“But I like it.”
Brushing past him, I lifted the hem of my skirt as I stepped onto the slight rise. “But I don’t.”
“That’s a lie.”
I shook my head as I skirted around the groups of smiling, masked faces. None looked in my direction, most having thought twice about whether they’d seen the Duchess speak with me.
The air was much cooler outside the Great Hall, courtesy of the breeze coming through the open garden entrances. I spared only a quick glance out into the garden before I started down the hall.
“Where are you going?” Hawke asked.
Stopping, I turned to him in confusion. “Back to my rooms, as I…” I trailed off.
Hawke’s amber eyes were assessing as they roamed over me, lingering where my hair lay draped over my shoulders. His gaze traveled over the tiny scalloped lace along the bodice of my gown. The neckline wasn’t as low as I’d seen some of the Ladies in Wait wear, and just the upper swells of my breasts were visible, but that…that was a lot for me, considering my normal gowns had a neckline up to the throat.
“I was wrong earlier when I said you looked lovely,” he said.
“You look absolutely exquisite, Poppy. Beautiful,” he said, giving a little shake of his head. “I just…I needed to tell you that.”
His words brought forth such a sharp, swelling emotion that my control over my gift snapped, and my senses reached out before I could stop them. I didn’t feel pain from him other than the hum of sadness. My gaze flew to his face. I felt…something else. Two separate emotions. One reminded me of lemon—tart against my tongue. The other sensation was heavier and…spicy, a bit smoky. I thought the first might be confusion or maybe uncertainty. As if he were unsure of something. The other…
It took a few moments for my senses to zero in on what that was. It made me feel hot and…and achy. It felt like arousal.
“I have an idea,” he said, slowly lifting that intense stare of his to mine.
“You do?” I felt strangely breathless as I wrangled my gift, closing it down.
He nodded. “It doesn’t involve returning to your room.”
Anticipation and excitement rose, but… “I’m confident that unless I remain at the Rite, I would be expected to return to my room.”
“You’re masked, as am I. You’re not dressed like the Maiden. To use your own ideology from last night, no one will know who either of us is.”
“Unless you wish to go back to the room. Maybe you’re so engrossed in that book—”
“I am not engrossed in that book.” My cheeks flushed.
“I know you don’t want to be cooped up in your chambers.” When I opened my mouth, he added, “There’s no reason to lie to me.”
“I…” I couldn’t lie. No one would believe me. “And where do you suggest that I go?”
“Where we go?” Light from the sconces glinted off the curve of his mask as he tilted his chin toward the garden.
My heart skipped at the same moment it twisted. “I don’t know. It…”
“It used to be a place of refuge,” he said. “Now, it’s become a place of nightmares. But it can only stay that way if you let it.”
“If I let it? How do I change the fact that Rylan died out there?”
I stared up at him. “I’m not following where you’re going with this.”
He stepped closer, dipping his chin. “You can’t change what happened in there. Just like you can’t change the fact that the courtyard used to give you peace. You just replace your last memory—a bad one—with a new one—a good one—and you keep doing that until the initial one no longer outweighs the replacement.”
I opened my mouth, but then I really thought about what he’d said. My gaze traveled to the darkness beyond the door. What he’d said actually made sense. “You make it sound so easy.”
“It’s not. It’s hard and uncomfortable, but it works.” He extended his bare hand, and I looked down, staring at it as if a dangerous animal rested in his palm—a fluffy, cute one that I wanted to pet. “And you won’t be alone. I’ll be there with you, and not just watching over you.”
I’ll be there with you, and not just watching over you.
My startled gaze lifted to his face. His words struck a chord I tried to never touch. Gods, I couldn’t even begin to know the number of times I’d felt alone since Ian had left, even though I rarely ever was by myself. But those around me the most were sometimes just there because they had to be. Even Tawny and Vikter. That acknowledgement didn’t lessen how much I knew they cared for me and how much I cared for them, but it also didn’t change that while they were with me, they were sometimes not present. Nor did it change the fact that I knew a lot of it was in my head. That small, very insecure part of myself that worried that our friendship would be non-existent if Tawny wasn’t my lady’s maid never really went away. I worried she’d be like Dafina and Loren and the other Ladies in Wait.
How did Hawke know that? Or did he know I felt that way? I wanted to ask, but again, it was something I didn’t like to touch or talk about. Loneliness often brought with it a heavy, coarse blanket of shame, and a cloak constructed of embarrassment.
But with Hawke, even in the short time I’d known him, I didn’t feel alone. Could it be simply his presence? When he was in a room, he seemed to become the center of it. Or was it more? I couldn’t deny that I was attracted to him, forbidden or not.
And I didn’t want to return to my room, left to confusing thoughts that I couldn’t act upon. I didn’t want to spend another night wishing I was living instead of actually doing it.
Was it wise, though, if I was right about what I’d felt from him? I could’ve been wrong, but if I wasn’t? Did I have the willpower to remember what I was? I shouldn’t even attempt to find out
But I…I wanted.
Drawing in a shallow breath, I reached for his hand but stopped. “If someone saw me…saw you—”
“Saw us? Holding hands? Dear gods, the scandal.” Another quick grin surfaced, and this time, the dimple appeared. “No one is here.” He glanced around the hall. “Unless you see people I can’t.”
“Yes, I see the spirits of those who’ve made bad life choices,” I replied dryly.
He chuckled. “I doubt anyone will recognize us in the courtyard. Not with both of us masked, and just the moonlight and a few lamps to light the way.” He wiggled his fingers. “Besides, I have a feeling anyone out there will be too busy to care.”
My vast imagination filled in what could possibly cause others to be too busy to care.
“You’re such a bad influence,” I murmured as I placed my hand in his.
Hawke curled his fingers around mine. The weight and warmth of his hand was a pleasant shock. “Only the bad can be influenced, Princess.”
“That sounds like faulty logic to me,” I told him.
He chuckled as he started toward the garden archway. “My logic is never faulty.”
“I feel like that’s not something one would be aware of if it was,” I pointed out, smiling slightly.
Cold night air greeted us as we stepped outside, and my heart kicked up at the familiar, sweet scent of flowers and rich, damp soil.
My gaze bounced around a little wildly as I looked for something to be off, to be different than the last time I had been here. There had to be. Oil lanterns were spaced throughout the main pathway, but the sections that branched off were dark—the moonlight couldn’t even penetrate them. My steps slowed as the soft breeze rattled the bushes and lifted strands of my hair.
Hawke spoke softly. “One of the last places I saw my brother was a favorite place of mine.”
That snagged my attention, and I stopped scoping out every bunch of flowers we passed, looking for what, I had no idea. It was like I expected to see wilted petals dripping blood, or waited for the Duke to finally make his appearance. Hawke’s earlier anguish over his brother had given me the impression that this was something he didn’t want to discuss, so the topic surprised me.
“Back home, there are hidden caverns that very few people know about,” he continued, his fingers still tightly woven with mine. “You have to walk pretty far in this one particular tunnel. It’s tight and dark. Not a lot of people are willing to follow it to find what awaits at the end.”
“But you and your brother did?”
“My brother, a friend of ours, and I did when we were young and had more bravery than common sense. But I’m glad we did because at the end of the tunnels, was this huge cavern filled with the bluest, bubbling, warm water I’d ever seen.”
“Like a hot spring?” Hushed conversations drifted out from the areas full of shadows, quieting as we passed by.
“Yes, and no. The water back home… There’s really no comparison.”
“Where are—?” Glancing down a path where I heard soft sounds, I swallowed hard and quickly looked away. I became even more aware of the feeling of his hand against mine, the rough calluses on his palms, and the strength in his grip. I thought about that heavy, spicy, and smoky sensation I’d felt from him earlier. “Where…where are you from?”
“A little village I’m sure you’ve never heard of,” he said, squeezing my hand. “We’d sneak off to the cavern every chance we got. The three of us. It was like our own little world, and at the time, there were a lot of things happening—things that were too adult and grown-up for us to understand then.” His voice had taken on a far-off quality as if he were in a different space and time. “We needed that escape, where we could go and not worry about what could be stressing our parents, and fretting over all the whispered conversations we didn’t quite understand. We knew enough to know they were a harbinger of something bad. It was our haven.” He stopped and looked down at me. “Much like this garden was yours.”