Drawing my knees to my chest, resting my head against them, I did my best to shut everything out. I was so desperate for my own freedom, to live my life my own way, how could I begrudge Elia for doing the same? That didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt. That didn’t mean the anger that burned through me wasn’t justified. I hadn’t lied when I said she had my forgiveness. In time, I will forgive her. I didn’t have it in me to hold it against her forever. Not that she would be there to see. As far as she would know, I had already given her that forgiveness. There was just so much wrapped in what had happened that it was going to take me a while to get through it. Her death had cleaved me so surely that I had been a different person afterward. Learning that it had all been a lie? What did that make me now?
“I think we’re here,” Kalea said softly as she shook my shoulder.
I looked up with a sigh. We were indeed at our destination. The gravel driveway, lined with evergreens was exactly the same. The same for the lawns beyond it. What was new was the large brick wall that now lined the property. Apparently, my abrupt departure had a much larger impact than I had realized. Not that it mattered. Now it just made it reflect the prison that it was more than ever before.
We pulled up to the steps that lead inside. My mother’s estate was always too big for us, even with a full staff. Being an old mansion that had been handed down generation to generation, it was the epitome of pretentious. Which made sense since that was all that my mother was. She loved being the center of attention. The gravel driveway led all the way up to the house, circled around a massive fountain, and then back out to the main road. Garages were off to the right of the main house, connected to the main drive by gravel as well. Except there was a cement walkway between the house and garages. Roman Greco pillars held up the roof over the oversized porch. It was a combination of tan and brown bricks leading up to a slanted, gray slate roof, and white accents. Ivy covered most of the left side of the house.
I climbed out, standing just before the bottom step, staring up at the house I had grown up in. If I closed my eyes and listened carefully, I could still hear my father’s voice, Elia’s laughter, I could smell the fresh flowers my mother liked to keep in the entry way, and the lemon scented wax used on the floors. I could still feel the sting of Laura’s rap across my knuckles when I was neglecting my lessons. Despite how that last one had felt at the time, thinking back on it made me smile. I had been too close to it at the time to see how much she had done for me. How much she had cared for me. She had done more for me than my mother ever had.
I never wanted to come back here. This house represented all the darkness in my life. Losing my father. I lost Elia here too. Even though she was still alive, she was still lost to me. My mother’s vain, narcissistic nature and her overwhelming need to control me. The value this country placed on those like me, with the genes and money to live this lifestyle. How wasteful it all seemed after having seen how those less fortunate lived, after having lived a simple life. I had found contentment where I was. I wanted nothing more than to go back to the simplicity that my life had become.
“This is where you lived?” Kalea asked, stepping up next to me. “You left this all behind you?”
“A gilded cage is still a cage,” I met her pale green eyes. “And that’s all this has ever been to me.”
“I think I could live in a gilded cage,” Nakoa joked, stepping up next to Kalea.
“What if it meant you couldn’t be with Kalea?” I raised a brow at him in question. “Or that one or both of you couldn’t have children?”
“Alright, into the house.” James had come up behind us. He hadn’t drawn his gun on us, but he kept his hand rested on the butt of it. He wasn’t going to risk me snatching it again, it appeared.
I sighed in resignation, turning to walk up the stairs, all the rest following up. James took up the rear, making sure we didn’t try anything. My mother can call us guests all she wants, but we were prisoners.
Each step felt like it was drawing me closer and closer to a death sentence. The house loomed over me like a great beast that would swallow me whole. I knew I was the only one who felt this way when I glanced back at my friends, and saw the awe in their faces. They had never seen the city before, and certainly nothing such as the wasteful luxury that patricians were wont to live in.
The front door swung open before we reached it. My mother had apparently called ahead to warn her staff we were on our way. But I didn’t recognize any of them as I slipped by into the house. My shoes squeaked on the marble as I stepped around the table in the middle of the foyer, with its fresh flowers on it. Lemon wax in the air. It is strange when something has been such a sinister force in your life, you leave only to come back and find it exactly how you left it. There weren’t any of the shadows lurking around the corners like there were in my mind. No claw marks in the dark, wood paneled walls. No blood splattered across the marble. Everything clean, prim and proper, in its place just like the night I left. All the order and cleanliness did was fuel my anger. It should look like how it made me feel. There should be bars on the windows, and howling nightmares echoing down the halls. But instead it was beautiful.
Kagan had been quiet the whole ride here, still wouldn’t look me in the eye. But even he couldn’t hide the awe in his face as he took in the interior of the house. Straight across from the door was the staircase leading to the second floor. It ended in a balcony looking out over the formal great room that was used as an entertaining area, then split into two stair cases going up to the second floor, each branching off to the separate wings of the house. The banisters and railing ornate filigree, topped with smooth dark wood that matched the walls. The walls and floors contrasted so much that it was distracting to the eye. To the left of the entrance was the sitting room where I had met the last prospective mate before I ran. To the right was the library. A crystal chandelier hung from the domed ceiling. Painted on the foyer’s domed ceiling in a cascade of color and exquisite detail, was a mural depicting angels surrounding the Matron as she handed a blessed child to a human woman. Her arms stretched out in accepting supplication, her face was serene, filled with love and joy. I remember laying on the floor when I was a young girl, staring up at the painting, hating it because I had never seen my own mother look at me like that. All I saw was a beautiful lie.
I watched my friends take it all in, the awe and curiosity on their faces. Kalea was especially entranced by the painting. Her eyes traced the scene, the faces in it. Her hand wondered to her belly. I knew she wanted children, but now I wondered if she was already on her way to having them. She noticed me watching her, and straightened abruptly. I offered her a small smile.
“Alright, enough loitering around.” James said from behind us.
“What exactly do you expect us to do?” I asked, crossing my arms.
“I don’t care,” James said, walking towards the kitchen, which was through the great room.
“Mistress, if I may,” I turned back towards the staff that had greeted us. The man that spoke was older, with a full head of white hair, wrinkles around his kind, brown eyes. He wore a white buttoned-down shirt tucked into black slacks. His lack of uniform told me he was my mother’s household manager. Gesturing to himself and the staff present, “I am Gerard, and we have prepared rooms, and clothes for your guests.”
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, but gestured at him to lead the way. He wasn’t bothered by my poor attitude, which was just as well because it wasn’t going to get any better. The longer I was in this house, the worse my mood was going to get. He went up the stairs, turning to the right and going up to the south side of the second floor. I knew before we got there, that he was taking us towards my old bedroom. My imagination started spinning as we approached. Was the blood that they used to trick me still on the floor? It had been years, but I wouldn’t have put it passed my mother to be that level of petty.
We stopped just outside of my bedroom, the double doors open. I could see from the hall that everything had been cleaned up. No fake blood and gore, my bed made fresh, our clothes from that night gone. The double doors to the bedroom straight across from mine had been opened as well, revealing a similarly prepared guest room.
“Mistress, your room has been kept since your…. departure.” He stumbled over the word, knowing that I had run away. A wry grin tugged at the corner of my mouth. “Clothing still in place. Being short on time, we were not able to stock everything. But we found some things that should make due in the meantime.”
“Thank you,” I sighed, waving a dismissal. He nodded and turned on his heel, ushering the two maids that had followed us up back down the stairs. I hadn’t noticed them before, or the two guards that were stationed on either side of the stairs. Prisoners, not guests.
“So…” Nakoa trailed off.
“I guess you guys can use that bedroom and bathroom to get cleaned up, and we’ll use mine.” I turned toward my room, hooking an arm through Kalea’s I got a step before Kagan spun be back around. Kalea snapped at him for jostling us.
“We shouldn’t split up.” He growled at us. I jerked my arm from his grasp.
“I agree. But do you want to shower and change with your sister?” He fidgeted nervously, Nakoa laughed at the disgusted sound that came out of Kalea. “We need to play this out, for now. I need to feel out my mother, and see what it’s going to take to get you home. We are right across from each other and will be able to hear and come running if anything happens to either of us.”
“Don’t you mean ‘get us home’?” Kalea asked softly. I met her sea green eyes, filled with worry.
“Of course,” I lied. She gave me a tight-lipped smile and walked into my room.
“Do you?” Kagan asked, his arms crossed tightly against his chest. The pose making his biceps stand out.
“Do I?” I copied his posture, turning to follow Kalea without waiting for his thoughts on the matter. I wasn’t going to admit right now that I already knew it wasn’t going to be possible for me to go back. That information was not going to be helpful.
I closed the doors behind me. Leaning against them, I heard the men go into their room and close their door a moment later. Kalea was looking over what had been my vanity, inspecting a piece of jewelry left out, or make up. I sat on the bench that was at the foot of the bed, eyeing the place where Elia and I had spent our last night together. This room felt like a ghost was living in it, even though she was still alive. Maybe it was the ghost of who I used to be.
“You can go first,” I sighed. When she didn’t answer, I looked up and found her watching me.
“I get why you never told us about being a patrician.” She came and sat next to me, I turned to face her better. “Many people don’t take that sort of news well. Especially in the Borderlands. Patricians are not liked, as you know. But why didn’t you tell me about her?”
“Elia?” she nodded. “As far as I knew, she was dead. Thinking about her, let alone talking about her hurt too much. Besides that, being gay is illegal here. We both could be executed for heresy. It was just reflex to keep it to myself.”
“It’s not illegal in the Borderlands.” Her smile was chiding. “Is that why you never gave Kagan a chance?”
“No,” I frowned down at my hands, trying to find the words. “I like men too. I prefer women, but I like men too.”
“Did you just not like him like that?”
“I never even considered it. He always treated me like I was lost and needed looking after. So, I just assumed he felt responsible for me after what happened. And I didn’t want a guardian.” I chewed my lip, considering how to carefully word my next reply. “I also always feared being found, of losing something special again after having already lost it once. I didn’t feel truly free. And then I learned that everyone had thought I was dead. No one was looking for me. I could have been free.”
“So, what I’m hearing is,” mischief lit up her eyes. “That you loved me way too much and couldn’t stomach settling for my second-rate little brother.”
The laugh that burst out of me surprised us both, and she was laughing with me a moment later. I think we both needed it. The fear and tension from the day and night before melting away. Not completely, as we still needed to figure out how to get away. But enough that breathing was easier.
“I guess Nakoa and I will have to make room for you,” she winked at me as I wiped the tears from my eyes.
“I’m sorry your wedding was ruined.” I admitted, the laughter from a moment ago gone.
“It wasn’t ruined. The wedding was perfect and beautiful,” she stood up, stretching. “The dance was ruined though.”
I chuckled at that, standing up as well. I went to the walk-in closet that was on the other side of the room. Rummaging around my drawers, I found some old clothes that would fit her and I. We were pretty close to the same size, her being just a little shorter than me.
“Go ahead and shower. It’s through there.” I pointed to the door behind her. She looked me over once, seeming to want to say more. But deciding against it, she turned and walked into the bathroom, closing the door behind her, the water turning on a moment later.
For the first time since this ordeal began, I had a few minutes to myself. I needed some space from everyone to draw my thoughts and emotions back into place. My mind was racing, erratic. Rubbing the heels of my hands against my eyes, I paced around the room, avoiding looking at where Elia had laid, pretending to be dead. I was hurt, angry, sad, happy she was alive, felt betrayed. With everything moving as fast as it had been, I couldn’t pin any of them down. I was just hopping from one emotion to the next, and back again. And then there was my mother. I couldn’t think of a single time in my entire life when she had been as affectionate as she had been today. Mother Marianne does not hug people. I don’t think I ever saw her hug my father. She barely even acknowledged his suicide, other than to comment about how it would reflect bad on my genetic review. Not that it mattered, or even came up when I had been reviewed to be matched. Probably because at that point I had already lost my virginity just to spite my mother. That was a much larger infraction than the possibility of mental health issues running in the family. My genes had been cleared, but the more prominent matches wanted nothing to do with me. It would be a lie if I said that wasn’t part of my intention in seducing one of the staff’s sons the summer after my father died.
Coming back around the bed again after completing another lap around my room, I stopped and scowled at the bed. Forcing myself to imagine that night from her perspective. We were asleep. Someone must have tapped on the door to wake her or something. She had gotten up, slipped away from me and unlocked the door, and slid back into bed next to me. How did I not wake up? Next, we were being drug from the bed, across the floor, over by the wall. Elia had said that she had changed her mind at the last second, and regretted it ever since. She had been more hysterical that night than I would have imagined. I had just assumed it was from the trauma and humiliation. I strode for where we had been kneeling, where I thought she had died. She had begged me not to take my mother’s deal, knowing that doing so could have voided her own bargain with her. I thought it was because she didn’t believe she had value. But it was because she knew Marianne wasn’t going to kill her. She had tried to tell me without telling me.
I realized I was rubbing the necklace that had once been hers. After she had died, I had found it in her clothing. Elia had very much believed in the Matron and the Blessed Child, that our whole purpose was to breed and deliver our own perfect, blessed children. We had built a whole faith around that concept, starting with valuing genetics above everything else. She had believed in it so much that she let my mother use that faith to manipulate her. I dropped the necklace, rubbing my face with my hands, pinching the bridge of my nose.
“Did the wall upset you?” Kalea asked from the bathroom door, hair and body wrapped in towels. I whirled around. I hadn’t heard the water shut off, or her come out.
“No,” I laughed. “Just thinking about how I got here.”
“We’re all just along for the ride,” she smiled at me, walking towards the bed where I had left her clothes.
“That explains why you’re handling this all so well.” I headed towards the bathroom.
“Am I?” she cocked her head to the side at me. “If you think about it, there is very little in this world that we can control outside of ourselves. This has all been truly horrible. Beyond words really. And I’ll probably have nightmares about it for the rest of my life. But I also know that everything has a way of working itself out. I have to hold onto that, or I won’t be able to keep going.”
“I am truly sorry.” I started for her, but she waved me off.
“What for? Exactly none of this is your fault. Do not carry someone else’s guilt.” She was shaking her head at me. “I wasn’t taken for knowing you. I don’t even know why we were taken. They didn’t say. They just put me in a white cell with another girl, who was very pregnant. I had only been there for a few minutes when they came to get be again. Why did they take us?”
“I don’t know.” I admitted, leaning back against the door frame of the bathroom. “I’ve been wondering myself. Hopefully I’ll find out while dealing with my mother.”
“Whatever it is, it can’t be good.” She stood up straight, appearing thoughtful. “You don’t ship, chip, and cage people like animals and have pure intentions.”
“That’s probably an understatement.”
I pushed off the frame, grabbed my clothes from the bed before stepping into the still steamy bathroom, leaving Kalea to get dressed. I avoided my reflection as I undressed, I just didn’t have it in me to face myself head on yet. The shower was an enclosed space big enough for two people to lay down flat side by side. The sandstone colored tile giving it an earthy tone. It was almost like being entombed. The shower head was as large as a dinner plate, parallel to the floor so that the water fell like rain. I might have hated everything this house represented, but I had always loved this shower. One of the very few things I missed while in the Borderlands.
The hot water hit my skin, leaving a sweet stinging sensation. Without looking, I could tell that I had bruises in several places from being jostled around so much. My heart felt just as bruised from the events of the day. Had it really been less than a full day? The weight of it all hit me like a ton of bricks. Turning my face into the spray, I let go of that vice grip around my emotions that I had been taught to keep firmly in place my whole life. Elia was still alive, but I had lost her all over again in finding out she had betrayed be for a whole new life. I had lost the peace and freedom I had found. I was going to lose the family I had found in my friends. I had just lost. I was lost. It all came flowing out of me, washing away down the drain. This was the only time I would be able to allow myself this grief, or I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I would need to do. In order to save them, I was going to have to fulfill the promise I had made to my mother that night, three years ago. If there was a match that would take me, I was going to have to accept it. And who would take me now? I was bottom of the barrel, so my mate would be too. I didn’t have much hope. I couldn’t afford it, especially where my mother was concerned. She was going to make sure I paid dearly for everything I put her through. I just needed to make sure I was the only one she wanted to make pay.