“I can’t help you with that. Sorry.”
“She’s…totally demanding. I mean, I never actually asked her to mate me. She took me to this jewelry store, and the next thing I know, she’s trying on rings—and I’m buying the one she wanted. It’s this diamond. With a halo, or something around it. Whatever that is.” Oskar resumed the rubbing of the stubble, like he was trying to erase his life by scrubbing off what Sophy had no doubt made him grow. “She got us this apartment. I can’t afford it. She says she can’t work because of the ceremony—wedding, I mean. There’s crap everywhere—party favors, napkin rolls, centerpieces. She starts one thing, stops, yells at me, tries to get her girlfriends to step in. It’s a nightmare, but what’s worse—”
Novo put her hand up. “Stop. Just…stop.”
As he looked at her, she slid out of the booth with her duffel. “This is none of my concern. And really, it’s not cool for you to ask me to come here just so you can bitch about my sister. Mate her or don’t. Work on the relationship or not. This is your shit to deal with, not mine.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I just don’t know what else to do.”
In that moment, the essential weakness of him was so obvious, she wondered how in the hell she had ever found him attractive. And she knew exactly what was going to happen. He was going to walk down that aisle, or whatever the humans called it, and he was going to mate Sophy, and they were going to squeeze out a kid, maybe two. And after that, he would spend his entire life wondering how it had come to pass that he had ended up with a shellan he couldn’t stand, kids he didn’t like, and a house he couldn’t afford. It would be a mystery that would never be solved, even as he walked into his grave on a path he had set himself upon.
“You know, Oskar, no one’s got a gun to your head.”
“You’re choosing this. You’re picking all of this—and that means if it doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to do it.” She shook her head at him. “But that’s on you. All of this…it’s on you.”
“Don’t hate me. Please.”
“You know…I don’t. I don’t hate you at all…I feel sorry for you.” She gave him a nod. “Good-bye, Oskar. And good luck. I really do mean that.”
As she was walking out of the pub, the bartender called out, “Come back and see us sometime.”
Over her shoulder, she said, “Thanks. He’ll definitely be back, I’ll tell you that much.”
Peyton was out of the shower and getting into a monogrammed robe when his phone rang. As he answered, he didn’t bother to see who it was because he was paranoid that Novo might be canceling.
As he recognized the female voice, he closed his eyes for a moment. Then he went over and sat on the edge of the tub. “Romina. Wassup?”
There was a pause. “Listen, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but our fathers are making an appointment at the Audience House. To see the King.”
He popped right back onto his feet. “What? Why?”
“I think a payment has been set and things are…progressing.”
“No. Absolutely not.” As it dawned on him that that was a colossal insult, he quickly said, “Listen, it’s not about you—”
“Of course it is. And I don’t blame you.”
“No, I’m…” In love with somebody else. “I’m seeing someone.”
It felt strange and wonderful to say that. And also like he was tempting fate. He’d had the sense that things were really thawing with Novo over the last couple of nights, but he wasn’t a fool. She was still on a hair trigger for trust, and come on. They hadn’t been together that long.
They weren’t even technically together.
“I’m happy for you,” Romina said. “And in which case, we really have to do something to stop this.”
“They can’t force us to consent.”
“If your father accepts the payment, mine will expect you to follow through.”
He frowned. “I’m sorry—what?”
“Your father established a price, and if what I understand is true, my father has agreed to pay it. So if the money changes hands, the deed is done. It is the Old Way.”
So he was being sold? Like a head of cattle?
Dragging a hand through his wet hair, he was so stunned, he couldn’t think. “Fucking hell, now I know how females feel,” he muttered.
“I’m so sorry. And I had a feeling you didn’t know. I think they might be trying to get the King to sign off without even a ceremony. In which case, I don’t believe we can override anything. The word of Wrath, son of Wrath, is law. We would be mated then and there.”
There was a rustle over the connection and then Romina’s voice dropped. “I have to go. You have to stop this. You work for the Brotherhood. Somehow, you must be able to get to the King. I don’t want this for you.”
“I’m not worried about me.”
As the call went dead, he ran the conversation through in his head—and wondered if there was anything going on he didn’t know about. Financially for his family, that was. Except no. There was plenty of staff around and his father didn’t look worried. The price set was no doubt just a way to recoup a failed investment in a first blooded son.
At the sound of Novo’s voice out in his bedroom, he spun around. Shit, he needed to take care of this. Right away. And also had to tell his female what was going on.
“In here,” he said. “Listen, I have to go out for a—”
As she came into the doorway of the bathroom, he knew instantly something was really wrong. And then he saw the tears in her eyes.
“Novo? What’s going on?”
He rushed over and put his arms around her. The sobs that came out of her were so violent, her body shook against his own and he drew her deeper into the bathroom and shut the door so that no one would hear her for her privacy’s sake.
“Novo…” He cupped her head and stroked her back. “Novo, love…what happened…?”
Eventually, she took a shuddering breath and broke away from him.
As she paced around, her arms were locked on her midsection and she was hunched over as if in agony.
When she stopped, she looked at him with eyes that were so full of pain, he could barely stare into them.
“I lost my young…” As she spoke, the emotion came out anew, sobs shaking her. “It was a little girl. I held her in the palm of my hand…after I lost her…”
Novo had thought she was tight. That she was just walking away from that pub and Oskar and all that past shit perfectly right in the head. And to that point, she had dematerialized without a problem, re-forming back behind the garage of Peyton’s family’s mansion, slipping in through the door in the library using the code Peyton had given her.
She had even laughed a little as she had dodged that butler, the one Peyton hated so much.
But sometime down the long hall to his room, an unraveling had started, some thread of her inner fabric catching on the heel of her stride, until she was naked by the time she reached the open doors of his bath.
And then he had looked at her and she had breathed in the scent of him…and the dam had broken completely—such that she had named her truth to him, shared her secret, told him that which she had told no other.
His shock and horror as he stared at her made her want to run.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I shouldn’t have come—”
In a panic, she went to race out, but he jumped ahead and blocked her with his body.
“Tell me,” he said. “Tell me what happened, oh, God…Novo…I never knew.”
She shook her head back and forth for the longest time, her tears falling past her body, landing in a semicircle at her feet.
“No one knows. No one knew…” She sniffled and shivered as the images returned—and dear Lord, the memories of that old, damp, cold house. “I told no one.”