced up at Robert, who has making swirls in his granola and yogurt.

And maybe a new friend or two, she added.

“So, tell me,” Robert said as they wandered out of the dining room, ” what does my new companion enjoy doing? “

Elaina laughed. “You remember the book I had last night?”

He grinned, whatever tension had been preoccupying him during breakfast melting away. His nose might be a little big and his hair a bit too shaggy, but he wasn’t hard on the eyes and his grin gave him a bit of a roguish air.

“If what Nigel told me is true, then you found your book to be of more interest than me.”

” no offense, but, after breaking up with Bradley, I’m kind of done with the rich and powerful. “

He nodded. “Of course. I understand. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you accepted my proposition. Let me make it known that my goal is for you to be as comfortable here as possible.” He gently took her hand, and she was surprised it wasn’t Lily soft. ” we’ll start the house tour in the library. I think you might find it satisfactory. “

She smiled as she let him lead her down the hall.

Chapter Seven

Celeste was a mistake. She was pretty, but really vapid. She also had a lot in common with a leech. Oh, she didn’t suck blood, but she sucked energy. Sucked it right out of me. After a week I was running for hiding places as soon as I woke up. It’s a good thing my mother scared her out of her wits one day. I don’t think I ever saw her run that fast. I must admit I chuckled while planting the White Cloud climbing rose.

Elaina was certain that, had she been alone, she would have fallen to her knees and wept right there in the middle of the Roderick library. The plush Oriental rugs would have been the marks of her knees with more grace than she would have as they muffled her soft cries.

Unfortunately, Elaina was in Robert’s company, and she didn’t want to alarm him with her sudden sobs.

But it wasn’t her fault she wanted to cry; she had never seen so many books before. Not even in a library. Roderick Hall had three massive rooms connected by arched door frames full of books. There were no book cases, but simply shelves installed along the walls, from floor to ceiling. Somehow shelves had been attached to the windows. Desks and tables littered the floors and more books were stacked atop them.

She stood behind Robert as he talked about the family library, but didn’t really hear him. He mentioned something about his grandfather being a bibliophile and his grandmother being something of a hoarder. Hence all the books. She wanted to listen to him, but her eyes were practically bulging out of her head. She could spend ten lifetimes in here, happily holed up with no shortage of reading material.

Oh, the adventures she would have! Not to mention the greatest romances of the ages. There were countless worlds to explore and numerous friends to make.

Her fingers were itching to reach out and touch just one, but Robert was leading her through the rooms. She was vaguely aware that he was telling her how the books were organized. It didn’t really matter, though. She could happily spend the rest of her life in here.

Elaina’s brain snapped back to attention as Robert turned to smile at her. She felt the wonder in her eyes as the corners of her mouth began to lift. But his face abruptly froze and her spine unconsciously straightened as her neck was suddenly aware of a prickling sensation.

“The house tour is over for now,” came Rose’s crisp voice. ” The seamstress is early, and very busy. “

Elaina turned as Rose spoke. Her fingers had been pinching the folds of her dress to prevent them from reaching for a book. Now they pinched harder to help her maintain her composure. Robert hadn’t been kidding when he said his mother was unpredictable.

Rose’s eyes openly studied Elaina’s face before flickering to the books surrounding them. Something flashed on Rose’s eyes, but it was too quick for Elaina to identify.

“Don’t worry, Mother,” Robert said, his voice suddenly cool and formal. ” I’ll take her now. “

A single eyebrow rose, cracking the mask Rose wore. “will take her. You have other responsibilities.”

Elaina didn’t hear him make a reply, but felt the air stir as he moved and walked past her. He turned back briefly once he had passed by his mother to offer a small smile. She didn’t have the guts to respond under his mother’s hard gaze.

“Come,” was all Rose said before she turned on her heel and stride away.

It was so fast that Elaina had to stifle another gasp as her feet suddenly kicked into gear. Her heart was thudding and her stomach was doing uncomfortable loops. She hadn’t expected to be alone in Rose’s presence so soon. What was it that Robert had to do?

Rose walked quickly. She faced forward, trusting Elaina to scurry after her. The only parts of her that seemed to actually move were her legs and feet. Her neck and torso didn’t even bend a millimeter as they descended a staircase.

They stopped abruptly at a mahogany door. Without ceremony, or even acknowledging Elaina’s presence, she opened the door and walked in.

Elaina didn’t know what awaited her once she stepped into the room, but she knew she could only delay the inevitable only so long. Like Mary-Grace, Rose did not like being kept waiting. So she took a deep, fortifying breath, and stepped forward.

It wasn’t a large room, so Elaina instantly felt claustrophobic despite the bright, almost harsh, lighting. The drapes were tightly drawn across the only window, long bolts of colorful fabric leaning against it. A wide stool sat in the middle of the room, beneath the crystal chandelier that shone brightly, filling every corner with it’s commanding light. Elaina couldn’t tell if it was tile or carpet under her feet; the floor was covered in unraveling bolts of colorful and subdued fabrics, taffeta, lace, and an assortment of ribbons. The one thing that surprised her was the complete dearth of prints. Everything, even the ribbons, were monochrome.

“I dislike prints,” Rose said briskly and matter-of-factly. “They’re too distracting. Everything you wear will be simple and elegant. Now step up. Clarice will take your measurements now.”

Nodding while her eyes began to glaze over, Elaina stepped up onto the stool. A young woman, just a few years older than  her, stepped close, quickly whipping a narrow measuring tape around her body. She murmured numbers to herself, but didn’t note any down. Elaina found herself staring at the young woman’s shiny cap of purple hair, wondering if it was somehow related to one of Rose’s tests.

Rose stood in front of Elaina, her arms crossed, but her face emotionless. She merely watched, her eyes flickering from Elaina to Clarice. Elaina fought the urge to squirm under the woman’s impassive gaze, not knowing if she was pleased or not. It wasn’t a feeling she enjoyed. It reminded her too much of Mary-Grace, though Rose was much quieter compared to the other woman who used to rail at her seamstresses about everything.

A sudden jab near her chest made her gasp. Her eyes met those of the seamstress’s. There was kindness in her eyes, but the rest of her face was clearly professional.

“You must remember to breathe so I can take that into account,” Clarice said softly.

Elaina felt her cheeks and neck warm and fought the urge to blush. She began to take steady deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself, but it only drew glares from Clarice.

“Not like that,” the seamstress admonished. “Naturally, Elaina. Just breathe as you normally do, otherwise this bodice will be too tight.”

“I’ve heard you dated Bradley Hunter,” Rose said abruptly, flatly.

Startled, Elaina lifted her eyes from where she was watching Clarice stick pins near her waist. “Yes, I did. For two years.”

“Missed the lifestyle of the wealthy did you?”

“No,” Elaina said, almost too fast. “Not at all. I like a quiet life.”

“And yet here you are, companion to my son, the heir to the largest fortune around.”

“It was neither my intention nor my idea. My friends thought I needed a diversion from job hunting, so talked me into joining them yesterday. I never thought Robert would choose me.”

“Yet he did.”

Elaina had no response. Robert had chosen her. She knew why he had. She didn’t think she should tell his mother about their conversation. After all, she’d promised not to breathe a word of it.

“You must be used to things like this,” Rose said, nodding to Clarice. “I imagine Mary-Grace would have made sure you dressed properly.”

Elaina couldn’t help but purse her lips a little at that. “That’s true.”

Rose’s eyes missed nothing. “You did not enjoy it.”

“Mrs. Hunter was, um, much more vocal than you,” Elaina said carefully. “No one could please her and she made her thoughts known.”

Rose sniffed. “I suppose she should be excused as she’s new to money.”

Again, Elaina had nothing to say. Fortunately, her attention was temporarily diverted by Clarice, who was having her raise both arms out to her sides.

“Let me make one thing clear, Elaina. My son is free to choose whom he wishes as his wife, but life will go much easier for him and for her if I also approve.”

Elaina met Rose’s eyes, her face serious. “I agree. My mother likes to tell me you don’t just marry the man. You also marry his family. I have no wish to be…a disliked daughter-in-law. Neither do I have a wish to be rushed into marriage. You have my word, Rose, that I will never marry your son for everything that comes with him.”

Rose’s expression never changed, but she gave a curt nod and left the room. The tension went with her and Elaina’s spine sagged a little.

Clarice tutted and stepped back, shaking her head as she draped her measuring tape around her neck. She crossed her arms and eyed Elaina as Elaina took a few breaths. The chandelier’s light glinted off her violet hair as though there were sparkly strands in it.

“Would you like to take a few minutes?” Clarice asked, her face relaxed now that Rose was gone.

Elaina met her eyes. “She has the same effect on you, doesn’t she?”

“It’s different,” Clarice said softly. “I’ve worked for Mrs. Hunter, a few months before you started dating her son, I believe. She may have been vocal about everything she didn’t like, but Rose’s disapproval is quieter and deeper.”

“I’ve noticed,” Elaina said dryly. She took a deep breath and straightened her spine, lifting her arms out to her sides. Clarice dipped her head in silent acknowledgement and went back to work. “How long have you been working here?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say I’m employed by Rose, but she hires me to dress most of the companions. Sometimes she’ll disapprove of one of my dresses and will hire another seamstress for the next companion, but she always come back to me.”

“She sounds manipulative.”

Clarice looked up from pinning up a hem. “I think of her as protective. Her husband was killed and who did it was never found. She only has Robert left.”

“What does that have to do with you?”

“She’s hurting, Elaina. She’s seeking perfection where there can be none.”

“You don’t think I’ll last.”

Clarice gave her a sad smile. “Most girls ask me if I think they’ll be the last one. They’re eyes will be wide and bright. They gobble up the delights this place as to offer. They never ask if I think they’ll last. You seem to be coming into this with open eyes. Do you want to last?”

Elaina licked her lips. “That’s a little up for debate right now. Robert and I are just starting to get to know each other.”

Clarice nodded and went back to work. “I think you know to be wary of Rose. But, I promise you, she isn’t as scary as she seems.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Elaina murmured as her eyes strayed to the closed door.

Chapter Eight

Hazel was a quiet soul. She wasn’t one for small talk. It was hard to get to know her at first, but, once we hit on something we had in common, it was hard to shut her up. I sometimes wished I had let her be in her quiet little world. My ears would have thanked me. Still, she was quite knowledgeable on gardening and helped create the herb garden. I planted the  ___ in her honor.

Robert tugged at a particularly stubborn weed, wondering how he had missed the nearly two foot tall thing until it had reached this height. He grunted and gave one last pull before the dirt finally spit it out and sent him falling heavily on his rump. He let out an exasperated breath, clutching the skinny weed in one gloved hand.

Silently, Nigel appeared at his side, offering a black trash bag without a word or a change in his mild expression.

With a disgusted sound, Robert threw the weed in and then pulled off his gloves. He glared at the patch of dirt next to the white roses that had hid it for too long. The white blossoms seemed to shiver under his stern look, but a part of him knew it was really because of the gentle breeze winding through the rose garden.

With a quiet rustle, Nigel put the trash bag down and turned to survey the garden with his master. Robert didn’t look at him, knowing his faithful friend and butler was eyeing the garden for more weeds and sticklers.

“That looks to be it,” Nigel said softly.

Robert nodded and released the tension in his shoulders. He stuck his gloves in a back pocket and moved to drop heavily on a stone bench nestled under a trellis heavy with blossoms. Red and white roses climbed up the sides while pink blooms graced the crown. Two different climbing rose plants for two different women. Robert remembered both, but chose to think of neither.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Nigel quickly tie the trash bag closed before he settled it on the path near Robert. On silent feet, the butler approached and came to stand silent and steady just beside the red roses.

“Something bothers you,” Nigel said softly. “You are usually quite rejuvenated after a weeding session.”

A faint smile briefly touched Robert’s lips before it vanished and his eyes focused on nothing.

“Have you grown weary of Miss Elaina already?”

“No,” Robert said softly.

He had no immediate plans of telling Nigel about his arrangement with Elaina. Nigel was his long-time butler, but was still employed by his mother. Nigel still reported to Rose periodically – one of her many attempts to control and corral him. He couldn’t take the chance that Nigel would slip and say something to Rose. Elaina was his best chance of escaping his mother. He couldn’t screw it up.

But Elaina herself was proving to be a problem. He had spent years in the company of women, but they had always been the ones to seek every opportunity to get to know him. Elaina was different. If he hadn’t promised something tantalizing, she wouldn’t have any reason to stay. He had a feeling she wouldn’t care too much to get to know him. She wouldn’t be another simpering girl throwing herself at him.

“Elaina is different. I like her, but I’m unaccustomed with trying to get to know someone.”

Nigel left out a breath as he bent down and set beside Robert. “I see.”

“Do you?” He turned to Nigel, his brow slightly furrowed. “I’m used to keeping girls at a distance. I’m used to being guarded and dismissive. I don’t want to drive Elaina way, but I don’t know how to get her to fall in love with me.”

Nigel nodded almost absently as his eyes scanned the garden. They called it the Garden of Girls, the flowering history of Robert’s isolation. Every rose symbolized a girl. Every rose recalled a brief amusement followed quickly by the desire to escape her thorns. Only here could Robert feel some control, some way of keeping the digging thorns from his metaphorical flesh.

“I was wondering when this day would come,” Nigel said, his eyes still on the flowers. “I knew that, one day, you would be interested in one of your companions. After all, you’re still a young man. When you singled out Miss Elaina, I felt hope for you.”

“Well, thanks,” Robert said, impatience floating just beneath his words. “But what do I do?”

“I may have lost my wife three years ago, but I remembered how we came to be together. Ah, what a beautiful woman. She was my best friend for years before I ever kissed her. I had always thought love at first sight was a powerful thing. She showed me how love from friendship can be just as or more powerful.”

“I don’t remember how to make friends,” Robert said softly, his eyes lowering so he only saw dirt. Brown. More brown. A reminder of how dull his life was, perhaps? Maybe it was time to repaint his study. “I haven’t had to worry about making friends for eight years. I was a teenager the last time I made, or even had, a friend.”

Nigel shrugged. “You’ll be rusty, but I’m sure you’ll remember in time. Start off by finding something you have in common with her. I’m sure it’ll provide a great springboard.”

“Something in common,” Robert mused, turning over ideas in his head and just as quickly discarding them. He shook his head. “I just met her last night. All I know is she likes books.”

“Start with what you enjoy and see if she enjoys them as well,” Nigel said mildly, his hands lightly resting on his knees, his finger tapping a slow rhythm. It was a tic Robert knew well, one that told him to focus. Nigel wasn’t there to give him all the answers, but to guide him. “But perhaps you have been known to enjoy a tale from time to time?”

Understanding dawned on him. “I loved the fairy tales my mother used to tell me. They’re not books, but they are stories. Perhaps I should see if she enjoys such stories as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood as well.”

“Perhaps you should change your clothes before marching off to find her,” Nigel said as Robert rose, determination in his eyes. “Your mother would not appreciate it if you track dirt into the Hall. She only tolerates your garden so far.”

Robert looked down at himself. He caught sight of the dirt ground into the knees of his trousers and the mud caking his boots. There were smudges of brown and green on his short and a thorn had torn a diagonal in one sleeve.

“I suppose you’re right.” He looked out over the garden, refusing to think of how many rose plants there were. “I don’t want Elaina to know about the Garden of Girls just yet. No need to scare her off on day two.”

Robert heard Nigel pat his knees and stand before saying, “That’s the spirit, my young master.”

Robert found Elaina in the dining room. It wasn’t quite time for dinner, but she had a small plate dusted with crumbs and a tea cup nestled in her hands. She was sitting at an angle to the table, turned just enough so she could stare out the window her back had been to just that morning and reach whatever she had eaten. Her hair was pinned up and a light shawl was resting over her shoulders. She reminded him of a portrait of a lady from a long time ago, romantic and sad at the same time.

He swallowed hard, pausing in the doorway. His previous companions had been wide eyed and eager. He was used to them leaping up, throwing her arms around his neck, and exclaiming about every beautiful detail of the Hall. He was not used to seeing his companion look sad. Did she miss her family already? Was she regretting their agreement?

Was he willing to let her go after less than a day?

A bolt of panic struck him. He couldn’t let her go. He needed her if he was ever going to be free of his mother.

He swallowed incomprehensible words about fairy tales before they could escape his lips and make him look like an idiot.

“I hope my mother wasn’t too hard on you today,” he finally managed, stepping cautiously into the room.

She turned her head quickly, her eyes startled, her spine stiffening. When she saw it was him, though, she relaxed and settled back in her chair. A small, soft smile helped make the tension flow off of her, putting him at ease as well.

Robert returned her smile and took a seat adjacent to hers. “What was it my mother wanted with you?”

“It was time to dress me.”

“Ah. Clarice?”

“She’s very nice.”

“She’s been around awhile. Knows the drill.”

“Your mother seems sad.”

That stopped him and he couldn’t help himself from staring at her. Elaina met his eyes as she slowly put her tea cup on the table. She seemed serious, but he was baffled. His mother was in complete control here and her husband had been dead for eight years. She’d cast off the black six years ago. Why would she be sad?

“I don’t understand,” he finally said.

Elaina’s brow creased. “She’s your mother. How can you not know?”

He shifted uneasily in his chair. “My mother and I have a complicated relationship. It works when she thinks I’m under her thumb and when I acquiesce to her.”

“What kind of relationship is that?”

She seemed horrified. He assumed he had a lovely relationship with her own mother. How could he possibly accurately describe his relationship with his mother?

“It works,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but my mother has always been distant.”

Elaina frowned, one hand reached out to turn the tea cup around and around on the table. “I suppose I can’t expect every mother and child to have a healthy relationship.” A sharp laugh escaped her, her eyes riveted to the spinning tea cup. “I should know that. Bradley’s relationship with his mother was anything but healthy.”

“But you and your mother get along,” Robert said, seeing an opening to get to know her better and taking it. Anything to get off the topic of his own mother.

A soft smile lit her face as she finally looked back up at him. “My mom has always been my rock. She’s a quiet lady, always getting right to the point. But she has a unique way of looking at the world. Her love of life is infectious. She’s always right, Robert, but she never rubs it in my face. She worries, but she lets me be free, to make my own choices. My parents trust me. They raised me well. I’m what you would call well-adjusted, from a solidly middle-class family. I’m an only child, so my parents put everything they had into me.” Her eyes abruptly fell from his and her voice softened. “I know I disappointed them when I didn’t wait for a library job. I was so consumed with wanting to get on my own two feet that I went with the next best thing.”

“Working for Bradley?”

She grimaced, refusing to meet his eyes. “I was desperate, and sad the library didn’t have any immediate openings. I felt like I needed to prove myself. I made mistakes. And, yet, my parents welcomed me back. And now here I am. Companion to Robert Roderick. Slipping right back into the lap of luxury.”

“You’re always free to go any time.” It hurt to say the words.

He saw her jaw clench. “I hate feeling like I’m using you for my dream job. Walking out of here has crossed my mind too many times to count in the last hour alone.” Slowly, she lifted her gaze. “But I get the feeling you and your mother need me.” She took a deep breath. “Maybe it sounds crazy, but I believe life has certain things in store for us. I like to think I’m supposed to be here. I mean, I could have just flat out refused to go with my friends to the party. I could have turned around and walked away. But I didn’t.”

He stared at her. “Maybe you’re a little weird, but definitely not the weirdest companion I’ve ever had.”

She laughed suddenly, a light, happy sound that had him smiling in response.

“My mom has a different way of looking at life. I think I get it from her.”

“Tell me,” he quietly urged.

“You know the story by Hans Christian Anderson? The one about the mermaid?”

His heart pounded. It was the right opening he had been looking for. Now he just had to choose the right words.

“Yeah,” he said carefully, his tone measured, his enthusiasm carefully held at bay. “My mother used to tell me stories when I was a small child. That was one she told me a lot, but sometimes she twisted the story so the mermaid lived. Sometimes she married the prince, sometimes she didn’t.”

Elaina nodded. “My mom looks at the world a lot like the mermaid. She sees it was big and wonderful. She’s cautious because you never know what life holds, but she delights in it. I think she’s so wise because she sees everything.”

“Did she tell you a lot of fairy tales?”

Elaina smiled. “She did. They gave me my love of books.”

Robert smiled back, his heart beating evenly for the first time since he’d first laid eyes on her.

Chapter Nine

Jocelyn was nice. She enjoyed nature, so we took many walks around the gardens. I thought she might expand my horizons when it comes to gardening, but it turned out she had less interest in getting her hands dirty and more in picking flowers to decorate her hair. We didn’t really have much to talk about. I was bored after a week. She took three months before she decided the dying fall flowers weren’t her thing. I planted the ___ in her honor.

Elaina realized she hadn’t been a very good companion to Robert two weeks later when she saw him reach for a chessboard instead of a book in the massive library. Their daily existence had become a routine: breakfast, sometimes with Rose and sometimes alone; a morning reading session in the library; lunch with Rose popping up at every moment that was opportune for her; Robert going off with Nigel and Elaina retreating to the library; an occasional stroll through a hall lined with portraits and landscapes; dinner with Rose staring silently at her; and evenings spent on edge as it was Rose’s favorite time to drop in on them.

Elaina was suddenly afraid she’d become boring in her attempt to simply survive her time in Roderick Hall. How on Earth could she and Robert possibly fall in love enough to want to marry each other for life if all she did was read all day?

Almost regretfully, she closed her book, resting a hand longingly on the cover. She had been selfish for the past two weeks and Robert had been too patient. Rose had surely noted the distance between them. Elaina wasn’t sure if the woman approved or not.

She didn’t mean to startle him, but the new dress Clarice had made didn’t rustle and her soft-soled shoes did little more than whisper over the plush carpet.

“Do you play?” she asked as she came to sit on the other side of the end table.

Robert started, jerking his gaze up from the board as one hand swept half of the pieces to the floor. He stared at her for a moment, as though he were slowly coming to realize she was sitting beside him instead of on the sofa some feet away.

Elaina reached out a hand instinctively and placed it on his wrist. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

He shook his head, giving her a rueful smile. “I was so intent on the pieces I didn’t know you had moved. But, to answer you, no, I don’t play. I only have a basic understanding of how the pieces move.” He picked up a pawn and turned it around in his fingers, his eyes drifting from hers to eye the piece. “Pawns move like foot soldiers, space by space. My father tried to teach me several times, but I always found other things that better interested me.” He gently placed the piece on a black square. “I should have paid more attention to him. I suppose I could have taught myself or learned from someone, but this was the one thing my father loved. It almost feels like blasphemy to learn from anyone else.”

“I suppose you must miss him a lot.”

“He was a good man, always caring about everyone he came across. I think that’s how he was so successful. Everyone trusted him.”

“Your mother seems like the polar opposite,” she said gently. “How did they meet?”

“You know what’s funny about my parents’ marriage? I don’t actually know a lot about it. I never saw they were close or particularly loving towards each other, but they never seemed to hate each other. I would ask questions when I was older, shortly before my father died, but they always deflected me.”

Elaina frowned. “It sounds like they were hiding something.”

“I got that feeling, too,” he said, his eyes meeting hers. “But, to answer your question, they always said a matchmaker paired them and they were obligated to marry.”

“What?” She couldn’t keep the disbelief from her voice, and was embarrassed as soon as the word left her mouth. “I’m sorry.”

Robert chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “Don’t be. That was my reaction, too, but they both found other things to do right after, so my other questions went unanswered.” He gave her a rueful look. “You’ve met my mother. I think you understand why I won’t ask her any more questions.”

She nodded and fiddled with a fold in her dress. “It’s almost like they came from another world.”

“You’re telling me. How did your parents meet?”

Elaina chuckled and her gaze shifted away from him for a moment. “You may not believe it, but I don’t know much about how my parents met, either.”

Robert smiled. “It’s nice to know we have something in common. What do you know?”

She shrugged. “They met on a beach. Not here, but in another state, I think. They were a little dodgy about saying which one. My dad says he was just lying on the beach when my mom suddenly came out from a swim and scared the living daylights out of him. He said it was dawn and he was surprised someone had been up earlier than him just to take a dive in the lukewarm water. My mom will roll her eyes and say she’d gone for a swim and had seen him lying on the beach in just his underwear. She said she leaned over him to see if he was still alive, and screamed when he opened his eyes.” She held her hands out. “They said it was love at first sight and they were just a normal couple who happened to meet on the beach.”

“Well, that’s more interesting than what my parents told me,” Robert said as he sank back into his chair.

Elaina could almost feel his disappointed. “I suppose,” she said slowly, haltingly, “it isn’t quite as unknown as how your parents met.” She offered a small smile. “But, if we do happen to marry and have kids, do you think they would believe I willingly let myself be locked up here with you?”

Robert laughed. “Maybe outlandish stories of how parents met will be a running theme in the family.”

Abruptly, Elaina frowned and looked down at her hands. “It’s not just our parents, though, Robert. My oldest friend is Lily and her parents are a little sketchy on how they met, too. Her mom said she and her husband met in the woods and he saved her from a tree she was stuck in.”

“That doesn’t sound that weird.”

“No, but there are no woods around here. It’s all open land where there isn’t civilization.”

“Are you sure they met here?”

“Oh, yes. Lily’s dad said he had never lived anywhere else.”

A thoughtful look crossed Robert’s face. “You know, it all sounds like fairy tales.”

“Or just bored parents who want to make their stories more interesting.”

He shrugged. “Yeah, that, too.”

She cocked her head to the side. “Didn’t you say your mother used to tell you fairy tales with a twist?”

“It was her favorite thing to do.” He glanced at the grandfather clock gently chiming away in a corner before heaving himself to his feet. “Unfortunately, that will have to wait until later. It’s time for lunch, and we must be on our best behavior if Mother decides to drop in.”

Elaina groaned softly, but let him pull her up to her feet.

“Nigel is indisposed and will be unable to assist you this afternoon,” were the first words out of Rose’s mouth as Elaina and Robert walked into the dining room.

Rose stood beside the table, already filled with plates and platters telling the tale of a cold lunch that would be presided over by an even colder woman. Her hair was, as always, pulled back into a shiny yet severe chignon and she wore a crisp violet dress that looked like it belonged in an office. One hand was delicately resting on the back of one chair, a large diamond ring sparkling from one finger.

“What do you mean, indisposed?” Robert asked, almost too sharply if Elaina were interpreting his mother’s gaze properly.

He had halted just past the doorway and she stopped beside him to look up at his face. Gone were the gentle eyes that stared far back to his, likely, happier youth. It had been replaced by lips pressed tightly together, a furrowed brow, and eyes that were more stone that soft tissue.

“Just as I said,” Rose said. “Nigel is busy this afternoon and will be unable to assist you.”

“Busy where?” Robert insisted, not moving a muscle.

Rose’s mouth tightened almost imperceptibly. “Nigel may be your butler, but he is in my employ. He is indisposed this afternoon.”

Robert frowned and cast a quick glance over at Elaina. “Then perhaps-“

“No,” Rose said sharply. “The two of you will find something else to amuse yourselves.”

Elaina had to work hard to not shift nervously from foot to foot. It was almost like standing between two giants facing off. But she was glad she was shorter than mother and son; she felt like she could flutter about beneath their gazes.

Trying not to think too hard about what she was doing, Elaina darted further into the room and quickly came to stand beside the table, at the chair opposite the one Rose reigned from. She made a show of looking over the sliced meats and cheeses, the artfully arranged tray of assorted fruits, and the freshly baked bread that had been sliced on the bias.

“This looks delightful, Rose,” she said, injecting enthusiasm into her voice, hoping it would mask her nerves.

Instead, Rose sniffed and turned her head from Elaina. “Cook is ill and her sous chef isn’t quite up to snuff. I’m afraid dinner won’t be much better.”

Eyes filled with desperation, Elaina turned to Robert, but he only continued to stare at his mother with pursed lips. Later, she would blame the tension getting to her. Now she understood why there had been eight years of companions fleeing the Hall despite the opulence of the place and general lifestyle. Rose and Robert were not a fun pair to be around simultaneously.

“I can cook,” she blurt out, her hands gripping the folds of her dress.

Rose’s head turned sharply to her, her eyes narrowing. “Nonsense, Elaina. Companions do not cook.”

Robert had also, finally, turned to look at her. He was shaking his head ever so slightly. But Elaina had committed her mind to something. Besides, if she were to stay and eventually marry Robert, she would be a member of the household, would be given some leeway to do as she pleased. Of course, Rose would be superior to her, but, according to what Robert had told her about his father’s will, once she became Robert’s wife, Rose would be displaced as Robert took full control.

Elaina tilted her head up slightly. “For years, you have sought a companion for your son in the hopes he might find a wife. If that is so, then this whole being locked up in the Hall thing is little more than a courtship. When a couple is dating, it is customary for partners to cook for each other.”

Rose eyed her appraisingly before nodding curtly and abruptly leaving the room.

The air left Elaina’s lungs in a rush with Rose’s exit. She sagged slightly against the chair as her hands loosened their grip on her dress. Idly, she wondered if she had left permanent creases. Her palms were a bit damp.

In the same moment, Robert had glanced at the door as his mother vanished from view and rushed over to Elaina. He stopped just inches from her, drawing a startled gasp from her, and much needed air into her. His hair fell across his forehead as he leaned his head down.

“What were you thinking?” he hissed. “No one defies my mother.”

Elaina shrugged and shifted her eyes from him. “I can cook. My mom taught me.”

“Elaina.”

She closed her eyes and turned her head away slightly. “For two years I was manipulated by Mary Grace. For two years I was cowed by her. I’m stronger than that, Robert, and I need to prove myself. I need to show me, if not you and her, that I will not be bent again. If she doesn’t like that, or if you don’t like that, then I’ll walk out of here. But I will not be manipulated and constrained again.”

A sudden burst of laughter startled her and she turned wide eyes back to his face.

Robert placed a hand on top of one of hers. “Elaina, I think you will be very good for me, and maybe for my mother.”

She cocked her head to the side and eyed him pensively. “Tell me, Robert, do you know how to cook?”

Chapter Ten

Annie was not lovely. She was actually very plain. That’s exactly why I picked her. I was tired of pretty faces and thought a plain one would be good change. Maybe it wasn’t a pretty face I would fall for. Sadly, she was just as plain in her thinking and interests. I don’t think I’ve ever been so bored before. And into the ground went the ___ in her honor.

Robert shrugged apologetically as Elaina stared disbelievingly at the potatoes he had attempted to dice. He gestured to the lumpy mess with his knife. “What? I didn’t say I was good at it.”

Elaina quickly stepped away and held her hands up. “Put that thing down!”

Startled, he glanced down at his hands and abruptly released the waving knife. It clattered to the counter beside a hunk of potato. “Sorry. It’s been awhile since I’ve touched a chef knife.”

Elaina tutted and shook her head as she moved forward with a small trashcan. With quick movements, she swept the ruined potatoes into it.

“Mother didn’t approve of my cooking. I had to beg the cook to teach me the basics.”

“I’m sorry to tell you you didn’t learn the basics. I don’t even know what you were trying to do! I asked you to peel the potatoes, Robert.”

He looked down at the now empty cutting board. “Well…”

Elaina shook her head and pointed him to a stool standing in one corner of the vast, spotless kitchen. “Never mind. I will prepare dinner myself. After all, it’s only for three people and the chicken has already been dressed. This will be easy for me to do alone.”

“No,” he protested. “I can help.”

She made a shooing motion. “No, you can not. I forbid you from touching anything else in this kitchen. Peeling the potatoes was the easiest task I could have given you. Instead, why don’t you entertain me with some of the fairy tale versions your mother used to tell you.”

“Oh, that I can do,” he said, oddly relieved she hadn’t agreed with him. He was embarrassed by just how long it had been since he’d been fourteen and thinking he could impress a girl with his cooking skills.

She nodded once, crisply, but not dismissively, and turned away from him, leaving him to wander off to retrieve the stool while she fetched more potatoes.

Elaina’s movements were quick and precise in the kitchen, he mused as he carried the stool over to where she was peeling a fresh batch of potatoes. He wasn’t completely sure of what she was doing with them, but he somehow had more faith in her cooking skills than his own.

“I don’t like being stared out,” she said softly, knocking him out of his head. “If you don’t mind, could you start a story, please?”

“Sure,” he said, shifting slightly to settle himself more comfortably. “I’ll start with the one my mother told me the most often. I’m not quite the storyteller she is, but I think I can tell it well enough.”

Elaina glanced over at him with a small, but teasing smile. “So what are you good at? Obviously not cooking or storytelling.”

He gave a sharp, embarrassed laugh and looked down at his knees. “Maybe one day I’ll show you.”

For a moment, the kitchen was only filled by the sound of Elaina’s quick chops as she cubed the potatoes. Robert sat still for a moment, willing his mind back to his childhood, to when his mother used to perch on the edge of his bed and tell him stories in soft, lilting tones. It was only then that her edges softened, her eyes sparkled as they looked beyond him, and her cheeks flushed. It was only then that she ever really appeared human to him. Hypnotized by Elaina’s rhythmic chops, he gave her his favorite bed time story.

She wasn’t a princess, as everyone likes to believe, but he was most definitely a prince, one destined to take the throne and ensure a strong royal line. Their meeting was inevitable, their ending a tragedy, though perhaps not to us.

The mermaid had no name, or not one that was ever offered to him. She was First Handmaiden to the princess, whose hand had long been bound to the prince. She had no identity save the one the princess chose to give her. The princess was cold-hearted. She despised her handmaiden’s beauty and soulful voice. The handmaiden was forbidden to sing, forbidden to speak unless ordered to. Without her voice, and with her will held by another, the mermaid soon forgot her own name.

As First Handmaiden, it was the mermaid’s duty to travel with her princess to meet the prince. It was no ordinary journey. The mermaid princess was a being of the sea. The prince she was bound to marry was a man of the land. As children, their parents had sought an alliance to ensure safe passage for humans across the seas and protect the merpeople from murder. For six months a year, the mermaid princess would walk on legs. For six months a year, the human prince would flutter a tail.

But it was not the princess who captivated the young and dashing prince, but the handmaiden. Lovely and gentle and kind, she easily made her way into the hearts of the court. The prince was quite taken with her, but duty kept him bound. As future king, he had to think of his people, of his country. He could not think with his heart. It was a bitter pill for a young man so deeply in love.

The princess was, understandably, jealous. She forbade her handmaiden from interacting with the prince. But the prince would not be kept away. He had lost his heart to the handmaiden and was ready to forfeit the throne.

The handmaiden had a choice: return to the sea and never return to the surface or run into the night with the prince and never see either his land or her sea again. Her heart broke, but she chose the prince. They planned to steal away in the night. The king and queen of both realms would be furious, but the handmaiden and the prince were young and in love.

The princess was furious and called sea storms to land. Ships were destroyed and streets and homes flooded. Angrily, the king and queen banished the princess, nullified the betrothal, and waged war on the merpeople.

It was an ugly time on land and in the sea. The land was ravaged by endless storms and great tsunamis. Surviving ships were sent to sea, full of sailors and soldiers. The merpeople were slaughtered and survivors forced to flee their homes.

In the chaos, two hearts wept knowing it was their own choices that had led to the downfall of two realms. They could never go home, and the would have to live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives.

Their union should not have been happy, and yet it was. They delighted in their love even as they mourned the heavy losses. After all, both kingdoms had been teteering on the edge. With distrust and hate festering in the hearts of humans and merpeople, the peace would not have lasted had the prince and princess married.

The handmaiden and her prince found peace when they discovered neither kingdom would have survived the marriage. The handmaiden was devastated at the loss of her fins, but took solace in the love of her prince.

No one knows where the handmaiden and prince vanished to, for they were never seen again. Some believe they went into hiding and, as it was many years ago, it is likely they are either old and gray or gone from the world. Or perhaps they found a secret portal that whisked them away to another world. Or perhaps they took on new personas and live among us today. But, wherever they are, they are happy even as sadness will forever sit in their hearts.

By the time Robert had finished and his thoughts and mind had returned to the kitchen of Roderick Hall, Elaina had finished putting the chicken and potatoes in the oven and was standing before him. He couldn’t quite tell if she was surprised, horrified, or transfixed. Her expression seemed eternally mercurial, the look in her eyes ever shifting.

Finally, Elaina put her hands on her hips. “That was your favorite bedtime story?”

He shrugged. “It is sad, but I also like to think the prince and his lady found happiness and that the mermaid didn’t die.”

She stared back at him, but now there was a thoughtful light in her eyes. “I suppose that’s true. It is a nicer thought.”

He nodded. “See? It’s not a terrible story.” He shrugged. “There are better ones, but this one always stuck with me the most.”

Her hands finally dropped from her hips. “It’s certainly different. Now I’m curious about the other stories your mother used to tell you.”

Robert grinned. “Well, there was an interesting Little Red Riding Hood one where the wolf was Red in disguise.”

“Maybe not that one just yet.”

He laughed. “Yeah, some of them were not suited for bedtime.” He sobered. “But it was the one time my mother felt human to me.”

Elaina came quietly to stand near him. Her eyes were gentle, her lips slightly parted. She rested a hand on his where it rested on his knee. She smiled softly at him, and he knew she understood.

Chapter Eleven

I chose Rose because of her name. Of course she never knew that’s what I plant. She was a bit like a rose, too. She was nice to look at, but turned out to be quite thorny. It was often hard to get her to open up, and I quickly became impatient waiting for the rosebud to bloom. I asked her to leave after a month because I couldn’t stand her harsh tongue. I though of planting weeds in her honor, but I would never desecrate my garden that way, so I planted___.

Elaina checked her dress three times before she headed down to dinner. After the chicken had come out, she’d had about a half hour to change and prepare herself for dinner with Rose. The woman had made it clear she would be attending dinner with them to see what kind of cook her son’s new companion thought herself to be.

Nervously, she placed trembling fingers on her door knob. She knew her chicken was beyond reproach. It was her mother’s recipe. Perfection in a pan. Still, she didn’t yet know Rose’s tastes. Robert’s mother might hate it. Somehow, that scared her more than anything else.

Robert was waiting outside her door. He’d insisted on helping her make a trifle for dessert by making the whipped cream, but something had gone wrong and he’d ended up covered in half of it. Now he looked clean and crisp, his hair slightly damp, though he was bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

Clearly, she wasn’t the only one who was nervous about dinner with Rose.

“It’s fine,” Robert blurted out, causing Elaina to pause as she was closing her door behind her. “It’ll be fine. It smelled delicious. Mother loves trifle.”

Amusement at his sudden bout of nerves had her smiling as she linked her arm through his. “At least we have a hot dinner. I can cook, you know.”

“Oh, I know, I know,” he said hurriedly, awkwardly patting her hand, though it was more like a lazy cat batting at a dangling string. “It smelled delicious.”

Elaina suppressed a sigh. “Let’s just head down.”

“Oh, yes,” he said absently, and finally began walking.

The silk of the long blue dress she’d picked swished softly with every step she took, a bit of background noise as they made their way to the dining room. She took comfort in the sound as listening to her heartbeat thrum in her ears was making her nervous. Robert’s arm didn’t help much; he was as stiff as a mannequin.

The dining room was brightly lit and full of the delicious scents of dinner when they walked in. Elaina felt her shoulders relax a smidgen as she took a deep breath of freshly roasted chicken. But Robert’s still stiff posture quickly brought her back to reality.

The table had been set for three, but one plate had already been filled, the chair before it slightly askew. A chicken leg had been picked clean and a few half-eaten root vegetables littered the plate. A wine glass held the remnants of a red wine and red lipstick. A glass dish clearly bore the marks of a trifle eaten and savored as only a few traces of whipped cream lingered.

“I thought,” Elaina began, her voice catching in her throat.

“She had urgent business to attend to,” a voice said from behind them.

Elaina tried her best to stifle a scream as she turned around. Robert was a bit more poised, keeping his lips clenched together.

“What kind of business, Nigel?” Robert asked, his brow furrowed.

The butler gave a shrug. “That would be for your mother to tell you, if she is so inclined. She sent me down here just a few minutes ago to excuse her absence.” Nigel turned his eyes to Elaina, his expression undreadably formal. “She deemed the meal acceptable.”

Elaina’s heart plummeted. “Acceptable?” she whispered. “That’s all?”

Robert lifted a hand to gently squeeze her arm. “Don’t worry, Elaina. For my mother, acceptable is pretty darn good.”

“Oh,” she said, her shoulders relaxing.

Nigel glanced between them before bowing his head slightly. “She sends her apologies and has requested brioche with jam for breakfast.”

Robert’s spine stiffened and he angrily stepped forward. “Elaina is not a cook to be ordered around. Mother has always taken her liberties, but I will draw the line here.”

Elaina quickly reached out a hand. “I don’t take any offense, Robert.”

He turned his head to her and she could see his nostrils flaring and his eyes burning. “You should, Elaina. You should not let her treat you like that. You’re not a servant. Making dinner is one thing, taking a breakfast request is another.”

“Nonsense, Robert. If Rose is to be my mother-in-law one day, I will probably be expected, by both herself and myself, to cook for her once in a while, at least. She is assessing my cooking skills. Just in her own way.”

Robert shook his head. “Don’t do it, Elaina. Don’t let my mother have her way any more than she needs to. She runs everything here; don’t let her run you, too.”

“She’s not,” Elaina said firmly. “Nigel said she has ‘requested’ brioche and jam. That’s hardly a lot of work. Yes, the bread does take some time, but I enjoy being in the kitchen, and perhaps you could show or learn some kitchen skills of your own.”

Robert opened his mouth, but had nothing to say, so snapped his jaw closed and turned on his heel. Elaina and Nigel watched him stalk into the dining room and sit with his back to them.

“You shouldn’t do everything Rose says,” Nigel said softly. “Robert is right in that. She’ll run you down like a lawn mower.”

Elaina gave him a thin smile. “Don’t worry about me, Nigel. I’m starting to learn about his mother. Please trust I know what I’m doing.”

He assessed her for a moment before giving a short, curt nod. “You have more of a backbone than most other companions.”

“I’m trying,” Elaina said softly. “Thank you, Nigel. Please let Rose know I’ll be delighted to have freshly baked brioche ready for her at nine tomorrow morning.”

Nigel gave her a deeper, more formal bow before leaving her on silent feet.

Elaina joined Robert at the table and primly spread the white linen napkin over her lap. Rose had made it quite clear that the clothes would remain behind for future companions’ use. Of course, the woman had no idea Elaina was meant to be the last. At least, if she and Robert could manage to fall in love.

She eyed her silent dinner companion as he piled potatoes on his plate, seemingly lost in thought as she was sure he couldn’t possibly eat fifteen pieces of potato. Him wanting to tell her what to do, while perhaps very well reasoned as it was his mother in question, rankled her. She’d had enough of it to last one lifetime; Robert doing it now wasn’t going to help his cause. She was beginning to think of him as a friend, but there was still a long way to go before they reached anything resembling a romantic relationship.

“Don’t you think you have enough potatoes?” Elaina asked mildly. “I think you’ve claimed all of them, and I guarantee the chicken is just as good as the potatoes.”

Robert’s hand froze mid-air. By that point, she wasn’t sure if he was spooning more potatoes onto his plate or reaching for more, but she didn’t really care. The man was choosing to be difficult. She was in no mood for having a difficult dinner companion, especially after having dodge dinner with Rose.

“I-I lost track,” Robert said as he started spooning the potatoes back into the serving dish. “I do like potatoes. Apparently, quite a bit more than I had thought.”

He offered her a weak smile. She just stared at him, not sure whether to smile back or not. He was almost as perplexing as his mother. Not for the first time, she considered jumping up and making a run for it.

Library job, she sternly told herself. Even if she did end up marrying Robert, she was adamant she would have her library job. Her dream job. The only thing she’d ever really wanted to do.

Elaina forced a smile, flashing it for a second as she turned to claim a few potatoes before he lost himself again. “Yes, I can see that.” She peered up at him as he was going about sawing off the other leg. “Don’t forget we have trifle for dessert.”

He looked up at her, looking slightly startled. “Yes. Yes, of course we do. Say, would you like to help me repaint my study?”

“Um, what?” she asked, blinking stupidly at the sudden change in conversation. “Repaint your study?”

As much as jumping up and running out of this circus was starting to become more and more appealing, Robert was proving to be a conundrum that fascinated her brain. How he could go from being upset with her for acquiescing to his mother to wanting to repaint some room she’d never seen before eluded her.

“Yes,” he said, somewhat more enthusiastically as he finally finished heaping root vegetables on his plate, which she thought was odd since he was definitely more of a carnivore than plant eater. Typical man was the only thing that ran through her head.

“Is there something wrong with it?” she ventured when he failed to go on and would only look at her with wide, oddly lit eyes.

Robert frowned. “Well, even I have to admit all the brown is a little…dull. And maybe a strange color for a study.” He shrugged. “I guess I’m moving on and need a new color.”

She blinked at him. “The brown?” Her brain was furiously thinking, and the finally hit on it. “That monstrosity of a room is your study?”

His frown deepened. “You didn’t know? I didn’t tell you?”

“Even you have to admit that evening was…not exactly normal. Well, not at all normal for me. I have no idea what passes for normal in your world. Besides, I haven’t been in there since that night.”She shrugged. “Maybe you called it your study, maybe you didn’t. Obviously, I don’t remember.”

His eyebrows rose a fraction as she spoke. She abruptly snapped her jaws shut. Where had this sarcastic streak come from? She was never this spirited. This Hall was doing something to her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not.

She waved a hand as though she could disperse the words they had just exchanged. “Never mind. I haven’t painted anything in ages. Not since my parents caught ten-year-old me trying to repaint my room with my mom’s oil paints. What color were you thinking?”

Robert turned to peruse his dish. Or, at least, that’s what it looked like to her. It was impossible to figure out this man’s brain.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Maybe orange?”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Orange?”

He shrugged. “You have to admit orange is a lot brighter than brown.”

“Robert, almost anything is brighter than brown. But orange?”

“Or maybe a dark orange. Something reddish-orange.”

Her face fell into her hands. Was this man color challenged? “No, no no,” she moaned into her hands.

“Well, what color would you paint it?” he asked, a trace of defensiveness in his voice.

She looked up. “I don’t know, but probably a softer, brighter hue. Like a pastel. A lovely Spring green would be nice, or even a soothing sky blue. Even white would be a welcome color.”

Robert winced, but she wasn’t quite sure why. “White might be going a little too far.”

“Well, then, what about the blue or green?”

“No.”

“No? That’s all?”

He shrugged and turned back to his plate, poking at his food with his fork. She felt her lips press into a thin line. What on Earth was wrong with this man? Surely being locked up for so many years couldn’t have turned him into…this. Could it? She felt a lurch in her heart as she suddenly wondered if this was her future if she were to stay.

Perhaps it was time to run away as fast as possible.

But the library job, the little voice whispered in her head.

Was it worth it? Would she even be sane by the time she married Robert? Heck, would Rose even let her out of the mansion to go to work?

Too many questions. But the hardest part was that she couldn’t seem to get this bite of chicken past the lump that was growing exponentially in her throat.

Elaina took a hasty sip of her ice cold water. Then her eyes wandered back to where Robert was still poking at his food.

“It’s not poisoned, you know,” she said, perhaps a little too rudely.

He started slightly before looking up with a sheepish look. “Sorry, Elaina. I’m just lost in thought.” He took a sip from his own glass. “I apologize for not being a good dinner companion.”

Elaina closed her eyes briefly. “Just tell me why we can’t paint your study a lovely shade of blue or green.”

Robert sighed. “I just can’t. It doesn’t feel right.”

“I swear, Robert,” she said, her voice soft, but perfectly even, “you and your mother are going to drive me out of my mind. I can see now why every other companion has fled this cursed place.”

His eyes flew open in shock and he hastily reached out his hands to grab one of hers, his sleeve trailing through his uneaten dinner. “No, Elaina, please.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry. It’s just old habits. I don’t know how to, I don’t know, be normal? I don’t know how to do conversation or friendship.”

“That is startlingly obvious,” she stated, her eyes softening a little. “But, if we’re ever going to be married one day, I think you should stop hiding things from me.”

He bit his lip, his eyes wavering from hers for a moment. But then he nodded, a jerk of his head one way and then the other. Slowly, he withdrew his hands from hers. “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Elaina eyed him for a few moments, waiting for him to speak, but he didn’t seem like he was going to start talking any time soon. Pressing her lips together in irritation, she moved back to her dinner, stabbing a little too fiercely at her chicken breast.

“It used to be black,” Robert said suddenly, making Elaina pause and glance over at him. He, though, was slowly sawing away at his chicken leg, carefully separating the meat from the bone. “After my father died, Nigel and I decorated it in black and gray. To mourn him, I guess. A few years ago, I decided it was time for a change, but white seemed like too great a leap. It made me wince to think about it.”

“The room is a way for you to process your father’s death.”

He looked up at her, his head tilting up quickly with a sharp wrench of his neck. Surprise was in his eyes, and she was convinced he hadn’t even known what he was doing.

“You’re not ready for the pastels because your father’s death left so much sadness and hurt.” She shook her head. “I understand now, Robert. Your father must have been very important to you, extremely beloved.” She cocked her head. “I feel honored that you want to let me in. I suppose that should make me feel reassured that you value me as more than just a companion.”

“Well-I-yes, of course,” he spluttered. “I mean, you are to be my wife one day, yes?”

She smiled softly. “We’re still seeing about that, Robert. I do have a few reservations about you,” she said as she turned back to her dinner, “but I think you’re progressing nicely. I’m sorry I spent so much of our time recently just reading books. I’m just so amazed at the collection you have here. But I promise to do better.”

Robert gave her a crooked smile. “Don’t worry. I know you really want that library job.”

She shrugged as she tried to fight down the rising heat in her cheeks. “You want something, I want something. But perhaps we shouldn’t discuss that here.”

He gave a quick nod. “You’re right. This isn’t the right place.”

Elaina gave him a faint smile. She felt like a terrible person for using him, but wasn’t he using her as well?

“You know, maroon might be a good choice,” she said casually. “It’s a lovely brownish red shade.”

Chapter Twelve

Isabelle didn’t know who I was. It was refreshing. She’d been dragged to Mother’s latest garden party by her roommate. She’d just moved to the area and hadn’t heard about the recluse in Roderick Hall. She was able to get to know me with fresh eyes and heart, but she had moved here after having her heart crushed. Her heart was not ready to let go of the man who had shattered her. She was a wonderful friend, but couldn’t see us being anything more. I planted the __ in her honor. And I mean that. It was an honor to have been her friend.

Lunch was nearly over the following day when Nigel suddenly appeared at her elbow. Robert had to stifle a giggle when she almost fell out of her chair, but it was quickly smothered when she glared at him and he quickly averted his eyes.

Nigel waited patiently while Elaina regained her composure and tucked a strand of hair behind an ear. Then he wordlessly handed her an ivory envelope, his hand encased in a pristine white glove.

“An invitation from Rose, Miss Elaina,” Nigel said formally, bowing a few inches as Elaina hesitantly took the envelope from him.

“A, er, what?” she asked, staring, befuddled, at the envelope. She looked up at Robert, who was now watching with fascinated eyes. “Is this normal?”

He blinked at her. “Normal? For my mother? I’m not sure what normal is. But if you’re asking if she’s ever done this before, the answer would have to be ‘no’.”

“Great,” Elaina muttered as she turned the envelope over in her hands. “Then you have no idea what she’s inviting me to.”

“None at all.” He made a motion for her to hurry up and open the envelope while Nigel quietly slipped away. “Open it and see what she has to say. I’m curious, too.”

Elaina wasn’t sure if she was apprehensive or filled with trepidation. Either way, it wasn’t a pleasant sensation as she broke the seal. She reached in and pulled out a single sheet of ivory card stock. It bore printing in an elegant script on one side and an embossing of a rose in full bloom on the other.

“Your mother is inviting me to tea this afternoon,” Elaina said as her eyes re-read the words for the third time.

“My mother is what?”

“Tea,” Elaina said, looking up at him. “Rose wants me to have tea with her. Just her and me. Should I be worried?”

Robert scratched at his ear, an uncomfortable look on his face. “I don’t know, Elaina. I really don’t.”

Elaina carefully laid the invitation alongside her plate. She pressed her fingers down firmly over it to stop them from shaking even a little. Rose hadn’t been particularly unpleasant, but neither had she been anything more than a frigid ice sculpture, which should have been redundant if she had been just as warm as ice.

The woman had been silent during breakfast, nodding only to Elaina once after taking her first bite of the freshly baked brioche. She had been so anxious about Rose liking it that she’d lapped up even that bit of acknowledgement. And then the woman had simply swept out of the room as soon as she had finished.

“Do you suppose she didn’t actually like the brioche?” Elaina asked, hating the twinge of sadness in her voice.

“It was delicious, Elaina,” Robert said quickly. “Look, I don’t know what my mother has planned, but I hope you know she can’t order your removal from the Hall.” He grinned at her. “Only I’m allowed to run my companions off.”

She gave him a confused look. “But I thought most of them left because your mother is insufferable.”

He nodded. “Yeah, that’s true. But she has never told a companion to leave. I have asked one or two to go, but it was mostly because I could tell they wanted to leave without looking bad. My mother has never made any woman’s life easy here, but she can’t order anyone to leave.”

“She’ll just make my life miserable.”

He shrugged. “You’re different. I wonder if maybe you’ve knocked her off balance. Or maybe she’s just stepping up her antics because you’re just that good.”

Elaina allowed a small smile to crack her nervous expression. “I suppose I’ll find out in a few hours.”

Robert smiled gently at her, his eyes earnest and kind as he placed a hand over hers, his larger hand obscuring the invitation she still pressed her fingers to. “Take the afternoon and enjoy the library. I have a few things to do with Nigel, so I hope you’ll find yourself lost in a novel until you have tea with my mother. I’ll see about having dinner arranged, and see what, exactly, the sous chef is capable of.”

Elaina nodded. As bumbling as Robert often was, he really was a sweet man. He was just a bit socially awkward. Well, okay, more than a bit, but it was still sweet. Most of the time.

Elaina did as Robert had suggested: she’d lost herself in a book. She’d become so lost that, by the time her head had emerged, she’d had exactly five minutes to get to Rose’s study for tea. She’d gasped and flung herself from the plush armchair, hoping fervently her hair wasn’t too untidy and her green gown not too wrinkled.

Rose was, of course, perfectly coiffed and attired. Elaina couldn’t help but feel like a scullery maid next to her. But Rose only glanced over her with her usual cool expression before silently indicating she should take the seat opposite her at the dainty round table.

While Robert’s study was dark and weird with all the brown, Rose’s was bright and airy. It was an interesting counterpoint to the lady herself, who was more ice that soft pastels and golden afternoon sunlight. Tasteful miniature paintings hung on the wall and fresh flowers filled the corners. The room was more inviting than it’s inhabitant.

“This is a, er, lovely room,” Elaina said nervously as she spread an ivory linen napkin across her lap as Rose had done.

Rose only lifted an eyebrow and inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement. Then, without asking, she lifted the pale pink teapot and tipped it to fill the matching teacup before Elaina. Tiny plates gently sprinkled with small cookies and even tinier iced cakes dotted the table, but Elaina felt too nervous to eat anything, much less drink the tea. But, when Rose touched her lips to her tea cup, Elaina did the same and took a tiny sip of the peach tea.

Rose waved a hand over the table. “Help yourself.”

Her stomach tightening into a knot, Elaina gave a faint smile and hastily plucked a small cookie with a dot of chocolate on top. Under Rose’s intense scrutiny, she took a nibble before placing it on the edge of her saucer. As brave as she felt around Robert, how she felt in his mother’s presence without a buffer was quite another thing.

Rose lifted a delicate eyebrow. “Not hungry?”

Elaina forced her fingers to be still in her lap. “I, er, had a large lunch.”

“I see,” Rose murmured. She took another sip of tea before replacing her cup and saucer on the table. “Tell me, Elaina, how have you and my son getting on?”

“Robert is exceedingly kind and generous,” Elaina said carefully.

“I understand you have been spending a great deal of time in the library.” Clearly, Rose was not one to play about.

Elaina swallowed hard. “Yes. Yes, we have spend a considerable amount of time in the library. We both enjoy stories.”

“Is that so?”

“As a matter of fact, he told me a fairy tale while I was preparing dinner last night.”

Rose paused for a fraction of a second. It was so quick Elaina wasn’t sure if she’d seen it correctly. “Oh? Which one?”

“The mermaid.”

“Ah,” Rose said as she sat back in her chair, her arms resting on the chair arms and her wrists dangling. “That was always one of his favorites. Tell me, Elaina, what did you think of the story?”

“Oh, well, I think I quite like the idea of the prince and the mermaid being able to be together.”

“Well, I should hope so.”

Elaina blinked. “Excuse me?”

Rose waved a hand. “It’s a much nicer end, don’t you think?”

“Oh, er, yes. Yes, it is.”

“I hope you’ve been enjoying you time as my son’s companion. But, tell me, Elaina, what, exactly, were you doing just before joining me for tea?”

Elaina’s hands automatically flew to her hair, which hung down around her shoulders in soft tangles, clearly not recently brushed. Her stomach turned over, the nibble of the cookie suddenly not sitting well. She really should have paid closer attention to the time. She couldn’t bring herself to look directly at Rose’s face, afraid of what she would see.

“Well, uh, Robert thought a quiet afternoon in, um, the library would be good for me. You know, especially since he was busy this afternoon. He thought it might, er, help calm my nerves.”

“And has it?”

Elaina giggled a little. “Well, I did lose myself in a book.”

“That is quite plain to see.”

The small smile on Elaina’s face was wiped clean off and her back stiffened, her eyes widening slightly at the same time.

Rose took a leisurely sip of her tea before replacing the cup with a sound clink. Elaina waited expectantly with no fewer than a few dozen tendrils of fear looping around in her stomach. She was really glad of having only had a nibble and a sip!

“Elaina, I don’t believe I’ve made myself clear in what I expect from my son’s companion and future wife,” Rose said, her voice clipped. “Let me be clear about it now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Elaina squeaked out.

“My husband’s great-great grandfather founded this town almost single-handedly. We continue to be the wealthiest family and the family with the most at stake here. I know it may sound strange since Robert and I are kept here for our own protection, but we have quite a lot at stake in this place, quite a few fingers in just about everything.” An odd smile twisted Rose’s lips for a split second. One blink of Elaina’s eyes and it was gone. “Even May-Grace is subjected to being at my beck and call. After all, it is myself who issued her family the loan they needed to get started.

“What I am trying to tell you, Elaina, is that I expect my son’s wife to be a lady in every sense of the word. One day, it will be safe to reopen Roderick Hall. One day, it will be your duty to oversee parties and soirees and board meetings. You will be running this household and you and Robert will share the task of not running the family business to ground. Am I clear so far?”

Elaina swallowed hard, her hands clasped so tightly together she was afraid she was going to break her own fingers. “Yes, ma’am.”

Rose gave a sharp nod. “Good. Then you see why your frivolous activities and childish antics have no place here. You will have staff to assist you in the simple day to day task of staying alive. You will not have time to fill your head with silly fantasies. You will be a very busy woman, Elaina, and I expect you to comport yourself in that manner.

“You and my son have this…period of courtship to get to know each other and decide if you’d like to marry.” Rose’s lips twisted once again, but were quickly smoothed out. “Considering his history, I doubt anything more than this is likely, but I am tired to women traipsing through with no idea what lies ahead of her should Robert propose. I mean to rectify that this moment, with you.

“You and my son seem to be quite fond of each other. Perhaps you will be his wife, perhaps not. Either way, I would be remiss in my duty as his mother, the matriarch of the Roderick family, and the leader of my late husband’s empire if I do not prepare you for what will be expected of you should our heirloom ring find its way onto your finger.

“Take your time; get to know each other. By all means paint that atrocious brown room of his something more palatable. But know I will be looking for signs of a woman who can take my place.”

Rose eyed Elaina for a long moment, as though she were expecting some kind of response or reaction, but Elaina felt too frozen to do anything but stare at her with wide eyes, every other part of her body frozen. She had thought she was starting to get somewhere with Robert’s mother, was starting to find her feet, but Rose clearly felt otherwise. Or perhaps Elaina simply didn’t know what it meant to be a member of the upper crust despite her past with the Hunter family.

Or maybe Rose just expected more from her because of her past with the Hunter family.

But, before Elaina could unfreeze even a small part of herself, Rose gave her a crisp nod before abruptly rising and sweeping out of the room.

Chapter Thirteen

Emily was sweet and young, a perfectly effusive young lady, but Mother constantly called her uncivilized and drove her from the Hall in tears. I never really got to know her since she was only my companion for three days before Mother had had enough. I planted the __ for her out of duty.

Robert yanked hard at a weed. He wasn’t sure where they were all coming from. It felt like he spent every other day weeding the garden that grew more weeds than roses.

He sat back on his heels, glaring at the green stalk that bobbed and wove and taunted him for not being able to pull it out.

 “I swear, this garden hates me sometimes,” Robert muttered.

“What makes you say that?” Nigel asked, his voice mild and pleasant, but Robert still caught an undercurrent of amusement.

“These stupid things grow like…like…weeds!” He threw his hands up. “Didn’t we just weed this entire garden the other day?”

“No, sir,” Nigel said.

Robert’s head whipped around. “What?”

Nigel tilted his head in one direction. “We weeded that corner of the garden and then you hurried off, muttering something about Miss Elaina.”

Robert frowned. He had no memory of that, but it was probably true. She was on his mind a lot lately. Especially now. He wondered how tea with his mother was going.

Robert sighed and pulled off his gardening gloves. He sat back in the dirt and rested his arms on top of his knees, the gloves dangling limply from one hand. “Elaina and I are going to paint my study.”

“Very good, sir. I’ll order the paint. What color this time?”

“Maroon.”

“Maroon,” Nigel repeated flatly.

“Yes. Maroon.”

“I see. Once we’re finished here, I’ll order it right away.”

“Thank you, Nigel.”

Robert pulled his gloves back on and went back to work tugging and pleading the weed to come loose. He adored his garden; it was easily his favorite place in Roderick Hall, but he really hated the weeding. He was loathe to count the number of rose plants he’d planted since his first companion, but even he had to admit the garden seemed to be growing at an exponential rate.

He gave the weed a final hard tug and suddenly found himself sprawled on his back, blinking up at the white clouds drifting across the blue sky, a long green weed in his hand. Nigel’s face appeared in his field of vision and Robert blinked at him a few times, not moving.

“Do you think Elaina is falling in love with me?”

“Sir?” Nigel asked as he crouched down beside his master to pry the weed from his grasp.

Robert’s eyes strayed back to the sky as he let Nigel take possession of the cursed plant. “Elaina is so different. Even though countless women have served as my companion, she’s still, somehow different. I like her. I just wish I knew if she liked me, too.”

“She hasn’t fled the Hall yet,” Nigel pointed out.

Robert didn’t say anything. Nigel didn’t know about his agreement with Elaina. He didn’t know she was only staying because of the promise of a library job.

“True,” Robert said instead. “I suppose she must have her reasons for staying, and Mother hasn’t yet run her off.”

Nigel turned his head and Robert watched him stare at the imposing building they both lived in. “She is still her despite having had tea with your mother.”

Robert frowned. “I’m sure tea couldn’t have ended so soon.”

Nigel turned back to him. “Your mother is currently on the patio. She appears to be waiting for you.”

A soft curse escaped Robert’s lips as he levered himself up and to his feet. He pulled off his gloves, his eyes casting over to the Hall. Nigel was right. Rose was standing by the low railing dividing the patio and the gardens. She looked as still as a statue, but he knew she was following his every move.

“Well, then,” Robert said as he attempted to brush as much dirt as he could off of his clothes, “let’s see how tea went.”

He purposefully did not think about the short amount of time Elaina and his mother had spent together. He hoped it didn’t bode ill for his marriage plans.

“Mother,” Robert said as he approached her, remaining on the garden side of the railing. “How was tea?”

“Cold,” Rose said, her voice, as always, clipped. “It was brewed too early.”

Robert casually leaned against the railing, slightly turned towards her. She wasn’t watching him, so didn’t see the confusion he was sure on his face. “I meant, how did it go with Elaina?”

“We had a nice chat. She knows what I expect.”

“What you expect?” Robert echoed, finally moving so he could face her. “Mother, what are you talking about?”

Rose somehow managed to look at him while also looking like she had her nose up in the air. It was an annoying trait of hers, but Robert was used to it. His mother had only ever been warm while putting him to bed as a child. He didn’t take her cold behavior to heart. At least, not anymore.

“If that woman is to become your wife, she must know what is expected of a Roderick bride.”

Robert planted his hands on his hips. “What, exactly, did you tell her, Mother?”

“Everything she needs to know to be your wife.”

“Mother.”

“Robert.”

“Where’s Elaina?” he asked, changing tactics.

Rose waved a hand. “Oh, probably back in that stuffy library.”

With that, Rose turned and vanished back into the Hall.

“If I may suggest,” Nigel said softly from behind him, “I think you should clean up and go find Miss Elaina.”

“Yes,” Robert murmured as he blindly handed his gloves over, trusting Nigel to take them. “That is a good idea, Nigel. Tea was far too short. I do hope Elaina is still around.”

In hindsight, he should have checked the library first. It would have saved him a lot of walking around. He knew the Hall was massive, but wandering around it trying to find one young woman made it seem bigger. Of course, he should have remembered which young lady was in residence. It would have made things so much easier.

Robert had expected to find Elaina’s nose buried in a book. Instead, she was seated, with her hands folded in her lap, her eyes fixed on the wall of books before her. He blinked in surprise, wondering how long she was going to sit there before she selected her next book.

“Elaina?” he ventured softly as he approached her.

Stiffly, almost robotic, Elaina turned her head to look at him, not a single trace of surprise in her eyes or on her face. Instead, she looked a little empty.

“Oh no,” he said softly, sinking down to settle himself on the floor beside her. He took one of her limp hands between hers. “My mother got to you.”

“She was very clear on the type of lady she expects to be your wife,” Elaina said softly, an odd dusty quality in her voice. Had she been here long enough to start inhaling the dust?

Robert raised a brow. “She was, was she?”

Elaina nodded stiffly. “A woman such as myself should not consider herself in the running to be your wife.”

Robert scowled. “Don’t be ridiculous, Elaina. My mother may be crazy, but I am the one who gets to propose to whomever I choose. She may not like it, but she must live with my choice.” He grinned. “It was in my father’s will. He actually left her a note to remind her to leave me alone and let me marry whom I wished.” He shrugged. “She’ll try to interfere, but we both know I’ll make her life hell if she tries to shoo away the woman I want to marry.”

“It seemed more like the other way around.”

“My mother has been in power around here too much. That’s why we, er, made the, you know. I’m done with it, and I really believe there’s something special about you.” He flung out an arm towards the books. “If reading makes you happy, it makes me happy. I like an educated woman; makes conversation much more exciting. Please, Elaina, please read to your heart’s content.”

She put her head down quickly, but not fast enough for him to not see the twinkle of a tear in her eye. Her chest rose and fell on a deep breath, and he lifted his hand to wrap it back around the one he still held. He gave her a gentle squeeze before slowly withdrawing. She wasn’t looking up and he felt strange, as though he were intruding on a private moment she needed to herself.

Elaina didn’t move as he rose. Awkwardly, he gently patted her shoulder. His eyes swept around the library, hoping she could find happiness, if only in this room. His mother wasn’t easy to live with, but he knew he had to make sure Elaina felt comfortable if he was going to persuade her to stay. Besides, he had his hobby; she needed her own.

“I mean it, Elaina,” he said softly. “The library is yours. If you must make someone here happy, make it be you. Don’t worry to much about my mother. She’ll come around.”

Robert hesitated, then leaned down and gently pressed a kiss to her temple. Then he moved away quickly, his cheeks beginning to flush. He was halfway to the door when he heard Elaina’s soft, “Thank you.”

He turned slightly, just enough to see her, her head still tilted down, her hands still in her lap. “Think nothing of it.”

He paused for a moment longer, but she didn’t move, so he left the library and quietly closed the door behind him. Once out in the hall, he took a deep breath and clenched his fists. It had been a long time since he’d had to have a conversation with his mother, but Elaina was worth it, and not just because marrying her would solve so many problems for him. But because she was sweet and thoughtful and certainly too smart for him.

Rose was not the most predictable person, but Robert knew her better than anyone else. It happened when you were cooped up with the same person for years on end. There were only a handful of people on staff, and Nigel. Well, he was technically a member of the staff, but Robert had grown up with him so he was really Robert’s best friend who happened to be paid by Rose to keep her son looking presentable.

As he expected, Rose was in her favorite room, a little, unassuming study in a corner of the Hall. It was sparsely furnished with a small writing desk, an uncomfortable looking chair, a tiny round table beside the only window framed by pretty pale rose colored curtains, and a cream armchair right beside the table. The walls were a stark white, but a pale pink trim along the top of the walls added a bit of color, which helped since the carpet was also a stark white.

“Mother,” Robert began as he barged into the room.

Rose, neatly dressed in an olive green skirt suit, looked up from where she was studying a handful of sheets. She didn’t seem surprised to see him, but neither did she turn to fully face him, instead expecting him to come around so he could better capture her attention.

“Ah, Robert,” she said as she set the papers down. “I take it you found Elaina.”

“Mother, we need to talk.”

“Yes, we do,” Rose agreed.

On one hand, he was grateful his mother agreed, because she hardly ever did and almost never wanted to have a talk with him. On the other hand, this was not a conversation that was going to be remotely good or even expected to go well.

Robert paced into the room, his eyes steely as he approached his mother. She watched him with a calm gaze, her hands resting peacefully on her lap.

“You had no right to say any of what you did to Elaina.”

Rose cocked an eyebrow, amusement flitting across her face. “Don’t be silly, Robert. Of course I do.” She shrugged. “After all, you are your father’s heir. You wife will be expected to be a certain way.” Her eyes suddenly hardened. “It is a role I know well. Your wife will have to be less Elaina and more me.”

“That’s ridiculous, Mother. Times are different. Besides, I am Dad’s heir. I will take over the family empire and I will institute my own ways of doing things.”

Rose shot to her feet, anger burning in her eyes. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, Robert. You don’t know the ins and outs as I do. You don’t know what will be expected of you, what you can and cannot do.”

Robert held his ground, his eyes as cold as hers. Like mother, like son. “Before Dad died, he told me everything was going to be mine one day. It would be mine to do with as I saw fit. I am Dad’s heir, not you. One day you will have to hand over the reins. One day you will have to tell me everything. Until then, you will leave Elaina alone. You will let her be her. I want no interference from you when it comes to my relationship with her!”

Rose blinked at him. Unexpectedly, she seemed to pull away, to back off. It knocked Robert off balance, and he struggled to maintain the control, the power, he seemed to have grasped hold of.

“If Elaina would rather read than listen to me prattle on about useless things,” Robert said, his voice low, “then that is what she will do. I want her to be happy, Mother. I’m ready to settle down. I’m ready to take over for Dad. I’m hoping Elaina will be my bride. She’s lovely and kind, bright and capable. This isn’t just about her making me happy. It’s about me making her happy, too.

“If you run her off, I will pick a woman at random and marry her.”

Robert stayed just long enough to let his mother see the cold fury in his eyes. He wasn’t sure, but it sounded like the door her slammed behind him reverberated throughout the Hall. It was oddly satisfying.

Chapter Fourteen

Mirabelle shouldn’t have been at the garden party. She was just passing through town. Of course I didn’t know that, but she made it clear she could and would only stay for a few days. I was desperate for some company other than Mother’s and Nigel’s, so I agreed and we spent a pleasant two days wandering the Hall and just chatting. I planted the __ for her. Just to be respectful.

Robert was giving her funny looks, but it wasn’t her fault the wardrobe was only stocked with fancy dresses. She’d pulled out the least fancy one she could find, one that looked like it had been hanging for ages, but it was still a fine silk dress. Rose clearly had a certain idea of how Robert’s companions were to dress and comport herself.

Thinking of Rose, Elaina realized she actually hadn’t heard or seen the woman in almost two full days. Robert only changed the subject whenever she asked.

“What?” Elaina said defensively, folding her arms over her chest. “At least it’s maroon.”

He was still eyeing her with a funny look on his face. But he did hand her a paint roller.

She shook the thing in his direction. “Perhaps you should tell your mother you’d like your companions to dress in more than fancy ball gowns.”

Robert laughed. “Oh, I’ve talked to her.” He smiled at her. “She hasn’t bothered you, so I think we might be able to get away with having the seamstress come back and make you some pants or something.”

Elaina cocked her head to the side and lifted a brow. “Speaking of your mother, where has she gone?”

She saw his shoulder jerk a bit, but, at the same time, he moved to open a can of paint and pour it out into a tray, his feet rustling and crunching against the plastic covering everything but the walls. He turned his face away from her, pretending to be intently pouring the paint out.

“Gone?” he echoed. “Nowhere. You know Mother never leaves the Hall.”

“I haven’t seen her.”

“This is a big place, Elaina.”

“Robert.”

He stood and straightened with a sigh. “Look, I talked to her, okay? We had a chat and it wasn’t really friendly. I don’t know what my mother is up to, but I made myself clear. I want her out of our way.”

Elaina frowned. “Why on Earth would you do that?”

“Because she’s trying to run you off, just like every other girl. Mother wants to see me married, but to a woman of her choosing. I’ve had enough of her running my life. I made it clear she wasn’t to get involved this time.”

“Robert…”

“No, Elaina. I’ve had enough. I’m a grown man.” He laughed, short and low. “I let my mother rule my life because I was young and still lived in fear of her. But you standing up to her made me realize maybe I can, too. After all, she can’t run me out of here.”

“What’s stopping you from walking out of here right now, then?”

“Well, for one, security.” He gave her a lopsided smile. “I tried that once, a few years ago. My mother bruised my ears.” His smile vanished. “There are a lot of particulars, a lot of details you don’t know, things I can’t tell you here, or even right now.”

She frowned and propped her hands on her hips. “If I’m going to marry you, you can’t keep things from me.”

“Look, it’s not that I want to keep anything from you. It’s just that this house has ears, and there are things that, under no circumstances, can get back to my mother.” He took a deep breath. “I have something to show you. Later. Much later. But I’ll tell you then. Okay?”

Elaina narrowed her eyes slightly at him, but, at his pleading look, she nodded and dropped her arms. She turned to the roller clasped in one hand and then eyed her dress.

“No use waiting, then,” she said, determination laced through her words.

She heard Robert chuckle behind her as she went for the tray full of maroon paint and rolled the roller around in it. She ignored him, and hoped for the best. After all, she’d never painted anything in her life. She’d hated finger paints as a child and hated the smell of paint as she got older and had been handed a brush. Her teachers had stopped short of forcing her to paint, so she hadn’t actually ever painted anything.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, does it?” she asked as she set to work on a wall, randomly rolling one way and then another.

Robert stepped up beside her, rolling his brush with ease. “Not at all. I can always cover it up with a painting.”

“Good to know,” she muttered.

They painted in silence for awhile, Elaina busily trying to watch what Robert was doing and copying it against the poor wall. Robert was, she was sure, being a gentleman and blithely going about his own business. Part of her wished he would offer to help her, but the other half was glad he was at least pretending to ignore her to spare her some embarrassment. What kind of person had literally never painted before.

“You know,” Robert said cheerfully a little while later, “maroon doesn’t look too bad.”

“Nope,” Elaina said, huffing a little as she haphazardly rolled the paint around the wall. “Do you do this all by yourself every time?”

“Yup,” he said easily. “Nigel has offered to help, but I prefer to do this alone. It helps me process my grief.” He cast her a quick look. “Don’t worry; I won’t demand you leave. Actually, your presence is quite calming.”

Elaina blew a stray strand of hair out of her way, wondering how it had escaped the tight bun she’d wrapped her long strands in. “Good to know.”

They fell silent again, though Elaina could hear him humming a soft tune under his breath. She, meanwhile, felt like she was huffing and puffing her way through this painting party. It had sounded kind of fun in her head. At least, she had tried to make it sound fun. Unfortunately, she hadn’t realized just how much arm work this painting thing required.

“Tell me a story,” she said abruptly.

“A story?” he repeated.

“Yes. One of your mother’s fairy tales.”

Robert laughed. “Oh, I guess I do owe you another one. It’s been a while. Let me think a moment. Would the Red Riding Hood one still be a little too much for you?”

“Yes,” she said quickly. “I just can’t wrap my head around that idea. How about Sleeping Beauty? It was one of my favorites when I was a child. The normal way of telling the story, that is.”

Robert cocked his head to the side. “Yes, she told me her version of that one. It was…very unexpected, even for her.”

“How so?”

“There isn’t actually an end to that one.”

Elaina’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, then that one I must hear.”

Robert shrugged. “Okay. Here goes.”

There were two sisters, once. They were not blood sisters, but sisters of a mystical sort. Born on the same day, there was a bond between them none could break. One was a fairy of immeasurable power. The other was a princess who was destined to be queen. As children they frolicked in brooks and woods. As young women, they learned the ways of magic, but only the fairy ever showed any promise.

One day, the princess was married to a distant prince. They grew to love each other, and the prince grew to see the fairy as a sister. By then, the fairy had risen in power and influence to lead the fairy council and serve as the new queen’s advisor. It was a happy time made even happier when the queen delivered an heir.

But all was not as it should have been. The princess’s birth should have been a time to happiness and celebration. After ten long years, a child had finally been born. But the king had taken many mistresses in that time as his queen failed to conceive an heir. Those women bore him many children who would never live in opulence or bear a royal title. But he loved each and every one of them with his whole heart. The queen had lived ten miserable years with the man she had come to love, a man who no longer seemed to want to give her a second thought. Her heart grew to be stone, which saddened her fairy sister, for she knew the queen to have a bright and beautiful soul.

The heir should have been welcomed, should have brought a broken couple back together. But the fairy and the queen knew something was not right. The queen’s heart had been hardened. The king’s heart had lost love. The princess was tainted with a darkness so dark the fairy could not even stand to look at her.

Bright blue eyes and golden locks should have had the castle happily sighing. Instead, fear had strangled all who lived within. The princess was bright and bubbly, always smiling and sleeping peacefully. But the queen and her sister knew the truth.

Born of two hearts devoid of love, the child was an abomination, but the only heir the kingdom had.

The fairy called the council. Each fairy bestowed a gift: kindness, cleverness, beauty, understanding, wisdom, gentleness, grace, honesty, compassion, respect. The list was endless. The fairy herself bestowed upon her sister’s daughter a just heart.

But it was not enough. The darkness festered within the child as she became a young girl. She was gentle and kind, beautiful and dutiful. But it could not hide the loveless heart, the coldness in her eye. The fairy council withdrew and hid. The king turned from his queen. The princess smiled.

The queen became desperate and distraught. How could she save her kingdom from the monster lurking within her own flesh and blood? The fairy had an answer, but it could not, would not be permanent. But, perhaps, with enough time, a solution could come to hand.

The queen agreed, and her sister cast a spell. The princess pricked her finger and fell into a slumber. She was encased in diamond and set in the highest tower. The door to the tower was bricked closed, the entrance hidden and forgotten. A beautiful princess would slumber for a century and, perhaps, during that time, the sisters could find a way to save the kingdom.

It has now been many years since the princess was cast into slumber. The king has since passed. The queen has taken another prince. A child grows, but fear still fills the castle’s walls.

“Your mother is seriously twisted,” Elaina said.

Robert chuckled uncomfortably. “Yes, I suppose her stories are a little bizarre.”

“Robert, that wasn’t just ‘a little bizarre.’ It was completely nuts. And she never gave it a proper ending?”

He shook his head. “I asked for a while. She just shook her and head and said there was not yet an ending. She said she wasn’t sure if enough time had passed. Then she would mutter something about time passing differently ‘there.'”

“‘There?'”

He shrugged. “Don’t ask me. She never answered my questions, so I can’t answer yours. But, yes, my mother is an odd one.”

Elaina shook her head. “I’m impressed you turned out so well after a steady nighttime habit of her stories.”

That made him laugh loud enough for her to be startled. “I’m flattered you think I turned out well. Almost all of my past companions have called me some version of nuts and delusional. One even called me a funny duck.”

She smiled. “I think I can definitely see that. Anyways, how long does it usually take to paint your study?”

Robert stepped back from the wall he had been working on. Elaina watched him look around at one almost fully painted wall and one wall where it had only been painted between a window and the corner.

“It takes as long as it needs to take,” he said tactfully.

Elaina laughed. “You’re being nice. But I appreciate that. I’ve never been a big fan of paint and, honestly, these fumes are driving me nuts, but your story really helped.”

He grinned. “I have plenty more. I have an entire childhood of them.”

Elaina quickly held up a hand. “I think I’m saturated for now. I grew up with the, ah, more traditional stories, so your mother’s are taking a lot of getting used to.”

“I guess I can see that. I never read a fairy tale until I was much older and was so confused when they didn’t match what my mother used to tell me. When I asked, though, she just snapped and said it was all lies, but they were my father’s books, so she wouldn’t get rid of them despite the lies they told and perpetrated.”

“So, are we done for today?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

He must have seen right through her. With a playful grin, he took the roller from her hands and shooed her out of the study, telling her to take a break and change while he cleaned up. She couldn’t flash him a grateful smile fast enough and practically bolted from the room.

Chapter Fifteen

Nancy was nice. She was sweet. She was also boring as cardboard. To be honest, I just picked her at random. This companion thing was getting tiring and was starting to lose its luster, if it ever had any. We were polite, but parted as little more than strangers. I planted the __ for her.

It ended up taking Robert a week to repaint and rearrange his study. On his own. Elaina had kept him company, but, the second day of painting, it was clear she was hopeless. Instead, she’d curled up on his chair by the open window overlooking where the garden parties used to take place with more frequency.

“You know,” Elaina said once the last piece of furniture was in place, “I’m not sure if maroon was a good color choice.”

Robert frowned. “What do you mean? I think it’s perfect.”

“It’s kind of dark.”

“It’s better than brown.”

“I suppose I have to agree with that, but you have to admit it is very…maroony.”

Robert laughed. “You can help me paint it red next time.”

“I can what now? Which color?”

Elaina only sighed loudly as his laugh grew louder. “Well, I hope ‘next time’ comes sooner than later.”

He finally stopped laughing enough to take her hand and smile at her, though there was no stopping the laughter in his eyes. “With you by my side, I think it probably will.”

Her eyes turned serious. “I wish you would tell me more about your father.”

His smile dimmed a little and the laughter finally faded from his eyes. “Let me change out of my paint splattered clothes and then I’ll meet you out on the patio.” He took a deep breath and sighed. “I have something to show you as well.”

Without looking at her, Robert turned and left her in the maroon study. She glanced around, a part of her wondering if, maybe, he wasn’t as well on his way to processing his father’s death as they both hoped.

She left the study behind, wondering what he was about to show her. As she wandered the halls, trying to remember how to get to the patio since Robert had only taken her out to it a couple of times, she also wondered where Rose had been. She hadn’t seen the woman in days.

“Are you lost?”

So deep in thought she was that she screamed a little when Nigel’s voice came out of the middle of nowhere.

“I’m terribly sorry, Elaina,” the butler quickly apologized as she pressed a hand to her stomach. “I just thought I’d offer my assistance.”

She smiled weakly. “That would be wonderful, Nigel. Thank you. Robert asked me to meet him on the patio, but I think I’ve become turned around. More than once.”

He smiled and held out an arm for her. “Roderick Hall is indeed massive. More than one person has become lost in here.”

“Has Rose become lost?”

“Rose? Lost?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen her around in days.”

“She has business to attend to,” Nigel said vaguely.

“Oh,” Elaina said when he didn’t continue.

He continued to lead her down hallways and stair cases. She vaguely remembered most of it, but too many of them looked the same with walls painted either white or peach and carpeted with the same beige color.

“Here we are,” Nigel finally said as he threw open the French doors leading out on the patio.

He bowed to her and gestured for her to go ahead. After murmuring her thanks, she walked out into the afternoon sunlight and warm Spring air. The doors quietly closed behind her, but she was too busy taking in a lungful of the fresh air, idly wondering just how long she had been at Roderick Hall for. It felt like the day was bordering on summer and she was sure it had been a beautiful Spring day when her friends had dragged her to the garden party.

Lily and Camille. Her parents.

She’d thought of them often, but Robert and Rose were such confused and confusing human beings, she had found herself spending more nights awake ruminating on them than missing her family and friends. A pang of sadness washed over her. She hoped they were doing well, but Robert and Rose needed her more right now.

“I’m glad you found your way out here.”

Elaina turned and saw Robert standing a little self-consciously behind her. He looked freshly showered, his hair damp and unruly. It was a sight she was quickly becoming accustomed to; Robert was, apparently, notorious for getting himself quite messy.

“I’m eager to see what you have to tell and show me,” she said. “And Nigel was kind enough to lead me here.”

“Good, good,” he said as he made his way over to her. He held his hand out. “I hope your opinion of me and my family doesn’t sink once you hear and see everything I have to tell you.”

She rested her hand in his palm and gave him a smile. “I’ll do my best.”

He nodded solemnly and she cocked her head at him questioningly, but he just gently pulled her along onto the grass. They walked in silence as they crossed a wide, green lawn, headed for some tall hedges and an arch set at such an angle that she couldn’t tell what lay beyond it.

“I’m sure you’ve been wondering where I disappear off to most afternoons,” he said as they neared the arch, still at a bad angle.

“I admit I have wondered that a time or two.”

He was clearly too wound up for her attempts at humor, so she bit her tongue when he didn’t respond. Whatever was weighing on his mind was serious.

“What’s going on, Robert? You don’t have a massive graveyard here, do you? Every member of the Roderick family lying in state here?”

He shook his head and muttered, “Not quite, but close enough.”

Shocked, she jerked her hand out of his and came to a full stop. “I’m not superstitious or scared, but I’d rather not go into a cemetery.”

He gave her a pained smile. “Don’t worry, it’s not a cemetery.”

“Then what is it?” she demanded.

“A garden.”

She wasn’t expecting that. “A what now?”

He cringed. “A garden. Please, come. Let me show you.”

He held out his hand again and, hesitantly, she replaced hers in his. He gently pulled her along towards the arch.

“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.”

“What?”

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.”

Chapter Sixteen

Patricia was an okay companion. Not brilliant, but not dull. Just another in a string of unremarkable girls. Picking out a new companion was becoming a chore. Every girl felt like a variation of the one before. Other than her name, I don’t remember much about Patricia, except she stayed for a month before quietly slipping out in the middle of the night, leaving only a note wishing me well, but she’d rather try again with her on and off boyfriend. I planted __ in her honor.

The night was lit by a brilliant full moon. It was late, but Elaina couldn’t sleep. After Robert had showed her what lay behind the tall hedges her windows faced, she couldn’t stop thinking of how to make things right in his family. There were so many secrets that could hurt others, so much tainted love.

She rested her forehead against the glass, her legs tucked under her on the windowseat. She remembered countless other times she’d sat this way, staring out at the expansive grounds. Now that she knew what was on the other side of the hedge, though, she felt it wasn’t so much her duty to make things right, but to engender a solution.

Why she felt that way, though, she had no clue. It would be so easy to just say no and walk away. But Robert had been sweet and kind, funny and generous and trusting. He’d let his walls down for her, because of hope. It was a heavy weight to bear. Sometimes she didn’t think it fair, didn’t think she could do it. Sometimes she wanted to storm away and say it wasn’t her problem.

At first, she’d stayed because of the job promise. Then she’d stayed because Robert had been so charmingly awkward. Now she was afraid she’d actually gone and lost her heart to him.

Or maybe it was because she’d lost track of time and really didn’t know how long she’d been locked up here for.

Wait, what was that?

Elaina’s breath caught as she spied a pale figure ghosting into the rose garden. Her heart leapt into her throat and she swallowed a cry, one hand going to her chest. She pressed her face closer to the glass and just made out a long stream of hair that looked just like Rose’s.

What was Rose doing out so late, and why was she going into the rose garden?

This wasn’t the first night Elaina had spent staring out the window. It was the first time she’d ever seen Rose out there. Ever.

She didn’t think; just shoved her feet into shoes, wrapped her shawl tighter around herself, and dashed out of her room. Her heart was in her throat, her eyes wide open, her mind fully awake despite the late hour. She wouldn’t let herself think; just let the impulse carry her.

The halls were dimly lit. No one was stirring. It felt like the Hall was asleep, like she should have been.

Her feet carried her. Her mind was in the garden. She wasn’t aware of how she got out onto the patio, but she somehow managed it. She raced over the lawn to the hedges and slipped into the garden.

The heady scent of the roses almost knocked her off her feet. As lovely as it had been earlier in the day, it was surprisingly pungent at night, almost as though the roses were releasing their scents for the moon with a “pick me”call.

Her feet stalled, Elaina took a deep, calming breath, almost choking on the heavy scents wafting around her. She flickered her gaze around the garden, but didn’t see any movement.

Had she missed Rose? Or had it really been a ghost? Or maybe Rose had left the garden already?

No, that was a light skirt rustle. Elaina would know that sound anywhere. Her own gowns made that sound all day. She was glad she was in her light nightgown with its single layer. The soft cotton swirled around her legs as she quietly made her way towards the rustling sound.

Her breath caught as she peeked around a corner, carefully to not let the thorny rose bush next to her prick her. She still had Robert’s Sleeping Beauty story rattling around in her head.

Rose had paused on the path. Her head was dipped down, her nose barely grazing an open rose blossom. Her fingers, so long and graceful, were gently caressing the petals. Her gown, one like so many of Elaina’s wasn’t one she had ever seen before; Rose was almost always in a suit or some other chic outfit, never a gown. But here she was, laced into a pale colored ball gown with her hair done up in an elegant chignon, loose strands floating around her ears.

She looked like she came from a fairy tale.

Who was this woman, this mother of Robert?

Elaina almost lost her nerve, but Rose startled her.

“Walk with me, Elaina.”

With a gasp, Elaina almost pitched forward onto the path. Her hand grazed a couple of roses, but no thorns as she regained her balance and stood upright. Her eyes met Rose’s as the older woman had turned to face her. She studied Rose’s impassive face, but her features gave away nothing.

“I’m sorry,” Elaina began, putting a foot behind her. “I just thought…I mean I thought I saw…”

“You saw me,” Rose said softly, plainly. Her lips twitched into a smile that never managed to materialize. “I must look a ghost in this dress, in this moonlight.”

“Well, I mean,” Elaina stuttered, one hand flapping uselessly as her eyes searched the garden for words it could never give her.

“Walk with me, Elaina,” Rose requested again, her voice soft.

Elaina swallowed hard. “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Rose waited patiently as Elaina slowly made her way over. Her expression never changed; she merely waited with her hands clasped before her like a lady. As soon as Elaina had reached her side, she turned and continued walking.

“I presume my son has introduced you to his garden,” Rose said softly, a hint of tenderness in her voice that completely threw Elaina.

“Oh, um, yes. He did. Yesterday, actually. It’s, um, very lovely.”

“It’s very sad,” Rose cut in quickly, but there was no malice in her voice as there might have been. Instead, she sounded sad. “I’ve lost count of how many roses there are, how many girls have wandered Roderick Hall.” She paused. “My son thinks you’ll be the last.”

“Well, I, um,” Elaina stuttered, still too perplexed by this very different side of Rose.

Rose turned and smiled sadly at her. “I haven’t been easy on you, Elaina. I’ve never been easy on any of my son’s companions. If you knew what I knew…” She trailed off and shook her head. “Being a Roderick bride is a very different sort of thing, Elaina. I’d like to believe you’re just the girl my son needs, but only time will tell.”

“I do care about him,” Elaina blurted out.

“There’s no question of that, dear. There’s also no question of how my son feels about you. You’ve built a true relationship no matter how hard I’ve tried to pull you down. I’ve never seen my son so committed, so passionate. I’ll be the first to admit, Elaina, that stepping aside isn’t easy, for many reasons. But, at some point, I do have to trust my son, don’t I? After all, he is his father’s heir.”

“We’ll never purposefully run the family business to ground,” Elaina promised.

Rose’s sad smile appeared again. “Stay innocent, Elaina. I promise I’ll keep you innocent for as long as I can.”

“What?”

Rose waved a hand. “That’s not important right now. What is important is that your bond with my son deepen. It’ll be important.” She sighed. “It was a hard lesson for me to learn. I don’t want it to be so for you and my son.”

“What?”

“Robert’s father and I had an arranged marriage, one neither of us particularly wanted, but it was necessary. The reasons are not important right now. We were never in love, Elaina. We had a duty, that was all. It made…things…difficult.” She shook her head, and seemed to droop a little. “I knew about Colette, his long-time mistress. I hated that woman with every fiber of my being, but I had my own affairs, Elaina. It wasn’t a happy marriage. I don’t want that for my son. He doesn’t have the pressure his father did. At least, not yet. I intend on keeping it that way. I can’t let him make the same mistakes his father and I made.”

“What?”

“Go back to bed, Elaina,” Rose said gently. “Enjoy this time with Robert.”

Abruptly, Rose glided away from Elaina, fluttering across the lawn like a ghost. Elaina was startled to realize they’d already walked about the Garden of Girls right back to the entrance.

“What on Earth?” Elaina whispered into the night.

Rose steeled herself as she gripped the golden key in one hand, the other hand clutching the knob of a nondescript door. It wasn’t inside the Hall, but, rather opened out onto the front lawn. The only way in or out was through the door Rose stood before.

Her fingers trembled a little as she tried to shove the key into the hole. She cursed softly as the key slid past the knob. The hand gripping the knob tightened, but she could feel her hand growing slick.

It had been too long since it had been opened, since what lay inside had been used. She’d made a promise to the Portal Keeper; it wasn’t hers to use. But it was almost time to hand over the key, almost time to hand over the reins. She needed to check on affairs, make sure she knew what the next Portal Keeper was stepping into.

Rose had hoped it would be at least a few more years before this day came. With the way things had been going, it looked like it might be another decade. But another ten years would have been disastrous. Eight years had already probably been too long.

But Rose didn’t know. The door hadn’t been opened in eight years. Sealed without explanation on this side, she was nervous about what she was about to step into, if, of course, she could ever get the key into the tiny little keyhole.

Honestly, opening up one little locked door shouldn’t be so much trouble, but her hands were shaking too much. From fear or nerves, she wasn’t sure. It had been years since she had stepped through, since she’d opened the way. She shouldn’t have done so in the first place; it hadn’t been her right.

Taking a deep breath, she finally managed to plunge the key into the hole and give it a quick turn. The lock clicked and she twisted the knob. The door silently swung open to reveal a small, dusty room with a single tall object shrouded in the middle.

Chapter Seventeen

Louisa had been sweet. She was quickly toppled by my mother, but at least my time with her was full of innocence and a bliss I hadn’t know for a long time. She was fanciful, which was fun, but Mother was not amused. She went running from the Hall in tears and I never saw her again. I planted the ____ in her honor.

“Nigel, have you seen my mother?” Robert asked.

Nigel, in the middle of pouring out some tea for Elaina as she situated herself at the dining table, glanced up with a flick of his eyes. He finished filling the delicate cup and then settled the teapot back on the table before straightening.

“Your mother informed me she would be away for some time.”

Robert visibly startled and Elaina’s eyes shot over to Robert and then Nigel. She’d only just spoken with Rose the night before and had been hoping to get some more information from the woman on what she’d said.

“My mother is away?” Robert asked, a deep frown carved into his face. “My mother doesn’t go anywhere. Do you mean she has retreated to another area of the Hall and wishes to be left alone?”

“No,” Nigel said. “If I had meant that, I would have said it. I mean your mother is no longer in the Hall, nor is she anywhere on the estate.”

“But Mother never leaves,” Robert said dumbly.

A strange prickle ran down Elaina’s spine. She remembered Rose had told her to enjoy this time with Robert. In light of her disappearance, was this Rose’s way of giving her blessings to them? After all, the woman hadn’t wanted her and Robert to make whatever mistakes Robert’s parents had made. Not that Elaina could even guess at them.

Elaina looked up from the napkin she had been fiddling with while deep in thought. Her gaze ran smack into Nigel, who was giving her one of his probing looks. A start shook through her and her breath caught when the man gave her a single slight nod before turning and whisking out of the dining room.

Her eyes landed on Robert, who was frowning fiercely into his French toast. His fork was carving shapes into the surface.

“Robert?” she asked tentatively.

He looked up at her. She’d never seen him look so puzzled, so baffled before. Her time with him had been anything but normal, full of perplexing things that had him as startled as her.

“Where could my mother have gone?” he asked, worry suddenly filling his eyes. “You don’t suppose she’s ill, do you?”

Elaina took a deep breath. She had meant to tell him about her conversation with Rose, but later on after getting some kind of confirmation of what she thought Rose had meant. Now it seemed she really hadn’t misheard.

“I don’t think so, Robert. I, ah, had an interesting conversation with your mother last night?”

“Another interesting conversation?” he said, his expression darkening for a moment before turning to confusion. “Last night? When last night?”

Elaina shook her head. “Quite late, after we both retired to our rooms. I was still awake, so was sitting by the window, staring at the hedges now that I know what’s on the other side. I saw a figure walking towards them. It looked like a ghost. I didn’t think, Robert, I just rushed out there. It was your mother, and she was walking around the rose garden. She told me to walk with her and then she told me she thinks I’ll be your last companion and wants us to make sure our bond deepens. I…I think she’s given us her blessings.”

“She…what?”

“I think she’s bowing out, letting us really get to know each other on our own terms.”

“And she had to leave for us to do that?”

“You have to admit it hasn’t been easy with her breathing down our necks,” Elaina said, raising a brow at his reaction. “I thought you would have been happy.”

“I mean, yes, yes, I am happy she’s not interfering, but did she really have to leave?”

She shrugged, lowering her eyes for a moment. She could understand his disbelief. It had been eight years since Rose had left Roderick Hall. Now was an odd time for her to do so, especially without having told her son, who was still confined to the place.

“That’s not all she told me, Robert,” Elaina said softly, her eyes firmly trained on the strawberry parfait before her.

“What did she tell you?” Robert whispered when she didn’t go on.

Elaina swallowed. “She knew about Colette. She also had her own affairs.”

The crash of a chair startled her and her head jerked up to see Robert standing over her. A furious glower was on his face, his eyes fiery, his fists clenched at his sides.

“You’re lying,” he seethed,

Elaina blinked at him, her hands pressed to her chest. She had never seen Robert like this, had been sure he was too even-tempered, and, honestly, resigned, to react this way.

“No,” she stuttered. “Your mother told me. Last night.”

His eyes narrowed. “And now my mother is away.”

Elaina wasn’t quite sure how this had gotten so far out of hand. Robert looked about ready to hit something. Or someone. She swallowed hard and reached out a placating hand.

“Please, Robert, how could I lie?”

“You must have told her about Colette.”

“I didn’t,” Elaina insisted. “She knew. She said she knew.”

“Conveniently, my mother is not here, so I can’t confirm with her. I trusted you, Elaina.”

“Robert,” she whispered as he turned and stormed out of the room.

“I will speak with him.”

Elaina screamed at the sound of Nigel’s voice coming out of nowhere. He quickly reached out a hand and gently placed it on her shoulder. Her wide eyes met his solemn ones and he offered a small smile before following Robert out of the door.

Nigel found Robert furiously pacing in his maroon study. He had to admit it was better than brown, but not much of an improvement. Still, it had been good for his young master, and the lady he was courting.

“Did you know?” Robert demanded as soon as Nigel had slipped into the room. He came to stand in the middle of his study, his hands clenching and unclenching. “Did you know?”

“That your mother knew about Colette?” Nigel asked mildly.

Curtly, Robert gave a single nod before whirling away to resume pacing. He stalked back and forth like a small storm, threads of fury rolling off of him. Hurt and betrayal mingled as well, but the anger was overpowering.

Nigel understood. Robert had lived under his mother’s thumb for eight years thinking he was protecting Colette. If it was true she knew about her late husband’s mistress, Robert could no longer be sure why they had been shut up in the Hall for years, why his life had turned into what it was. He was no longer protecting anyone, had never protected anyone.

Nigel steeled himself. The truth would hurt his young master, could potentially see him cut to ribbons and Elaina cast out when the young woman was just starting to fall for Robert. But it was now Robert’s right to know.

“Yes,” Nigel said softly.

Robert whirled on him, his face ashen, his hands finally falling limp as he stared at the truth he didn’t want to acknowledge.

“Then,” Robert began.

“Please sit,” Nigel said kindly.

A numb expression on his face, Robert collapsed onto the sofa, now reupholstered to match the walls.

“Can you explain it to me, Nigel?” Robert asked hoarsely.

“I can tell you what I know. The rest of the story will have to come from your mother.”

“I’ll take whatever I can.” He paused. “And make it quick. I ought to apologize to Elaina before she runs off.”

“I don’t think that’s likely, but, yes, that would be wise.”

“Colette?” Robert prompted, clearly not willing to think about his current companion.

“It’s no secret your parents never loved each other. It was an arranged marriage.”

“I know that,” Robert said crossly.

Nigel nodded. “Very well. They had a duty. The gravity of that duty is not for me to tell. It isn’t my right. But they did care about each other. Not enough to fall in love, but enough for mutual respect.

“It was your mother who brought Colette to the Hall. She was your nanny when you were very young. That’s why your memories of her go back so far.” Nigel paused and licked his lips. “There’s a reason why you saw her as your mother instead of Rose, but that’s for Rose to tell you.”

“I’m beginning to sense that’s going to be a theme,” Robert said drily.

“Please, Robert, I can only give you so much.”

Instead of responding, Robert turned away and waved a limp hand for Nigel to continue.

“You were a young boy when your father and Colette fell in love. Your mother knew, Robert. They had an arrangement, one they weren’t willing to tell you about. It worked. Until it didn’t. Your mother blamed Colette for your father’s death. There was a…fallout as a result, one Rose had to patch up.” Nigel shook his head. “It’s because of that fallout that the two of you have been virtual prisoners at Roderick Hall.”

Robert looked up, his eyes wary. “And how do the companions figure in? Or was that just my mother’s loony idea?”

“You need a bride,” Nigel said simply. “You need a bride in order to see freedom again.”

“My father’s will. The part my mother isn’t allowed to know about.”

“Rose doesn’t know the…particulars…of how things work,” Nigel said, clearly struggling with how much to reveal. “Your father did leave her in charge. She just thinks it’s until she’s ready to hand over power. It, er, doesn’t quite work that way. But it’s not her place to know that. It’s a sort of family secret, one passed between blood relatives only.” He offered a tired smile. “It goes back generations.”

“But my father didn’t tell me anything.”

“He didn’t live long enough to.”

Robert scrubbed his hands over his face and let out a long groan. “Secrets on top of secrets.” He abruptly turned and glared up at Nigel. “Secrets you know, but I can’t.”

Nigel winced and linked his hands behind his back. “I’m sorry, sir.”

Robert stood and walked past Nigel. “Then I guess it’s just me and Elaina. She’s even more clueless than I am.”

Nigel didn’t turn when Robert slammed the door closed. His shoulders sagged and he let out a long breath. It felt good to let some of the truth out, to fix some of the lies, but he was right: it was Rose’s tale to tell.

Robert cursed as he looked into the library. It was the first place he thought of looking this time and she wasn’t there. He hissed to himself and stalked up towards her suite. But it proved to be just as empty as the library.

He slid his hands into his hair and grabbed on, his brain too frustratingly slow to come out with an answer. Roderick Hall was enormous. It would take him ages to look through all the rooms. He hadn’t even been into every room. There were some that had always been locked up, but at least he could rule those out. The grounds were even more extensive, and there was the forest part of the property rested on.

The grounds. Could Elaina have wandered into the Garden of Girls? She’d said she had found Rose there, so maybe she’d gone back.

Robert shot off down the hall. It was the only likely place he could think of. Why she’d be there, he had no clue, but it was a beautiful day.

He raced out of the Hall and across the lawn to the hedges. He slipped quietly into the garden and slowed to a walk, keeping his eyes peeled for a lovely young woman in a ball gown.

But he didn’t see anything. Didn’t see any movement. With every step he could feel his frustration mounting. If she wasn’t in the garden, where else could she be? They hadn’t wandered the grounds together; she could have gotten herself lost anywhere.

Or maybe she’d simply walked out of the gates and he’d never see her again.

The chill down his spine almost had his knees buckling. He’d hoped they were building something together. But he had been unnecessarily harsh on her.

“I’m over here,” Elaina’s soft voice suddenly called out.

His breath catching in his throat, Robert whirled and found her nestled into a bench set under an arch heavy with peach and deep red blooms. Her forest green gown was spread out around her, but she pulled one side closer to herself, making room for him. Her eyes were guarded as he approached, but she was keeping the rest of her features open.

He almost fell to his knees and begged her to forgive him and his hard words. But her eyes didn’t demand it, her movements clearly indicating she expected him to sit beside her.

“Nigel found me,” Robert said as he settled nervously beside her.

“He said he would.”

Robert took a deep breath. Her eyes weren’t focused on him; her face wasn’t even turned in his direction. It helped him breathe easier, but it also made him nervous.

“I’m sorry, Elaina. I’m sorry I accused you of lying.”

She shook her head slightly. “Don’t be, Robert. It hurt, but I understand. She’s your mother. This is your life, has been your life. To have it turned on it’s head…” She trailed off and shook her head. “I’ll admit the force you spoke with surprised me since you’re the easiest going guy I’ve ever met, but I do get it.”

Robert bowed his head. “I still owe you an apology. I shouldn’t have treated you like that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have, but I really do get it, Robert. Just…try to be more levelheaded in the future.”

She couldn’t see it, but he still gave her a crooked smile. “So, you’re willing to stick with me?”

“Well, don’t tempt me, but, yes, I find your company strange and refreshing. But I must admit a part of me has started to care about you and your mother. I must be crazy, but, after everything we’ve gone through…I really appreciate your openness and how you always try to patch things up.”

“I do that a lot, don’t I?”

“Well, it’s not your fault you were locked up for eight years.”

Robert screwed up his face. “Yeah, about that. Nigel told me some interesting things. Apparently, it wasn’t really my mother’s idea, but something about my dad’s death made it necessary.”

Her head turned so fast he almost asked if she had whiplash. Her lips were vaguely moving, but didn’t seem capable of forming any words.

He held up a hand and shook his head. “He couldn’t tell me anything else. He said it’s my mother’s story to tell. But his death made us, my mother and me, have to stay locked up in Roderick Hall.”

“But…but what about all the companions and…and finding a wife?” Elaina stammered.

Robert sighed. “Look it’s complicated. I don’t really get it. Apparently, I need a wife if I ever want to leave this blasted place again and my mother thinks she can relinquish power whenever she wants to, but that’s not the way it works. It’s some family secret or something.”

“So you do still need a wife?”

He shot her a small, teasing smile, though he couldn’t help glancing over at her a little shyly. “Is that relief I hear?”

Elaina playfully pressed her lips together, but her eyes were still soft. There was a flash of hesitation on her face, and then she reached out and gently took one of her hands between her own. She didn’t say anything, but her soft touch was all the reassurance he needed.

“My mother isn’t here, for how long I don’t know, but maybe we can get Clarice back here and make you more suitable clothes?”

Elaina looked down at her dress. “I’ve kind of grown accustomed to them. They’re a little unwieldy sometimes, but they function. Besides, who knows how long your mother will be gone for? She could be back tomorrow. I’d rather not waste time getting measured for new clothes your mother will just burn, but spend it getting better acquainted without her watchful eye.”

He wasn’t sure, but it felt like his smile brightened his face. At least, it had him sitting a little taller. “The grounds are extensive. I’d love to show you around. I haven’t been around them much beyond this garden, but I remember a little lake or a pond or something with water, at least. Part of a forest is on the grounds, too, and some smaller gardens I vaguely remember. If you know how to ride, we can easily get around.”

She smiled. “It’s been a while since I last rode, but, if you have a gentle mare, I’d be delighted.”

Chapter Eighteen

Valerie was sweet, but kind of boring. She had a real love for horses, but not much else. Needless to say, our conversations weren’t particularly stimulating, but she definitely won the hearts of all the horses. I think they were sadder than I was when she’d finally had enough of my mother telling her to spend less time in the stables and more time with me. I, for one, was glad she spent so much time in the stables. The ____ was planted for her.

The stable master had been surprised to see Elaina and Robert walk in the next morning. Elaina felt sure Robert hadn’t ridden a horse in about as long as she had, so she hoped, for both their sakes, they wouldn’t fall off or be thrown off.

In the end, they hadn’t been able to convince the stable master and wound up in a little cart pulled by a beautiful dappled gray mare and driven by one of the stable hands. They found some cushions and settled themselves a little unceremoniously side by side with their knees up and their toes touching the other side. Robert had discovered an old pair of sunglasses deep in a drawer and Elaina had found a little white bonnet shoved at the back of the closet.

“Don’t say anything,” Elaina warned, though her eyes sparkled, as she tied it on.

Robert swallowed his laugh though his own eyes shared in her silently laughter. He held up his hands and gave her a bit of a cheeky smile.

“I think it looks cute,” Robert said as the driver gently flicked the reins and set the mare in motion.

She used the motion of the wagon to nudge him a bit harder than the jolt called for, but smiled at him from under the frilly brim of her bonnet. “I am curious, though, whose bonnet was this?”

Robert groaned and put his hands to his face. “I have no idea. I really have no idea. I mean, have you seen the rose garden? It’s massive! I have a notebook full of girls’ names and a little about who they were, but, when I flip through it, most of the names look foreign to me.”

Elaina bestowed a gentle smile on him and took one of his hands in hers. “I have seen the garden. It is massive. I don’t blame you for not remembering any of them. I will go postal on you if you do forget about me.”

His eyes grew wide and he drew their clasped hands to his heart. “I swear I will never forget you.”

She gave him an impish smile. “Well, since we’re to be married one day,” she said primly despite the twinkle in her eyes, “I’ll forgive you only when you go senile and completely lose your marbles.”

He laughed and squeezed her hand briefly before sobering. “Considering everything my mother and I have put you through, I’m surprised you’re willing to stay. Why are you staying? And, by this point, I’m pretty sure it isn’t because of a promised library job.”

Elaina lifted one shoulder and looked over at their driver, who suddenly felt like he was incredibly too close for comfort. The young man was hunched over and trying desperately to make himself look tiny. She had no doubt he was trying his best to give them privacy, but the cart was simply too small for that.

She looked out over the side of the carte. They were rolling along a dirt road that seemed a long way off from the Hall. She guessed it was some kind of service road around the estate. Between them and the Hall was an elegant quilt of gardens. They were too far away for her to make out any of the plants, but it was laid out in soft grids, each plant bed bordered by low hedges or creeping vines. She spotted fountains dotted around, the nearest garden beds bearing an inwardly curving line of shrubbery nearest the fountain.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“The pond. It’s off the road a bit, surrounded by some tall plants. We should have some privacy there. It’s peaceful. Some turtles. Maybe a few ducks or geese.”

Elaina nodded absently as the road curved away from the Hall and the vista before her was of a wide, green lawn with trellises dotted around. She cocked her head to the side, unable to fathom an order to the heavily flowered arches. She pointed towards them and asked, “What is this supposed to be?”

Robert cocked his head to the side. “You know, I’m not sure. I remember running around here when I was a kid, but I don’t think I’ve been back since. My mother used to spread out a blanket and watch me run around, but I think she stopped doing that when I was eight or nine. I’d forgotten about this place.” He sighed. “I think I’ve forgotten about a lot of places. I did wander the estate now and then, but, once my rose garden got going, I just put all my energy into that.”

It was her turn to squeeze his hand. “I don’t blame you. I can’t imagine how much weeding and fertilizing you must do to keep the roses looking that gorgeous.”

He grinned at her and flicked the brim of the bonnet, drawing a playfully murderous look from her. “Well now you can help me.”

“I can what now?”

He raised an eyebrow. “What? Are you as bad at gardening as you are at painting?”

“Well…I…well!” she stammered out. Then she shook her head and gave an exaggerated sigh. “I guess I know how this will play out. I’ll cook and you’ll redecorate and garden.”

He laughed. “I think we’ll get along very well, then.”

“We’re here, sir,” the stable hand said hesitatingly, bringing the horses to a halt.

Robert stood and steadied himself before clapping the young man on the shoulder and thanking him. He clambered out of the wagon and then reached to help Elaina out.

“You sure you don’t want me to call Clarice and ask her to make you something more suitable?” he asked as she shook out her gown and smoothed the creases.

“I’m sure. Your mother has, ah, taken interesting turns with me. I think I’d rather play it safe. For now. When we’re married, though, I fully intend on burning every single gown in a massive pyre. No tears or eulogies are permitted.”

Robert laughed as he offered her his arm. “I believe we can arrange that.” He pointed towards some tall reeds. “Over that way. There should be a small opening we can slide through and then it’s just us and maybe some wildlife.”

Elaina nodded and let him guide her. They walked towards the reeds, the grass soft and spongy beneath her soft soled shoes. She grimaced slightly, hoping there wasn’t going to be much mud. Then he was guiding her through a small opening and they stepped out into a water paradise.

The pond was clearly man-made, perfectly circular with clear water on which purple and white lotuses floated. A couple of ducks floated along, meandering between the flowers, but the pond was devoid of any snacks for them. Elaina was absurdly pleased gravel surrounded the pond and that there was a bench on the other side that looked like it had been tended to recently. A large willow was situated behind it, offering some shade and another curtain of privacy.

“This is lovely,” Elaina said as he guided them around the pond, her feet sliding now and then on the gravel, but her fingers were well-curled around his arm and he was doing his best to help her keep her balance.

“My dad used to bring me here when I was young. He taught me how to skip rocks, but I was better at hitting the flowers.”

She smiled. “You have fond memories.”

“From my childhood, yes. Things became more…complicated the older I got.”

Elaina nodded as they settled themselves on the bench. She fussed with her skirt a moment longer and then reached up to remove the bonnet.

“Aw, it was kind of cute,” Robert said, a teasing edge to his voice.

Elaina lightly smacked him on the shoulder with it and shook her head, though a soft smile played around her lips. She wasn’t quite sure how to tell him he had grown on her, but she also wasn’t quite certain it wasn’t because of their extended close proximity. His question earlier had been echoing around in her head. It was something she sometimes pondered. As much as she missed her parents and her friends, she had to admit they had been pushed to the back of her mind. Getting to know this man she’d formerly only referred to as the shut-in had been more interesting.

She fiddled with the strap of the bonnet, her eyes fixed somewhere between the end of her lap and the start of the pond.

“You asked me earlier why I stay,” she said softly. Beside her, she could feel him shift slightly, but he didn’t say anything. He was probably as interested in her answer as she was. She shook her head. “Robert, I have limited relationship experience. Dating Brad was kind of it for me. Your mother isn’t any easier to deal with than Mary-Grace, but you are different. You actually care about me and what I want. You defended me to your mother.” She glanced up at him and offered a small smile. “You let me read as much as I want and don’t say anything.”

Robert smiled back and reached for her hand. It curled into his, comfortable and warm. “Your happiness is very important to me, Elaina. You’re different from my other companions. I knew it as soon as I saw you. You wouldn’t be drawn in by the wealth and opulence. I’d have a better chance of forming a real relationship with you than any of the other girls.”

Elaina’s smile turned wry. “I didn’t exactly make it easy for you at first.”

“No,” he said, but still smiled. “But I also didn’t know how to make you fall in love with me, so I let you take the lead. Eventually you were either going to leave or soften.”

She laughed. “Just like butter.” She gently squeezed his hand and shifted to let her head rest on his shoulder. It was comfortable in every sense of the word. “You haven’t pushed. I like that. You respect me. I like that even more. I don’t even know how you know how to be in a relationship considering your history.”

“I guess I must have picked something up over the years. Or maybe it was all the reading I did with you.”

A soft smile fluttered around Elaina’s face. “Whatever it was, I’m glad.”

They fell into a companionable silence. Robert had been right and there were a few turtles taking a little swim. Butterflies fluttered for a few moments before rushing off and dragonflies hovered close to almost skim the water. In the distance, some songbirds sang to each other. The mare whinnied a few times and the stable hand coughed once or twice.

And, for once, two hearts finally found a rhythm and peace.

Chapter Nineteen

Giselle was driven. Ambitious. A little scary. She’d come because of her curiosity, and wound up being picked by me. She was starting medical school in two months, so insisted she couldn’t stay. We had an…interesting time together. Not playing doctor and patient, but with her lecturing me on human anatomy over every meal. I planted the __ for her because I couldn’t think of anything else.

Before they knew it, Rose had been gone for a week and no one had heard a peep from her. Elaina knew Robert was worried, but they’d agreed to not talk about her. For one, there was nothing to say. For another, she’d cast enough of a shadow on them.

Instead, they’d filled their days with the carefree fun they thought normal couples had. They’d poked around in some of the rooms Robert didn’t remember, only to find lots of dusty furniture. Though he did find a foot stool he quickly nabbed and carried off to his study. And she did find a wide brimmed straw hat that would be a quick replacement for the bonnet (though Robert did try to convince her otherwise).

They’d also explored the grounds, finding neatly kept gardens full of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Elaina was delighted and took handfuls of sage, oregano, basil, rosemary, lavender, and mint. Robert couldn’t have said what, exactly, he’d eaten for dinner, but it had been delicious. With Rose gone, Elaina had decided to co-op the kitchen and Robert had given the chef the evenings off.

In childish fits of giggles, they even attempted to test the security line. Robert wasn’t quite sure how far the estate went into the woods, so they attempted to wander past and wait to see if anyone stopped them. Rose would have been pleased that the security team worked like a charm. No matter where Robert and Elaina tried to breach them, someone would seemingly materialize out of thin air to politely turn them around. Elaina was sure they were irritated after the fifth time, but they didn’t dare be rude.

A week later, after a long breakfast during which they yawned a lot since they’d stayed up half the night watching old black and white movies they’d found lying in a deserted room, Elaina suggested they rest and relax in the library.

Robert grinned at her, and then winked. “Right. Rest and relax. I can see it now. You’ll find the perfect book on the ninth shelf and I’ll have to swing the ladder around. But then you’ll spot an even better read on the other side of the room, this time on the seventh shelf-“

Elaina cut him off with a spoonful of yogurt to his mouth. “Oh, hush! I just think the library is the quietest and most peaceful room in this place.”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding, “you’re probably right. You’re the only one who ever goes in there.”

She rolled her eyes and gently dabbed at her lips with the cream napkin. “Well, I’ve enjoyed wandering all over Roderick Hill and the grounds, but I think I’d like to pick up my feet and just relax.”

“Well, I can’t argue with you there. And maybe a good book will kick off a good nap.”

Elaina shook her head, but a small smile played around her lips anyways. “You’re hopeless.”

With hands clasped, they made their way to the library after finishing their breakfast. Elaina’s sapphire gown swished quietly over the floor, and Robert went out of his way to not step on the hem. It wasn’t one of the one’s Rose had commissioned for her, so it was a little long. She’d liked the color, though.

“Any reason why your mother dresses all of your companions in ball gowns?” she asked as they turned a corner.

Robert shook his head. “Nope. Not a clue.” He shrugged. “It’s not like she would have told me anyways.”

Elaina shot him a crooked smile, but didn’t say anything as he was reaching forward to sweep open the library’s heavy mahogany door. With a gallant bow, he ushered her into the hush of the books.

Elaina’s eyes swept over the books, a small smile playing around her lips, as she moved into the room. She heard Robert settle into his favorite armchair, separated from her own by just a small round table, with a loud, pointed sigh. Her dress whispered across the carpet as she turned away from the bookcases and settled herself into her chair.

Robert, already reclining with his hands behind his head and his feet propped up on an ottoman, raised a questioning brow. Elaina took her time arranging her skirt just so before leaning back and folding her hands in her lap before smiling up at him.

“What,” he said, “no books? Are you sure you’re Elaina?” He narrowed his eyes, though she could still see a playful twinkle. “You’re not an alien disguised as her, are you?”

Elaina laughed and lifted her own feet onto her ottoman. Without the threat of Rose barging in on them, she let herself slink down in her seat and sigh into a comfortable, casual position.

“It’s been a while,” she said. “Tell me a story.”

“Little Red Riding Hood?”

“Eh,” she said, tilting her head. “Why not?”

Robert straightened and his hands moved away from his head. “Are you sure?”

She shrugged. “Why not? After all the weirdness you and your mother have introduced into my life, it can’t get much worse, can it?”

“Well, I don’t know. It freaked me out when I was a kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” she said pointedly.

“That’s true,” he conceded. “Okay, then. I hope you enjoy my mother’s crazy tale.”

Her name wasn’t Little Red Riding Hood, and she didn’t wear a red hood and cape.

Her name was Tala. She was raised by her widowed mother whose late husband had moved her far from her mother. Tala had never met her grandmother. It was safer that way, her mother promised.

Tala never knew her father. He had died shortly after her birth, and her mother would say no more about him. The girl only knew her mother, and no one else. Her mother kept her on a tight leash, never letting her near anyone else. She heard rumors they called her a wild girl, but she never saw a soul other than her mother.

One day, when she was ten, Tala was curious. Her mother was out for the day and had left a beautiful pie to cool. It was a long walk to her grandmother’s house. All she knew was it was in the middle of the woods. At one time, her grandmother had been surrounded by people, but they had slowly moved away as the town had died. Her grandmother, though, was old and frail, so decided to spend her remaining time in her own home. Tala was sure she could sniff out her grandmother.

Tala slipped the pie into a basket and quietly slipped out of the house. With leaps and bounds she vanished into the woods, the basket tightly clasped so she wouldn’t lose her snack.

She had to be careful, though. Her mother had warned her of dangers lurking in the woods. There were creatures that would hunt her down without a second thought. Tala remembered her mother always becoming tearful when she begged Tala to never wander into the woods.

The woods were quiet. Birds quietly chirped, but silenced themselves as her quiet feet passed over the ground. Small rabbits and squirrels ran from her path. Even lizards hurried away from her. But Tala didn’t notice or care. She had her pie.

With her nose to the wind, it was easy for her to find her grandmother’s house. It was small, but cozy. Bright curtains fluttered in the open windows. Flower boxes brimming with red, blue, and purple blooms rested on either side of the door. White smoke wafted out of the squat chimney. Tala smiled. Her grandmother was at home.

Lightly, Tala rapped on the door and called out, “Your granddaughter has come to see you.”

“Come in, child,” came a weak voice.

Without a thought, Tala pushed open the door. Her grandmother’s home was a single room with a kitchen in one corner and a bed in another. A woman with curly gray hair lay in the bed, the covers drawn up to her waist. A book rested on her lap. A smile was on her lips.

“Come closer, Deirdre,” her grandmother said.

Tala frowned. That was not her name. Quietly, she stalked closer and set the empty basket on the floor.

“No, grandmother. I am Tala. Your granddaughter.”

Tala saw her grandmother pale and her hands grab at the covers. She cowered into the bed.

“Grandmother, are you afraid?” Tala asked, confused and hurt. “I am your granddaughter, and I have finally come to meet you.”

“Away, beast!” her grandmother screeched.

Tala let out a low howl full of pain and hurt. Why was her grandmother acting this way?

And why was her tummy suddenly rumbling?

The pie had been delicious, but little more than a morsel. Her mother had gone out for more ingredients to make more pies for herself and her daughter.

Tala’s eyes sought out her frightened grandmother’s. But she didn’t see her grandmother.

The scream was cut off in the middle. Claws slashed the bed covers. The bed splintered beneath Tala’s weight.

A gunshot rang out and a wolf whimpered before it went quiet. A strangled cry broke the silence as Tala’s mother rushed to the blood red bodies resting in the broken nest of blankets and wood.

“I warned you,” the huntsman said.

Tala’s mother bowed her head. “I know. I warned her, but she could not listen.”

Robert offered a small smile and shrug at the end of his tale. “I did warn you.”

“You did,” Elaina said, blinking rapidly at him. “I hope you won’t be offended if I prefer the, uh, more widely known version.”

He laughed. “Not at all. I prefer that one as well.” He shook his head. “My mother would have a fit, though. She insists her’s is true.”

“Of course she would,” Elaina said dryly. She sighed and stretched her arms up over her head. “Well, I did claim I was ready.”

“Now that that is out of the way, how else can I entertain you?”

Elaina drew in a deep breath. It was now or never. Or, actually, a lot later. The whole reason why she wanted to come here, to the library.

“Actually, I’d like you to kiss me.”

“You…what now?”

Slowly, Elaina let her eyes drift back to meet his. He was leaning forward, his eyes wide, his hands clasping the arms of his chair. His expression told her he either wasn’t sure of what she had said or didn’t believe her.

Elaina dropped her gaze for a moment and licked her lips. Her hands went to the folds of her dress, her fingers nervously playing with them and how the light reflected off the silk. Her heart was racing. She’d never asked a guy to kiss her before. Actually, a guy had never asked to kiss her, either. It figured she’d experience this new…experience with Robert.

“I’d like you to kiss me,” she whispered.

“Are you sure?”

She forced a smile. “If I have to keep saying it, I’m going to lose my nerve. I’m not actually this bold in real life.”

He frowned and sat back. “So the you I’ve gotten to know isn’t really you?”

Elaina groaned softly and buried her face in her hands. This wasn’t going how she’d thought it would and now she didn’t know what to do or say.

“I don’t know,” she muttered, her voice muffled by her hands. “I don’t know anymore.” She dropped her hands and shook her head, not quite able to look him in the eye. “I don’t even know me half the time. Being with Brad and being crushed by Mary-Grace regularly for two years did things to me. And then you picked me to be your companion and future wife. And now your mother seems to have given her blessing? I just…don’t know anymore. But I do like you, and I’d like to kiss you.”

“Elaina,” Robert said softly, his voice urging her to look at him. Reluctantly, her eyes did. “I get it. I’ve been stuck here for so long, isolated from everyone, I don’t even know me anymore, either. It just hurt to think you might not have been forthcoming about yourself with me.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He smiled. “Don’t be. I sometimes secretly think we’ve all been sucked into a vortex and nothing is actually real.”

She laughed, and then a few odd tears began to form in her eyes. It was just like him to do this, to make light of something heavy. It was one of the things she loved about him. Sometimes the world just rested too heavily on her soul and his crazy ability to put a smile on her face did things to her.

She heard more than saw Robert rise from his chair and come over to her. She looked up into his soft features and he extended a hand to her. Without a thought, she rested her hand in his and let him pull her up.

“Why the library?” Robert asked. “Of all the places we’ve been around here, why do you want our first kiss to be in the library?”

Elaina shrugged. “It’s the first room you showed me. It’s the room we’ve spent so much time in. It’s the room where I think I felt you started to understand me.”

Robert slowly moved his arms around her, pulling her ever closer. “I’ll do anything to make you happy. Even if it means having to do all the painting myself.”

That made her laugh again, but, as she did so, her arms wrapped themselves around his waist.

“Are you sure, Elaina?”

“If we wait any longer, I will lose my nerve,” she said, a slight tremor in her voice.

He nodded once. “Point taken.”

Slowly, hesitantly, he moved his head closer to hers and just barely brushed his lips against hers. It was a soft flutter, a brief moment of warmth. Then he pulled away slightly, but she kept her eyes closed, her head tilted up. He must have noted the continued invitation because she felt his lips back on hers, warm and dry, but firm.

She’d had very few first kisses, just a couple, and she really preferred to not remember the one with Brad. As a first kiss, this one had the same hint of awkwardness, the same sense of not being completely sure of what to do or how to respond. But it also felt comfortable, a bit like her heart had finally decided to settle down and get cozy. She just had to choose to not figure out how many other girls Robert had kissed.

It lasted seconds. It lasted years. Elaina wasn’t really sure, but it was the pressure of Robert’s lips lifting off hers that finally had her eyes fluttering open.

He was looking at her expectantly. It was making her nervous.

“Well?” he said softly.

“Well?” she repeated.

An uncertain look filled his eyes and his arms relaxed a little, giving her some space. “Do you think you’d like to keep kissing me?”

She relaxed into his arms, letting her cheek rest against his chest. She was a little startled by how quickly his heart was pounding, but maybe he hadn’t actually had as many first kisses as she thought he must have had. A soft smile came to her lips.

“I’d like to,” she said softly.

Robert didn’t need to say anything; just tightened his arms around her again.

Chapter Twenty

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.”

“You’re staring.”

Robert smiled. “I like your dress?”

Elaina snorted. It was true; he liked her dress. Green was a pretty color on her. But he also liked the sparkle in her eyes, the roses in her cheeks, the smile on her lips, the spring in her step. She’d been chattier, too. It was almost as though their first kiss had flipped a switch in her. He wasn’t sure, but he liked it. He wasn’t sure his mother would like it, but she’d given her blessing, and he’d make a point of that. After all, they’d kissed after she had chosen to disappear.

He did wonder where his mother had gone. They hadn’t always gotten along, but he still worried about her. It had been weeks and there hadn’t been a single word from her. Nigel would get twitchy whenever he asked, muttering she was fine before rushing off.

But the days were starting to grow cooler as autumn started to set in, so they were taking advantage of the last warm days. The trees were already starting to turn colors, leaves were starting to drift down, and the roses were starting to droop and die. Elaina had managed to rummage up some long-sleeved gowns, but was stuck with the low heels Rose had dumped on her at the beginning of her stay. She clutched at Robert’s arm so she wouldn’t slip on the dew-heavy fallen leaves, and he couldn’t help the grin stretching across his face as she let slip some very unladylike curses whenever her feet skidded out a bit from under her. He didn’t mind the clutching, though.

“Stop grinning,” she admonished, though a smile played at the edges of her mouth.

“Why don’t we start back to the Hall?” he suggested. “It must be time for breakfast by now.”

A gurgle was Elaina’s response, and she quickly pressed her free hand to her stomach. A light blush crept up her cheeks.

“Sorry. That was very unladylike of me.”

“So’s the cursing,” he said, giving her a cheeky smile.

“Well, you try tramping around a forest in heels. They might not be tall, but I still hate them,” she said, biting off each of the last few words.

“I keep telling you. Mother isn’t here right now. You don’t have to dress the way she wants you to. I can call Clarice in and have her create a whole new wardrobe for you. She’s a wiz. I wouldn’t take more than a couple of days for her to have something more comfortable ready for you.”

“Yes, and as soon as you do that Rose will show up and start yelling or glaring or telling me off.” Elaina shook her head. “Or whatever else she comes up with.”

“Look, I don’t think it’ll be as bad as you think. She basically gave us her blessing. We’re well on the road to being married one day. You’ll be a mistress of Roderick Hall just like her. After all, once we marry, I’ll formally inherit everything from my dad, so you won’t have to wear what my Mother wants you to.”

Elaina shrugged. “I’d just rather not rile her up if I don’t have to. One thing I learned from Mary-Grace was that it’s just not worth it. Besides, there’s something sad about your mother. I don’t mind playing her game for now. She left us virtually unchaperoned, so that must say something.” She turned and grinned up at him. “I kind of feel like I’m winning the war with her.”

Robert shook his head and sighed as they made their way into the dining room. “Well, it’s up to you. Just say the word and I’ll call Clarice.”

“You’ll call Clarice for what, exactly?” a crisp, business-like voice inquired, altogether too mildly to not make Robert’s stomach drop like a stone.

“Rose,” Elaina said with surprise. “You’re back.”

Rose, neatly dressed in a sage green skirt suit, dabbed at her mouth with a cream napkin before standing. As usual, she was perfectly coiffed and made up, her suit showing not even the barest hint of a wrinkle, her cream heels perfectly polished. It was as though she hadn’t been missing for over two months.

“Yes,” Rose said briskly. She looked between Robert and Elaina before folding her hands. “I see you two have taken advantage.”

Robert glanced uncertainly at Elaina, but she was busy staring at Rose. He cleared his throat. “Well, yes. You have been gone for a couple of months. It’s been, um, a lot more laidback around here.”

Rose locked eyes with him. “Yes, I can see that. I had to have a bit of a chat with security. Some girl tried to get past them a few times.” Rose sniffed. “She shouldn’t have even managed to get that close.” She turned her eyes and pinned Elaina with her gaze. “I see you and my son have gotten quite cozy.”

Robert could almost hear Elaina swallow hard. He imagined she was as off-balance about his mother’s sudden appearance as he was.

“Yes,” Elaina said quietly. “We have. We have, of course, missed your presence, but I have enjoyed exploring more of the grounds,”

Rose nodded once. “Good.” She turned back to the table and gestured to it. “Now, have a seat. We three have things to discuss.”

Behind Rose’s turned back, Robert and Elaina exchanged a look. But she shrugged and pulled away from him to take her usual seat to Rose’s left. He followed her and took his own across from his mother. The table was already full of dishes bursting with a myriad of breakfast foods, much more than what he and Elaina usually found waiting, so the chef must have known ahead of time Rose was back. He wondered why he, and Elaina, had been the last to know.

“Your goal was to find Robert a wife,” Elaina said as soon as they were seated, her chin up and her back straight as she gazed at Rose, making the other woman pause fractionally as she spread her napkin on her lap. “Robert and I have decided that I will be his wife and there will be no further need of any future companions.”

Robert jerked in surprise since their conversations had only skirted around that, but perhaps Elaina had been saying exactly that and his male mind, as one of his former companions had accused him of having, had misinterpreted. He wouldn’t be surprised. He was too often the last to figure things out. But it did make his heart feel warm. Elaina wanted to marry him.

At the same time, Rose visibly sagged a bit. “Thank goodness,” she breathed out in a whoosh.

“Excuse me?” Elaina asked, as surprised as Robert felt.

Instead of answering, Rose pulled a pin from her hair and let the long strands fall around her shoulders and down her back, sighing with pleasure. Dull thuds under the table told him there was a good chance his mother had either kicked the table or had kicked off her shoes.

“Mother?” Robert asked while Elaina gaped at her.

“Hmm?” Rose asked, her eyes starting to refocus on him.

“Mother, what’s going on? Are you…undressing?”

“Don’t be silly, Robert,” Rose said crossly. “Why would I get undressed at the breakfast table? It’s hardly private, what with you staring and Elaina gaping.”

Elaina’s mouth shut with a click and her bewildered eyes met his. He shook his head at her, his brow furrowed in confusion.

“Give me a moment,” Rose said as she dug her hands into her hair and appeared to massage her scalp. “Ah, you have no idea how many headaches I’ve had over the past eight years. You’d think my head would get used to those tight twists after all this time.”

Now Elaina was shooting him panicked looks. It was almost as though his mother was transforming right before their eyes. He didn’t know what to make of it any more than Elaina did. He was suddenly unsure of how well he actually knew his mother, who his mother actually was.

“Now, then,” Rose said, letting the briskness return to her voice. “I’m sure you have questions. I’ll answer what I can.”

Chapter Twenty-One

Maya was sweet, but a little young. I’m surprised her parents had even let her attend one of the parties. Turns out she’d sneaked out and her parents were furious. She was only seventeen. It was a good thing I talked her into going back home. My mother would have eaten her alive. I planted the __ for her.

Camille was nervous about leaving the security around Roderick Hall in Lily’s hands knowing how protective Lily was of their friend, but she didn’t have much choice. Lily would have only frightened Elaina’s parents. Being the calmer of the two, it was better she let James and Poppy know what Brad was planning.

She knocked quickly and firmly on the front door. Moments later, it swung open to reveal the smiling, somewhat hopeful face of Poppy Linden. A flash of disappointed darkened her eyes, but she still smiled and ushered in her daughter’s friend.

“I’m sorry I’m not Elaina,” Camille said as the two women settled into the living room.

Poppy shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Elaina is sure to come back eventually.” Strain showed on her face, enough that Camille leaned forward, reaching out to grasp Poppy’s hand, but Poppy only shook her head. “I’m just hoping that something good is happening over there. That’s all. I miss Elaina, but I think she’s okay.” She smiled at Camille, a shadow in her eyes. “Mother’s intuition.”

Camille nodded and leaned back. She missed Elaina, but probably not as much as Poppy and James. This had to have been the longest they’d ever been separated from each other. And with no other children to keep Poppy and James busy, there was nothing but worry filling the house.

“Is James around?”

Poppy shook her head. “He went out to pick up some groceries, but he should be back soon.” She cocked her head to one side. “Is everything okay? Is Lily okay?”

Camille glanced away. “Lily’s fine. I hope.” She sighed. “Lily and I heard something yesterday. Well, actually, we witnessed something. Something that has to do with Elaina. And Brad.”

“Brad?” Poppy asked. “She broke up with Brad.”

“He’s, uh, not taking it well. A pride thing, probably. We all know he never really loved Elaina. But his pride was hurt when she broke up with him.” Camille sighed. “He rounded up what looked like all of the former companions he could and is talking them into storming Roderick Hall.”

Poppy frowned. “Why? Does he really think that will win Elaina back?”

Camille shrugged. “Maybe. Probably. You know Brad has never been the brightest bulb. Just very wealthy.” She offered a weak smile. “Probably doesn’t sit well with him that Elaina essentially dumped him for a wealthier guy. And all the former companions who never lasted more than a few weeks are probably jealous she’s been there so long.”

Poppy opened her mouth, her brows drawn into a straight line, but a loud voice calling her name stalled her. James barreled into the room moments later, barely sparing a glance and a nod at Camille.

“Brad has a gun,” James announced. “He’s planning on storming Roderick Hall and dragging Elaina out.”

“A gun?” Camille gasped as Poppy’s face went white.

James dropped onto the couch next to his wife and took her hand. “That’s the rumor buzzing around. I don’t know if it’s true, but he’s hard at work rounding up former companions and several women who have been dying for a chance to be a companion.” He looked over at Camille. “Is there any way we can get a message to Elaina?”

“Lily and I witnessed Brad gathering the former companions and rallying them together. She’s over at Roderick Hall, trying to get a message through security.” She took a deep breath. “She hasn’t had any luck so far, but maybe if she can pass on Brad having a gun the message will get through.”

James nodded. “Let her know, Camille. My daughter may be a grown woman, but I’m her father. I have to protect her any way I can.”

Camille nodded and pulled out her phone. Within seconds she was typing out a message to Lily. Almost immediately, she received Lily’s response. She had to bite off a grin in front of Elaina’s parents, but, really, Elaina didn’t have a better protector than Lily.

“Lily’s on her way to Roderick Hall,” Camille announced. “She, ah, had some colorful language. She’ll try to talk to security, let them know. They’ve refused to listen to her, but maybe the gun part will get them to listen. I mean, they are there to protect the Rodericks, right? Surely they’ll take it seriously.”

Poppy and James exchanged a look. Camille couldn’t read it, but it didn’t exactly put her at ease. Elaina’s parents knew something about the security around Roderick Hall. Something that didn’t reassure them.

“We hope,” Poppy said softly, still staring at her husband.

“What’s with the Jekyll and Hyde thing?” Robert demanded.

Elaina was wondering, too, but, even though Rose looked more approachable, it didn’t seem like something she should say. Fortunately, she knew Robert had read that book just the week before, so the idea behind it should have been clear enough in his sometimes addled brain.

“Who are you?” Robert continued. “Has the last eight years just been an act? What’s going on around here?”

There was a wounded look in Rose’s eyes, but Elaina also got the sense Rose expected it, knew the accusations would be flying. Her heart softened a little more towards the woman who had largely been unfriendly for most of her stay at Roderick Hall.

“I’m sorry, Robert,” Rose said, her voice still brisk, but with a tender layer Elaina had never heard before. “And I’m sorry to you, too, Elaina. But let me explain before you judge me.” She took a deep breath. “Your father should be doing this, but, thanks to Colette, it now falls to me.”

Thunderclouds lowered over Robert’s brow. Elaina quickly reached out to grip his hand, urging caution and offering strength. But, she hoped, mostly caution. She wanted answers, too, but Robert’s anger, no matter how justified, wouldn’t help them get a straight story out of Rose, who also looked like she was bristling a little.

“Please, Robert,” Elaina said softly, her eyes pleading.

“But, Elaina, after everything she’s put you through. Put me through…”

“Do you want the truth or not?”

Robert pressed his lips into a thin line, but nodded. He pulled his hand from Elaina’s and sat back, crossing his arms. Elaina sighed inwardly. But it was the best she was going to get out of him.

“We’re listening,” Elaina said, turning her attention back to Rose.

The woman nodded once, business-like, as she flicked a lock of hair behind her shoulder.

“There’s no easy way to easing you into this,” Rose started. “But I understand, Elaina, that Robert had told you some of the bed time stories I told him when he was a child.”

Elaina nodded. “He has. They were a…very different.”

Rose sniffed. “I should say so. They’re the true stories.”

“Mother,” Robert said warningly.

“No, Robert. You need to listen. Every story I told you is true.”

“But they’re fairy tales!”

“That’s what this world would have you believe. With the way they jumbled and elaborated and changed, they may as well be fiction.”

Elaina was clenching her hands around her napkin, her mind spinning. As an avid reader, she’d always wished the stories she read could be true, that she could visit some of those worlds. Could the land of fairy tales actually be real? Could she go there?

“There’s a land of fairy tales, isn’t there?” Elaina burst out.

Rose smiled, a genuine smile that lit up her eyes. “I knew you were the one, Elaina. I’m sorry I was so hard on you, but I had to be sure. Not just any woman can marry my son. Not with the responsibility I’m about to put on his shoulders.”

“But there is a land of fairy tales?” Elaina persisted.

“Yes, there is. It’s nothing more than a parallel world, one that’s been tied to this one for so long that it’s become the land of fairy tales. But the people there are really no different than the people here. There are just other creatures like mermaids and giants that make their home there, too.” She smiled at Elaina. “It’s where all fairy tales originated.”

“Is that why you were always so insistent that the stories you told me were the true ones?” Robert asked.

“They are the true ones,” Rose said firmly. “And the Roderick family serves as the Gate Keeper.”

“The what now?” Robert asked.

Elaina smiled to herself as she caught on faster than he did. “Your father must have served as the intermediary between our world and the world of fairy tales. I imagine there must have been free travel between the worlds at some point, but, with your father’s death, it stopped because you were not yet ready to take the mantle of Gate Keeper.”

“Very close,” Rose said approvingly. “My husband was, in every sense of the word, a gate keeper. He was the only one who could move beings between worlds. As his wife, I can travel back and forth, but I cannot bring anyone across in either direction. He guarded the gate, the portal, keeping track of who went where. With his death, that was no longer possible.

“When I was certain Elaina was the one, I went to the other world to take stock of what was happening, what you would need to know. I’m pleased to say all is well, though some are itching to come back here since many were trapped when my husband died.”

“What does that have to do with Elaina?” Robert asked, the animosity finally leaking out of his voice.

“It dates back to when the portal was forged. It was created using the blood of a Roderick and her husband so it requires marriage for the Gate Keeper to be able to formally take his or her duties. Robert cannot usher anyone between the worlds until after he has married.” Rose sighed. “Before now, the worlds have never been cut off. But Robert was simply too young when his father died, and, really, had no significant other in the wings.”

“That’s why there was a neverending parade of women?”

“You needed to find a wife at some point.” Rose shrugged. “Or husband. But you never showed any romantic interest in a man.”

“Then why were you always scaring them off?”

“Robert, there are very few who can handle the responsibility of being married to the Gate Keeper. As the wife of the last, I know it first hand. I had to test them to make sure they had the mettle to put up with the crazy things the beings of the other world will bring.” She smiled at Elaina. “And now that you have met my approval, I can let down my hair, figuratively and literally.”

“But I don’t remember you being warm and motherly,” Robert said. “I don’t remember you being much different than what you have been for the past eight years.”

Rose’s face dropped and she suddenly couldn’t meet her son’s eyes. “It’s my fault, but I had a good reason.”

“I can’t wait to hear this,” Robert muttered.

“Robert,” Elaina softly admonished.

“No, Elaina,” Rose said with a sigh. “He should be upset. He never knew. I never explained. The only other people who knew what I did were my husband and Colette.”

“And how did you even know about her and Dad?”

“Your father and I were matched. His mother, you late grandmother, hand picked me, but I loved someone else. I ended up losing him to the other world where he got into a bit of trouble with a dragon and now finds himself in eternal servitude.” She shook her head. “But that’s not really important.

“Your father and I were fond of each other, but couldn’t find any love between us. It was made harder by the fact that I failed to conceive an heir. Desperate, he and I went to the other world and sought out a fairy. As you know, everything comes with a price. In order to have the child I so desperately wanted, I had to give up my heart. I wouldn’t be able to love you or my husband or anyone else ever again. But it was worth it. In my own way, Robert, I’ve loved you and I’ll always love you. But I couldn’t be motherly. I couldn’t love you like a mother should. I can’t even be affectionate. The price sometimes feels too high, but your father needed an heir born from his wife.”

Rose took a deep breath. “Colette was brought in as your nanny. She’s given you a mother’s love. I can’t lie and say it didn’t cut me to the core, but we all have our roles. I even encouraged your father and Colette to form a relationship. I couldn’t love him, so why deprive him of the love he deserved?” She clenched her hands together. “But Colette got a little too greedy. She wanted to be the Gate Keeper’s wife. But my husband had made a vow to me and was determined to keep it considering everything I had given up to ensure the Roderick line would continue.” She dipped her head towards Robert. “You know what happened.”

“And…Colette?” Elaina ventured, shooting a look at Robert. She remembered him being certain he had gotten her away, but, since Rose had known everything, it was impossible to tell who knew what anymore, and which was truth.

“She’s gone,” Rose said softly. “After your father’s funeral, I offered to let her stay on, but she was devastated by what she’d brought onto herself and the Roderick family. I’m sorry, Robert, but she died not long after. I was hoping to keep her on since you were so attached to her, but she loved my husband more than she loved my son.”

“But I thought I got her away, hid her from you,” Robert said softly.

“You did,” Rose said simply. “For a time. I’m sure she must have been frightened and heartbroken and perhaps even a little fearful of me. You did hide her away, but she came to me. By then, I knew the whole story, and she knew I knew.” Rose shook her head. “It was the first time I was every grateful for not having a heart. Seeing how devastated she was…”

“Mother, what happened to her?” Robert’s voice was low, tinged with fear, and Elaina couldn’t help but feel her own heart kicking up from trepidation. Her hand reached for his and he clung to it like a lifeline. “How did she die?”

“Roderick Hall is not just the home to the portal between our world and the other. It’s also something of a museum, something of a dungeon.” Rose’s lips twisted in distaste. “Sometimes things arise in one world or the other than proves to be a threat. Those things are removed and kept in storage here at the Hall, hence all the locked doors.” She sighed heavily. “Some generations ago, there was an evil queen. Her vials of poison were confiscated and stored here. Colette no longer had the will to live, and neither did she want to return to the other world. She begged for something to give her peace. I offered a potion.” Her eyes met her son’s, unblinking. “I swear that’s all I did. The choice to drink it or not was her own, and she did not die in the Hall.”

The breath left Robert’s lungs in a whoosh. His hand pulled from Elaina’s as he sat back heavily, his eyes dazed and unfocused. He would not be rejoining them for some time, Elaina was sure. Which left her and Rose on their own.

Rose smiled sadly at Elaina. “I’m sure you must have other questions.”

“Why tell us this now? Why not, I don’t know, when we’re married or engaged?”

“Because you need to take all of this into consideration,” Rose said simply. “My role will pass to you immediately. I wish I could protect you from it a little while longer, but it has been eight years since the portal was opened. You need to think on it, to decide for yourself if this is a role, a duty, you’re willing to take on for a lifetime, or until you and Robert pass the duty to your heir.” She offered a thin smile. “Should you decline, the NDA will not allow you to say anything of any of this.”

Elaina nodded. “I understand.” She glanced at the immobile Robert. “Thank you, Rose.”

Rose nodded and pushed to her feet. But, before she could make another move, Nigel entered, his face impassive as always. Rose only raised a questioning bow, seemingly waiting for something, but Nigel only nodded once before vanishing from the room.

“Rose,” Elaina called out before the other woman could leave.

“Yes, Elaina?”

Elaina took a deep breath and stood to fully face Rose. “I’d like to make a request, though I certainly understand if you won’t allow it. But I’d like to see my parents. It’s been several months, and I dearly miss them.” She held out her hands. “But I swear I’ll abide by the NDA and I will be back.” She glanced over at Robert. “I do need to think things over, but I also love Robert.”

Rose pursed her lips, but gave a single, sharp nod. “Three days, Elaina. Enjoy some freedom, but do think over whether being Robert’s wife is something you can be.”

A smile bloomed on Elaina’s face and she gave an eager nod. “I will. Thank you.”

Rose nodded, back to business though her hair now swung free. Then she left, her stockinged feet whispering over the floor.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Leslie was a poor choice, but Mother forced me to pick someone. How was I to know she was only making sure her little sister stayed out of trouble, and was a lesbian?! Well, things weren’t as awkward as I thought it would be, and I would have liked to be pen pals, but Mother refused to entertain that kind of relationship. I planted the __ for her, and hope she is well.

Robert wished she wasn’t going. After having her as his constant companion for months now, not having her around was making him feel empty. She was shooting glares at him, but he couldn’t stop getting in her way. Unintentionally.

“Robert,” Elaina said, hands on hips and voice exasperated. “For goodness sake’s, it’s only three days. You must know I’m dying to see my parents and my friends again.”

“I’m going to miss you.” He didn’t mean to whine, but something about her leaving was making him feel like a petulant child. After all, women only left when they’d had enough. “You will come back, right?”

He could see her soften, and it brightened his heart. She approached and wrapped her arms around him, resting her head against his shoulder. His arms hugged her tightly, until a small squeak escaped her, followed by a soft laugh.

“Of course I will. We have a wedding to plan, and there’s no way I’m letting your mother have the reins.”

He squeezed her again, unable to voice the joy that brought him. He didn’t like that she took a step away to finish preparing for her departure, but he quickly reminded himself she’d said “wedding.” Though something gave him pause.

“Is that a proposal?” he asked.

Elaina gave him her impish grin, the one that made her eyes sparkle. It tugged an answering smile from him.

“Don’t be silly, Robert,” she playfully admonished. “Considering you must have spent much of the past eight years knowing you were going to eventually marry one of your companions, I think you must have spent some time thinking about how you would propose to her.” Her smile widened. “I’m expecting it when I return.”

His smile answered hers and he swept her an elegant bow. “Then your wish is my command.”

She lifted one brow, pausing as she pulled on her shoes, a pair of ballet flats Rose had graciously offered considering she had kicked off her own heels and left them under the dining table. As far as Robert was aware, they were still under there.

“Not a wish, Robert,” she said, a singsong lilt to her voice. “I said I’m expecting it.” She stood and slid her arm through his. “Now, I believe you’ll be escorting me to the door.”

Robert’s eyes turned serious as he reluctantly led her from her room. “I’m going to miss you.”

She squeezed his arm and leaned against him for a moment. “I’m going to miss you, too. Please don’t worry, Robert. I will be back.” She smiled up at him. “It’s only three days. I’ll be back before you know it.”

When a companion usually left Roderick Hall, she went running or storming out or simply walked out the door. Elaina, giving smiles and kisses, didn’t know anything was different when he handed her into the private car his mother had hired. Now that her son had finally found someone, Rose wasn’t taking any chances. In the backseat with Elaina was one of Rose’s most trusted security guards.

“Nigel,” Robert said when the butler approached once the car was out of sight, “where is my mother?”

“In her study.”

“I hate to do this, but could you get started on the weeding without me? I’d like to talk to her.” He turned and clapped Nigel on the shoulder. “But don’t worry. I’ll join you soon enough. With everything wilting and dying, it’s definitely a two person job.”

Nigel bowed. “Of course, Robert.”

With a quick glance back down the drive, Robert sighed and headed back inside, trying to remember it was only three days. Elaina would be back before he knew it. He hoped.

Rose was humming when he walked into her study. Her hair was still down and she was twirling a lock around her fingers. If she weren’t poring over her usual binders and piles of paperwork, he would have mistaken her for a princess in a tower, especially in her flowing blue gown. Just older.

“Mother?” Robert ventured.

Rose looked up sharply, her eyes taking a moment to focus on him. “Robert. Has Elaina gone already?”

“For three days.”

She frowned at his low, soft tone. “I could have given her a week. A month.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter because, once you’re married, both of you will be free to travel to and from.”

Robert dropped heavily into a chair. “That’s one thing I don’t understand, Mother. Why have we been locked up here? Now that I know you know what really happened, I don’t get it.”

Rose shifted in her seat and slowly drew herself up. “I wasn’t lying, Robert. It was for safety reasons. People from here are not the only ones who became stuck in another world. There are many creatures and citizens from the other world that have been trapped here for the past eight years. They can’t touch the magic of the other world here, so the fear was that they would attack or, worse, coerce you into marriage so you would be able to reopen the portal.

“Elaina will be fully escorted by Marie for the next three days for her protection. By now everyone must know she’s more than just your most recent companion. What anyone will do to her, I have no idea, but my duty now is to protect her as much as you. But, when you’re married, the portal can be reopened and all the danger passes.”

Robert frowned. “And how will I know what to do? Dad’s dead.”

Rose bowed her head. “Yes, I know. I know the basics, but I’m afraid a lot of it will be up to you.” She gestured to the mass of papers filling her desk. “I’ve been going through every scrap of paper here and there’s not a single sheet of instruction. As the wife of the last Gate Keeper, I have a personal key that allows only me to travel back and forth, but I don’t know how you will do it. Your father simply made it work.”

She sighed heavily. “But that’s not what really worries me. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” She shook her head. “People have become too curious now that Elaina has been with us for so long. There’s some woman who’s been coming every few days, begging to talk to Elaina, to know Elaina is okay.” She pinned Robert with a hard gaze. “Do you know anything about that?”

Robert blinked in surprise. “Am I supposed to? Other than Elaina and all the other companions, I have no idea who’s out there any more.” He shrugged. “At least it’s not Brad.”

Rose’s lips twisted in distaste and she flicked a pen across her desk. “That was one good thing about being locked up here. Not having to mingle with that family. The gall of that woman…”

“Mother,” Robert said.

Rose pressed her lips into a thin line. “Can’t be helped. Now, I believe today is your day for weeding your garden?”

With a sigh, Robert rose. “It is. I should go help Nigel.”

“Is Elaina any good with plants?”

Robert laughed and shook his head as he left.

Lily couldn’t help it; she had too much nervous, anxious energy to burn to not prowl around Poppy’s front garden.

“It’s like a fortress,” Lily exclaimed, waving her hands. “They didn’t even want to hear that trouble is brewing and it involves the Hall.”

Poppy looked up at her, the sparkle she usually had while gardening completely absent from her eyes. “Lily, you did your best. We either have to hope Roderick Hall is better protected than we think and they already know or that Brad will lose steam. And hope my little girl is okay.”

Lily shook her head vehemently. “I can’t just sit and wait. It’s making me nervous.”

“We can tell,” Camille called out, popping her head up from over a bush she was trimming. “But Poppy is right. We’ve tried. We can’t do anything else.”

“I just wish we could talk to Elaina. She’s been gone for months!” Lily flopped down onto a patch of green lawn just as a black car pulled into the driveway. “You expecting anyone?”

“No,” Poppy said slowly, rising and pulling her gloves off. “James is tinkering around in the house. He didn’t mention anything about company.”

As the car pulled to a stop, Camille joined Lily and Poppy. All three women stared at it, one with cautious hope, one with curiosity, one with apprehension.

It seemed to take forever for the back door to open. A large woman in a black suit emerged and looked over the three women. Her facial features didn’t change, but she did mutter something before turning and holding out a hand to someone else in the car.

“Thank you,” Elaina’s voice called as the suited woman helped her out. “This dress is so cumbersome.”

The woman finally cracked a tiny, almost nonexistent smile. “Not a problem, Miss Elaina.”

Poppy’s hand blindly reached out and grabbed onto Lily’s wrist as a voluminous sapphire skirt swung out of the car. Lily quickly wrapped her free hand around Poppy’s, giving it a tight, excited squeeze. She could feel the coiled tension in Poppy’s body, but the woman accompanying Elaina didn’t look like she’d welcome anyone swarming over her charge, though Lily was oddly relieved to not recognize the woman.

Elaina popped out of the car with a soft sigh that quickly turned to squeals of delight right before she pelted over and threw her arms around her mother’s neck. The large skirt of her ballgown forced Lily and Camille back a couple of steps, but Lily was glad to share a relieved look with Camille over the mother and daughter.

“Are you back?” Poppy asked, pulling away to look over her daughter as only a mother would.

“I have three days,” Elaina said, her own eyes studying her mother.

“Three days?” Lily burst out. “That’s it? And then you’re going back?”

Elaina pulled away from her mother to tightly hug Lily. “I’ve missed you, Lily.”

“Elaina!”

“She’s right, you know,” came Camille’s calm voice.

“Thank you, Camille!” Lily burst out, pulling away and planting her hands on her hips. “What gives, Elaina? You’re gone for months. Months! And now you show up to say you’re only here for three days? And then what? Do you go back and we hope there will be another time we’ll get to see you for three days? Or maybe it’ll be two. There are an awful lot of rumors about Rose Roderick going around and none of them are kind.”

Elaina sighed. “I’m sorry, Lily. I know you deserve an explanation. Could we just not do this in the driveway?” She waved over towards the woman in black. “This is Marie. She’s my security guard.”

Lily’s eyes narrowed. “Security guard or jailer?”

Her eyes turning serious, Elaina linked her arms with Lily and Poppy, leaving Camille and Marie to trail after them. Lily couldn’t help but feel a little petulant, and more than a little upset about how blase Elaina was acting, but she was also curious. More than a little curious. And worried. Was Elaina back because her warning had somehow reaching inside the Hall?

“Guard and friend,” Elaina said as they entered the house. “After all the trouble Robert and I put to her, and how patient she was with us all the time, she deserves to be called friend.”

“Protector,” Marie piped up as she prowled around the living room, examining the windows and gardens for as far as she could see before drawing the drapes. “Mrs. Roderick has put Elaina’s care in my hands and I intend on ensuring she makes it back to Roderick Hall in one piece.”

Elaina nodded as Lily turned to her and burst out, “Explanation, Elaina. Now.”

“Of course. Well, the short story is I’m to be the next Mrs. Roderick.” She shook her head. “There’s quite a story behind it, but Rose, for many very good reasons, is wary of letting it out of the Hall. Suffice it to say, it is safer for her and Robert and, now, me at Roderick Hall. At least, until Robert and I are married.”

“You’re engaged,” Poppy said, almost on a sigh.

“Well, not yet, Mom. I’ve told Robert I’m expecting a proposal when I return.”

“But what’s with this three day business?” Lily demanded.

“I’m not lying, Lily. It is currently quite dangerous for me to be out of the Hall considering I’m to be Robert’s bride, which, considering how long I was there for, is probably known by everyone by now. Rose was very kind to give me leave for three days.” Elaina’s eyes flicked over to Marie. “Under an eagle eye, of course.”

“Of course,” Marie repeated. “There’s a man. An older man coming up to the house.”

“That’ll be James,” Poppy said, popping up. “My husband. I was wondering where he’d gotten off to.”

The door to the backyard opened and slammed shut, permitting a soft whistle alongside heavy steps. Marie took three long strides towards the sound while Poppy scurried after her. Lily glanced over at Elaina, who only stood and smoothed down the front of her voluminous gown.

“Woah! Who are you?”

“Marie. Who are you?”

“What? I own this house. Who are you? Poppy, what’s going on?”

Marie turned to Poppy, her stern expression completely unchanged. “Is this your husband?”

Poppy offered her husband a feeble smile. “Yes. This is James, Elaina’s father.”

Marie looked him up and down, taking in the dirt stains on his pants and one side of his shirt. He held a pair of scissors in one hand and a handful of bright crocuses. With a curt nod, though, she turned and let him pass.

James eyed her as he edged past before planting a kiss on Poppy’s cheek. But his eyes quickly lighted on Elaina, who rushed over for a hug.

“Really? You’re back?”

“Well, not for long, Dad,” Elaina said, pulling away. “I’m only here for three days.”

“Three days! That’s not long. Are you still a prisoner there?”

“Not a prisoner, Dad,” Elaina said, somewhat pointedly. “Robert and I are planning on getting engaged soon and Rose agreed it’s been far too long since I’ve seen my family and friends. She let me out for three days, but then I need to return for my protection and to start planning the wedding.”

James put a hand to his head, the one with the flowers. Lily quickly nipped forward and grabbed the shears from his hands, though neither father nor daughter noticed her. She stepped back to Camille and handed the scissors over for Camille to set them on a table.

“Wedding? My little girl’s getting married?” A grin split his face. “And not to Brad, thank goodness!”

That sent a bolt through Lily and she latched onto Camille’s arm. But Camille had also gone rigid and, as their eyes met, they knew they had no choice. No matter how much the Linden family deserved a happy albeit short family reunion, they had more pressing matters.

“Elaina,” Lily called out, breaking the happy chatter filling the room while Marie ghosted from corner to window, ever observant.

Still smiling, Elaina turned to her friend. Lily faltered. Elaina was so happy. She was about to become engaged to the shut-in, but, if she was ready and willing to return, he couldn’t be that bad. Or could he? After all, he’d dressed her up in a ballgown.

“Are you happy with Robert?” she asked instead, earning a quick jab and questioning wide-eyed stare from Camille.

Elaina’s features softened. “I am, Lily. He’s sweet and funny.” A dreamy smile lit up her face. “The first day I was there, he presented the most amazing library I’ve ever seen and didn’t complain once when that was the only place I wanted to be. He’s a little socially awkward, but very honest. We’ve had a lot of fun together.”

“Even though you were forced to stay?”

“I wasn’t forced to stay,” Elaina said, not meeting anyone’s eyes as she moved to sit. “Robert had a proposition, one I couldn’t turn down. We made an agreement, and I stayed. And fell in love.”

“What kind of proposition?” James thundered.

“Not a bad one, Dad,” Elaina said. She shook her head. “I’m bound by an NDA to not reveal anything. At least, not yet. But it would benefit both of us, so I couldn’t turn it down.” She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Besides, it’s not like I had anything waiting for me. No boyfriend. No job. Not even an interview.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Poppy said as she sat beside her daughter and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “We’re just glad you’re back. There’s a lot we don’t know and understand, but I don’t want to waste the three days you have with us. Now, is changing out of this thing an option?”

Elaina laughed. “For some reason, this is what Robert’s mother dresses all of the companions in. I only wore it home because I didn’t have any other clothes. Rose offered to call in Clarice, the seamstress, to make a few normal dresses for me, but that would have just delayed my homecoming. I am, actually, looking forward to seeing my own closet again.”

Camille was squeezing her arm, seemingly sending a Morse code to her, but Lily had never learned Morse code. Still, she was sure she could guess what Camille was trying to tell her.

Lily took a deep, noisy breath, drawing everyone’s attention, even Marie’s raptor gaze. “I’m afraid we might not have the time.”

“What do you mean?” Elaina asked, frowning.

Lily sat down and patted the cushion next to her. With narrowed eyes, Elaina shuffled over, effortlessly sweeping her gown around her while her mother went over to her father. Camille sat on Elaina’s other side, letting her parents whisper quietly to each other, unreadable but serious expressions on their faces as they traded nervous glances with Lily and Camille.

With a deep breath, Lily took hold of Elaina’s hand.

“Uh-oh,” Elaina said, raising a brow. “This must be serious.”

“It is,” Lily said gravely. “Are you truly happy with Robert? At Roderick Hall?”

“Yes. Of course I am. In three days I’ll be heading back and he’s been ordered to make the promised proposal to me. Once we’re married, Roderick Hall will open again and we’ll no longer need to stay cooped up there. Lily, what’s going on? You’re never this serious.”

“Elaina, I’m afraid Brad isn’t out of the picture.”

Elaina blinked. “Are you crazy? Of course he is! I never want to see him again.” She smiled. “Though I’m sure it’ll put him in a right tizzy when word gets out I’m marrying the wealthiest bachelor around instead of the second wealthiest.” Her smile vanished. “Not that I care, but I know he and his snake of a mother do.”

“Brad hates that you dumped him. More, he hates that you’re Robert’s companion. The fact that you’ve spent more time as his companion than any other woman has infuriated him.”

“Lily,” Elaina whispered, her eyes growing wide. “What are you telling me?”

“Roderick Hall is in danger,” Poppy burst out.

Lily nodded, tightening her grip around Elaina’s hand to draw her attention back. “It’s true. Camille and I were there. Brad is rallying as many former companions and hopeful companions as he can. They’re planning on storming the Hall. We don’t know when, but he’s definitely gearing up for something soon.”

“Have you notified the Hall?” Elaina asked.

Lily shot a glare over Elaina’s shoulder at Marie, who was speaking quietly through her earpiece. “I tried. They wouldn’t hear me out.”

“Roderick Hall is perfectly safe,” Marie said stiffly. “Whatever this man has planned, it won’t breach security.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Lily shot back. “You don’t know Brad.”

Elaina gripped Lily’s hand. “Are you sure?”

Lily’s face softened and she nodded. “We haven’t been able to get a message through to you, so we’ve been rounding up as much information and as many rumors as we can. It definitely sounds like he’s planning something, and it won’t be small.”

Elaina turned to Marie, who shook her head and gave the tiniest of shrugs. She squeezed Lily’s hand again. “Thank you, Lily, for always watching out for me. But I do have to put my trust in Rose’s security team.

Lily nodded solemnly, though her eyes were still troubled. “Of course. I’m just glad I got the chance to let you know.” She shot a glare over at Marie, who was no longer looking in their direction. “Finally.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

I liked Elise, but she was old enough to be my grandmother. She hadn’t wanted her granddaughter to come alone to one of Mother’s parties, so had appointed herself chaperone. She had smiled and said how honored and flattered she was, but her husband would definitely disapprove. Her granddaughter, Janice, stayed for a few days before becoming homesick. I planted the ___ for them.

Elaina was tired and she was sure there were bags under her eyes, but at least her mother had a tea pot ready with her favorite herbal tea when she finally rose from bed. Her mother was in the garden and, after a quick kiss, her father had gone back to the morning paper on the patio. Marie was looking stern and alert as always, and Elaina wasn’t quite certain she hadn’t come from the other world. Maybe she was a fairy or something and didn’t need sleep. Ever since Rose had told her and Robert about the other world, she’d started looking at everyone differently. Could her parents have come from the other world? Nah. It was a fun thought, but unlikely. She’d never gotten any fairy tale vibes from them.

What did concern her was what her friends had witnessed. Her hands warming against her porcelain mug, she frowned. It did sound like something Brad would do. But would he follow through?

Of course he would.

The sudden thought almost made her spill her tea.

Of course Brad hated to lose. She was nothing more than a prize. He’d lost her to the wealthiest heir, and it had stuck a bee in his bonnet. He would do anything to make sure he won. Even if it meant swarming Roderick Hall.

If she had been a cursing sort of young woman, she would have experimented with every single one of them as she rushed to find her parents’ landline, which was no where near where it should have been charging.

Elaina knew every member of Rose’s security team. They were very efficient, very dutiful, but could a couple dozen of them really keep who knew how many girls from storming the Hall?

“Elaina?” Poppy’s voice asked as the back door thudded closed. “Are you okay?”

She knew there was a wild look in her eyes and wasn’t sure if it was panic or lack of sleep, but she was desperate for the phone. “The landline, Mom. Where is it?”

Poppy touched a gloved finger to her lips. “Oh, well, I’m not sure, sweetheart. I think your father had it last night. Isn’t it charging?”

“No!”Elaina cried out, turning back to pushing aside papers and potted plants and little stones her father had taken to painting.

“Elaina, sweetheart, calm down. Talk to me. What’s the matter?”

“Brad. If he thinks it’ll eliminate his competition, he will storm Roderick Hall. I need to call Rose.”

Poppy grabbed onto her daughter. “Elaina. Calm down. Roderick Hall is protected by the best security team ever. Rose and Robert will be perfectly safe.”

“How do you know that?” Elaina asked, her voice strangled.

Poppy’s silence finally snapped Elaina out of her panic. “Mom?” she asked slowly. “How do you know that about the security team?”

Poppy sighed. “Of course you would latch onto that. Well. I suppose it’s better than your blind panic. I’m sure that if there really is a problem, Marie will know about it.”

“Mom.”

“Sit down, Elaina.”

Elaina’s eyes touched on everything around her. The dining room was in disarray, but her mug of rapidly cooling tea was still untouched. Nodding to herself, she sat and wrapped her hands around her mug. It was much cooler now, but it grounded her.

Poppy sat down across from her, all the while staring intently at her. It was a little unnerving having her mother study her like that, but it also, weirdly, looked like her mother was searching for something.

“Did Rose tell you?” Poppy asked softly.

Elaina blinked. “Tell me what?”

Poppy sighed and pushed away from the table. “You’ve been there for six months, longer than any other girl. If she hasn’t told you by now, she probably won’t ever. So it’s best if you forget it.”

Elaina frowned as her mother moved past her. “Do you mean about the other world?”

Poppy paused and turned back. “She did tell you, then.”

Elaina’s spine straightened and her eyes widened as her mother took her seat again. “Mom?”

“Did she tell you any of the stories, the fairy tales?” Poppy asked, her lips twisting in distaste around the last two words.

“Robert did,” Elaina said softly. “He told me about the mermaid, and Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood.”

Her mother stilled and swallowed hard. “I see. And what did you think of the mermaid’s story?”

“It was sad.” Elaina shook her head. “According to Rose, all the fairy tales we know originated in the other world. So, I guess, the mermaid and the prince must be real.”

A faraway look passed over Poppy’s eyes before she quickly blinked it away and cleared her throat. “Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, they are.” She reached across and gently placed her hands around her daughter’s. “Don’t be alarmed, sweetheart, but you’re basically a mermaid princess.”

Elaina’s hands stilled under her mother’s. Slowly, almost fearfully as her heart threatened to jump out of her mouth, she raised her eyes. “Say that again?”

Poppy’s hands tightened around hers. “I was a mermaid.” She smiled thinly. “Once upon a time. Your father was heir to the Glass Kingdom, but his father disowned him after he decided to marry me, the handmaiden of the mermaid he was betrothed to. You’re part mermaid, but I don’t know if you’ll be able to transform. You’re also a princess by blood, though I doubt your grandfather would acknowledge you.”

The breath escaped Elaina with a whoosh. “I’ve just barely accepted that what Rose told us about the other world is true. Now you’re telling me the story of The Little Mermaid is true? The one Rose told Robert as a bedtime story? And that you’re a mermaid and Dad is a prince? But I’ve never seen you anywhere near water!”

Poppy looked away. “It was Rose and Harrison’s condition when James and I begged to go through the portal. As wanted and denounced people, we couldn’t ever return, so I needed permanent legs. They offered me the legs, but I could never go near a large body of water ever again, otherwise James’s father and the princess I served would be able to exact revenge for our betrayal. The Gate Keeper can offer a great deal of shelter, but it comes with a price.”

“Were you ever going to tell me?”

“No,” Poppy said softly. “Never. We never expected you would become the Gate Keeper’s wife.”

“I’m the daughter of fairy tale characters,” Elaina whispered, not meeting her mother’s eyes.

“Not fairy tale characters,” Poppy said sharply. “And there’s more than just us.” She sighed. “I can’t tell you who, but they’re all around us. Some are stuck, some are here willingly like your father and me.”

“Dad’s really a prince?”

“A disowned and banished prince, but, yes.”

“And there was war after you left?”

“That’s what we heard, yes. Though it’s now been a number of years, so I expect things have changed. But we can’t go back, Elaina.”

“I’m not asking you to. But I could, couldn’t I? I mean, if Rose could with her special key, I’ll have a key, too, when Robert and I marry. So, I could go through the portal and see the Glass Kingdom and meet the mermaids. And…maybe meet my grandfather. I always wondered why I never had grandparents.”

“Well, my parents died when I was a child, which is how I became the princess’s handmaiden.”

Elaina nodded. “So, I just have a king and a queen for grandparents.”

Poppy’s hands tightened almost painfully around hers, bringing her attention back to the present. “But you must not, Elaina. They will not look kindly on the daughter who should never have been born.”

Elaina had been fully prepared to fling herself into the other world, to meet the only grandparents she would ever have right after discovering she did, indeed, have grandparents. There were other people she was related to, something she’d never had before. Only to be doused with cold water.

“Oh.”

“Yes,” Poppy said. “Oh. They will not harm you as you will be the Gate Keeper’s wife, but do not go out of your way to make yourself known to them.”

Elaina squeezed her mother’s hands back in understanding. “I won’t, Mom. But I do need the phone. I need to warn Rose.”

Poppy nodded and rose. “I’ll go look for it.”

“Mom. Is Rose a fairy tale character, too?”

“No, sweetheart. She’s from here, the daughter of a librarian who always had her head in the clouds.” A sad look passed over her eyes. “Until she lost the man she loved. But I don’t know much more than that about her.”

Elaina nodded, her hands clenching around her mug, as her mother left to literally move everything around the house to find the landline.

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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

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.

“Mrs. Linden?”

“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.

The air rushed back in on a gasp and she rushed to the still form spilling blood onto the buttery yellow carpet.

Rose had never looked so pale. Her loose hair was strewn carelessly around her face, her dusky lashes were closed but starting to flutter at the sudden noise, her cheeks pale as white marble. Her arms were limp, her fingers barely twitching. One leg was bent, the other laid out straight and beating blood out of her body.

“Rose,” Elaina whispered, dropping to her knees. With trembling fingers, she brushed a finger against Rose’s cheek. “What happened?”

“Sorry,” Rose murmured, her voice so low Elaina was afraid she hadn’t actually heard her.

“Sorry? There’s nothing to be sorry about.” Elaina pressed her trembling lips together. “I just learned Brad has a gun this morning.” She leaned over and, swallowing, took a good look at Rose’s injury. She wasn’t an expert, but it didn’t look like it would be fatal. She hoped. Then again, what did she know? “Lie still, Rose, I’m going to see what I can do.”

She knew the basics of first aid, knew she had to staunch the blood flow. Rapidly, her head swung one way and then the other, looking for anything to wrap around Rose’s leg. Then she remembered the scarf she’d grabbed before leaving her parents’ house. It wasn’t one of the gauzy ones she’d worn once in a while during her stay in the Hall. It was one of her mother’s tightly knitted wool scarves, thick and wide. Perfect for covering Elaina’s hair and part of her face. And perfect for wrapping around Rose’s leg.

She tied it as tightly as she could, wrapping it around her wound while Rose tried to bite back her cries of pain to avoid alerting Brad. It was slow going as they stopped now and then to listen, but Elaina finally got the bleeding as under control as her inexperienced hands could and Rose sitting up against a chair.

Rose was still pale, her eyelids still fluttering now and then, her head tilting this way and that, but she was lucid enough to talk. Brad had used the early chaos to slip in, had found Rose and grinned while he shot at her. She was lucky she’d thought quickly enough to try to move. He would have killed her had Nigel not come running and drawn him off. Why he hadn’t come back, she didn’t know.

Elaina set her mouth in a grim line. “He’s really after Robert.” She shook her head as she grabbed for the phone she saw lying on the table beside the window. “Can’t stand the idea that I dumped him for Robert. Ridiculous, of course, but he hates losing.”

A smile fluttered across Rose’s face, a thing as ephemeral as gossamer wings. “Just like his mother.”

Elaina dialed a few numbers and raised the phone to her face. “Marie, Rose has been shot. Bradley Hunter is inside the Hall. Nigel is unconscious, but breathing and appears otherwise uninjured. No sign of any other staff.” She hesitated the barest fraction of a moment. “No sign of Bradley or Robert.”

She didn’t wait for a response before she hung up. Marie would know what to do. Elaina dropped a tender kiss on Rose’s cheek, murmured Marie would be there soon, and rushed out of the room.

Now she really needed to find Robert. Brad would not hesitate to use his gun.

She hesitated outside of Rose’s sitting room. When the women had approached, she was sure security would have gotten him inside if he’d been out in his wretched garden, or anywhere else on the grounds. He wasn’t in the library, definitely hadn’t been in the kitchen, and was seemingly nowhere near his mother.

“For goodness sake’s,” she snapped at herself, pressing her fingers to her temples.

On a normal day, she and Robert would be out on the grounds, soaking up the last of the warm days, or in the library. Where else would he be? With Rose back, he wouldn’t be attempting to open up any other doors.

But Rose had said something about painting.

Elaina took off down the hall. A few months ago, she would have been hopelessly lost. Now, after half a year of exploring the house she’d been stuck in, she knew it fairly well. Now, she was sprinting for Robert’s study.

The door was closed, but she could hear a murmur of voices through the thick door. Ice ran through her veins and her fingers clenched painfully around the phone she still had in her hand. With her eyes on the door, she quietly crept backwards and dialed for Marie again. Like before, a heavy breath was the only thing letting her know Marie was on the other end. In a hushed voice, her eyes still on the door, she whispered she’d found Robert and Brad in Robert’s study.

The voices were growing on the other side of the door. She felt like she was shaking like a leaf, but she couldn’t wait for Marie or another member of the security team to get to her. Brad was no-nonsense. The fact that she could hear two voices was encouraging. It meant Robert had to still be alive.

Her heart pounding in her throat, she flung the door open, only to have the barrel of a gun flung in front of her face, stopping her short.

“Brad, stop!” she screamed.

Robert was standing in the middle of his maroon study, his palms even with his shoulders and facing Brad. His eyes were wide with panic as he took in Elaina framed by the open door. Brad was between them, and her heart momentarily stuttered as she realized this must have been what it had looked like when he’d found his father, Colette, and Colette’s gun.

Irrationally, she thought it would be a good idea to see to the destruction of all guns.

Brad’s eyes gleamed at the sight of her, but his gun never wavered. “Welcome back, Elaina. You’re just in time to watch me free you from your captor.”

“Captor? What? Brad, you’re crazy!”

With a smile and wink, Brad turned back to Robert. “Certainly not, my love. This man has brainwashed you, but I’m here now. I’ll just remove him from the picture and then we can live happily ever after.”

“You’re nuts! Don’t you remember? I broke up with you!”

Brad glanced over his shoulder at her and tutted, shaking his head slightly. “My dear, I finally figured out what was going on. My apologies it took me six months to piece it together and to come and get you.”

“Get me? What on Earth are you talking about?”

He raised a brow. “Surely you know. It was all your idea.”

Elaina’s hand was clutching so hard around the phone, it was a wonder it hadn’t cracked. She had no idea what Brad was talking about, but she couldn’t figure out how else to keep him from shooting Robert except talk to him. Her feet were frozen, Robert was frozen, security still hadn’t made it to them yet.

“My only idea was to break up with you. I couldn’t take it any longer. You and your mother were destroying me.”

“Now, Elaina, what do you take me for? An idiot? No, I figured it out.” Brad frowned. “But maybe too late. The man you intended on having me rescue you from to prove how much I love you is the very man you’ve grown soft for.” Brad drew himself up and renewed his steady aim on Robert. “But I’m here to fix that. I know you’ll only love me.”

Elaina’s heart froze as fear lit up Robert’s face.

“No, Brad! You can’t! It’s too dangerous. You cannot kill the end of the Roderick line!”

“Why not?” Brad snarled.

“No, Elaina!” Robert cried out. “You can’t!”

“You’ll destroy two worlds,” Elaina said, casting an apology with her eyes at Robert.

But Brad laughed. He threw his head back and laughed. “I’m not destroying anything! I’m fixing us, Elaina. You and me. We’re meant to be together. Once I get this scum out of the way, it’ll finally all be right.”

Her fingers clutched at the phone as Brad turned his attention back to Robert. Her father had enrolled her in softball when she was a child. She hadn’t really wanted to, but Lily was there, and she and Lily did everything together. Lily had been amazing. Elaina had spent the entire time sitting on the bench, dodging balls, and flinging the bat every which way. But she’d been good at throwing. Well, sort of. One time out of every ten she managed to throw it right. Her father had helped her practice, and she’d managed to improve to three times out of ten.

That had been years ago now. So, maybe, it was two times out of ten by now. Or maybe it was back to one time out of ten. Or maybe she couldn’t do it at all. Maybe she’d completely forgotten how to throw.

But it was her only shot. Literally.

She caught Robert’s terrified eye as her arm swing back to fling the phone in Brad’s general direction.

All at once, Robert dropped, a gunshot resounded, and a phone struck true. Well, mostly true. She’d hit him on the shoulder, the one not holding the gun, but the surprise made him drop the gun all the same.

Brad whirled on her as Robert lunged forward to grab the gun. At the same time, they could hear racing footsteps.

“Elaina,” Brad said, his face pale.

She wrapped her arms around herself as security finally made it to them and poured in around her.

“We’re done, Brad,” she whispered, not even sure if he could hear her, but, from his expression as security quickly secured his hands behind him, he didn’t need to hear it.

She watched two of the security guards march Brad from the study from the corner of her eye. He didn’t look at her, either. Once he was gone, she rushed to Robert, where he was handing over the gun to Marie.

Elaina clutched at Marie’s arm. “Rose?”

A small smile flickered over Marie’s face before it was replaced by her usual stone. “She’s fine, insisted on having a doctor make a house call, but didn’t get her way. Nigel is fine, too. Just needs an ice pack. The rest of the staff locked themselves in the staff quarters once they heard the commotion.”

Elaina nodded and then flung herself into Robert’s arms.

“My mother?” he murmured into her hair.

“She’s fine,” Elaina said breathlessly, turning into a noodle against him now that the adrenaline had flooded out of her body. “Brad shot her in the leg, but she’ll be fine.”

Robert’s arms tightened around her and he pulled her as close as he could get her.

Epilogue

Elaina was special. I knew it as soon as I saw her. She was going to be my last companion. She was sweet, a little reluctant, and I had to convince her, but, looking back, I fell for her right on day one. Love at first sight isn’t supposed to be real. You’re supposed to spend time getting to know each other and slowly fall in love. But that’s not always true. Elaina stayed. She became my friend. She became the love of my life. She thawed my mother, who started calling her the Queen of the Garden of Girls. I hate the title, but Elaina thinks it’s funny. We’re keeping the garden, for now, at least. I’m glad I never have to plant another rose bush again.

Roderick Hall was open. At least, a little. It had been a long time since it had hosted anyone other than a Roderick, a companion, or a staff member, but Rose had to admit it was nice.

James and Poppy Linden, Lily, and Camille were a start. And, goodness, she had some catching up to do with them and the young women’s families. But that could be saved for another day.

No, today was to thank them for their role in helping to keep the Rodericks alive.

The ballroom hadn’t been opened in, well, Rose couldn’t remember. But it had been a long time since they’d hosted any balls or truly formal parties. She hadn’t spared any expenses or any staff for the cleaning, decorating, and serving. The party was small in such a big room, but it had the best light as it faced the expansive gardens, and her son’s blasted garden of girls. Today was going to be a special day, and only the ballroom would do.

Elaina had willingly and charmingly acquiesced to wearing another ball gown. Rose had yet to tell her the significance, but knowing about the world linked to theirs was a start. The land of fairy tales was opening to the bookworm, and she needed to dress her part. Of course, the girl had been confused when Rose had insisted on white, but she’d let Elaina decorate and accessorize as she wished.

Robert had surely never seen a more lovely girl in his life. Elaina had kept her hair long and loose, small white flowers woven among the curled strands. A string of pearls, from her mermaid mother, circled her throat, and a few glass charms were threaded into the hem and waist of her gown, catching the light and casting rainbows. A true princess of the Glass Kingdom, though she would never rule.

A solo harpist was set up near the food, plucking out sweet, low melodies while Robert and Elaina and James and Poppy danced. Lily and Camille were eating their fill of desserts. Nigel was standing stiff as usual while the rest of the staff, few as they were, fluttered around the tables, dressed in their uniforms, but invited to indulge. Rose herself stood to the side in a pale blue ball gown, a box clutched in her hands.

It was time for her to hand it over. Hand everything over. But her son and his chosen bride were blissfully happy, holding on to each other, knowing so clearly how ephemeral life was.

She was ready to hand over the reins, ready to plunge back into the unknown and have a chat with a dragon even though she’d lost the right to love twenty-six years before. But the happiness, the blissful unawareness permeating the room had her pausing. Just a little while longer.

“Mother,” Robert said, drawing her out of her thoughts. “Come join us.”

She smiled and let him lead her over to where the pile of desserts had been most seriously diminished. She met Camille’s eyes, but the young woman subtly shook her head. The edge of a smile creased one side of her lips, there and gone, as a response as Camille practically swallowed a tiny cake whole.

“I know this isn’t at all like the garden parties,” Rose said, making Lily chuckle a little, “but thank you for coming. I admit it’s a little scary having people in the Hall again, but I believe it’s time.”

“We’re not prisoners anymore?” Robert asked.

Rose laughed. “No, Robert. But it is time for a different kind of imprisonment.”

Stillness and silence fell like a curtain in the room. Rose pretended not to notice as she drew up the top of the box in her hands. A white gold band set with a rainbow of tiny gems was nestled inside.

“Being Gate Keeper is more than just a job,” Rose intoned quietly, as though reading from a long-standing script. “It’s a duty not lightly given and not lightly taken. Your home will be Roderick Hall, but you serve the people of two worlds.” She raised her eyes and looked from Robert to Elaina, who clutched at Robert’s arm. “Are you ready to give your souls into service as the Gate Keeper and his wife?”

“Now?” Robert asked.

“The duty should have passed to you when your father died. Now that you have a bride, I cannot remain the custodian of your duty.”

Robert swallowed and she watched as he and Elaina exchanged a glance.

“What does this mean?” Elaina asked softly.

Rose carefully plucked the ring from the box and handed it to her son. “For many years, I wore this ring. When given by a Roderick to his or her life partner, it seals the union. In your case, as there is no standing Gate Keeper, it will also transfer the powers and duties of Gate Keeper immediately. Are you ready to take this responsibility?”

Robert had no choice in the matter; her question was directed at Elaina. She met the other woman’s eyes. There was a streak of uncertainty, a little fear, a bit of excitement, and a lot of nervousness.

“Do you think I’m ready?” Elaina whispered.

Rose smiled gently and took Elaina’s hand, clasping it tightly. “No partner of the Gate Keeper is ever really ready, but you’ll be wonderful. Just try to curb your exploration of the other world. Your duty is here, at the Hall, guarding the portal with the Gate Keeper.”

Elaina licked her lips and nodded. “I’m ready.” She paused. “Does that mean, when Robert puts that ring on my finger, we’ll be married?”

“In terms of the powers, yes. But we’ll also have a wedding. It’s tradition to have people from both worlds present.” Rose grinned. “It’ll be absolutely nothing like a garden party, but it’ll be wonderful. I have several binders we can go through together in my study.”

“And she has a mother who has been dreaming of her wedding day since she was a baby,” Poppy put in.

Rose smiled over at Elaina’s parents. “Of course. I suppose none of the merfolk will be present?”

Poppy’s lips thinned. “That would be an understatement. We’ll be lucky if they recognize the union.”

Rose barked a laugh. “They’ll have to if they want free travel between worlds again.”

“As long as I don’t have to put up with the royal family again, I can live with that.”

“But I am getting the final say in everything wedding-related, right?” Elaina asked, looking between her mother and Rose.

Poppy reached out a hand and brushed a lock back from Elaina’s face. “Of course, sweetheart. It’s your wedding, and this union will be your only one, so our job is to make it a dream come true for you.”

Elaina looked up at Robert and held out her hand. “I’m ready.”

“I suppose I am, too,” Robert said, his voice full of nerves.

But he slipped the ring on her finger anyways.

Elaina didn’t know what to expect when Rose led them all around the outside of the Hall to an unassuming door. The air had been heavy with solemnity when she’d taken a key and unlocked the door, ushering them into a dark room. The late afternoon light streamed in at an angle through the open door and was just enough to hit a tall, covered object in the middle of what looked like an otherwise empty room.

“What is that?” Elaina breathed, clutching at Robert’s arm as sconces suddenly flamed to life to illuminate a room.

She heard Lily gasp behind her at the sudden light and she was sure she’d drawn in a deep, sudden breath as well. Her eyes searched the room, but, other than stone flagstones and the thing in the middle, the room was bare and chill.

With a serious air about her, Rose strode to the object and pulled off the cloth, tossing it into a corner.

What looked like a mirror stared back at them, but the gray surface was a cloudy storm. It rippled this way and that, sometimes in lazy waves and sometimes in fierce storms. Faint colors were distorted as they were swirled around the surface. Around it was a simple silver frame, an elegant scroll design making it’s way all the way around it. The only strange thing about it was that it hovered mere centimeters above the floor.

“Is it…a mirror?” Lily asked, voicing Elaina’s own question.

“No,” Rose said, her voice as crisp as ever. “This is the portal. The frame keeps it in place, otherwise it would be free floating and not a nice thing to step in or out of.” She gestured to Elaina and Robert. “All you need to do to activate it again is to touch it.”

Elaina gripped Robert’s arm tighter as he slowly led her over to it. He seemed to be taking all of this in better stride than her, but she supposed he also understood this is what his father really meant to leave him, the family business he was really meant to run. He’d been prepared for it for years despite never knowing what it truly was.

“I’m scared,” she whispered.

“Me, too,” he whispered back. “But this is what Dad meant for me to do. I have to honor him.”

Elaina looked up at him, at the determination etched into his face. But she knew him enough to see the apprehension, the nerves. So, she squeezed his arm and held out her hand. He nodded and did the same.

“One,” he said, “two, three.”

As one, they placed their palms to the surface. Elaina could feel the resistance, could feel the ripples, but it was also solid under her hand. Slowly, the stormy gray became ordered into a soft wave rippling from top to bottom. The faint colors swirled together to show an image of a similar room, but one with red velvet seats and golden pillows.

“Is that…?” Elaina asked, pulling her hand away.

“The room on the other side,” Rose said. “On the other side is a replica of Roderick Hall. It’s also called Roderick Hall over there and is located in an area called The Spindle, which is the center of the world linked to ours and from where the fae rule the lands.”

Elaina put her hand to her temple. “I hope you don’t intend on abandoning us to this right away. I think there are a few things you still need to explain.”

“Certainly,” Rose said briskly. “You need to learn everything you can about the world, how it operates, it’s geography. Everything. You will need to know what kind of creatures can safely pass through and which are not allowed to cross. This is your responsibility.”

Elaina nodded as silence fell on them. Robert appeared to be mesmerized by the ripple, and she was just in awe of what was before her. There certainly wouldn’t be a library job waiting for her, but there was a whole world of fairy tales that literally just opened up under her hand.

Suddenly, breaking the silence, a soft, questioning voice could be heard, making every head turn in the same direction, surprise on almost every face as a piece of rounded glass hanging from a chain was pulled from under a soft blue gown.

“Camille? It’s been years, but I still hope to hear your voice. Please answer me.”


I’d love to know what you think, whether you love it or hate it or have some editorial or otherwise thoughts!