I’d barely stepped one foot through the front door when my stepfather suddenly appeared, one hand extended. In his other hand, he held a letter, his focus clearly trained on that. He didn’t utter a single word—because of course not. That would require expending energy, and why bother when I was merely the worthless stepdaughter? Any other day, I might have simply dropped the gold into his hand and scuttled off to the kitchen to prepare dinner. But today’s events had left me feeling a little mischievous.
“Why, hello, Stepfather,” I drawled. “Oh, yes, it’s wonderful to see you too. I had a great day, thanks for asking.”
His gaze flicked to mine and annoyance flashed in the dark depths. Before I could so much as suck in my next breath, his hand lashed out. It connected with my cheek with a sharp slap, and my head whipped to the side, my skin stinging.
I gasped and reached up to touch my face, but my stepfather caught my hand and hauled me closer.
“I suggest you keep your smart mouth shut,” he snapped. “Where’s my gold?”
His gold. I bit my tongue to keep from retorting. I should have known better than sniping at him in the first place. He’d made it clear more than once that I was to remain silent. “The help isn’t to be seen or heard,” he’d told me once.
“The gold, Arilla,” he growled, his breath fanning my face.
I slipped my other hand into my pocket and withdrew the two coins. He released me and once again held out his hand, his focus returning to his letter. I dropped the gold into his waiting palm, then skirted around him. I’d barely made it a step before his hand clamped down on my arm, staying me. His fingers dug into my flesh, and I bit my tongue to keep from whimpering.
My eyes fluttered closed. I couldn’t blame Lady Capone, because if he decided to check and learned I’d lied, the punishment would be far more severe than an aching cheek.
Instead, I relied on his whole the help isn’t to be seen or heard statement and kept my mouth shut. Nothing I said would appease him anyway.
He flung my arm away from him. “Go. And if dinner is late, so help me, Arilla.”
I cradled my arm close to my chest and hurried through the house, into the kitchen. Thankfully, I’d managed some preparations this morning before heading for the Capones. I merely needed to roast the meat for tonight’s meal and that wouldn’t take too long.
Once that was done, I set the table, then removed myself from the kitchen. My stepfather and his sons ate at the same time every night, so there was no need for me to summon them. Instead, I vanished from their sight, and retired with my own meal to my tiny room in the servant’s wing.
I wasn’t welcome to dine with them, but that didn’t bother me in the least. As much as they abhorred my presence, I loathed theirs. Between my two stepbrothers, I hated Hayden the least. He wasn’t as selfish or unkind as Dashiell. But given a choice, I wanted nothing to do with either. They took after their father in most ways.
After finishing my meal, I tucked myself into my small bed and stared at the pockmarked ceiling. A tiny smile spread across my lips as I remembered my earlier adventure. Arabelle’s words came back to me, but I found it difficult to care about her warnings. Stealing wasn’t right, I knew that. But I honestly didn’t care. Not anymore. For once in my life, I wanted to do something for me. Something that I chose for myself. Even if that meant choosing to be a criminal. I wouldn’t have to do it forever, just until I had enough coin to escape. And when I did, the world would become mine.
I didn’t need a fancy house. Nothing like this estate. I didn’t need multi-levels and wings. Nor did I need the best finery. I didn’t need crystal chinaware or silk sheets. I just needed a roof over my head that was mine.
I was deep in thought, picturing my tiny kitchen, filled with food I’d bought myself, when a light tink rose to my ears. Frowning, I sat up and braced my weight on my elbows.
With a raised brow, I stood and crossed my room, toward my one window. Another light tink caught my attention, and I glanced down. A shadowed figure stood in the garden, one I immediately recognized when he lifted his face toward the moonlight.
My fingers rose to my lips, and I sucked in a sharp breath.
If my stepfather caught sight of Logen, I would pay the price.
Cursing, I cracked open the window, a gust of fresh air filling my room, and I leaned out. Logen beckoned, pointing toward the darkest section of my stepfather’s garden. A section we both knew he wouldn’t visit this time of night. Usually by now he was three or four glasses deep in a bottle of brandy. Which unfortunately made him more unpredictable. I didn’t love the idea of sneaking out. But I feared what Logen would do if I didn’t.
“By the gods,” I muttered as I reached for the nearest vine and pulled myself out the window.
I stared down at the ground and released a shaky breath. As much as I loved to fantasize about scaling the wall and running away, I’d never braved attempting it before. Not only was it incredibly dangerous—I preferred all my limbs working—but it passed right next to my stepfather’s bedroom window. I was risking my life in more than one way.
I drew a deep breath and continued sliding down the vines. My progress was slow, but at least it was steady. One misstep and I’d plummet to the ground below. Not the way I’d envisioned myself dying.
The second my feet touched the grass, I turned and punched Logen in the shoulder.
Not that the physical abuse dissuaded him.
Instead, he grinned, then grabbed my hand and pulled me through the garden, taking us deeper into the weeds. Guess my stepfather hadn’t paid the gardener lately—a note I made to myself.
Only when I felt we were far enough from the house, did I plant my fists on my hips and glare at Logen.
“Are you insane?” I hissed. “What if Hayden or Dashiell had seen you?”
Logen rolled his eyes. “They’re too busy getting drunk with your stepfather.”
My brows shot upward. “Drunk? Seriously?”
I had no idea they’d taken up drinking. But considering Dashiell had just turned twenty and Hayden was eighteen, I could imagine it. Still, the thought of all three of them drunk unsettled me. This late at night, no one was in the house but me and them.
I winced, then took a seat on a nearby bench. It creaked as I sat, the wooden slats shifting beneath my weight. I pressed my palms against the beams and tested their strength. Apparently my stepfather had let go of more than the garden recently. It made me wonder what my gold was going to, if not the upkeep of the estate.
“Well, you dragged me out here,” I said. “Care to tell me why?”
Logen rubbed the back of his neck, his beaming grin from before morphing into a sheepish smile. “I talked to Arabelle today. We ran into each other when she was on her way home.”
Fear knotted my stomach. Had she told him about my afternoon adventure? Logen was a guard-in-training. He couldn’t be associated with any form of criminal action, no matter what my reasons.
“She might have mentioned that she told you about my plan.” He cleared his throat. “To, uh…”
“Ah. To propose,” I said, finishing his sentence. Relief loosened my muscles. He wouldn’t be so bashful if she’d mentioned the stealing. That sort of confession would have led to a long and boring scolding.
He huffed a laugh. “You say it so casually.”
“Shouldn’t I?” I asked. “Unless you weren’t planning on proposing, then I apologize.”
“No, I was… I think.”
I cocked my head. “You think?”
Logen gave another laugh. “By the stars, Arilla. You aren’t making this easy.”
Was there something I was supposed to make easy for him? Surely he wasn’t planning on—
Logen took my hand and dropped to one knee.
Oh. Oh, no. He was planning on proposing right now. I hadn’t even given his idea a modicum of thought. I hadn’t anticipated it happening so soon. When Arabelle suggested it, I’d thought this would be years down the road, when he graduated into a full guard. As it stood right now, he had nothing to offer anyone.
I jumped to my feet and wrenched my hand back. “Logen, wait.”
Silence filled the garden. Even the silly crickets had gone quiet, as though waiting to hear what I had to say.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked. “I mean, we’re friends. Proposing marriage… You realize my stepfather would never permit it, right? This isn’t as simple as you asking, and me saying yes.”
Logen frowned, as though he hadn’t expected such a response from me.
Had he expected me to fawn over him and cry tears of joy? Nothing in our past had ever suggested we had that sort of relationship. We were best friends, but that was because we’d known one another from infancy, thanks to our mothers, who had worked together as launderers. We’d maintained our relationship even after my mother married my stepfather. But we’d never been romantic with each other. Sure, I’d considered it once or twice, but it’d never gone farther than that. Logen was like a brother to me. He’d been there when my mother died. He’d been the one who’d introduced me to Arabelle. He’d always taken care of me.
Was that why he was doing this now? Did he feel like it was his responsibility to save me from my stepfather?
I hated that thought. The last thing I wanted was for him to tie himself to me out of obligation. When—if—I married, I wanted it to be for love. Deep, romantic, all-encompassing love. Not to save me. Especially not when I had another plan in mind. Sure, stealing wasn’t the best option, but frankly, I found it more preferable than being trapped in an empty marriage.
“Are you saying no?” Logen asked, drawing my thoughts back to him.
“Well, technically, you haven’t asked yet,” I teased.
When he didn’t laugh, I cleared my throat and tugged at my collar.
Sighing, I clutched his hand and pulled him up from his bent knee. Then I guided him down onto the bench and started pacing in front of him. After a few minutes of awkward silence, I turned and faced him, my bottom lip caught between my teeth.
“I’m going to ask you a question, and I want the truth. Brutal honesty.”
Logen blinked. “Of course. I’ve never lied to you.”
I nodded. “Okay.” I blew out a breath and squared my shoulders, preparing myself for his answer. “Do you love me?”
Confusion wrinkled his brow. “Of course I love you. I’ve always loved you.”
Like a sucker punch to the gut. But I needed to be sure we were on the same page. “I don’t mean love me as your sister, best friend, whatever. I mean do you love me? Like, you’re consumed by this burning desire for me. You can’t stand the thought of not talking to me. You itch to be near me, to touch me. You want nothing more than to lay with me every single night.”
Pink crept up his neck and colored his cheeks.
I would have laughed if the situation weren’t so serious. I was either about to break his heart, or we were going to have a really good laugh. Gods, I hoped it was the latter.
Logen tugged at his collar, then dropped his hands to his lap, his fingers twined. “Um, I’m sorry, Arilla, but no.”
I tipped my head back and closed my eyes. Relief nearly had me fainting. “Me neither.”
“Okay,” he murmured. “But what does that have to do with me marrying you?”
A bittersweet smile tugged at my lips. This right here was why I adored Logen so much. He only thought of others and how he could help them. It was no wonder he’d joined the guard program. He wasn’t in love with me, but he truly would sacrifice his future happiness to save me from my stepfather.
I sat beside him and rested my head on his shoulder. “I can’t marry you, Logen.”
He didn’t so much as tense. Which told me a great deal. Undoubtedly, he was as relieved as me.
“That wouldn’t be fair,” I said. “I couldn’t ask that of you. When you marry, it should be to someone you absolutely cannot live without.”
“I love that you want to help me,” I said. “But it isn’t your job to rescue me. I’m not some damsel in distress. I’ll find my own way out, I promise.”
Logen’s hand found mine, and he gave it a small squeeze. “I just want to see you free, Arilla.”
I nuzzled his neck. He truly meant that. And it made me love him a little more—just not in that way.
“Whoever you do marry, she’s going to be so lucky,” I whispered to him. “You truly are the perfect guy.”
Just not the perfect guy for me.
In fact, I wasn’t sure such a person existed.
Not that it mattered. I wasn’t looking for love.
Arilla is brutal.